Balaam and his related activities first recorded in Numbers is not only prominently revisited elsewhere in the Old Testament (Josh. 24:9-10; Neh. 13:2; Micah 6:5), but recited in the New Testament by Peter (2 Pe. 2:15), Jude (Jude 11) and Christ (Rev. 2:14). These accounts contain powerful lessons concerning spiritual warfare, apostasy and deception.
In this particular account, we might draw a parallel to something like the American Civil War or even the nations drawn into mutual conflict in the European theater of World War I or II. In these cases, all the opposing sides held to the notion that the same God to whom everyone was appealing was on their side, or in this case, could be induced to their side. It is notable that both Balaam and Balak seek to leverage the One True God of Israel for themselves and, ironically, against Israel. And through this maze of self-contradiction God sovereignly establishes the standard of His truth for all parties involved.
But before God provides a macro correction for the big picture, he first invokes the micro to address the shortcomings of the individuals making their request of Him. As it turns out, errors concerning the big picture where God’s people are concerned are often an extension of our own personal spiritual near-sightedness.
Q: What might be telling about the meaning of these men’s names?
A: “Balak” means “wasting” as in emptying something to destroy it, “Balaam” means “swallowing up the people” and is also designated as the son of “Beor”, which means “burning” and comes from the root word “to consume” or “burn up”. The pedigree being expressed in their names is not a picture of someone simply opposed to the Israelites, but aiming to completely eradicate so as to remove all traces both past and present.
Q: What, exactly, is a “curse”, biblically speaking?
A: It is a prayer for divine tragedy to be brought upon another in terms of injury, harm or misfortune.
God cursed the serpent and not only lowered its immediate, physical conditions, but its overall future. (Gen. 3:14-15)
Noah’s curse on Canaan sought to lower his standing to that of “a servant of servants”. (Gen. 9:25)
Isaac’s curse was pronounced on anyone who would themselves curse Jacob and came with a parallel blessing for all who will instead bless the nation born through him. (Gen. 27:29)
Goliath invoked a curse “by his gods” upon David. (1 Sam. 17:43)
When Jesus cursed the fig tree, it immediately withered. (Mt. 21:19)
Point: The biblical usage of “curse” is not giving someone the “evil eye” or merely wishing them bad luck, but is calling for supernatural intervention, whether to the One True God or to a false god, for the permanent harm of another party. It is a request for a spiritual source to effect a physical result.
Q: Who is the spiritual source for whom Balak will pay Balaam to invoke an action against Israel?
A: In this case, it is not a false God, but the One True God. This is shown by the fact that Balaam calls and encounters “the Lord”—that is, Yahweh.
Point: False prophets don’t always represent false gods, but are often found attempting to misrepresent the One True authentic God.
Q: But why is the location of their sacrifice problematic?
A: It is one of the “high places of Baal”. The attempt to communicate with the One True God is being made from a place dedicated to a false god.
Q: What is another indication that their attempt is steeped in error where God is concerned?
A: God’s requirements have always designated the need for just a single altar; employing seven altars betrays how they blend in their own superstitions and false practices into an overall act of worship. Numbers are often used to create a visual deception which appeals to the flesh.
Application: The classic telltale working of a false teacher or false prophet is that of a mixture, whether it be laying truth side-by-side with error, or incorporating something legitimate with something false to ultimately produce a counterfeit.
Q: What is the difference between what Balaam requests Balak to do versus what Balaam will do himself?
A: He requests Balak to remain by these altars on the high place dedicated to the false god Baal while Balaam visits “a bare hill” to go meet with the One True God. (v.3)
Application: False prophets often practice one thing to keep the attention of their followers while consciously knowing it does not actually work as advertised.
But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
— 2 Timothy 3:13
Q: How do we know that Balaam’s approach of the altars and sacrifices did not work the way he intended?
A: Already knowing in advance what Balaam would request in terms of a curse at Balak’s request upon Israel, God immediately turns the situation completely around.
Q: Did God actually give Balaam a prophetic word in the same way that such is recorded by God’s Prophets in Scripture?
A: If we carefully examine what was said, it is turning Balaam’s own words against to expose him spiritually.
(v.7) Balaam begins by stating his original intention to curse Israel.
(v.8) He finds he cannot curse someone God cannot curse.
(v.9) He recognizes that Israel has been specially set apart from all other nations, therefore occupying a special place in God’s divine economy.
(v.10) Balaam is so impressed with Israel’s relationship to God that he wishes he were one of them.
Point: God exposes Balaam to the truth already established by His already-given Word and not something new. A false prophet needs the truth of God’s Word as much as everyone else.
Application: The first vision is a revelation of Israel’s divine calling.
Read verses 24:13-26
Q: How does Balak react to Balaam’s testimony?
A: He takes Balaam to another high place, what amounts to an attempt at achieving the same thing from a different viewpoint.
Q: How did this affect Balaam’s methods?
A: It didn’t. He had Balak stand on the high place next to the seven altars while Balaam visited a separate, neutral location for his actual encounter with God.
Q: What do the names of this place mean?
A: “Zophim” means “watchers” and “Pisgah” means “cleft”. Together they are describing a position of observation.
Q: To whom is this response from God addressed? How is it different from the first pronouncement?
A: In the previous response, Balaam was speaking for and about himself; here the word Balaam received is directed at Balak personally, but still characterized as Balaam’s personal response to the situation. Although divinely inspired, it is Balaam’s personal explanation to Balak as to why he must turn down Balak’s request a second time.
(v.19) God not only does not lie, but always follows through on His Word.
(v.20) God’s Word in this case is to bless, not curse
(v.21) God’s view of Israel sees them in their ultimate spiritual good standing with the Lord.
(v.22) They are no longer the slave nation they once were, but through God have become powerful.
(v.23) Israel’s status with God makes them impervious to the spiritual tools of false gods and false beliefs because they will ultimately prevail through God alone.
(v.24) Ultimately Israel will not be the devoured prey but the predator who in turn devours.
Point: God tells Balak through Balaam that from God’s point of view, the roles and places of these nations are reversed from Balak’s viewpoint.
Q: How does Balak receive this message? How does he act upon it?
A: Since he is not hearing what he so desires most, he would prefer to hear nothing at all.
Point: This is a hallmark not just of deception, but of a hardened heart devoted to a path contrary to God’s Word and ways. It’s not that God’s truth simply does not penetrate or enlighten, but has actually become painful with which to deal.
Application: The second vision is a revelation of God’s acceptance of Israel.
Q: What is the location to which Balak takes Balaam to try all of this a third time?
A: A high place called “Peor”, which means “cleft”.
Q: How do we know for sure that this, too, was a place dedicated to the worship of Baal?
A: In Numbers 25:3 it is so associated when the false worship in which Israel engages in is attributed to “Baal of Peor”. It is this place which will be specifically associated in Scripture with the great spiritual apostasy of the Israelites. (Num. 25; 31:16; Josh. 22:17)
Q: But what is different this time where Balaam is personally concerned?
A: “…he did not go as at other times to seek omens…” (v.24:1) He entered into each of the previous two encounters with the intention of not just seeking a curse, but doing so according to his spiritual methods of working. He abandons his agenda and methods this time.
Q: How is this pronouncement different from the previous two?
A: Neither of the two previous pronouncements were qualified like this one, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor”. (v.3) They were instead personal, divine revelations concerning Balaam personally, and then Balak personally, focused on God’s view of Israel in contradiction to their own. This is an actual prophetic pronouncement coming from Balaam for the first time.
Point: Note how the previous revelations served to produce the right spiritual attitude in Balaam in his confession so that finally, at this point, he admits he is “the man whose eye is opened” (v.3) and “who hears the words of God” (v.4)
Q: How do we know this to be something different from what came before aside from the fact that it is declared to be an “oracle”?
A: It is specifically identified as a “vision of the Almighty” which comes because of personal humility to the Lord—“Falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered”. (v.4)
(v.5-6) Although temporarily moving through this world as exemplified by “tents”, God views Israel as firmly planted because of Him.
(v.7a) Although at this time they are camped in the wilderness, their spiritual blessings are equated to an abundance of water, a biblical metaphor for the Word of God to come both through the nation and its Seed, the Messiah the Word of God.
(v.7b-9A) Israel will prevail over the Canaanites as exemplified by the Amalekites ruled by Agag, a group so corrupt they are destined by God for total destruction and a continual problem throughout Israel’s history. (Ex. 17:8-16) Israel has been brought out of Egypt by God for the purpose of total victory over the nations.
(v.9b) God repeats the promise to Israel first given through Abraham (Gen. 12:3) and again through Abraham to Jacob. (Gen. 27:29)
Point: God will not supply a new Word through someone who has not first submitted to His existing Word.
Q: How do we know that Balak’s heart is spiritually hardened beyond the point of recovery?
A: He is not just angry with the Word of God which came through Balaam, but actually assigns Balaam’s failure to God by stating, “behold, the Lord has held you back from honor”. (v.11) The act of striking one’s hands together was a powerful demonstration in this time and culture of anger.
“Behold, then, I smite My hand at your dishonest gain which you have acquired and at the bloodshed which is among you.
— Ezekiel 22:13
Q: In this instance, what is the full meaning of “honor”?
A: It is being financially compensated for his services. Balak will not pay Balaam for failing to invoke a curse.
Then Balak again sent leaders, more numerous and more distinguished than the former. They came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, ‘Let nothing, I beg you, hinder you from coming to me; for I will indeed honor you richly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Please come then, curse this people for me.’” Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.
— Numbers 22:15-18
Q: How is the object of this message different from the previous ones?
A: The first was a message to Balaam personally, the second a message to Balak personally, and the third a message concerning Israel in general. Here the message is what will become of Balak’s nation and allies.
Q: How does this message reflect the true nature of prophecy in that it has both a past literal and historical meaning and yet a simultaneous future fulfillment yet to come?
A: Much of what is detailed here will be literally fulfilled by King David, such as overcoming Moab and Edom, but there will be an ultimate fulfillment through Christ the Messiah as the ultimate “star…from Jacob” and “scepter…from Israel”. (v.17)
(v.17-19) What David will accomplish temporarily against the perpetual enemies of Israel, the Messiah will resolve permanently.
(v.20) The primary antagonist from Saul through the time of Mordecai and Esther, an ally of Balak, will ultimately be resolved permanently. (“Amalek” means “strangler of the people”.)
(v.21-24) Although the Kenites (who come from Kain), Asshur and Eber all find temporary security as part of Balak’s Midianite alliance, like Moab and Edom they will all ultimately come to their end. (“Kenite” = “a nest”, “Asshur” = “lifted up”, and “Eber” = “passed over” is a combination of terms which depicts being out of reach or untouchable, contrary to their ultimate fates for their treatment of Israel and God.)
Point: Balak repeatedly sought a curse to be divinely invoked against Israel, and in the end it is turned around so that he receives the divine bad news himself.
Application: The fourth revelation is a vision of God’s future glory for Israel temporally in history and prophetically permanent through the Messiah.
This four-fold revelation, while having a literal application for the personalities and nations of the time, mirrors the experience of the New Testament believer:
First there is the divine calling. (23:1-12)
Next is the acceptance of that calling. (23:13-26)
Then is the revelation of God’s plan. (23:27-24:9)
And finally future glory and ultimate fulfillment of that plan. (24:10-25)
Like Israel, each believer has been chosen by God, justified, and provided a divinely rich inheritance with the promise of an ultimate future glory.