Men Cannot Curse What God Has Blessed
Anyone who has travelled with small children will remember the question that inevitably arises from at least one of them, “Are we almost there?” Sometimes the query is, “How much longer before we get there?” These and similar inquiries usually are heard about ten minutes into an extended trip!
Can you imagine how many times these questions were heard from little children during the Israelites’ forty-year journey to the Promised Land? Not only the children, but also their children must have asked those questions hundreds of times. The answer they most often received probably was, We don’t know when, but we do know that God will lead us to our land someday. When the Israelites finally reached the plains of Moab, however, that answer must have changed to, Soon we will be there, children. The plains of Moab were “on this side of the Jordan by Jericho” (Num. 22:1). The people could look across and see the Promised Land. It had been a long and tedious journey, and they now were almost home. They had endured dozens of trials and conflicts during their wilderness experience, but as they tarried on those plains, they would soon experience the most severe attack of all. The ironic thing about this trial, however, is that none of the Israelites — not even Moses — knew anything about it!
Numbers 22-24 records the account of Balaam, the seer from the east, who was hired to curse Israel but ended up only blessing them. This fascinating, yet perplexing, account was considered so important by ancient Jews that the rabbis in the Talmud referred to this section as the sixth book of Moses! A current evangelical scholar also has written, “Many Old Testament theologians have seen in the Balaam narrative the quintessence of the theology of the Pentateuch” (Ronald Allen in Tradition and Testament, p. 83).
Who was this Balaam? What did he say about Israel? What did he say, if anything, about Israel’s deliverer?
The Person of Balaam (Numbers 22)
To put it simply, Balaam was a pagan soothsayer from the ancient region known as Mesopotamia (Num. 22:5; cf. also Dt, 23:4 and Josh. 13:22). When Balak, king of Moab, saw the Israelites passing through his land, he knew he could not defeat them militarily. One of the ironies of this account is that Balak’s fear was actually groundless because God already had told Moses not to harm the Moabites (Dt. 2:9). Nevertheless, Balak sent a group of messengers to “hire” Balaam to come and curse the Israelites so they could then be beaten.
Balaam must be seen as one of those non-Israelite individuals who had preserved some knowledge of the true God. Other examples in the Pentateuch are Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20) and Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law (Ex. 18;1). Many also believe that Job was not of Israelite ancestry. In Balaam’s case, however, his information about the true God was mingled with pagan concepts of polytheism (belief in many gods).
The account in Numbers 22:8-22 about God’s forbidding Balaam to go, then allowing him to go, and then being angry with him for going has perplexed many readers. Although Balaam’s initial response seems to be noble, it must be understood that Balaam longed deeply for the monetary reward and was motivated by covetousness and greed, Both Jewish tradition and the New Testament jam in exposing the sinful heart of this evil man. Consider, for example, this statement in the Talmud: “Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul are among the disciples of the wicked Balaam. His disciples inherit Gehenna [i.e., Hell] and descend into the well of destruction” (Abot 5:22). The three New Testament references to him all are bad: 2 Peter 2:15 warns of the “way of Balaam”; Jude 11 describes the “error of Balaam”; while Revelation 2:14 exposes the evil “doctrine of Balaam.”
In light of this, we should view God’s anger at Balaam in light of God’s knowledge of Balaam’s true heart condition. The great commentator George Bush has aptly remarked, “Balaam’s heart was set on going; and as the divine wisdom allows men always to act in freedom, so here it is permitted Balaam to go, seeing he was so fully bent upon it.” Perhaps a parallel reference would be Psalm 81:12: “So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ desire, and they walked in their own counsels.”
On his way, however, the “angel of the LORD ” three times impeded Balaam’s progress, although Balaam himself could not see him at all (Num. 22:22-35). Balaam’s donkey, however, was able to see the angel all the while. When Balaam had struck his recalcitrant animal for the third time, the “LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?” (22:28). This famous incident is usually all that most Christians know about the Balaam story. While affirming the absolutely historical character of this miracle, it should be noted that most readers often miss another example of irony in this account. The lowly donkey is able to see the angel, while the so-called “seer” is blind to the presence of a real spiritual being! This rebuke, from a normally dumb beast at that, must have further humbled Balaam’s proud heart. In other words, God’s message to him through this incident was, Your seeing is not going to accomplish anything. I will put the words into your mouth.
When Balaam finally arrived, he knew that he could only speak a message from God. He would not be allowed to follow his covetous heart and fulfill Balak’s wishes. Yet, Balak, probably in desperation, still made elaborate preparations for Balaam to proceed with the ritual cursing (Num. 22:39-23:2).
The Prophecies of Balaam (Numbers 23:24)
These two chapters record four separate prophecies uttered by Balaam. It is extremely vital at this point to recognize that it was the Lord, and not Balaam himself, who was the source of these sublime utterances. Before each of the “oracles,” it is clearly stated that the Lord put these words into Balaam’s mouth (Num. 23:5, 16; 24:2, 15-16). Balaam was simply a channel for God’s word. It is manifest that his heart did not coincide with his words in this regard. Just as God employed the mouth of a donkey to deliver a message to Balaam, so He used the mouth of a Balaam to deliver these marvellous words about the Jewish people.
Most scholars recognize at least four “oracles” in these chapters, each of which is preceded by the words “he took up his parable, and said” (Num. 23:7,18; 24:3,15). Each of the messages has to do with some aspect of Israel’s position and calling before God and the nations. Each of the “oracles” thoroughly frustrated Balak, who was hearing just the opposite of what he had hired Balaam to utter another ironic element in the account.
What frustrated Balak so much? There are four themes portrayed in these prophecies.
The Peculiarity of Israel (Num. 23:7-10)
Balaam stated that it is impossible to curse what God has blessed (23:8). The reason he was unsuccessful in cursing Israel was that this people was unique, unlike other goyim (i.e., nations). “For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (23:9). This special calling of Israel is the explanation for Israel’s persecution by others down through the years. Those who hate Israel do so because they are “different” in their own eyes. Deuteronomy 7:6 declares about this people: “For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God; the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people who are upon the face of the earth.” Anti-semites refuse to acknowledge this uniqueness and end up fighting against God’s purpose in history and redemption.
This special peculiarity of Israel is also the explanation for its preservation during its long, dark night of exile in strange lands. Try as they may, those who attempt to annihilate Israel cannot destroy it. Israel’s continued existence, despite unbelievable suffering, will endure as long as the sun, moon and stars are ordinances in the heavens (Jer. 31:35-36).
The Position of Israel (Num. 23:18-24)
Balaam declared that God was not going to change His mind (23:19), He views Israel in a special way. “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD, his God, is with him, and the shout of a king is among them” (23:21). Israel’s blessing is based on her unique relationship to the Lord. He is “among” them and, because of that, He does not behold their iniquity. Even though Israel’s practice often fell far short of obedience, Israel’s position was secure. This is Israel’s standing before the Lord, even though Israel’s actual state may at times be quite different.
There is a parallel to the New Testament believer’s position in Christ, but there is also a difference. The Old Testament picture is that the Lord was among Israel, while the New Testament picture is that the believer is in the Lord. In both cases, however, positional truth allows God to view both Old Testament Israel and the New Testament believer as beautiful in His sight.
The Privilege of Israel (Num. 24:3-9)
It is in this sublime utterance that the absolute principle of the Abrahamic Covenant is reiterated. “Blessed is he who blesseth thee, and cursed is he who curseth thee” (24:9b). Balaam is simply reminding Balak of what God had already stated to Abraham (Gen. 12:3) and to Isaac (Gen. 27:29). The significance of the Abrahamic Covenant in Old Testament theology cannot be overstated. The Balaam account is a frontal attack on the foundational blessing for Israel: “I will bless thee” (cf. Gen, 12:1-3). Balak and all other “Israel-cursers,” however, are here reminded that they call God’s curse on their own heads when they curse God’s people.
It seems that whenever a mighty prince attempted to curse Israel, the Jews ended up with another holiday! Pharaoh attempted to smite Israels children, and the Jews were given the holiday of Passover (Ex. 1-12). Haman schemed to destroy all the Jews in the Persian Empire, and the Jews were given the holiday of Purim (the Book of Esther). The Syrian tyrant Antiochus attempted to murder and assimilate his Jewish subjects, and the Jews were given the festival of Hanukkah (the Apocryphal Books, 1 and 2 Maccabees). Even the evil Hitler, although excising a portion of the Jewish body, eventually committed suicide. Only three years later the Jews celebrated their own Independence Day — when the modern state of Israel was born, arising like a Phoenix from its own ashes!
When will the rest of the Balaks and Romans, Czars and Arabs learn this simple lesson; ‘^Blessed is he who blesseth thee, and cursed is he who curseth thee” (24:9b)?
The Prince of Israel (Num. ?4:14’24)
Balak had reached his limit. In total frustration he ordered Balaam to return home — without his wages (Num. 24:10-11)! God, however, was not through. He placed one more message in Balaam’s mouth — the most sublime of his four utterances. This “oracle” focused on the ultimate fulfillment of blessing on Israel through a personal Deliverer from all her enemies. “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth” (Num. 24:17).
The Hebrew parallelism of this verse makes it clear that Balaam saw one individual in the distant future who would arise out of the Jewish people and destroy the descendants of the very nation represented by Balak (i.e., the Moabites).
Two graphic pictures are employed to describe this individual — a star and a scepter. Both of these figures of speech point to an illustrious and powerful king. The Jewish sect at Qumran, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, made much of this description of King-Messiah as a star. Furthermore, the Jewish military leader Simon ben Kosiba was mistakenly hailed as Messiah in 132 A.D. and called “Bar Cochba,” literally son of the star. More importantly, this title is applied to Jesus in Revelation 22:16: “I, Jesus, have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.” When the magi came from Mesopotamia (the same area as their ancestor Balaam), they desired to find the King of the Jews, “For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him” (Mi. 2:2b). It was Balaam’s prophecy of a star to which they undoubtedly were referring.
The mention of a scepter also calls to mind a messianic king. This verse is practically an echo of the earlier promise to Judah: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be” (Gen. 49: 10). In still another messianic prophecy, a scepter appears in the hand of the Messiah: The LORD shall send the rod [literally scepter] of thy strength out of Zion; rule thou in the midst of thine enemies” (Ps. 110:2).
While some interpreters have tried to assign the fulfillment of this prophecy to King David (cf. 2 Sam. 8:2), the language of the passage goes beyond the limited conquests of David’s day. These marvelous conquests will have their final fulfillment only in the glorious advent of Messiah at which time He will personally destroy Israel’s enemies (Obad. 17-21; Zech. 14:3, 12; Rev. 19:17-21). Thus, Balaam’s prophecies close with a final graphic irony. While Moab hired Balaam to destroy Israel, Balaam declared that Israel will actually destroy Moab!
This fascinating account of Balaam thus provides another link in the chain of the messianic hope of Israel! Not only will the Messiah be the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), He will be from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10) and also a conquering King (Num. 24:17). Jesus urged His hearers to find Him in the Hebrew Bible: “Search the scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life; and they are they which testify of me” (Jn. 5:39).