1 Then the people of Israel set out and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho. 2 And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. 3 And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. 4 And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” So Balak the son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, 5 sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the people of Amaw, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. 6 Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
7 So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand. And they came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s message. 8 And he said to them, “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me.” So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. 9 And God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” 10 And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, 11 ‘Behold, a people has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Now come, curse them for me. Perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them out.’” 12 God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” 13 So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your own land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” 14 So the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.”
15 Once again Balak sent princes, more in number and more honorable than these. 16 And they came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor: ‘Let nothing hinder you from coming to me, 17 for I will surely do you great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do. Come, curse this people for me.’” 18 But Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God to do less or more. 19 So you, too, please stay here tonight, that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.” 20 And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.” 21 So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. – Numbers 22:1-21 ESV
God was leading the people of Israel ever closer to the borders of Canaan. The day was drawing nearer when they would be expected to cross over the Jordan River and begin their conquest of the land promised to them by God as their rightful inheritance. And all the battles in which they had recently been engaged had been meant to prepare them for the confrontations they would face in the conquest of their new homeland. While God had designated Canaan as their future home, it would not come without a fight or apart from faith in the power and providence of God.
News of the Israelites’ recent victory over the Amorites had begun to spread and the surrounding nations began to grow wary of this new kid on the block. The reputation of the Israelites had begun to change. They were no longer viewed as just a large but seemingly harmless group of former slaves and sheep herders. They had proved themselves to be a formidable fighting force that could easily overwhelm the small nation-states that occupied Canaan and the surrounding lands. With their conquest of the Amorites, the Israelites had become a real and present danger.
The Jordan River formed the eastern border of the land of Canaan, so when the Israelites set up camp on the plains of Moab, they were within “spitting distance” of the promised land. But news of their arrival soon reached the ears of Balak, the king of Moab, and he was not pleased.
Balak son of Zippor, the Moabite king, had seen everything the Israelites did to the Amorites. And when the people of Moab saw how many Israelites there were, they were terrified. The king of Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This mob will devour everything in sight, like an ox devours grass in the field!” – Numbers 22:2-4 NLT
The Israelites had descended upon Moab like a plague of locusts and Balak feared the worst. He realized that a group this large would need a source of food and envisioned them plundering the surrounding farms, orchards, and vineyards in order to fill their stomachs. Motivated by his growing sense of dread, Balak reached out to the elder of nearby Midian in an attempt to form an alliance against their newfound enemy.
When the Israelites had first appeared within the borders of Moab, the Moabites had extended a degree of tolerance, accepting payment in return for food and water. They probably assumed the Israelites would move on to greener pastures. But when Balak heard that the Israelites had set up camp on the plains, he became more than a bit concerned about the long-term implications of this latest report.
Unwilling to take on the Israelites in a head-to-head battle, he came up with a less risky plan. He sent for a diviner named Balaam. This man was some sort of pagan magician or soothsayer, and he had a reputation for being able to issue curses. This led Balak to send emissaries to Balaam with the following message:
“Please come and curse these people for me because they are too powerful for me. Then perhaps I will be able to conquer them and drive them from the land. I know that blessings fall on any people you bless, and curses fall on people you curse.” – Numbers 22:6 NLT
Nowhere in the text does it indicate that Balaam was a worshiper of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. But he was believed to have supernatural abilities that allowed him to pronounce blessings and curses at will. And Balak wanted this powerful “wizard” to work his magic and call down a curse on the host of Israelites camping on his doorstep.
Balak is not specific regarding the nature of the curse he has in mind, but it seems that he was hoping for some kind of spell that might weaken the Israelite forces and make their defeat easier. In a sense, he was looking for a miracle. And he was willing to pay for it. No doubt, Balak believed that Balaam would invoke the assistance of some kind of deity or supernatural power. He seemed to understand that the defeat of the Israelites would require divine intervention.
When the envoys delivered the money and Balak’s message to Balaam, this so-called diviner agreed to consider the king’s proposition. But first, he asked for time to consult “the Lord” (Numbers 22:8 ESV). What’s interesting about this statement, is that Balaam used the proper name of Israel’s God – יְהֹוָה (Yᵊhōvâ). This doesn’t mean that Balaam was a worshiper of Jehovah, but may simply indicate that he knew the name of Israel’s God and was going to begin by seeking that deity’s permission to issue the curse. Rather than pit one god against another, Balaam was going to attempt to turn Israel’s God against them. But Balaam never got a chance to solicit an opinion from Jehovah because God came calling on him.
That night God came to Balaam and asked him, “Who are these men visiting you?” – Numbers 22:9 NLT
God was already aware of the situation but He went ahead and asked Balaam to summarize what was going on, beginning with the identity and mission of the visitors. This nocturnal encounter must have caught Balaam by surprise. There’s even a question of whether Balaam had ever intended to seek a word from Jehovah. It seems much more likely that Balaam would have returned to the messengers with some story he had concocted overnight. But instead, God showed up and provided this self-proclaimed prophet with a message meant solely for him.
“Do not go with them. You are not to curse these people, for they have been blessed!” – Numbers 22:12 NLT
Balaam was to show these men the door. And God made it crystal clear that the last thing Balaam should consider doing was to issue a curse on the people of Israel. It’s not that God feared Balaam’s curse, but that Balaam needed to know that Israel was under God’s blessing. It was Balaam who needed to be afraid because God had promised to curse anyone who treated Abraham’s descendants with contempt.
“I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:3 NLT
Even a fake curse would be met with God’s vengeance. If Balaam had decided to make a quick buck by going with the men and pronouncing a curse on the Israelites, he would have come to regret it. And Balaam didn’t take this word from Jehovah lightly. He may have been a false prophet but he recognized a real prophecy when He heard one. So, the next morning, he delivered to Balak’s messengers some disappointing news.
“Go on home! The Lord will not let me go with you.” – Numbers 22:13 NLT
But when the envoys returned with the bad news, Balak refused to accept. Desperate for divine help, he sent an even larger contingent of dignitaries to persuade Balaam and they were armed with an even greater offer of reward. Yet, Balaam remained adamant and refused to accept their bribe.
“Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord my God. But stay here one more night, and I will see if the Lord has anything else to say to me.” – Numbers 22:18-19 NLT
At this point, it appears as if Balaam has had a “come-to-Jesus-moment.” He now refers to Jehovah as “my God.” Something has happened. This pagan prognosticator has suddenly realized that Jehovah is the one true God. Unlike all the other times Balaam had sought divine help, this time he had gotten an actual answer. Jehovah, the God of Israel had spoken, and Balaam was not about to risk angering an actual, bonified deity.
As before, Balaam invites the men to spend the night and agrees to seek additional insight from Jehovah. And during the night, God spoke to Balaam again.
That night God came to Balaam and told him, “Since these men have come for you, get up and go with them. But do only what I tell you to do.” – Numbers 22:20 NLT
And having heard from the Lord, Balaam did just as he was told.
…the next morning Balaam got up, saddled his donkey, and started off with the Moabite officials. – Numbers 22:21 NLT
Yet, as the next verse will point out, “God was angry that Balaam was going…” (Numbers 22:22 NLT). This pseudo-prophet was about to learn a painful lesson on the sovereignty and omniscience of Jehovah. The God of the Israelites was not some figment of man’s imagination but the all-powerful, all-knowing God of the universe. He had seen into Balaam’s heart and knew exactly what this pride-filled and profit-hungry man was thinking. Balaam was still hoping to cash in on this opportunity and was already formulating a plan to give Balak what he wanted while lining his own pockets.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.