Numbers 23 Study Notes
23:1-2 The preference for performing seven rituals was widespread in the ancient Near East, though multiple altars are not mentioned elsewhere in the OT. The sacrificing of seven bulls and seven rams on seven altars parallels a well-known Babylonian text in which Ea, Shamash, and Marduk are worshiped with the ritual libation of blood of seven sheep poured out on seven altars.
23:3 In the ancient Near Eastern context of sacrificial cults, to “stand by one’s offering” meant to have a proxy for the offerer. In some settings a high priest of the given deity would make a sacrifice on behalf of the king while the king stood by the offering. Balaam functioned as a priest and diviner in these narratives on behalf of Balak, who “stood by” the offering made on behalf of the Moabite people. Balaam was called to curse Israel to deliver the Moabites from potential enslavement and oppression.
23:4-10 God’s hand was upon Israel and she could not be cursed, even by the best divination experts of that time. The God of Israel cannot be manipulated or cajoled into carrying out the desires of kings or diviners. God had promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation through which the other nations would be blessed—even Moab and Balaam (Gn 12:1-3; 22:17-18).
23:11-12 The prophet-diviner Balaam had become the mouth of God temporarily.
23:13-26 From another outpost overlooking the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea and the plains of Moab where Israel was camped, Balaam and Balak repeated the ritual sacrifices of the first encounter. Nothing Balaam could muster could bring any harm to God’s people.
23:14 The Lookout Field on top of Pisgah was probably so named because of its strategic observation location. Several scholars interpret this location as a known place for observing heavenly omens and making astrological observations. At Pisgah, a prominent peak in the Abarim range, Moses would later commission Joshua (27:12-23), and God would give Moses an overview of the promised land from this spot (Dt 34:1-12).
23:19-20 Unlike the gods of Mesopotamia, who were depicted often as whimsical and easily manipulated through sorcery and divination, the God of Israel was not a man, that he might lie or change his mind. Balaam could not change what God had instructed him to proclaim—blessing for Israel, God’s chosen people.
23:22 Israel’s strength was totally in her God, but by his power she was compared to a ravaging wild ox. Ancient Near Eastern deities such as El and Baal were often depicted as horned bulls or as humans with the head or horns of a bull. The verse is repeated in 24:8.
23:23 Israel did not need augurs, diviners, or magicians; in fact, these were condemned and prohibited. Augury included reading cloud patterns, bird movements, and other activities in the skies. Divination included extispicy, the ritual slaughter of animals and the reading of their entrails by hepatoscopy (liver dissection) and colonoscopy (viewing of the intestinal lining). Such practices were not the source of Israel’s defense, nor could such powers be used against God’s people. The Lord would use Balaam, a pagan diviner, to bless those he had been called to condemn.
23:25-24:9 After two failed attempts, Balak reeled from the words of Balaam and called for the prophet to refrain from pronouncing a blessing on them. Then Balaam and Balak resorted to a third cultic center, in the heights above Peor, overlooking Jeshimon, from which they could see Israel encamped tribe by tribe (24:2). The sevenfold ritual is repeated again, without resorting to divination as Balaam had previously done. An ecstatic encounter with the Spirit of God ensued, opening Balaam’s eyes to a vision of God Almighty. Balaam’s utterance forecast the Lord’s blessing upon the land with abundance of water bringing productivity to the crops, and a powerful kingdom that would surpass that of the forces of Agag the Amalekite. But the strength of Israel was in the strength of her God. The Lord’s blessing was so powerful that even the most renowned divination expert of the day could not turn it back.