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THE meeting between the king of Moab and the soothsayer took place at Ir Moab, the "city" or capital of Moab, close by its northern boundary.* It commenced with gentle reproaches on the part of the monarch, which, Eastern-like, covered large promises, to which the soothsayer replied by repeating his old profession of being only able to speak the word that God would put in his mouth. There is no need of assuming hypocrisy on his part; both monarch and soothsayer acted quite in character and quite consistently. From Ir Moab they proceeded to Kirjath Huzoth, "the city of streets," the later Kiriathaim.**
** Joshua 13:19; Ezekiel 25:9, etc. See the description of the place, and of the prospect from it, in Tristram, u.s., pp. 270, 276.
Here, or in the immediate neighborhood, the first sacrifices were offered, Balaam as well as "the princes" taking part in the sacrificial meal. Next morning, Balak took the soothsayer to the lofty heights of Mount Attarus, to Bamoth Baal "the heights of Baal," so-called because that plateau was dedicated to the service of Baal. The spot, which also bears the names of Baal-meon, Beth Baal-meon, and Beth-meon, commands a magnificent view. Although "too far recessed to show the depression of the Dead Sea," the view northwards stretches as far as Jerusalem, Gerizim, Tabor, Hermon, and Mount Gilead.* But, although the eye could sweep so far over the Land of Promise, he would, from the conformation of the mountains, only see "the utmost part of the people," (Numbers 22:41) that is, the outskirts of the camp of Israel.
* Tristram, p. 304.
In accordance with the sacred significance which, as Balaam knew, attached to the number seven in the worship of Jehovah, seven altars were now built on the heights of Baal, and seven bullocks and seven rams offered upon them - a bullock and a ram on each altar. Leaving Balak and the princes of Moab by the altars, Balaam went forth in the regular heathen manner, in the hope of meeting Jehovah (Numbers 23:3), which is explained by Numbers 24:1 as meaning "to seek auguries," such as heathen soothsayers saw in certain natural appearances or portents. And there, on the top of "a bare height,"* God did meet Balaam, not in auguries, but by putting "a word in Balaam's mouth." As the man shared not in it otherwise than by being the outward instrument of its communication, this "word" was to him only "a parable," and is designated as such in Scripture. Never before so clearly as in presence of the powers of heathenism, assembled to contend against Israel, did Jehovah show forth His almighty power, alike in making use of an instrument almost passive in His hand, and in disclosing His eternal purpose.**
* So literally; Numbers 23:3.
** The prophecies of Balaam certainly go far beyond the range of the prophetic vision of that time. Could it be, because Balaam was so entirely passive, as it were transmitting, without absorbing, any of the rays of light, nor yet mingling them with the coloring in his own mind.
FIRST "PARABLE" OF BALAAM *
* Of course, we translate literally.
From Aram brought me Balak, The king of Moab from the mountain of the east - Come, curse me Jacob, And come, threaten* Israel! How shall I curse whom God doth not curse, And how shall I threaten whom Jehovah threatens not For, from the top of the rocks I see him, And from the hills I behold him: Lo, a people dwelling** alone, And not reckoning itself among the nations (the Gentiles)! Who can count the dust of Jacob, And the number of the fourth part*** of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous.|* And let my latter end be like his!
* Literally: pronounce wrath.
** We have put it so as to include both the present and the future tense.
|* In the plural number, referring to Israel.
Two things will be noted, without entering into special criticism. First, as to the form of this parable: each thought is embodied in two sentences, with rapid, almost abrupt, transitions from one thought to the other. Secondly, the outward and inward separation of Israel (the former as symbol of the latter) is singled out as the grand characteristic of God's people - a primary truth this of the Old Testament, and, in its spiritual application, of the New Testament also. But even in its literality it has proved true in the history of Israel of old, and still applies to them, showing us that Israel's history is not yet finished; that God has not forgotten His people; and that a purpose of mercy yet awaits them, in accordance with His former dealings. Such a people Balaam could not curse. On the contrary, he could only wish that his death should be like theirs whom God's ordinances and institutions kept separate outwardly, and made righteous inwardly, referring in this, of course, to Israel not as individuals, but in their totality as the people of God. In the language of a German critic,* "The pious Israelite could look back with calm satisfaction, in the hour of his death, upon a life rich in proofs of the blessing, forgiving, protecting, delivering, saving mercy of God. With the same calm satisfaction would he look upon his children, and children's children, in whom he lived again, and in whom also he would still take part in the high calling of his nation, and in the ultimate fulfillment of the glorious promise which it had received from God.... And for himself, the man who died in the consciousness of possessing the mercy and love of God, knew also that he would carry them with him as an inalienable possession, a light in the darkness of Sheol. He knew that he would be 'gathered to his fathers' - a thought which must have been a very plenteous source of comfort, of hope, and of joy."
* Kurtz, History of the Old Covenant, vol. 3 p. 432, Engl. Trans.
THE SECOND "PARABLE" OF BALAAM
It was but natural that Balak should have been equally surprised and incensed at the words of the soothsayer. The only solution he could suggest was, that a fuller view of the camp of Israel might change the disposition of the magician. "Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them (viz., in their totality); only the end (utmost part) of them seest thou, but the whole of them thou seest not - and from thence curse me them."* The station now selected was on the field of the watchers," on the top of Pisgah, affording not only a full view of the camp, but of the Land of Promise itself. Here Moses, not long afterwards, took his farewell prospect of the goodly heritage which the Lord had assigned to His people.** The same formalities as before having been gone through, in regard to altars and sacrifices, Balaam once more returned to Balak with the following message:
* Numbers 23:13. So literally; the critical discussion see in Keil, Bible Commentary, vol. 2 p. 313.
** A description of the view from Pisgah is given in a subsequent chapter.
Rise up, Balak, and hear, Hearken to me, son of Zippor! Not man is God that He should lie, Nor a son of man that He should repent! Hath He said, and shall He not do it, Hath He spoken, and shall He not fulfill it? Behold, to bless, I have received - And He hath blessed, and I cannot turn it back! He beholdeth not iniquity in Jacob, And He looketh not upon distress in Israel: Jehovah his God is with him, And the king's jubilee in the midst of him.*
* That is, the shout of jubilee on account of the abiding presence of Jehovah as their King is in the midst of the camp of Israel. This is symbolized by the blast of the trumpets, which is designated by the same word as that rendered "jubilee."
God bringeth them out of Egypt - As the unwearied strength of the buffalo is his.* For, no augury in Jacob, no soothsaying** in Israel, According to the time it is said to Jacob and to Israel what God doeth.***
* Viz., Israel's.
** The same word by which Balaam himself is uniformly designated as "the soothsayer."
* Literally, "the torn," what he had torn in pieces.
The meaning of this second "parable" needs no special explanation. Only it will be noticed, that the progress of thought is successively marked by four lines - the last two always expressing the ground, or showing the foundation of the two first. The center couplet is the most important. It marks for ever, that the Covenant-Presence of God in Israel, or, as we should now express it, that the grace of God, is the ultimate cause of the forgiveness of sins, and that the happy realization of Jehovah as the King is the ground of joy. Whenever and wherever that Presence is wanting only unforgiven sin is beheld; wherever that shout is not heard only misery is felt.
THE THIRD "PARABLE" OF BALAAM
In his despair Balak now proposed to try the issue from yet a third locality. This time a ridge somewhat farther north was selected - "the top of Peor that looketh toward Jeshimon." A third time seven altars were built and sevenfold sacrifices offered. But there was a marked difference in the present instance. Balaam went no more "as at other times to seek for auguries" (Numbers 24:1). Nor did Jehovah now, as formerly (23:5, 16), "put a word in his mouth." But "the Spirit of God came upon him" (24:2), in the same manner as afterwards upon Saul (1 Samuel 19:23) - he was in the ecstatic state, powerless and almost unconscious, or, as Balaam himself describes it, with his outward eyes shut (ver. 3), and "falling," as if struck down, while seeing "the vision of the Almighty," and "having his (inner) eyes opened" (ver. 4).
* The Targum Onkelos, however, renders, "the man who saw clearly."
Saith he, hearing the words of God, Beholding the vision of the Almighty: he beholdeth - falling down - and with open eyes! How good are thy tabernacles, Jacob, Thy dwellings, O Israel - Like (watered) valleys they stretch, like gardens by a river, Like aloes Jehovah planted, like cedars by the waters.*
Flow waters from his twin buckets - and his seed by many waters, Higher than Agag* shall be his king - and his kingdom be exalted. God brings him from Egypt - his the unwearied strength of the buffalo - He shall eat the nations (Gentiles) his enemies - and their bones shall he gnaw - and his arrows shall he split.** He coucheth, lieth down like a lion and like a lioness - who shall rouse him? Blessed he that blesseth thee, and cursed he that curseth thee!
* Agag - literally, "the fiery" - was not the name of one special king (1 Samuel 15:8), but the general designation of the kings of Amalek, as Abimelech that of the kings of Philistia, and Pharaoh of Egypt.
** The rendering of this clause is exceedingly difficult and doubtful. I have taken the verb in its original meaning, divide, split, as in Judges 5:26, "When she had split and stricken through his temples."
We can scarcely wonder that the bitter disappointment of Balak should now have broken forth in angry reproaches. But Balaam had not yet finished his task. Before leaving the king he must deliver another part of the message, which he had already received from Jehovah,* but not yet spoken.
"Come, I will advise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days" (24:14).
PROPHETIC MESSAGE THROUGH BALAAM IN FOUR "PARABLES"
Saith Balaam, the son of Beor, and saith the man with closed eye, Saith he, hearing the words of God, and knowing the knowledge of the Most High, Beholding the vision of the Almighty: he beholdeth - falling down - and with open eyes: I behold Him, but not now - I descry Him, but not nigh! Cometh* a Star from Jacob, and rises a Sceptre from Israel, And dasheth the two sides of Moab, and overthroweth the sons of tumult.**
* Literally, makes its way.
** Among all nations "the star" has been associated with the future glory of great kings. The application of it to the Messiah is not only constant in Scripture, but was universally acknowledged by the ancient Jews. Both the Targum Onkelos and that of Jonathan apply it in this manner. "The two sides of Moab," i.e., from end to end of the land, "The sons of tumult," i.e., the rebellious nations.
And Edom shall be a possession, and a possession shall be Seir* - his enemies** - And Israel is doing mighty things!*** And shall come from Jacob (a ruler) And shall destroy what remaineth out of the cities.
This latter may, indeed, be characterized as the most wonderful of prophecies. More than a thousand years before the event, not only the rising of the great world-empire of the West is here predicted, with its conquest of Asshur and Eber (i.e, of the descendants of Eber) (Genesis 10:21), but far beyond this the final destruction of that world-empire is foretold! In fact, we have here a series of prophecies, commencing with the appearance of the Messiah and closing with the destruction of Anti-Christ. To this there is no parallel in Scripture, except in the visions of Daniel. No ingenuity of hostile criticism can take from, or explain away the import of this marvelous prediction.
And now the two parted - the king to go to his people, the soothsayer, as we gather from the sequel, to the tents of Midian. But we meet Balaam only too soon again. One who had entered on such a course could not stop short of the terrible end. He had sought to turn away Jehovah from His people, and failed. He would now endeavor to turn the people from Jehovah. If he succeeded in this, the consequences to Israel would be such as Balak had desired to obtain. By his advice (Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14) the children of Israel were seduced into idolatry and all the vile abominations connected with it.*
In the judgment which pursued, not fewer than 4,000 Israelites perished, till the zeal of Phinehas stayed the plague, when in his representative capacity he showed that Israel, as a nation, abhorred idolatry and the sins connected with it, as the greatest crime against Jehovah. But on "the evil men and seducers" speedy judgment came. By God's command the children of Israel were avenged of the Midianites. In the universal slaughter of Midian, Balaam also perished. The figure of Balaam stands out alone in the history of the Old Testament. The only counterpart to it is that of Judas, the traitor. Balaam represented the opposition of heathenism; Judas that of Judaism. Both went some length in following the truth; Balaam honestly acknowledged the God of Israel, and followed His directions: Judas owned the Messianic appearance in Jesus, and joined His disciples. But in the crisis of their inner history, when that came which, in one form or another, must be to every one the decisive question - each failed. Both had stood at the meeting and parting of the two ways, and both chose that course which rapidly ended in their destruction. Balaam had expected the service of Jehovah to be quite other from what he found it; and, trying to make it such as he imagined and wished, he not only failed, but stumbled, fell, and was broken. Judas, also, if we may be allowed the suggestion, had expected the Messiah to be quite other than he found Him; disappointment, perhaps failure in the attempt to induce Him to alter His course, and an increasingly widening gulf of distance between them, drove him, step by step, to ruin. Even the besetting sins of Balaam and of Judas - covetousness and ambition - are the same. And as, when Balaam failed in turning Jehovah from Israel, he sought - only too successfully - to turn Israel from the Lord; so when Judas could not turn the Christ from His purpose towards His people, he also succeeded in turning Israel, as a nation, from their King. In both instances, also, for a moment a light more bright than before was cast upon the scene. In the case of Balaam we have the remarkable prophetic utterances, reaching far beyond the ordinary range of prophetic vision; at the betrayal of Judas, we hear the prophetic saying of the High-priest going far beyond the knowledge of the time, that Jesus should die, not only for His own people, but for a ruined world. And, lastly, in their terrible end, they each present to us most solemn warning of the danger of missing the right answer to the great question - that of absolute and implicit submission of mind, heart, and life to the revealed Covenant-Will of God.