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(MT versing)
The Prophecies of Balaam Balaam's First Prophecy
The Four Oracles of Balaam
Balaam's First Prophecy
22:41-23:10 22:41-23:3 22:41-23:4
23:1-3 Balaam's Prophecies
23:4-10 23:4-10
23:11-12 23:11-12 23:11-12 23:11-12 23:11-18a
Balaam's Second Prophecy Balaam's Second Prophecy
23:13-24 23:13-24 23:13-24 23:13-14



23:25-26 23:25-26 23:25-26 23:25 23:25-26
Balaam's Third Prophecy
Balaam's Third Prophecy
23:27-30 23:27-30 23:27-24:9 23:27-24:9 23:27-30

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Etc.


  1. Numbers 22-24 forms a literary unit (see NIDOTTE, vol. 4, pp. 436-437).

  2. In this literary unit there are several oracles/poems/prophecies by Balaam.
    1. Num. 23:7-10
    2. Num. 23:18-24
    3. Num. 24:3-9
    4. Num. 24:15-19
    5. Num. 24:20
    6. Num. 24:21-22
    7. Num. 24:23-24

  3. These oracles are now seen by scholarship as some of the oldest poetry in the Bible (i.e. Exodus 15).


1Then Balaam said to Balak, "Build seven altars for me here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here." 2Balak did just as Balaam had spoken, and Balak and Balaam offered up a bull and a ram on each altar. 3Then Balaam said to Balak, "Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go; perhaps the Lord will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you." So he went to a bare hill.

23:1 "seven altars" There are similar accounts recorded in Babylonian cuneiform tablets. The number seven is significant in the ANE. See SPECIAL TOPIC: SYMBOLIC NUMBERS IN SCRIPTURE, #4.

▣ "prepare" This VERB (BDB 465, KB 464, Hiphil IMPERATIVE) denotes some sacrificial procedures.

  1. ritual slaughter
  2. removal of internal organs (such as the liver, possibly for divination purposes)
  3. ritual dissection for burning
  4. in v. 4 a SYNONYM is used (BDB 748, KB 828, Hiphil IMPERFECT with waw), which basically means "arrange in rows." It refers to the altars, not parts of the animals.

This would have been a big job that took several hours and several persons. See SPECIAL TOPIC: SACRIFICES IN MESOPOTAMIA AND ISRAEL AND THEIR SIGNIFICANCE.

▣ "bulls. . .rams" This was an expensive offering. Balak repeats it three times (vv. 1, 14, 29) to try to influence God to curse Israel.

Possibly parts of the animals were used in the divination process (i.e., the livers; see NIDOTTE, vol. 3, pp. 945-950).

23:3 "stand beside your burnt offering" This IMPERATIVE (BDB 426, KB 427) is repeated in v. 15 and implied in v. 30. Apparently it was a way of identifying Balak and his request with the sacrifices (similar in Israel to laying one's hands on the head of a sacrifice), cf. Num. 23:6.

▣ "perhaps the Lord will come to me" This was not a dream (Num. 22:8, 19). The "bare hill" may refer to a fertility worship site.

▣ "Lord" Throughout this episode with Balaam, there are several names for Deity used. See full note at Num. 22:8.

▣ "a bare hill" This place may be contextually linked to "the high places of Ba'al" in Num. 22:41. Fertility worship was practiced at these "high places" (cf. Deut. 12:2; Jer. 2:20; 3:2; 17:2).

4Now God met Balaam, and he said to Him, "I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar." 5Then the Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth and said, "Return to Balak, and you shall speak thus." 6So he returned to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, he and all the leaders of Moab. 7He took up his discourse and said,
  "From Aram Balak has brought me,
  Moab's king from the mountains of the East,
  'Come curse Jacob for me,
  And come, denounce Israel!'
8"How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?
  And how can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?
9"As I see him from the top of the rocks,
  And I look at him from the hills;
  Behold, a people who dwells apart,
  And will not be reckoned among the nations.
10"Who can count the dust of Jacob,
  Or number the fourth part of Israel?
  Let me die the death of the upright,
  And let my end be like his!"

23:5 This implies

  1. Balaam was a prophet of YHWH
  2. YHWH is using a Syrian diviner to make His message known (like the witch of Endor, cf. 1 Samuel 28)

For me, option #1 seems best in the context of Numbers 22.

NASB  "discourse"
NKJV, NRSV, REB  "oracle"
TEV  "prophecy"
NJB  "poem"
JPSOA  "theme"
LXX, Peshitta  "parable"

This is the Hebrew mashall (BDB 605 II, KB 648 I; NIDOTTE, vol. 2, pp. 1134-1136), which means "a proverb," "a parable," "a riddle," or "a wise saying." Here, it is a prophetic message (cf. Num. 24:3,15, 20, 21, 23; Isa. 14:4; Mic. 2:4; Hab. 2:6).

▣ "Aram" This would be another name for Syria. The exact site is given in Num. 22:5.

These last two poetic lines of v. 7 have four IMPERATIVES (very emphatic) which state Balak's purpose in summoning Balaam.

Notice YHWH's people go by the corporate title of

  1. Jacob
  2. Israel


23:8-10 Balaam expresses YHWH's unique covenant relationship with the descendants of Abraham.

  1. how can I curse whom God has not cursed? (cf. Gen. 12:1-3)
  2. synonymous parallel in Num. 23:8b
  3. a people who dwells apart, Num. 23:9c (cf. Exod. 19:5-6)
  4. a synonymous parallel in Num. 23:9d
  5. Israel's phenomenal numerical growth in Egypt under YHWH's blessing, Num. 23:10 (i.e., direct fulfillment of YHWH's promise to Abraham in Gen. 12:2; 13:16)

23:10 "dust" This is one of three metaphors used to describe Abraham's many descendants.

  1. dust ‒ Gen. 13:16; 28:14; here
  2. stars ‒ Gen. 15:5; 22:17; 26:4
  3. sand ‒ Gen. 22:17; 32:12; Exod. 32:13

It is this explosive growth of Israel's population that terrified

  1. Pharaoh
  2. Balak
  3. the native tribes of Canaan
NASB, Peshitta  "the fourth part"
NKJV (footnote), NRSV. JPSOA  "dust cloud"
NJB  "the cloud"
REB  "the myriads"
LXX  "divisions"

The BDB 917 defines this root as "fourth part" (cf. 2 Kgs. 6:25). KB lists the option (1181 II) as "dust cloud" (NIDOTTE, vol. 3, p. 1043), which makes a better parallel with "dust" in the previous line of poetry.

The last two poetic lines are JUSSIVES. Balaam requests that YHWH let him

  1. die an upright person (by not cursing YHWH's special covenant people)
  2. end his life in the blessing of YHWH as Israel is in the blessing of YHWH

11Then Balak said to Balaam, "What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!" 12He replied, "Must I not be careful to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?"

23:11-12 These verses express Balak's shock at Balaam's prophecy. Instead of "cursing" them he actually blesses them (a PERFECT VERB and an INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE of the same root, BDB 138, KB 159, Piel; usually the INFINITIVE comes first and is in the IMPERFECT stem).

Balaam had told Balak several times that he must speak exactly what YHWH revealed to him (cf. Num. 22:20, 35; 23:5, 16, 26; 24:13).

13Then Balak said to him, "Please come with me to another place from where you may see them, although you will only see the extreme end of them and will not see all of them; and curse them for me from there." 14So he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar. 15And he said to Balak, "Stand here beside your burnt offering while I myself meet the Lord over there." 16Then the Lord met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, "Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak." 17He came to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, and the leaders of Moab with him. And Balak said to him, "What has the Lord spoken?" 18Then he took up his discourse and said,
  "Arise, O Balak, and hear;
  Give ear to me, O son of Zippor!
19God is not a man, that He should lie,
  Nor a son of man, that He should repent;
  Has He said, and will He not do it?
  Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
20Behold, I have received a command to bless;
  When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it.
21He has not observed misfortune in Jacob;
  Nor has He seen trouble in Israel;
  The Lord his God is with him,
  And the shout of a king is among them.
22God brings them out of Egypt,
  He is for them like the horns of the wild ox.
23For there is no omen against Jacob,
  Nor is there any divination against Israel;
  At the proper time it shall be said to Jacob
  And to Israel, what God has done!
24Behold, a people rises like a lioness,
  And as a lion it lifts itself;
  It will not lie down until it devours the prey,
  And drinks the blood of the slain."

23:13 It seems that Balak thought a different location would change the effectiveness of

  1. his offerings
  2. Balaam's intercession

He tried three different locations where he could see part of the camp of Israel in the plains of Moab (the VERB, "see," BDB 906, KB 1157, is used three times in v. 13).

NJB  "lookouts"
JPSOA (footnote)  "lookout point"
REB  "watchers"
LXX  "look-out place"
Peshitta  "watchmen"

In the MT this is a Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLE (BDB 859 I, KB 1044 I), which means "look out," "spy," or "keep watch."

The other part of the NOUN CONSTRUCT is (BDB 961)

  1. field, open country
  2. highland (new lexical suggestion based on Num. 23:14; Jdgs. 5:18; 2 Sam. 1:21; Ps. 50:11; Jer. 13:27; 17:3; 18:14)

Here, a high point on Mt. Pisgah/Nebo, where they could see a significant portion of the camp of Israel.

23:18 There are three IMPERATIVES by God directed at Balak.

  1. arise ‒ BDB 877, KB 1086, Qal (i.e., imagery for "listen clearly")
  2. hear ‒ BDB 1033, KB 1570, Qal
  3. give ear ‒ BDB 24, KB 27, Hiphil

Balak was not listening. He thought he could change God's mind to his will (cf. Num. 23:19).

23:19 This is a theological affirmation that God's will cannot be altered (cf. 1 Sam. 15:29; Ps. 132:11; Isa. 40:8; 55:11; Jer. 4:28). There are times when God does "repent" or "change His mind" in response to His covenant people's repentance and prayer (cf. Exod. 32:14; 2 Sam. 24:16; Ps. 106:45; Jer. 18:7-8; 26:13,19), but not a pagan king. YHWH also sometimes changes His mind even towards pagans (cf. Jon. 3:10; 4:2). See Special Topics: INTERCESSORY PRAYER and CHARACTERISTICS OF ISRAEL'S GOD (OT). Also see Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 333-334, and Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, pp. 80-81.

▣ "man. . .son of man" Notice the parallelism, like Ps. 8:14. "Son of Man" is a Hebrew idiom for humanity (i.e., Ezek. 2:1). See SPECIAL TOPIC: SON OF MAN.

23:22 This verse begins with a Hiphil PRESENT ACTIVE PARTICIPLE. YHWH is still in the process of the full deliverance of Israel from Egypt. The conquest is surely a major part of the divine resettlement program.

23:21-24 This part of the poem lists several things YHWH has done/will not do to Israel.

  1. YHWH has sent a blessing that cannot be revoked, Num. 23:20.
  2. YHWH has seen Israel's problems (cf. Exod. 3:9) but has not counted their sin against them, Num. 23:21a,b.
  3. YHWH is uniquely with them, Num. 23:21c.
  4. YHWH has established Himself as their King (Exod. 15:18; Deut. 33:5; 1 Sam. 8:7; 12:12; 1 Kgs. 22:19; Isa. 6:5), Num. 23:21d.
  5. YHWH brought them out of Egypt with a strong hand (i.e., imagery of the horns of a wild ox), Num. 23:22.
  6. YHWH cannot be affected by an "omen" or "divination." He is for Israel, Num. 23:23; see SPECIAL TOPIC: DIVINER.
  7. Israel will be powerful, like a young lioness, Num. 23:24 (i.e., the lioness was the hunter, protector, and provider of the pride).

25Then Balak said to Balaam, "Do not curse them at all nor bless them at all!" 26But Balaam replied to Balak, "Did I not tell you, 'Whatever the Lord speaks, that I must do'?"

23:25 This verse contains two emphatic grammatical features.

  1. do not curse them at all ‒ INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE and IMPERFECT VERB from the same root, BDB 866, KB 1060
  2. bless them at all ‒ same emphatic construction as #1 but different root, BDB 138, KB 159

27Then Balak said to Balaam, "Please come, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will be agreeable with God that you curse them for me from there." 28So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor which overlooks the wasteland. 29Balaam said to Balak, "Build seven altars for me here and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here." 30Balak did just as Balaam had said, and offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

  1. Why does Balak move the location of the sacrifices three times?
  2. How are the sacrifices related to divination?
  3. Why are the different names for Deity used in Numbers 22-23?
  4. How is Israel characterized in Num. 23:9-10?
  5. Does God ever change His mind?

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