The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years. The rebellious generation has passed on-it is time for them to go inhabit the land of Canaan. Moses records, "the Lord spake unto me, saying, Ye have compassed this mountain long enough: turn you northward" (Deut. 2:2-3). Travelling north on the east side of the Dead Sea meant travelling through the territory of Edom and Moab. The Moabites are not too keen on the idea of such a multitude, numbering over a million souls, travelling through their territory. The Amorites have recently been slaughtered by the Israelites (Num. 21:21-32). The Moabites figure they are next.
Who are the Moabites? They were related to the Israelites through Lot, Abraham's nephew.
"The Moabites and Ammonites are descendants of Lot, Abraham's nephew. When Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot's two daughters, believing that the world had come to an end, intoxicated their father and deceived him into fathering children by them (Gen. 19:30-38)... Their brethren, the Moabites, lived along the eastern bank of the Jordan River and east of the Dead Sea. They warred constantly with Israel. Their language, known from the Moabite Stela, erected by King Mesha in honor of his victories over Israel, was almost identical to Hebrew." (John Tvedtnes, "Who Is an Arab?" Ensign, Apr. 1974, 28)
The Moabites had enough familiarity with the God of Abraham to know that there are individuals, called prophets, who can obtain divine favor. At times during their history, they would worship Abraham's God but rarely did the Israelites acknowledge Moabite religion as legitimate. Indeed, most of the time, the Moabites were worshipping idols instead of God. Over the ensuing centuries of war, they would stir up the Israelites to belief in God during times of apostasy in a fashion similar to the role of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon (Judges 3:12-14).
Numbers 22:3 Moab was sore afraid
Did Moab have reason to fear? The answer is "no," but they didn't know it. Moses had been commanded to leave them alone:
And when we passed by from our brethren the children of Esau, which dwelt in Seir... we turned and passed by the way of the wilderness of Moab.
And the LORD said unto me, Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle: for I will not give thee of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for a possession. (Deut. 2:8-9)
The Lord wanted to protect the Moabites. He was keeping a promise made to Lot regarding his posterity. Certainly, the Lord has kept his promises regarding Abraham's posterity, and so it was with Lot's. Yet, the Moabites are not too accommodating. Notice how Moses understood that the Edomites were brethren-so were the Moabites. The Edomites allowed the Israelites to pass through their land without incident. The Moabites would not; this stirs the Lord's anger against them. Their fear of the Lord's covenant people required the Israelites to pass around Moab rather than through it. Obviously Balak thought that they would come right through his land and decimate everything in its path.
Balak, then, angers the Lord because he is unaware of the blessings the Lord has in store for his people. This is a reminder for us, when we see another people or individual who seems more blessed than we, not to discount the Lord's blessings for us. Through lack of knowledge or faith, he wants to fight against the Lord's people-that is never a good idea!
Numbers 22:5-6 He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam... curse me this people
Balaam is an enigmatic figure in the Old Testament. He is a prophet but not an Israelite. He apparently prophesies for money. He speaks with God, but also has a talking donkey! What are we to make of him? Was he a true prophet? Did he hold the priesthood?
To the last two questions, the answer must be "yes." The text doesn't tell us about his authority, but Balak knows, "he whom thou blesses is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed" (Num. 22:6). This sounds like the same priesthood language the Lord gave to Joseph Smith, "verily I say, whomsoever you bless I will bless, and whomsoever you curse I will curse, saith the Lord" (D&C 132:47; see also Matt. 16:19, Hel 10:4-10). Well, if he has priesthood power to bless and curse, is he also a prophet? Again, the scriptures prove he was a true prophet-at least for a while. He meets the scriptural criterion for a prophet, he had the testimony of Jesus by the spirit of prophecy (Rev. 19:10), testifying "there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel." (Num. 24:11)
So Balaam was a true prophet holding the Melchizedek priesthood. As with others, he descended from the fathers from a different line than Jacob. Indirect Biblical evidence indicates that the priesthood was not strictly limited to the Israelites. But the New Testament suggests that Balaam did not stay faithful as a prophet. Eventually contributing to the idolatry of both Moab and Israel, his ministry led them "to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication." (Num. 25:1-18; 31:16; Rev. 2:14) (For a full account of Balaam's treachery, see Josephus quotes at the end of this lesson)
Bruce R. McConkie
In spite of all this, the record recites that Balaam "taught" Balak "to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication," and shortly thereafter, while aligned against Israel in the camps of the Midianites, he was "slain with the sword."
The full account of these events is found in Numbers 22:23; 24; 25; 31:8; 2 Peter 2:15-16; Jude 1:11; and Revelations 2:14.
Balaam, the prophet, inspired and mighty as he once was, lost his soul in the end because he set his heart on the things of this world rather than the riches of eternity.
What a wealth of meaning there is in these inspired words of Joseph Smith, words addressed to people who have testimonies but want to mingle the things of this world with them: "Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world and aspire to the honors of men..." (D&C 121:34-38, 40.) ("The Story of a Prophet's Madness," New Era, Apr. 1972, 6-7)
Numbers 22:7 the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hands
"Rewards of divination"? Do prophets accept payment for obtaining the word of the Lord? This aspect of Balaam's ministry really bothered Peter who condemned him as one who had "forsaken the right way" and one who "loved the wages of unrighteousness." (2 Pet. 2:15) Obviously Balaam had previously accepted money for his prophetic services. The elders of Moab and Midian are just following a well established pattern in bringing again the "rewards of divination."
Numbers 22:13 The Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you
Here, Balaam is afraid to tell the messengers what the Lord really said. The Lord emphatically told him, "thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed." Sure, the Lord told him not to go with them, but he also told them that he was not to curse the Israelites. This important tidbit, it would seem, Balaam left out of his explanation. Already, he is too concerned with the desires of his suitors. The Prophet Joseph Smith felt the same way towards Martin Harris. To be influenced by the influential is promiscuous for a prophet.
Numbers 22:22 God's anger was kindled because he went
"A strange paradox exists in the Authorized Version. Balaam is being harassed with pleadings and lucrative bribes to curse the advancing Israelites coming into the land of Moab. King Balak sends his emissaries to further persuade Balaam. Then God instructs Balaam, 'If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them,' and then when Balaam does just that the text says, 'And God's anger was kindled because he went.' Does God vacillate? The corrected version reads, "If the men come to call thee, rise up if thou wilt, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do." (Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things [Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1985], 82)
If we stick with the Joseph Smith/Martin Harris analogy, we can perhaps see why the Lord give permission for Balaam to go, and is still unhappy with the decision. If you reject the Lord's answer long enough, sometimes permission is granted. The third time Joseph Smith inquired of the Lord to allow Martin Harris to take the 116 pages, the Lord acquiesced, but Joseph certainly incurred God's wrath when Martin lost the materials. The lesson for Joseph was that he should have been happy with the answer he first received (D&C 5:21). Balaam is learning the same lesson; he should have been satisfied with the answer he first received.
Numbers 22:28 The Lord opened the mouth of the ass
Are we supposed to believe that Balaam really had a conversation with his donkey? Really? Well, don't read the Bible if you don't like stories that are hard to believe. It is full of a bunch of impossible stories like The Flood, the dividing of the Red Sea, and a virgin who conceives. By comparison, a talking donkey is not that hard to take.
Besides, all of us have felt like we have had the same experience. The last time I went to a car dealership, the sales manager was so rude, I was sure I was talking to an ass. The whole story reminds me of a joke. There is this 85 year-old golfer who sinks a very long putt. He heard a "ribbit!" when the ball dropped. Astounded, he waddles up to the hole to get his ball. He picks up his ball and a frog is in the cup. The frog begins to talk to him saying, "I am really a beautiful princess who has been cursed. I have been turned into a frog, but if you kiss me, I will transform back into a beautiful princess. You will then be my master; I will forever do your bidding; and I will give you whatever you want." The golfer responds, "Lady, at my age I would just as soon have a talking frog."
Talking frogs or talking donkeys, take your pick.
Numbers 22:41 Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal
A true prophet of the Lord should not spend much time in "the high places of Baal." Baal is one of the most pervasive and damaging idols of the history of Israel.
"Prophets and patriarchs often communed with the Lord in high places (such as Sinai and Beth-el) and Israel had a 'high place' in Gibeon for performing sacrifices. (see 1 Kgs. 3:4.) But idolators soon made high places their sanctuaries of abominations. (See Lev. 26:30; Num. 22:41; Deut. 12:2-3.)
"The idols worshipped in these high places were, for the most part, not of the Israelites' own imagining. Israel 'followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them.' (Judg. 2:12.) The golden calf was probably erected to imitate what the Israelites had seen in Egypt (User-Hapi and Apis-Atum, for example). Baal-peor was a Midianite influence from Moab. (See Num. 25:3.)
"Chemosh was also a Moabite deity, and Molech was brought into Israel from Ammon. (See 1 Kgs. 11:7) In some cases, the children of Israel tried to practice idolatry and worship the true and living God-but, as the Lord states in the first commandment, such a practice is unacceptable to him." (David H. Madsen, "No Other Gods before Me," Ensign, Jan. 1990, 49-50)
Numbers 23:7-23 Examples of Hebrew Poetry
This section is a good example of parallelism in Hebrew poetry. These patterns can be seen in the writing of the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as well as the Book of Mormon and even the Doctrine and Covenants.
"The discovery of the Ras Shamra tablets in 1929 led to a significant refinement of our understanding of parallelism and the way in which ancient poets composed poetry... In order to compose parallel lines rapidly, the Hebrew poet would rely in part on a traditional stock of parallel words that were common to the ancient Near East. The poet could use the same word pairs over and over again as the basic building blocks of different parallel lines.
"Consider how one synonymous pair of words, 'Jacob/Israel,' is used repeatedly in the prophetic utterances of Balaam recorded in Numbers 23 and 24:
Come, curse me Jacob,
and come, defy Israel. (Num. 23:7.)
Who can count the dust of Jacob,
and the number of the fourth part of Israel? (Num. 23:10.)
He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob,
neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel. (Num. 23:21.)
Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,
neither is there any divination against Israel. (Num. 23:23.)
There shall come a Star out of Jacob,
and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel. (Num. 24:17.)
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob,
and thy tabernacles, O Israel! (Num. 24:5.)
"Here we can see how the poet used one word pair as the foundation for a number of different synonymous lines." (Kevin L. Barney, "Understanding Old Testament Poetry," Ensign, June 1990, 53-54)
Numbers 23:8 How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?
Bruce R. McConkie
What a story this is! Here is a prophet of God who is firmly committed to declare only what the Lord of heaven directs. There does not seem to be the slightest doubt in his mind about the course he should pursue. He represents the Lord, and neither a house full of gold and silver nor high honors offered by the king can sway him from his determined course, which has been charted for him by that God whom he serves.
But greed for wealth and lust for honor beckon him. How marvelous it would be to be rich and powerful-as well as having the prophetic powers that already are his.
Perhaps the Lord would let him compromise his standards and have some worldly prosperity and power as well as a testimony of the gospel. Of course he knew the gospel was true, as it were, but why should he be denied the things his political file leader could confer?
I wonder how often some of us get our direction from the Church and then, Balaam-like, plead for some worldly rewards and finally receive an answer which says, in effect, if you are determined to be a millionaire or to gain this or that worldly honor, go ahead, with the understanding that you will continue to serve the Lord. Then we wonder why things don't work out for us as well as they would have done if we had put first in our lives the things of God's kingdom.
What are the rewards of unrighteousness? Do they not include seeking for worldly things when these run counter to the interests of the Church?
And don't we all know people who, though they were once firm and steadfast in testimony, are now opposing the Lord's purposes and interests on earth because money and power have twisted their judgment of what should or should not be. (Kent P. Jackson and Robert L. Millet, eds., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 3: Genesis to 2 Samuel [Salt Lake City: Randall Book, 1985], 202)
Numbers 24:5 How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and they tabernacles, O Israel
"[Balak] could do nothing unless he received the approval of Jehovah. But Balak had invented all sorts of machinations to induce him to do it. He was willing to build altars; he was willing to bring sacrifices; he was willing to bribe that prophet, in order to accomplish his purposes against an innocent people. Balaam goes up and looks down into the valley. Instead of uttering a curse he utters a benediction. He begins with these words:
'How beautiful are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!'
"What do you think, my brethren, Balaam saw when he uttered that benediction in these words? He saw a people, to begin with, that were all united. There was no strife in sight. All of them were directed by one God. All of them looked toward God to give them direction what they should do. All of them knew that they had the laws which Moses gave them on Sinai-given by God, and not by man. He-Jehovah himself-was their lawgiver. There was no question as to whether or not these laws were proper; there was no question as to whether or not these laws were popular; they were divine, and that was sufficient. Balaam looked down, and he saw more than that. He well remembered that God said to them, 'I will make of thee a kingly priesthood, and a sanctified, a holy nation.' They were united; God was their lawgiver; and they were holy. He also knew that God gave His promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed. Balaam well remembered that this nation, now wandering through the wilderness, forsaken and a prey to every enemy, was to be the nation out of which should come the Messiah, the Redeemer of the universe, our Divine Master, Jesus Christ himself. How could he pronounce a curse upon such a people? How was it possible, where God has stamped His seal of approval upon it, where God has been the director and the very soul of that movement, that he should utter a curse? Nay, he could not do it. He tried his best; he was induced and bribed; but as he looked down into the valley he uttered the words that I have already repeated, "How beautiful are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!'" (J.M. Reiner, Collected Discourses, 5 vols. [Burbank, Calif., and Woodland Hills, Ut.: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987-1992], vol. 5, January 16th, 1898)
Numbers 24:11 the Lord hath kept thee back from honour
This temptation comes from Satan. The Lord will not keep his obedient servants back from honor, he exalteth those who humble themselves before him. Balak sounds like Satan on the Mount of Temptation, telling Christ to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple (Matt. 4:6). Certainly, with angels descending from heaven to catch him before hitting the ground, the people will see the spectacle and give him honor. But the honors of men are only a counterfeit compared to the honor God gives to those who love him. "I, the Lord... delight to honor those who serve me in righteousness and in truth unto the end" (D&C 76:5)
Numbers 24:13 I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind
The object with me is to obey and teach others to obey God in just what He tells us to do. It mattereth not whether the principle is popular or unpopular, I will always maintain a true principle, even if I stand alone in it. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 332)
I made this my rule: When the Lord commands, do it. (History of the Church, 2:170)
Numbers 24:17 there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel
"Because biblical prophecy uses the imagery of royalty, some believed that at his first coming the Messiah would save them from political bondage. Jacob foresaw that Shiloh would come, to whom people would gather (Gen. 49:10). Moses prophesied, There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel' (Num. 24:17). Isaiah envisioned a child born, and the government shall be upon his shoulder.... Of the increase of...peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom (Isa. 9:6-7). Micah recorded that from Bethlehem shall he come forth...to be ruler in Israel (Micah 5:2). Jeremiah saw that a King shall reign...and shall execute judgment and justice (Jer. 23:5). However, such royal prophecies of a king and ruler would find fulfillment in the Messiah's [Second Coming rather than his first]." (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 893)
Numbers 24:17-24 a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab
Very interesting, isn't it, that this entire interaction between Balak and Balaam is based on a false fear-that the Israelites were intent on destroying Moab? In fact, they were not (Deut. 2:8-9). Balak's paranoia about his brethren becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Through Balaam, the Lord promises trouble for Moab.
Balak was Moab's king. However, at the time, the Israelites didn't have a mortal king. Jehovah was their king; Moses was their prophet. Moses held a rod not a scepter. Yet, there would come a day when Israel would have a king. As a type for Christ, King David's scepter was wielded against his neighbors, partially fulfilling the prophecy that an Israelite king would "smite the corners of Moab," take possession of Edom, destroy Amalek, etc.
David... smote Moab, and measured them with a line, casting them down to the ground; even with two lines measured he to put to death, and with one full line to keep alive. And so the Moabites became David's servants, and brought gifts.
...king David did dedicate [alms from the spoils] unto the LORD, with the silver and gold that he had dedicated of all nations which he subdued;
Of Syria, and of Moab, and of the children of Ammon, and of the Philistines, and of Amalek, and of the spoil of Hadadezer, son of Rehob, king of Zobah.
And David gat him a name when he returned from smiting of the Syrians in the valley of salt, being eighteen thousand men.
And he put garrisons in Edom; throughout all Edom put he garrisons, and all they of Edom became David's servants... (2 Sam. 8:1-14)
(Barry J. Beitzel, ed., Biblica: The Bible Atlas, [Australia: Global Book Publishing, 2006], 235)
David's conquests cannot be taken as complete fulfillment of Balaam's prophecy. It was just the beginning. The Star and the Scepter represent the heavenly light and royal authority with which Christ will rule Israel during the Millennium. The preparations for that day include destruction upon Israel's neighbors-especially Moab.
Most Old Testament prophecies come from prophets who lived long after King David's reign. Centuries later, the theme-Moab's destruction-is still a recurrent theme. Isaiah prophesied a burden upon Moab (Isa. 15 & 16). Jeremiah elaborated both their sins and judgments (Jer. 48:1-47). Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, and Zephaniah all prophesied about Moab (Ezek. 25:8-11; Daniel 11:41; Amos 2:1-3; Zeph. 2: 8-11).
And in mercy shall the throne be established: and he shall sit upon it in truth in the tabernacle of David, judging, and seeking judgment, and hasting righteousness...
We have heard of the pride of Moab; he is very proud: even of his haughtiness, and his pride, and his wrath: but his lies shall not be so.
Therefore shall Moab howl for Moab, every one shall howl: for the foundations of Kir-hareseth shall ye mourn; surely they are stricken. (Isa. 16:5-7)
Balaam... foretold what calamities would befall the several kings of the nations, and the most eminent cities, some of which of old were not so much as inhabited; which events have come to pass among the several people concerned, both in the foregoing ages, and in this (generation after Jesus Christ), till my own memory, both by sea and by land. From which completion of all these predictions that he made, one may easily guess that the rest will have their completion in time to come. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, 6:5)