Balaam and Balak


A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

The utterance of him who hears the words of God, And has the knowledge of the Most High, Who sees the vision of the Almighty, Who falls down, with eyes wide open: {17} “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel, And batter the brow of Moab, And destroy all the sons of tumult. (NUM 24:16-17)

  1. Sometime around 1300 BC in the land of Moab (the desert land to the east of the Dead Sea) a typical city would have a defensive wall, contain a few hundred mud-brick houses, and have a population of less than a thousand people. The man who was the leader of that city would be called a king. If a number of such cities formed some kind of mutual defense alliance, the kings of the cities would select one king to be the king of the region.
    1. Balak, the king of Moab, was such a king. We don’t know for certain how many cities he ruled, but the region is rugged and doesn’t support life easily. A reasonable guess is that he might have been able to field an army of a couple of thousand men, most of whom were simple peasants with farm implements as weapons.
    2. We also don’t know exactly how many children of Israel there were in 1300 BC, but we can be pretty sure that the trained soldiers led by Moses and Joshua outnumbered the army of Moab by at least a hundred to one.
      1. And perhaps even worse, from the point of view of the king of Moab, a mob of that size crossing over his land would be as devastating as a plague of locusts – there would be nothing left for his people to eat.
    3. The king of Moab knew that there was no way that he was going to be able to keep this mass of humanity off his land by force, so he decided to try a different course. The king of Moab sent messengers to Pethor in Mesopotamia, hundreds of miles to the northeast, to hire Balaam to come and curse the children of Israel.
    4. Why Balaam? Because he was famous for his abilities as a soothsayer.
      1. Being a “soothsayer” seems to be a bad thing, based on the various passages in the Word that condemn it, but on the surface it is hard to see why. The dictionary definition of a “soothsayer” is someone predicts the future, either by falling into a trance, or by using some kind of device such as casting bones, or examining the entrails of a sacrificial animal.
        1. On the one hand the Word condemns them like witches and people who speak with the dead, and yet on the other hand we know that Jacob’s son Joseph was also a “diviner” or “soothsayer”. He had a special cup that he would fill with wine and by staring into the cup he got some sense of the course of future events. His skill with this was famous, as was the cup itself. This is the cup that was put in Benjamin’s sack, because it would be instantly known to anyone in Egypt as Joseph’s. There is no record in scripture, or reference in the Writings that condemns Joseph for being a “diviner” or “soothsayer.”
        2. Since their are people in the Word, like Joseph, who were permitted to “divine” the future without condemnation, while there are others, like Balaam, who are condemned for the same thing, there must be something more to it than the simple act of trying to foretell the future – especially since one of the primary characteristics of the Word is the amount of prophecy that it contains. It seems likely that the answer lies in the intent behind it.
        3. There are today people who claim to have the power to tell the future by “casting the bones” or reading Tarot cards, or perhaps reading palms. Certainly, not all these people are pure at heart. It does happen from time to time that one of these people will say that the bones have told them that one of their neighbors is the cause of all the recent problems in the community. That individual is driven out and his goods are divided up among those who remain, and the “soothsayer” that saved the community by ridding it of that dangerous element will get a generous part of the reward.
        4. On the other hand, a person like Joseph might have used his cup to allow him to clear his mind of daily concerns so that he could be more open to the Lord’s guidance. In the same way, the High Priest, looking at the lights in the Urim and the Thummim on his breastplate, understood that he was being given instructions from God.
        5. The intent is the key. Those who used devices to help themselves get into a state where they could receive instruction from the Lord were never condemned, while those who used their powers to harm the innocent so that others could profit were condemned.
        6. Balaam is clearly one of the latter because he sought to harm the children of Israel for the sake of the money promised to him by Balak.
  2. Balaam sent the first delegation from the king back to Moab because Jehovah had spoken with him, and told him not to go to Moab because the people were under His special protection.
    1. Moab send more princes and more money to try to tempt Balaam to come. He at first seems obedient, but Jehovah speaks to him again, and permits him to go to Moab provided that he says only those things that Jehovah puts into his mouth.
      1. Again we ask why? It seems that Jehovah has changed His mind. Perhaps what is really happening is that God sees into his heart and knows that he really intends to go anyhow, and so He is going to allow him to act in freedom, but turn it to good.
        1. NUM 22:20 says, “If the men come to call you, rise and go with them.”
        2. NUM 22:22 says, “Then God’s anger was aroused because he went.”
        3. It seems, from the letter, that God gives him permission to go, and then immediately becomes angry when he goes!
          1. On a human level, we could see this as the kind of thing that happens to parents when they try to treat their children as adults. We say, “You’re old enough to decide for yourself whether or not to come to church” – expecting one response, and getting angry when the child does not freely choose what we want him to do.
          2. Balaam really wanted to do this, so he was permitted to go ahead, but not until there was some way that some good could come of it. And, because it was wrong, he was punished by the sword after the fact.
    2. Jehovah’s anger was such that He sent the Angel of Jehovah to stand in the way as an adversary to Balaam.
      1. The problem was that Balaam’s mind was so much on the curses that he was going to cast upon the children of Israel that he was unaware that the angel was standing there with a sword in his hand.
        1. In one of the more amusing passages of the Old Testament, we read how three times the angel appears and Balaam doesn’t notice, but the donkey he’s riding on does. When he thoughtlessly begins to beat the animal for saving his life, it gives him a lecture! Balaam, the great wise man from Syria, clearly comes out second best in his contest with the donkey.
      2. The angel of Jehovah threatened him with a sword because the angel of Jehovah with a drawn sword who stood in the path against Balaam meant the truth which stood in the way of the falsity which possessed Balaam. For that reason also he was slain with a sword.1
        1. This last part of the quote refers to the fact that when the children of Israel meet Balaam again some time later, he is among those in the city who are killed by the sword.
      3. That “Balaam” also means those who love to destroy by craft those who are of the church is evident also from what has been shown above; moreover, when he rode upon the ass, he continually thought upon the use of enchantments for destroying the sons of Israel; and when he was not able to do this by curses, he counseled Balak to destroy them by calling them to the sacrifices of his gods, and by their committing whoredom with the daughters of Moab. By the “sons of Israel,” whom he wished to destroy, is signified the church, because the church was instituted among them 2
  3. Balaam’s Oracles
    1. Twice Balaam tried to use sorcery to curse the children of Israel; twice the Lord caused a blessing to come out of his mouth instead. Balaam seems to recognize that it isn’t going the way he planned, and he begins to try to cooperate with Jehovah.
      1. Now when Balaam saw that it pleased Jehovah to bless Israel, he did not go as at other times, to seek to use sorcery, but he set his face toward the wilderness. (NUM 24:1)
    2. We should think of Balaam and Balak (with various princes and assistants) up on top of a hill or small mountain, looking out over a valley filled with a hundred thousand campfires.
      1. The tabernacle is set up in the middle, and all the people are gathered around in order, by tribes.
    3. Since the Israelitish people represented the Lord’s kingdom in heaven and so the heavenly order existing there, the command was also given for them to be singled out according to tribes, according to families, and according to the houses of their fathers. In addition to this they were required to pitch camp around the tent of meeting in conformity with that heavenly order, and also to journey in conformity with it, as stated in Moses, Each one of the children of Israel shall pitch camp beneath his own standard, by the ensigns of his father’s house, at a distance around the tent of meeting. And in the same formations they also set out. Num. 2:2, 34. This was why, when Balaam saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes, the Spirit of God came upon him and he delivered this utterance…3
    4. {2} And Balaam raised his eyes, and saw Israel encamped according to their tribes; and the Spirit of God came upon him. {3} Then he took up his oracle and said: “The utterance of Balaam the son of Beor, The utterance of the man whose eyes are opened, {4} The utterance of him who hears the words of God, Who sees the vision of the Almighty, Who falls down, with eyes wide open: {5} “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob! Your dwellings, O Israel! {6} Like valleys that stretch out, Like gardens by the riverside, Like aloes planted by the LORD, Like cedars beside the waters. {7} He shall pour water from his buckets, And his seed shall be in many waters. “His king shall be higher than Agag, And his kingdom shall be exalted. {8} “God brings him out of Egypt; He has strength like a wild ox; He shall consume the nations, his enemies; He shall break their bones And pierce them with his arrows. {9} ‘He bows down, he lies down as a lion; And as a lion, who shall rouse him?’ “Blessed is he who blesses you, And cursed is he who curses you.” (NUM 24:2-9)
  4. So, in conclusion, what have we learned about Balaam?
    1. He represents people who are knowledgeable about the doctrines of the church, but use their knowledge to deceive and mislead.
    2. We have also seen that the device such people use to deceive and mislead is the desire to know the future.
    3. We have also seen that the Lord is able to allow such people to make these choices only when it can be turned to good.
      1. In the attempt to curse and bring the children of Israel to an end, Balaam instead speaks the promise that the Lord Himself will come to earth to save us all. So he took up his oracle and said: “The utterance of Balaam the son of Beor, And the utterance of the man whose eyes are opened; {16} The utterance of him who hears the words of God, And has the knowledge of the Most High, Who sees the vision of the Almighty, Who falls down, with eyes wide open: {17} “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel, And batter the brow of Moab, And destroy all the sons of tumult. (NUM 24:15-17) Amen.


1st Lesson: NUM 22:1-21

Then the children of Israel moved, and camped in the plains of Moab on the side of the Jordan across from Jericho. {2} Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. {3} And Moab was exceedingly afraid of the people because they were many, and Moab was sick with dread because of the children of Israel. {4} So Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this company will lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time. {5} Then he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying: “Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! {6} “Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of 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 diviner’s fee in their hand, and they came to Balaam and spoke to him the words of Balak. {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} Then God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” {10} So Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, {11} ‘Look, a people has come out of Egypt, and they cover the face of the earth. Come now, curse them for me; perhaps I shall be able to overpower them and drive them out.'” {12} And 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 back to your land, for the LORD has refused to give me permission to go with you.” {14} And the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak, and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.” {15} Then Balak again sent princes, more numerous and more honorable than they. {16} And they came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor: ‘Please let nothing hinder you from coming to me; {17} ‘for I will certainly honor you greatly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Therefore please come, curse this people for me.'” {18} Then 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 word of the LORD my God, to do less or more. {19} “Now therefore, please, you also 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 come to call you, rise and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you; that you shall do.” {21} So Balaam rose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab. Amen.

2nd Lesson: AC 1343; AE 140

…Balaam, who came from Syria where Eber had lived, that is, where the Hebrew nation had originated, before Jacob’s descendants entered the land of Canaan, not only offered sacrifices but also called his God Jehovah.

…Balaam was a soothsayer from Pethor of Mesopotamia, and was therefore called by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelitish people; but this Jehovah prevented, and granted him to speak prophetically, yet he afterwards counseled with Balak how to destroy that people by craft, by leading them away from the worship of Jehovah to the worship of Baal-peor. Here, therefore, by “Balaam” those are meant who have been illuminated in respect to the understanding, and who teach truths, and yet love to destroy by craft those who are of the church. Amen.


1 AC 2799:20

2 AE 140:3

3 AC 3703:18

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