Balak Sends for Balaam (Numbers 22:1-40)
In chapter 22 we meet some very strong personalities. The first is Balak, king of the Moabites, whose name means "Empty." Next is Balaam, a soothsayer (see Joshua 13:22) from Pethor, a city on the Euphrates in Mesopotamia (compare Deuteronomy 23:4). His name means "Destroyer of the People," and Balak hires him in an attempt to destroy the Israelites. Israel's armies had not confronted Moab as of yet, but Balak, aware of what had happened to his enemy Sihon, was terrified that he and his kingdom were next. The irony of all that follows is that Israel had no fight with Moab. They only wanted passage to the Promised Land. In fact, God had told the Israelites not to attack Moab (Deuteronomy 2:1-9). But Balak either didn't know this or didn't believe it. So he consulted with "the elders of Midian" with whom he may have had alliances. (Though Moses did have Midianite associations through dwelling with his wife's family for 40 years, it is likely that they were far removed from the clans these leaders representedthe Midianites being a widespread, nomadic people.) Yet Balak probably realized that a military campaign alone was not going to stop the Israelites and the supernatural power behind them. Rather, he needed to employ spiritual warfareand thus the call for Balaam. The Nelson Study Bible explains:
"The Moabites believed that blessings and cursings from the gods could be manipulated by skilled agents, who presumed to be able to traffic with the gods. At the time, the most famous of these agents was Balaam of Mesopotamia. In 1967, a discovery was made in Jordan of an eighth-century b.c. inscription of prophecies of Balaam. This discovery in what was ancient Moab is stunning evidence of the renown of this prophet even hundreds of years after his death. Yet the Balaam of Scripture is thoroughly reprehensible. In Scripture he becomes a paradigm of evil, a nearly satanic figure (see 31:8; Deut. 23:4, 5; Josh. 13:22; 24:9, 10; Neh. 13:2; Mic. 6:5; 2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11; Rev. 2:14). Balaam was a prophet who specialized in animal divination. He would inspect the liver of a ritually slain animal to ascertain from its shapes and markings the will of the gods. Such prophets also observed the movements of animals and birds in order to ascertain certain signs from the gods. It was thought that such prophets could in some mysterious manner influence the gods by various rites. If Balaam could influence the 'god' of Israel (as Balak supposed), then he might reverse their blessing, bring them under a curse, and destroy them.... In v. 8, Balaam speaks of the Lord as though he were intimate with him. Because he was an internationally known soothsayer, it's likely that he had heard enough about Israel from emissaries of Moab and Midian to have learned the name of the God of Israel. Indeed, the story of God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt would have been widely known throughout the Middle East (see Deut. 2:25)" (notes on 22:5-8).
When the Moabite and Midianite leaders arrive with payment for Balaam, God informs Balaam, evidently in a night vision, that the Israelites are protected and that he is not to go with these men (Numbers 22:12). It is not that Balaam doesn't want to go beyond what God sayshe does. But he knows that he can't. When a larger entourage appears with a "blank check" from Balak, we learn a little about Balaam's sincerity in following God. Motivated by greed, rather than accepting the pronouncement God has already made, he goes to get a "new" word from Him. And God does give Balaam permission to go, with the restriction that he wait to be called upon by the princes and that he do only what God says.
Yet Balaam apparently doesn't wait on the princes, but heads out on his own to join them, contrary to God's specific instructions, thus angering God. Then we have the colorful reversal of roles in Balaam's arguing with the dumb donkey and the donkey using logic with him! (verses 22-31). Moreover, the donkey could see the angel with the drawn sword while Balaam could not. This was all rather ironic. "Balaam was supposed to have been able to communicate with the gods through animals. However, in this situation, the 'seer' was blind to the presence of the true God. It was the animal who was the seer, perceiving the true will of God in the Angel that blocked the path" (note on 22:22-30). Balaam's insincere conversation with the angel shows the desires of his heart are not to please God.
When Balaam comes to Balak, he explains that he can only say what God will allow, though with all his heart he would love to get around God and curse Israel.
Supplementary Reading: "Archaeology and the Book of Exodus: Exit From Egypt," The Good News, May-June 1997, pp. 22-24.