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Balaam's Prophecies (Numbers 22:41-23:26)

Balak and Balaam look down on the children of Israel from a high vantage point, a "high place" for the worship of Baal (verses 38-41), a location supposedly imbued with spiritual power. At Balaam's request, Balak builds seven new altars in this high place just for Balaam to sacrifice upon. Balaam sacrifices seven bulls and seven rams. False religion often counterfeits elements of true worship but in a superstitious way, its practitioners wrongly believing that God is primarily interested in rituals. Yet God is preparing a people who will one day be His children ruling in His Kingdom. Rituals such as animal sacrifices are not what He is really after—rather, the purpose behind them is what is important. For instance, animal sacrifices teach obedience and look to the need for the sacrifice of Christ. In many places in the Scriptures, we see this plainly stated: "Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them" (Hebrews 10:8; compare Matthew 12:17; Hosea 6:6; Psalm 40:6; 51:16). There is, of course, no power in rituals or locations themselves—a fact that was lost on the ancient Baal worshipers.

Balaam, supposedly the greatest prophet of the time drawing from the "power" of Baal's high place, is still unable to curse Israel (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, chap. 6, sec. 2). Balaam cannot curse the children of Israel because the true God will not allow it. In fact, whenever Balaam prophesies, God has him pronounce blessing after blessing on Israel. Incidentally, seven prophecies of Balaam are recorded in all, each introduced with the words "he took up his oracle and said" (23:7, 18; 24:3, 15, 20, 21, 23). The blessings for Israel are so sublime that Balaam ends up uttering a prayer after the first one: "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his!" (23:10). Balak is flabbergasted: "You didn't curse them, you blessed them!" (compare verse 11). The petition of Balaam, however, who is still bent on Israel's destruction, will not be granted.

Balak, undeterred, tries again. He takes Balaam to the top of Pisgah in the field of Zophim, as if going to another place will have some influence on God. They go through the seven-altar ritual again, and the result is the same (verses 14-16). This time Balaam explains to Balak that God is not like a human being who changes his mind in a fickle manner and whose word is not good (verse 19; compare Malachi 3:6). He goes on to proclaim how God viewed His people: "He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel" (Numbers 23:21). Yet with all that the children of Israel have done, how can this be true? It may be that God was comparing Israel to the pagan nations around them, since Israel was not yet involved in human sacrifice and the like. But perhaps more likely is the fact that God's forgiveness and His plan are perfect. God prophesies of Israel, "For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). And "God calls those things which be not as though they were" (Romans 4:17, King James Version)—which in this case would mean He sees Israel's redemption as essentially a "done deal" because He is able to bring it to pass.

Balaam is forced to admit that none of their "hocus-pocus" can work against the children of Israel (Numbers 23:23). And Balak realizes he has gotten in deeper than he wanted: "If you can't curse them, at least don't bless them," he pleads (compare verse 25). By this, he might even have been saying, "I'll pay you to just keep your mouth shut!" Nevertheless, he is prepared to simply try a better location.

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