Moab seeks sage to curse Israelites
- 1 Israelites made camp near the Jordan River on the Moab plains. The city of Jericho was across the river.
- 2 Moab’s king saw what the Israelites did to the Amorites. The king was Balak, son of Zippor.
- 3 The Israelite’s sheer numbers terrified the people of Moab. They feared for their lives.
- 4 The king called in some elders from Midian.1 He told them, “A crowd of refugees this massive will lick our land cleaner than livestock on the loose.”
- 5 So he sent messengers on a long trip to a man who lived near the Euphrates River. The man was Balaam, son of Beor.2 He lived with his family in the city of Pethor.3 The king’s message read:
“This is urgent. We’re getting hit by a huge wave of refugees from Egypt. They’re camped near me, overcrowding the land.
Please come down and put a hex4 on these people. They’re too strong for me. But if you put a hex on them, maybe then I can finish the job by defeating them and driving them out of here. I know there’s power in your words. People you bless are blessed. And people you curse are cursed.”
- 7 Balaam’s messengers were leaders from both Moab and Midian. They carried with them not only the king’s message, but also advance payment for Balaam’s fee. The men gave Balaam the king’s message.
- 8 Balaam said, “Spend the night here. I’ll let you know in the morning what the LORD tells me to do.”
- 9 God came to Balaam that night5 and said, “Who are the men visiting you tonight?”
- 10 Balaam told God, “Moab’s king, Balak, the son of Zippor, sent me this message:
- 11 “This is urgent. We’re getting hit by a huge wave of refugees from Egypt. They’re camped near me, overcrowding the land. Please come down and put a hex on these people. They’re too strong for me. But if you put a hex on them, maybe then I can finish the job by defeating them and driving them out of here.”
- 12 God told Balaam, “No, don’t go with them. I don’t want you to put a curse on those people. Those people are blessed.”
- 13 The next morning Balaam told Balak’s messengers, “Go back to your homes. The LORD told me I can’t go with you.”
- 14 So the men traveled back to Moab. They told Balak, “He said no. Balaam wouldn’t come with us.”
- 15 So Balak tried again. He sent more messengers than before—and more distinguished than before.
- 16 The men told Balaam, “Here’s what Balak the son of Zippor says: ‘I’m begging you, don’t let anything keep you from coming to my rescue.
- 17 I’ll pay you well. And I’ll do anything to make this happen. Please, come and put a hex on these people.’”
- 18 Balaam told the messengers, “I can’t do that. Not even if the king gave me all the gold and silver in his house. I can’t go against what the LORD my God tells me to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s something big or little.
- 19 But stay here tonight. I’ll see what the LORD tells me.”
- 20 God came to Balaam that night. God said, “If these men want you to go with them, then get going. But when you get where you’re going, do only what I tell you.”
- 21 Next morning, Balaam saddled his donkey and started the trip. He traveled with the messengers and headed toward Moab.
- 22 God got upset about the trip.6 So, the LORD’s angel7 set up a roadblock. He stood right there in the middle of the road. Balaam was riding his donkey and traveling with two of his servants.
- 23 The donkey saw the LORD’s angel standing there with a sword in his hand. So, the donkey walked off the road and onto a field. Balaam hit the donkey to direct it back onto the road.
- 24 The LORD’s angel then moved to a narrow part of the trail, between a vineyard and a stone wall.
- 25 When the donkey saw the LORD’s angel standing in the way again, the donkey got around him by scraping against the stone wall. That pushed Balaam’s foot against the wall, too. So, Balaam hit the donkey again.
- 26 The LORD’s angel took a new position in the path so narrow that the donkey couldn’t go around him to the right or the left.
- 27 When the donkey saw that, she lay down with Balaam still sitting on top of her. Balaam got so mad that he hit the donkey with his walking stick.
- 28 The LORD gave the donkey the ability to talk. The donkey told Balaam, “What did I do? Why did you hit me three times?
- 29 Balaam said, “I’m sitting here on a donkey laying on the ground. You make me look like a jackass. If I had a sword instead of walking stick, you’d be dead.”
- 30 The donkey said, “I’m the donkey you’ve ridden all your life. Have I ever done anything like this before?” Balaam said, “Well, no.”
- 31 The LORD allowed Balaam to see the LORD’s angel standing there with a sword in his hand. Balaam bowed to the ground.
- 32 The LORD’s angel said, “Why’d you hit that poor donkey three times? Look, I’ve come here to stop you because I don’t want you doing this.
- 33 But your donkey saw me all three times and turned to avoid me. If she hadn’t, I would have killed you and let her live.”
- 34 So Balaam told the LORD’s angel, “I’m sorry. Clearly, I did something wrong. I didn’t realize you were trying to stop me. Since you don’t want me going, I’ll go back home now.”
- 35 But the LORD’s angel said, “Wait a minute. Instead, go on ahead with these men. But when it comes time for you to talk, I want you to say only what I tell you.” So, Balaam went with the messengers to King Balak.
- 36 When Balak heard Balaam was approaching, he went out in the city to greet him. This city was in Moab, on the Arnon River, at the border.
- 37 Balak complained to Balaam, “Didn’t I tell you the first time that I had an urgent problem and needed your immediate help? Did you think I wouldn’t pay you enough?”
- 38 Balaam said, “Well, I’m here now. But I won’t be able to say whatever I want. I’ll have to say what God tells me to say.”
- 39 Balaam traveled with Balak to Kiriath-huzoth.8
- 40 Balak sacrificed cattle and sheep, and then he sent some of the meat to Balaam and the Moabite leaders accompanying him.
- 41 The next morning Balak took Balaam to one of the hilltops where people came to worship Baal.10 From that vantage point, they could see part of the sprawling camp of the Israelites.
Midian was a nation along the northeast bank of the Red Sea, in what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia. The king may have called in these people because of connections he had with them or their southland nation. Maybe he wanted to join forces against the Israelites. But some scholars today suggest someone edited in the name, to connect this part of the story to Balaam’s link with Midian. Balaam later reportedly died with Midianites in a battle against the Israelites (Numbers 31:6).
Balaam’s name showed up on an ancient inscription found in what is now Jordan’s city of Deir Alla. The inscription is a fragment of a collection of visions by “a divine seer” called “Balaam, son of Beor”—just as the Bible writers identified him. The Deir Alla Inscription said, “the gods came to him at night.” The inscription, painted in ink on a plastered wall, dates to roughly 800 BC, several centuries after Balaam and Moses.
Many scholars say Pethor was likely an ancient city also called Pitru, a name that shows up in Egyptian and Assyrian documents. Pitru is less than a mile from the Euphrates River, about a kilometer. It was also about 400 miles (about 640 km) north of Moab’s capital city of Dibon. At 20 miles (32 km) a day, that’s a 40-day roundtrip.
More literally, a “curse.” In Bible times, kings getting ready to go into battle would call on wise men and “diviners” thought to have connection with the gods to put the jinx on the enemy. That involved saying words that were said to have had the supernatural power to come to life. A curse would read like a poem or a prayer condemning the enemy to defeat. Once spoken, words in a curse like that or in a blessing could not be taken back. The power of the words to change the future had been released. The curse was more than a wish or a prayer. It was apparently seen by many as the inevitable future.
God often came to prophets in what was sometimes called “visions of the night.” When he chewed out Miriam and Aaron for criticizing their brother Moses, God said, “I talk to prophets through visions and dreams” (Numbers 12:9).
Okay, God just flipped, it seems. He changed his mind overnight. Possibly, something happened to bother him. But some scholars say this is a different version of the story, from a different source. Stories were handed down by word of mouth for generations before anyone wrote them down. Some stories apparently got tweaked a tad and sometimes turned in a different direction. That’s the theory.
The Hebrew word for “angel” is malak. It can mean “messenger,” celestial or human. That could make it an angel or a neighbor. But some scholars say it can also refer to God himself. And this angel, in particular, sounds like God. For example, he says he came to stop Balaam because he didn’t want Balaam going on this trip (verse 32). He didn’t say it was because God didn’t want him to go. Some also suggest the phrase can refer to Jesus, in this case, more than 1,000 years before he took human form.
Location unknown. This is the only time this shows up in the Bible. The name means “city of streets.”
In Hebrew, the place is called Bamoth-baal. Bamoth means “high places” or “hills.” People often used hilltops as places to put shrines where they could worship gods such as Baal. Baal was a god of fertility in family, fields, and flocks. Canaanites, who were native to what is now Israel and Palestinian land, worshiped Baal. Joshua led the Jews in killing many Canaanites while the Jews reclaimed the land that the Bible says God promised to the descendants of Abraham. But Jews continued to worship Baal and other Middle Eastern gods off and on throughout Old Testament times.