Balaam’s Third Oracle (cont’d), 1-14

Num 24:1 Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not resort to sorcery as at other times, but turned his face toward the desert. 2 When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him 3 and he uttered his oracle:

“The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,
the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly,
Num 24:4 the oracle of one who hears the words of God,
who sees a vision from the Almighty,
who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened:

Num 24:5 “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob,
your dwelling places, O Israel!

Num 24:6 “Like valleys they spread out,
like gardens beside a river,
like aloes planted by the LORD,
like cedars beside the waters.
Num 24:7 Water will flow from their buckets;
their seed will have abundant water.

“Their king will be greater than Agag;
their kingdom will be exalted.

Num 24:8 “God brought them out of Egypt;
they have the strength of a wild ox.
They devour hostile nations
and break their bones in pieces;
with their arrows they pierce them.
Num 24:9 Like a lion they crouch and lie down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse them?

“May those who bless you be blessed
and those who curse you be cursed!”

Num 24:10 Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times. 11 Now leave at once and go home! I said I would reward you handsomely, but the LORD has kept you from being rewarded.”
Num 24:12 Balaam answered Balak, “Did I not tell the messengers you sent me, 13 ‘Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the LORD—and I must say only what the LORD says’? 14 Now I am going back to my people, but come, let me warn you of what this people will do to your people in days to come.”

Balaam’s Fourth Oracle, 15-19

Num 24:15 Then he uttered his oracle:

“The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,
the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly,
Num 24:16 the oracle of one who hears the words of God,
who has knowledge from the Most High,
who sees a vision from the Almighty,
who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened:

Num 24:17 “I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel.
He will crush the foreheads of Moab,
the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.
Num 24:18 Edom will be conquered;
Seir, his enemy, will be conquered,
but Israel will grow strong.
Num 24:19 A ruler will come out of Jacob
and destroy the survivors of the city.”

A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel – This was widely regarded, around the time of Jesus’ birth, as a Messianic prophecy.  It may well be appropriate to link it to the star of Bethlehem, which was probably a bright comet, with its tail representing a sceptre.  See the notes on Mt 2 and Rev 12.

Both ‘star and ‘scepter’ frequently symbolised rulers (Gen 49:10; Psa 45:6; Isa 14:12).  Nicholl (The Great Christ Comet) says that the Babylonian Talmud specifically refers to a comet as a ‘scepter star’.  Indeed, a number of scholars, and also the NEB, REB and GNB render the word here translated ‘scepter’ as ‘comet’.  There is, therefore, a double meaning in Balaam’s words: they are both literal (referring to a comet) and metaphorical (referring to a ruler).

Was David the scepter-star?  2 Sam 8 shows that he conquered Moab and Edom.  But this did not lead to a permanent subservience.  Moreover, the is no hint the Scripture that David’s birth was attended by any unusual astronomical phenomena.

Mt 2:2 probably contains an allusion to this verse.  2 Pet 1:19 and Rev 22:16 also appear to allude this verse and apply it to Jesus as Messiah.  But the strongest link is with Rev 12:5, a passage clearly about the birth of Christ, and which represents the comet at it rising as a shining scepter.

Early Christian teaching linked this verse not only generally with the birth of Christ, but also more specifically with the magi and the star of Bethlehem:-

Eusebius linked this verse with the magi: ‘We are told that Balaam’s successors moved by this [the star of Bethlehem] (for the prediction was preserved most likely among them) [the Gentiles] when they noticed in the heavens a strange star besides the usual ones, fixed above the head, so to say, and vertically above Judea, hastened to arrive at Palestine, to inquire about the king announced by the star’s appearance.’

Chryostom maintained that Balaam prophesied the coming of the Messiah: ‘Listen to the Evangelist’s words about Caiaphas, the high priest of the Jews: “He did not give this as a personal opinion, but in his capacity of high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was destined to die, not for the person alone but to bring together into one also the nations that had been scattered.” You will find something like it occurring again in the story of Balaam also: When urged to curse the people, he not merely did not curse them but even prophesied great and wonderful things, not merely about the people but also about the coming of the Savior.’

Leo the Great linked this prophecy with the wise men following the star: ‘Although it was a gift of divine favor that the birth of the Savior should become recognizable to the nations, nevertheless, to understand the wonder of the sign, the wise men were also able to be reminded through the ancient pronouncements of Balaam, for they knew that it had at one time been spread abroad in a famous and memorable prediction: “A star will appear out of Jacob, and a man will rise up from Israel. He will rule over the nations.” So the three men, stirred by God through the shining of this unusual star, follow the course of its gleaming light ahead of them, thinking that they would find the indicated child in the royal city of Jerusalem.

When this conjecture had failed them, however, they learned from scribes and teachers of the Jews what the sacred Scriptures had told about the birth of Christ. Encouraged by the double evidence, they sought him out with an even more ardent faith, the one to whom both the brightness of the star and the authority of prophets pointed.’

Caesarius of Arles thought that the magi had copies of Balaam’s prophecies: ‘If God’s prophecies were inserted in the sacred books by Moses, how much more so were they copied by men who then lived in Mesopotamia, for they considered Balaam splendid and certainly were   p 249  disciples of his art! After his time the profession and instruction of the seers is said to have flourished in parts of the Orient. Possessing copies of everything which Balaam prophesied, they even have it written: “A star shall advance from Jacob, and a man shall rise from Israel.” The magi kept these writings more among themselves, and so when Jesus was born they recognized the star and understood that the prophecy was fulfilled more than did the people of Israel who disdained to hear the words of the holy prophets. Therefore, only from the writings which Balaam had left, they learned that the time was approaching, came and immediately sought to adore him. Moreover, in order to show their great faith, they honored the little boy as a king.’

(The above quotations from ACCS)

Balaam’s Final Oracles, 20-25

Num 24:20 Then Balaam saw Amalek and uttered his oracle:

“Amalek was first among the nations,
but he will come to ruin at last.”

Num 24:21 Then he saw the Kenites and uttered his oracle:

“Your dwelling place is secure,
your nest is set in a rock;
Num 24:22 yet you Kenites will be destroyed
when Asshur takes you captive.”

Num 24:23 Then he uttered his oracle:

“Ah, who can live when God does this?
Num 24:24 Ships will come from the shores of Kittim;
they will subdue Asshur and Eber,
but they too will come to ruin.”

Num 24:25 Then Balaam got up and returned home and Balak went his own way.