Numbers 23


Being arrived at the high places of Baal, (Nu 22:41,)

Balaam orders Balak to build seven altars, and prepare oxen and

rams for sacrifice, 1, 2.

Balaam inquires of the Lord, receives an answer, with which he

returns to Balak, 3-10.

Balak, finding that this was a prediction of the prosperity of

the Israelites, is greatly troubled, 11.

Balaam excuses himself, 12.

He brings him to another place, where he might see only a part of

Israel, and repeats his sacrifices, 13, 14.

Balaam again consults the Lord, 15-17.

Returns with his answer, and again predicts the glory of Israel,


Balak is angry, 25;

and Balaam again excuses himself. Balak proposes another trial,

takes him to another place, and repeats the same sacrifices,



Verse 1. Build me here seven altars, &c.] The oxen and the

rams were such as the Mosaic law had ordered to be offered to God

in sacrifice; the building of seven altars was not commanded.

Some think that these seven altars were built to the seven

planets: this is most gratuitously said; of it there is no proof

whatever; it is mere trifling, even with conjecture. As seven was

a number of perfection, Balaam chose it on this occasion, because

he intended to offer a grand sacrifice, and to offer a bullock and

a ram upon each of the altars; the whole to be made a

burnt-offering at the same time. And as he intended to offer

seven bullocks and seven rams at the same time, it could not be

conveniently done on one altar, therefore he ordered seven to be

built. We need go no farther to find out his reasons.

Verse 3. Stand by thy burnt-offering] We have already seen

that blessing and cursing in this way were considered as religious

rites, and therefore must be always preceded by sacrifice. See

this exemplified in the case of Isaac, before he blessed Jacob and

Esau, Ge 27:19, 28, 29, 33-40, and the notes there. The venison

that was brought to Isaac, of which he did eat, was properly the

preparatory sacrifice.

Verse 7. And he took up his parable] meshalo, see on

Nu 21:27. All these oracular speeches of Balaam are in

hemistich metre in the original. They are highly dignified, and

may be considered as immediate poetic productions of the Spirit of

God; for it is expressly said, Nu 23:5,

that God put the word in Balaam's mouth, and that the Spirit of God

came upon him, Nu 24:2.

Verse 8. How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?] It was

granted on all hands that no incantations nor imprecations could

avail, unless God concurred and ratified them. From God's

communication to Balaam he saw that God was determined to bless

and defend Israel, and therefore all endeavours to injure them

must be in vain.

Verse 9. From the top of the rocks I see him] That is, from

the high places of Baal where he went, Nu 22:41, that he

might the more advantageously see the whole camp of Israel.

The people shall dwell alone] They shall ever be preserved as a

distinct nation. This prophecy has been literally fulfilled

through a period of 3300 years to the present day. This is truly


Verse 10. Let me die the death of the righteous] Probably

Balaam had some presentiment that he should be taken off by a

premature death, and therefore he lodges this petition against it.

The death of the righteous in those times implied being gathered

to one's fathers in a good old age, having seen his children, and

children's children; and to this, probably, the latter part of

this petition applies: And let my last end be like his, (

uthehi acharithi chamohu, And let my POSTERITY be

like his.) It has been generally supposed that Balaam is here

praying for a happy death, such as true Christians die who die in

the Lord; and in this way his words are generally applied; but I

am satisfied this is not their meaning. The prayer, however,

understood in the common way, is a good one, and may be offered to

God profitably. A righteous man is one who is saved from his

sins, who is justified and sanctified through the blood of the

covenant, and who lives, not only an innocent, but also a holy and

useful life. He who would die well should live well; for a bad

death must be the issue of a bad life.

Verse 13. Thou shalt see but the utmost part of them] Balak

thought that the sight of such an immense camp had intimidated

Balaam, and this he might gather from what he said in the tenth

verse: Who can count the dust of Jacob, &c.; he thought therefore

that he might get Balaam to curse them in detached parties, till

the whole camp should be devoted to destruction by successive


Verse 17. What hath the Lord spoken?] Balak himself now

understood that Balaam was wholly under the influence of Jehovah,

and would say nothing but what God commanded him; but not knowing

Jehovah as Balaam did, he hoped that he might be induced to change

his mind, and curse a people whom he had hitherto determined to


Verse 19. God is not a man, that he should lie] This seems to

be spoken to correct the foregoing supposition of Balak that God

could change his mind. Even the heathen would not allow that

their supreme god could be caught in a falsity. Hence AESCHYLUS,

in Prometh. vinct. 1068:-



"The mouth of Jove knows not to frame a lie;

But every word finds full accomplishment."

Verse 21. He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath

he seen perverseness in Israel] This is a difficult passage; for

if we take the words as spoken of the people Israel, as their

iniquity and their perverseness were almost unparalleled, such

words cannot be spoken of them with strict truth. If we consider

them as spoken of the patriarch Jacob and Israel, or of Jacob

after he became Israel, they are most strictly true, as after

that time a more unblemished and noble character (Abraham

excepted) is not to be found in the page of history, whether

sacred or profane; and for his sake, and for the sake of his

father Isaac, and his grandfather Abraham, God is ever represented

as favouring, blessing, and sparing a rebellious and undeserving

people; See Clarke on Ge 49:33. In this way, I think, this

difficult text may be safely understood.

There is another way in which the words may be interpreted,

which will give a good sense. aven not only signifies

iniquity, but most frequently trouble, labour, distress, and

affliction; and these indeed are its ideal meanings, and iniquity

is only an accommodated or metaphorical one, because of the pain,

distress, &c., produced by sin. amal, translated here

perverseness, occurs often in Scripture, but is never translated

perverseness except in this place. It signifies simply labour,

especially that which is of an afflictive or oppressive kind. The

words may therefore be considered as implying that God will not

suffer the people either to be exterminated by the sword, or to be

brought under a yoke of slavery. Either of these methods of

interpretation gives a good sense, but our common version gives


Dr. Kennicott contends for the reading of the Samaritan, which,

instead of lo hibbit, he hath not seen, has lo

abbit, I do not see, I do not discover any thing among them on

which I could ground my curse. But the sense above given is to be


Verse 22. The strength of a unicorn.] reem and

reim. It is generally allowed that there is no such beast in

nature as the unicorn; i. e., a creature of the horse kind, with

one long rich curled horn in the forehead. The creature painted

from fancy is represented as one of the supporters of the royal

arms of Great Britain. It is difficult to say what kind of beast

is intended by the original word. The Septuagint translate the

word μονοκερως, the unicorn, or one-horned animal; the Vulgate,

sometimes, unicornus; and in the text rhinocerotis, by which the

rhinoceros, a creature which has its name from the horn on its

nose, is supposed to be meant. That no single-horned animal can

be intended by the reem of Moses, is sufficiently evident from

this, that Moses, speaking of Joseph, says, "he has the HORNS of A

unicorn," or reem, where the horns are spoken of in the plural,

the animal in the singular. The creature referred to is either

the rhinoceros, some varieties of which have two horns on the

nose, or the wild bull, urus, or buffalo; though some think the

beast intended is a species of goat; but the rhinoceros seems the

most likely. There is literally a monoceros, or unicorn, with one

large curled ivory horn growing horizontally out of his snout; but

this is not a land animal, it is the modiodan or nurwal, a marine

animal of the whale kind, a horn of which is now before me,

measuring seven feet four inches; but I believe the rhinoceros is

that intended by the sacred writers.

Verse 23. There is no enchantment, &c.] Because God has

determined to save them, therefore no enchantment can prevail

against them.

According to this time, &c.] I think this clause should be read

thus: "As at this time it shall be told to Jacob and to Israel

what God worketh;" i. e., this people shall always have prophetic

information of what God is about to work. And indeed, they are

the only people under heaven who ever had this privilege. When

God himself designed to punish them because of their sins, he

always forewarned them by the prophets; and also took care to

apprise them of all the plots of their enemies against them.

Verse 24. Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion]

labi, the great, mighty, or old lion, the king of the

forest, who is feared and respected by all the other beasts of the

field; so shall Israel be the subduer and possessor of the whole

land of Canaan. And as a young lion, ari from

arah, to tear off, the predatory lion, or the lion in the act of

seizing and tearing his prey;-the nations against whom the

Israelites are now going shall be no more able to defend themselves

against their attacks, than the feeblest beasts of the forest are

against the attacks of the strong lion.

Verse 28. Unto the top of Peor] Probably the place where the

famous Baal-peor had his chief temple. He appears to have been

the Priapus of the Moabites, and to have been worshipped with the

same obscene and abominable rites.

Copyright information for Clarke