Balaam’s First Prophecy


Many, if not most of us, are familiar with the story of Balaam in the Old Testament. Maybe we don’t remember the man’s name, but we certainly remember hearing about his talking donkey. But like all familiar Biblical stories, there are significant details we fail to recall. The sensational is easy to recall – it tends to demand our attention. I want to ignore the sensational talking donkey in this story, and instead consider the first recorded prophecy of Balaam.

Let me get you up to speed. God, via a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, is leading the nation of Israel out of Egypt, through the wilderness toward the promised land. On this forty year journey there were three significant battles where Israel easily defeats their enemies. Following the victory of the third battle, they break camp and move to the plains of Moab. (Numbers 22:1)

The nation of Moab, lead by their king, Balak of Zippor, are terrified. They recognize the threat that Israel has become. Balak recognizes that the only hope he has of defeating this nomadic nation is if Balaam can curse them.

After the talking donkey encounter, God tells Balaam don’t curse Israel. Say what I tell you to say. Let’s take a look at the first of four prophecies uttered by Balaam.

Numbers 23:7-10

  7 And he took up his oracle and said:

“Balak the king of Moab has brought me from Aram,

From the mountains of the east.

‘Come, curse Jacob for me,

And come, denounce Israel!’

8      “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?

And how shall I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?

9      For from the top of the rocks I see him,

And from the hills I behold him;

There! A people dwelling alone,

Not reckoning itself among the nations.

10      “Who can count the dust of Jacob,

Or number one-fourth of Israel?

Let me die the death of the righteous,

And let my end be like his!” (NKJV)

If you’re tripping on the word “oracle” in the first part of verse seven, I understand. If you’re using a different translation than I am, your Bible may translate the word as discourse. Looking up the Hebrew word we discover that essentially, all the first part of verse seven is communicating to us is that Balaam is about to speak the word God put into his mouth. In the remainder of verse seven Balaam reminds the king of the context. “You brought me out of my homeland to curse the nation Israel.”

Next, look at Numbers 23:8. Balaam asks the question, “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?” The word for God recorded in this sentence is the Hebrew word אֵל. It mean mighty or powerful God! The word comes with a built in adjective. English reads God,  but Hebrew reads mighty God! We are not modifying this scripture at all by rendering it, “How shall I curse whom the mighty God has not cursed?” The word for God here could be used to refer to any God. Its usage in the text does not demand it mean the God of heaven.

Look at the next word in Numbers 23:8 that is used in reference to God. In our translations it is the word LORD, which is the Hebrew tetragrammaton יהוה. This is the personal name of God. In one sense it would be like “Sally”, “Tom”, “Brenda”, or any other name by which you identify a specific person. However, it is unique in that no other being in the world shares that name! It is also unique in the sense that this is the name God gave Moses when entering into covenant relationship with the nation of Israel. The surrounding nations knew this name to indicate that this was Israel’s God. We would not be changing the scripture to render Numbers 23:8 this way, “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how shall I denounce whom the LORD (the personal, and covenant God of Israel) has not denounced?

At first glance maybe this prophecy seems a little weak. It doesn’t really seem to predict much. You know, maybe it’s a bit underwhelming. That is until you examine it a little closer.

We will leave verses 9 and 10 for next time. As western readers of the Bible, we have become so familiar with “God” and “LORD” as references to the King of the universe, that we sometimes read past the embedded meaning they are intended to convey.  God is Mighty. He is the powerful, personal, covenant God of Israel. He has granted access to a relationship with Him to those Jewish or not, who place their faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

He alone can curse and He alone can bless. May our words match His will and may our way be found pleasing in His sight.

Let’s learn to speak the words God puts into our mouth.

2 Replies to "Balaam’s First Prophecy"

  • Roger Streifel
    May 1, 2017 (6:55 am)

    So YHWH is not the name for God that is being used in verse 8?

  • Jeff Langley
    May 2, 2017 (3:49 pm)

    The important truths we lose in translation sometimes is amazing. It is not that the translators were wrong in their efforts, but that, there are no words to convey the true meanings of what I call the “pictorial nature” of the Hebrew language that the English loses. Good article, brother.

Got something to say?

Some html is OK