A while back, I heard someone mention on a podcast that people didn't read the Book of Numbers due to its boring name. I thought that was ridiculous until it occurred to me that I was one of them. I had read it before of course, back when I was reading the bible for the first time, but I definitely give it a skip when I'm looking for some interesting content. It's a shame, too, because the book is full of cool stuff.
"Numbers" is the fourth book of the Pentateuch and is named from the translation of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) which took the name from the census' listed in Chapters one and twenty-six. The Hebrew title of the book, bemidbar, is more descriptive; it means "in the desert." The book is a narrative of the Hebrew's time in the desert when they leave Sinai and ultimately arrive in Moab.
Numbers begins with a census. The Israelites have been at Sinai for a year; they've established a covenant with God, built the Tabernacle, and received the Ten Commandments and the Law. The Lord directs Moses to conduct a census of all men twenty years old or more to establish a military as they are about to depart for Canaan. And there are a lot of them: 603,550 military qualified men (Nu 1:46, Ex 12:37, Ex 38:26.) This does not count women, children, or Levites; altogether there were around two million hebrews in Sinai. At this point God established the layout of the camp, with the Tabernacle in the center, Levites closest to it, and the rest of the tribes around them.
The Hebrews leave for Paran. The first ten chapters of Numbers show an obedient people, but three days after departing Sinai, the Israelites start to complain about their hardships. There are complaints about the manna (God sends quail meat, loads of it along with a plague) and even Miriam and Aaron begin to grumble about Moses (they don't like his wife.) Miriam is stricken with leprosy. Moses intercedes on her behalf and God has her stay out of the camp one week before healing her.
Spies are sent to Canaan. This is where twelve scouts are selected and sent to explore the promised land and things do not get better. Caleb and Joshua are the only two of the twelve to give a positive report. Ten of the scouts express fear and doubt in the Israelite's ability to possess the land. They instill a spirit of rebellion in the people who then want to stone Moses and Aaron and choose a new leader who will take them back to Egypt. Once again, Moses intercedes with God on their behalf and God honors their wish.
The trip from Sinai to Canaan is less than three hundred miles and should have been about two or three weeks. Now it's going to take forty years. Of the 603,550 men that set out, only Joshua and Caleb will enter Canaan. I find it amazing that the people refuse God's gift and not only does he let them refuse, he provides for them the whole time.
Israel will travel to Moab. Chapters fifteen through twenty-one has several familiar stories: The guy getting stoned for picking up fire wood on the Sabbath, why the Jews wear tassels on their clothing (to remember to follow God's law), the story of further insurrections, and the story of Moses' disobedience. In Chapter twenty-two, the Jewish nation arrives at the plains of Moab. There is more to Numbers, but here is where we're introduced to Balak and Balaam. Remember, there are two million Israelites setting up camp on the plain. The king of Moab is Zippor and Balak is his son. The Moabite people are seriously concerned about the Israelites so Balak sends for Balaam.
I told you all of that so I could tell you this...
Israel had expressed no plans against Moab, but Balak allied himself with the Midianites to oppose them. Due to Israel's size and seeing no military option, Balak sends for Balaam to put a curse on them. Balaam was a professional diviner living in Pethor about 600 miles north and was internationally famous. Balak was pulling out the "big guns". (There are extra-biblical references to Balaam. He was a big deal in his day.)
Balaam was famous, but he was a pagan witch doctor. He looked at "gods" as entities that could be manipulated via oracles and sorcery. The journey to Balaam would have taken a month each way. When Balak's delegates arrive, they are asked to spend the night while Balaam confers with the Lord. God does come to him and tells Balaam not to go with the men. The men return to Moab, but Balak sends another delegation back with a sweeter offer. This time God tells Balaam to go back with the men, but to do only what he says
God has chosen to use Balaam for his own purposes, but somewhere between this visit and Balaam's leaving the next morning, Balaam may have had a change of heart. The story of the donkey (below) details how God gets Balaam's attention. It is telling that a professional seer cannot see what the donkey sees.
When Balaam arrives in Moab, Balak berates him for not coming sooner. They get down to business, however and Balak takes the prophet to a place where he gets a good view of part of the people. Balaam has Balak build seven alters and they sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams, one on each alter. These sacrifices are not to God but for the purpose of divination. God meets with Balaam, however and puts a message in his mouth to deliver to Balak. Balak is not amused.
Three times Balaam is directed to curse Israel, but each time he is only able to speak blessings and with every blessing, Balak becomes more angry. After the third blessing, Balak dismisses Balaam without payment and he basically tells him to take it up with God. So Balaam gives Balak one more oracle to let him know what will become of his people in the days to come.
Numbers 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.
This is another example of dual prophecy. Within a hundred years or so, during the time of the Judges, Ehud rallied the Israelites to strike down ten thousand Moabites subjecting them to Israel's rule. Not long after that, The scepter that Balaam speaks of would be fulfilled by King David, and will be fulfilled permanently the birth of Jesus.
Numbers 22:21-35 21. Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. 22. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat her to get her back on the road. 24. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between two vineyards, with walls on both sides. 25. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord , she pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam's foot against it. So he beat her again. 26. Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. 27. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord , she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her with his staff. 28. Then the Lord opened the donkey's mouth, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?" 29. Balaam answered the donkey, "You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now." 30. The donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?" "No," he said. 31. Then the Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. 32. The angel of the Lord asked him, "Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. 33. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her." 34. Balaam said to the angel of the Lord , "I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back." 35. The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, "Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you." So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.