Before moving on to this section, it is worth noting that the incident with striking the rock that is Christ resembles something that took place back in Exodus 17:6 where YHWH said, “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” This foreshadows the death of Jesus Christ because the staff of judgment strikes YHWH Himself. And thus Moses in Num 20:8 is to speak to the rock and God will give them drink. Striking the rock again would be like saying Christ would need to die again. Instead, all we need do now is to ask the Rock for our Spiritual food and drink.
But Moses struck the rock again, and thus God says, “Let Aaron be gathered to his people, for he shall not enter the land that I have given to the people of Israel, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah” (Num 20:24). And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son (Num 20:28).Iain Duguid also observes that by calling the people “rebels” Moses is setting himself up as their judge when God has told them to extend God’s mercy and by striking the rock Moses and Aaron are claiming to be the people’s saviors. The judgment: death and being stripped of God’s glory-image. This is in contrast to the soon-to-be hero Phineas, son of Eleazar.
We see more grumbling against God and Moses a few verses later and YHWH sent “fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people” and the people repented and Moses interceded and the people in faith looked at a serpent on a pole so that they would live (Num 21:4-9). The apostle John later showed that this was a type of the death of Christ too (John 3:14). Meanwhile, the nations are resisting the coming rule of God. Edom, brother to Israel, had refused to allow Israel through (Num 20:14-21, though Duguid says this is because Moses was trying to take a shortcut), the Canaanite king of Arad fought against Israel and took some of them captive but Israel would destroy him and his cities (Num 21:1-3), and Kings Sihon and Og came out to fight Israel and their people also were destroyed (Num 21:21-35). The land of Arad was devoted to destruction as an offering to God (Num 21:2-3) and the lands of Sihon and Og became the possession of Israel (Num 21:24, 35).
Num 22:1 brings us to a new setting in the plains of Moab “beyond the Jordan” (written from the perspective of being in the Promised Land) opposite from Jericho. King Balak, son of Zippor, of Moab, the descendant of Lot, then joined together with the elders of Midian, either descendants of Abraham by Keturah (Gen 25:1-4) or through Ishmael (Gen 37:28). Moses’ father-in-law was also said to be a Midianite (Exo 3:1) and so the only earlier reference in Numbers to Midianites were to this family (Num 10:29). The only previous reference in the Torah to the Midianites who lived in Moab tells us about the Edomite who “defeated Midian in the country of Moab” (Gen 36:35). The response of Balak to seeing the defeat of Sihon and Og gives us a glimpse of the response we will see in Jericho and in the whole of the Promised Land in Joshua (Num 22:2-3).
Thus Balak sent for Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor (Num 22:5). Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel “for I know,” Balak said, “that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num 22:6). This should remind us of God’s words to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3, especially verse 3: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). This is the theme verse, if you will, of this whole story (Num 22:6, 23:11, 23:25, 24:9). And so we have four poetic blessings of Israel (Num 23:7-10, 18-24, 24:3-9, 15-24. Each time saying that Balaam “took up his discourse and said” (Num 23:7, 18, 24:3, 15). Except that the fourth poem has four parts each opening with that phrase (Num 24:15, 20, 21, 23). Four is a very significant number in Scripture where the fourth thing is the punch. That the fourth poem is four small poems means there is a total of seven poetic blessings and curses.
We continue to see then this theme of the nations trying to resist the plan of God but being unable to do so. Even the story line of the negotiations between Balak and Balaam and the story with the donkey have this as the point. Duguid suggests reading what Balaam says carefully and observing where he does not tell the whole story. He neglects to tell God that Balak said these people were “dwelling opposite me” (Num 22:5) and that Balak said that he knew whomever Balaam curses is cursed (Num 22:6). See Num 22:11 for where he leaves those details out when God asks “Who are these men with you?” — a question meant to see if Balaam will repent. Then when God tells Balaam that the people of Israel are blessed, he neglected to mention that to Balak’s messengers (Num 22:13) instead implying that he wants to come but God will not let him yet. Balak takes this as a negotiating posture and sends a bigger bribe.
Balaam sounds good in Num 22:18 saying, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of YHWH my God to do less or more” (Num 22:18) but then says to wait to see “what more” YHWH will say (Num 22:19). The reason YHWH becomes angry with Balaam for going is that He had told Balaam only to go if the men call again, but Balaam did not wait (Num 22:20-21) and he did not tell the people that he could not curse those YHWH had blessed and YHWH has blessed Israel — Balaam is not in charge. The story about the donkey then reminds Balaam that he is not in charge. Ironically, Balaam the seer cannot see the angel of YHWH standing in the road.
We are not to understand Balaam as a worshiper of YHWH — Balaam is a polytheist and primarily a worshiper of Baal. And he uses divination, which is forbidden by YHWH, because it is an attempt to manipulate God. But the story shows us that Balaam cannot manipulate God, he cannot use YHWH’s name to curse Israel, God is in control. Perhaps Balaam should point us to his god Baal, the chief Baal god being Baalzebul (Beelzebul or Beelzebub, Satan) who also is not able to go beyond what God allows. In any case, the lesson is that God will bless Israel.
We have noted before that the structure of the Pentateuch is narrative, poetry, epilogue. We saw that pattern in Genesis and will see it in Deuteronomy. And we have been saying that this is the case for Exodus-Numbers too. In fact, we have four poems here in Numbers. And thus here is the climax of Exodus-Numbers. Especially the fourth oracle with four parts. Properly speaking it is this fourth poem in four parts that is the climax. It is introduced by Balaam in Num 24:14 as “in the latter days” a phrase associated with the other poems functioning this way in Genesis 49:1 and Deut 31:29 (the Hebrew word “aharith” meaning in “the last days” introduces all three major poems in the Torah). This is a final judgment eschatological word. Jesus is the star of Jacob.
And thus the epilogue of Exo-Num begins with Num 24:25. It does not begin well as the people of Israel became yoked to the daughters of Moab and then they also became yoked to the false god Baal of Peor (Num 25:1-3). Moses does not adequately deal with the sin and remove it from Israel. The discipline was not working, too limited in scope, and one couple even flaunted their rebellion openly. But Phineas, son of Eleazar the priest, became a hero by executing this couple (Num 25:6-18). And thus to him and his descendants was given “a perpetual priesthood” (Num 25:13) “because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.” The next generation is beginning to show signs of their faith. Analysis of the epilogue will continue with the next post.