Balaam’s Prophecy to a King Who Tried to Use God
What was the first prophecy about the coming Messiah? Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been promised through God’s blessings that many nations and kings would come from their descendants. Jacob, renamed Israel by God, divided the blessing among his sons, future fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel, but to only one son, Judah, did he pass along the royalty blessing of a future kingdom.
Building on those blessings, on Mt. Sinai Moses received more prophetic promises laying foundational requirements for the Messiah, but no prophecy had yet directly pointed to a future Messiah. The first distinctive Messiah prophecy came from a very unlikely source.
Mount Sinai was long since behind the Israelites having spent nearly the past 40 years led by Moses through portions of the Sinai, Negev and Arabian deserts. They had been following pillars of cloud by day and fire by night on their journey tothe place.[i]Delaying the promise to go to the place by two generations was a consequence of the people doubting God, but another promise to protect Israel from their enemies remained fully in effect.[ii]
Along came a Gentile enemy King, Balak, and a Gentile prophet, Balaam, whose oracle came as a prophecy outside the established Israelite Hebrewheritage of Abraham. Balaam’s prophecy to the king who tried to use God – was it a messianic prophecy?
Balak, son of Zippor, King of Moab, ruled his kingdom located east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea in modern day Jordan. He was painfully aware of how the Israelites vanquished the strongly defensed Amorites whose own army had defeated the previous king of Moab and occupied many of its cities. Now the Israelites were poised to do the same again to the cities of the kingdom of Moab.[iii]
Dread spread throughout Moab for fear of the size and might of the Hebrew people. King Balak knew his military was no match for the Israelites thinking only supernatural intervention could save his kingdom. To that end, he sent an envoy of Moabite leaders to buy the services of the prophet Balaam and bring him back to the King to place a curse on Israel.[iv]
Balaam, neither a Hebrew prophet nor even familiar with the Israelites, asked for a night to consider the royal envoy’s request. The prophet prayed for guidance and that night God told him not to return to the King and not to place a curse on the Hebrews because they were “blessed.” The Moabite leaders went home telling the King that Balaam refused to return with them.
Undeterred, Balak upped the ante sending a larger envoy with more distinguished leaders back to the prophet promising him great honors if he would return with them to place a curse on Israel. In response to the King’s offer, Balaam told the Moabite leaders that even if he was offered a palace full of silver and gold, he could not do more or less than God’s commandment. Still, Balaam said he would give them an answer the next morning and overnight he sought God’s guidance. The next day the prophet decided to go see the King with God’s strict instructions to say only what he was instructed.
King Balak was irritated with the prophet questioning why he had resisted both his requests to come see him. Brushing off the question and getting right to the point, Balaam said, “I have come to you now, but do I have power to say just anything? The word God puts in my mouth, that is what I must say.”(NRSV)
Three times Balak offered sacrifices, each time taking Balaam to a different high position to observe portions of the extent of the Israelite people who were so numerous, they could not be seen entirely from one location. After each sacrifice, the King asked the prophet to place a curse on Israel. Each time Balaam sought God’s message which came back offering blessings on Israel rather than to curse them. After the third time, Balak was exasperated.
Clapping his hands King Balak said, “I called you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have persisted in blessing them these three times!”(NASB)[v]The prophet saw no point in staying any longer and announced he was going back home, but before he left, he would foretell their future.[vi] It was an dark prophecy for Moab in the form of an oracle prefaced with a royal prophecy about Israel’s bright future:[vii]
Num 24:17 “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth.”[viii]
“Scepter” is translated in the Bible from the same Hebrew word shebet, the same word used in Jacob’s royalty blessing of his son, Judah, in Genesis 49:10. According to the renowned Jewish sage, Rabbi Rashi, the verse is a prophecy.
Rashi interpreted the term scepter as representing “a king who rules dominantly” from the future lineage of David. Referring to the star, it presents one who “shoots out like an arrow” from Jacob and uproots the sons of Sheth or Seth, the son of Adam; in other words, symbolically uproots all of mankind.[ix]The Rabbi’s interpretation was tied to the blessing of Jacob’s grandfather,Abraham,which said “kings will come forth from you.”[x]
If the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth was to fulfill Balaam’s prophecy, a lot of pieces had to come together. The fledgling nation of Israel needed both a kingdom and a royal lineage promised in the Law of Moses to first be established in the place . Hundreds of years into the future, prophets of the Bible would narrow the requirements saying the Messiah would be born in the royal lineage of the House of David. Was Balaam’s oracle limited only to Moab King Balak or was it a prophecy about the Messiah who would rise from Israel in the lineage of Jacob?
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[i] Numbers 14. “Sinai Peninsula;” “Negev;” and “King’s Highway.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2014. http://www.britannica.com> Last accessed 6 Feb. 2017.
[ii] Deuteronomy 2, 28.
[iii] Numbers 21-22. “Map of OldTestament Israel.” Bible-history.com. <http://www.bible-history.com/geography/ancient-israel/israel-old-testament.html>
[iv] Numbers 22.
[v] Numbers 24:10.
[vi] Numbers 24:20-24.
[vii] Schneerson, Menachem M. From Exile to Redemption. Volume 2. Ed. Alter Eliyahu Friedman, trans. Uri Kaploun Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society. 1996. Chapters 4 & 5. SichosInEnglish.org. 2009. <http://www.sichosinenglish.org/books/from-exile-to-redemption-2/01.htm> Last accessed 11 May 2014. Shulman, Moshe. “The Rambam on Isaiah 53.” Judaism’s Answer. 2003. <http://www.judaismsanswer.com/Ramban.htm> Last accessed 11 June 2014.
[ix] Rashi. The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary Commentary for Numbers 24:17.
[x] Gensis 17:6, NASB.