Balaam’s Star Prophecy to a King
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, at Mt. Sinai Moses received more prophetic promises laying foundational requirements for the Messiah at the place, although no one particular prophecy directly pointed to the future Messiah. The first distinctive Messiah prophecy came from a very unlikely source…
Mount Sinai had long been left behind by the Israelites having spent nearly the past 40 years led by Moses wandering through portions of the Sinai, Negev and Arabian deserts. The Israelites had been following pillars of cloud by day and fire by night on their journey to the place. [i] Delaying these promises by two generations was a consequence of the Hebrew people doubting God. Another promise, to protect Israel from their enemies, remained fully in effect.[ii]
Standing in the way of the Israelites was yet another Gentile enemy led by King Balak of Moab, son of King Zippor. He ruled his Moabite kingdom located east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea in modern day Jordan.
King Balak was painfully aware of how the Israelites had vanquished the strongly defensed Amorites whose own army had defeated the previous king of Moab and occupied many of its cities. History was poised to repeat itself, this time by the Israelites.[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 that only supernatural intervention from God 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] Balak’s envoy asked Balaam to take a night to consider the royal request.
Gentile prophet, Balaam, was a prophet outside the established Israelite Hebrew heritage, neither a Hebrew prophet nor even familiar with the Israelites. In real time, the encounter between Balak and Balaam was unknown to the Hebrews.
Praying for guidance that night, God told the prophet not to return to the Balak 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 said 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 that night he again sought God’s guidance. Against God’s instruction, the next day Balaam decided to go see the King, but their journey was blocked by an angel. Confessing he had sinned, Balaam was allowed to continue with God’s strict instructions to say only what he had been instructed.
King Balak was irritated with Balaam and questioned why the prophet had resisted royal 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 extensive size of the Israelite people because they could not be seen entirely from one location. After each sacrifice, the King asked the prophet to place a curse on Israelites. 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!”[v] The prophet saw no point in staying any longer and announced he was going back home, but before he left, Balaam said he would foretell their future.[vi] It was a 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 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, Balaam’s oracle is a Messiah prophecy.
Rashi interpreted the term scepter as representing “a king who rules dominantly” from the future lineage of David. Referring to the star, Rashi expounded that it represents 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 be a fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy, a lot of pieces had to come together. The fledgling nation of Israel first needed both a kingdom and a royal lineage as promised in the Law of Moses to be established in the place . Hundreds of years into the future, prophets of the Bible would bring clarity to the requirements saying the Messiah would be born in the royal lineage of the House of David.
Updated September 19, 2021.
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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] NASB. 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.