Notes & Commentary:
Ver. 1. Plains. Septuagint, “to the west of Moab.” These plains had formerly belonged to that people, but the Hebrews had lately taken them from Sehon, and intended now to pass over the Jordan. The Moabites, however, being jealous of their growing power, called in the aid of the Madianites, and of the magician Balaam, and, by their wanton provocation, brought destruction upon themselves. We know not exactly the extent of the dominions of the Moabites. They seemed to have lost the greatest part of the country north of the Arnon. Their last town and capital was Ar, chap. xxi. 13. Yet they still kept possession of Mount Phasga. (Calmet)
Ver. 4. Elders of Madian, who dwelt also upon the Arnon, towards the lake of Sodom. These Madianites were a different people from those who inhabited the country to the east of the Red Sea. (St. Jerome) — They were not governed by kings, but by an aristocracy, or senate of princes. (Haydock)
Ver. 5. Beor. St. Peter (ii. 11, 15) reads Bosor. — A soothsayer, or magician, (ariolum) as this word always indicates, Josue xiii. 22. The Hebrews believe he was once a true prophet, a descendant of Buz, the son of Melcha, and the same as Eliu, the friend of Job. (St. Jerome, q. 3. Hebrew in Genesis) He certainly foretold the Messias, or star of Jacob, by divine inspiration, chap. xxiv. 17. (Haydock) — He consults and acknowledges the true God, ver. 8, 18, 20. Origen (hom. 13,) believes that he left a book of his prophecies, which was known to the wise men, and discovered to them the birth of the Messias; and some Rabbins think that Moses has here inserted from that work what relates to Balaam. St. Augustine (q. 48,) shews that he was a wicked man, of whom nevertheless God made use to convey important instructions; and that he is one of those reprobates who will say, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? He is placed with Cain and Core, St. Jude 11. St. Ambrose (ep. 50,) observes, that he might prophesy, like Caiphas, without knowing what he said, and that the gift of prophecy on this occasion, was no proof of his virtue. Many of the Fathers look upon him as a mere magician, who could utter no blessing, but only curses, by the rules of his infernal art. He did not design to consult God, but the Lord puts answers into his mouth. (Theodoret, q. 39, 42.) The method of consultation seemed to border on superstition. He wished to make God change his resolutions, as if he were an idol, and attempted to evade the impressions of his spirit. (Calmet) — The river, Euphrates, which waters the country of the Ammonites. (Menochius) — Hebrew, “to Pethora, which is by the land of the children of his people.” St. Jerome has translated Pethora “soothsayer,” and has left Ammon undeclined. (Haydock) — The Chaldean informs us, that he was a resident at Petor, a city of Syria, on the Euphrates. It is probably the same town with the Pacora of Ptolemy, near Thapsacus. Balaam is styled an Aramean; (chap. xxiii. 17,) and we know that he came from Mesopotamia. Hebrew Aram Naharaim, (Deuteronomy xxiii. 4.; Calmet) or “Syria, between the two rivers,” the Euphrates and Tigris. (Salien) — Me, ready to fall upon my dominions. It appears hence, that Balaam was in high estimation, since a distant king depends more upon his power, than upon the efforts of all his own armies, and those of his auxiliaries, and is willing to pay him for cursing his enemies at so dear a rate. Perhaps he thought that they employed magical arts to conquer their enemies, by prayer. See Exodus xvii. 11.; Origen, hom. 13. (Haydock)
Ver. 6. Curse. The ancients placed great confidence in those whom they believed to be under the guidance of a superior spirit, whether good or bad. They thought their blessing or cursing would surely have its effect. By means of charms, they also strove to evoke or draw off the tutelary god of a place, before they could expect to take possession of it. Hence, as it was requisite to mention the true name of the place, fictitious names were given to most cities of importance, while the real appellation was kept a profound secret; and Valerius Soranus was severely punished for discovering the name of Rome, Valentia. See Pliny, [Natural History?] iii. 5.; Solin. ii.; Plut.[Plutarch?] prob. vi. (Calmet) — Rome, in Greek, has the same import as Valentia in Latin, and signifies strength. (Haydock) — Macrobius has preserved the form of a solemn curse, pronounced by the Roman general against the Carthaginians, Saturn iii. 9.: “Dis Pater, or Jupiter, or if you prefer any other title, I beg that you will send fright and terror, and put this city of Carthage, and this army which I intend to specify, to flight, &c. If you will perform these things, according to my intention, I promise to offer in sacrifice to you, O earth, mother of all things, and to you, great god Jupiter, three black sheep.” Thus, probably, Balac wished the Hebrews to be devoted or cursed. (Calmet)
Ver. 7. The price. Hebrew literally, “the enchantments.” But they took money, to engage the soothsayer to comply more readily with their iniquitous request, 2 Peter ii. 15. (Septuagint, &c.) It was customary to offer presents to the prophets, 1 Kings ix. 7.
Ver. 8. Night. He was accustomed to exercising his art by night; loving darkness, for his works were evil, John iii. 19. (Haydock)
Ver. 18. Less. Not that he was resolved to comply with God’s will, but because he found an insuperable impediment to oppose it at present. (Calmet)
Ver. 19. To stay. His desiring them to stay, after he had been fully informed already that it was not God’s will he should go, came from the inclination he had to gratify Balac for the sake of worldly gain. And this perverse disposition God punished by permitting him to go, (though not to curse the people, as he would willingly have done) and suffering him to fall still deeper and deeper into sin, till he came at last to give that abominable counsel against the people of God, which ended in his own destruction. So sad a thing it is to indulge a passion for money. (Challoner) (St. Augustine, q. 48.) — Philo (de vita, Mos. i.) thinks that Balaam feigned this leave of God, ver. 22. (Calmet)
Ver. 22. Angry. Either because he had not granted him permission to go, or he saw that Balaam was disposed to curse the Israelites, ver. 32. Septuagint, “the angel (Michael) rose up on the road to oppose him, ” diaballein. Literally, “to calumniate, accuse, resist, or to be a satan.” Hence diabolus means an accuser, opponent, calumniator, &c. (St. Augustine) (Haydock)
Ver. 23. Ass. The angel appeared thrice to the ass, before he was perceived by Balaam, chap. xxix. 3, 4. The second time, St. Augustine (q. 50,) thinks he was standing in the vineyard. (Calmet)
Ver. 28. Opened the mouth, &c. The angel moved the tongue of the ass, to utter these speeches, to rebuke, by the mouth of a brute beast, the brutal fury and folly of Balaam. (Challoner) — St. Thomas Aquinas (ii. 2. q. 105) says, an angel spoke by the mouth of the ass, in like manner as the devil did by that of the serpent, Genesis iii. Infidels deride this miracle, and some have thought that it was only in the imagination of Balaam, that this dialogue was formed. (Maimonides) — St. Gregory of Nyssa, seems to think that the ass only brayed as usual, and that the soothsayer, being accustomed to augur from the voice of animals, understood its meaning. But St. Peter says, the dumb beast….speaking with man’s voice, forbade the folly of the prophet, 2 Peter ii. 16. God did not endue it with understanding on this occasion, but only formed, by its mouth, such sounds as might serve to repress the cruel folly of Balaam. But he was more stupid than the ass. “Being accustomed, it seems, to such prodigies,” (monstris) and intent upon lucre, he paid no farther regard to such a wonderful transaction, but held conversation with his ass, without any emotion. (St. Augustine, q. 48, 50.) (Calmet) — The pagan historians relate many instances of beasts and trees speaking; (Grotius) so that they object to this history, and to that of the serpent, with a very bad grace, as St. Cyril remarks, in his third book against Julian. (Haydock) — They relate that the ass of Bacchus spoke to him, and the horse and elephant of Achilles and Porus addressed their respective masters, while the oaks of Dodona were famous for their oracles. (Calmet) — The river Causus said, “Hail, Pythagoras.” (Porphyrius, cited by St. Cyril, &c.) (Haydock)
Ver. 31. Ground, with religious worship; not as God, but as an angel. See Exodus xx. (Worthington)
Ver. 36. A town. Eusebius thinks it was Ar, the capital.
Ver. 39. City, &c. Hebrew, “Kiryath, chutsoth.” Calmet would read Hares, a city mentioned, Isaias xvi. 7, 11, and styled the walls of brick, (4 Kings iii. 25,) being the same with Ar. But then the former town must be situated somewhere upon the frontiers of Moab, as they came from it to the capital. (Haydock)
Ver. 40. With him. Only two servants were mentioned, (ver. 22,) and the princes sent by Balac, ver. 15. Perhaps others from Mesopotamia might attend Balaam. (Haydock) — The king sent parts of the victims to all. (Chaldean)
Ver. 41. People. From the heights or temple of Baal, or the god of Chamos, where a statue or pillar (Septuagint) was erected in his honour, (Calmet) on Mount Arabim, (Menochius) the soothsayer was enabled to take a distinct view of all the camp of Israel, (chap. xxiii. 13,) and not of a part only, as the Septuagint and Arabic versions would insinuate. It was deemed necessary to have those present upon whom people intended to vent their imprecations. (Calmet)
Bible Text & Cross-references:
Balac, king of Moab, sendeth twice for Balaam to curse Israel. In his way Balaam is rebuked by an angel.
1 And they went forward *and encamped in the plains of Moab, over-against where Jericho is situate beyond the Jordan.
2 And Balac, the son of Sephor, seeing all that Israel had done to the Amorrhite,
3 And that the Moabites were in great fear of him, and were not able to sustain his assault,
4 He said to the elders of Madian: So will this people destroy all that dwell in our borders, as the ox is wont to eat the grass to the very roots. Now he was at that time king in Moab.
5 *He sent therefore messengers to Balaam, the son of Beor, a soothsayer, who dwelt by the river of the land of the children of Ammon, to call him, and to say: Behold a people is come out of Egypt, that hath covered the face of the earth, sitting over-against me.
6 Come therefore, and curse this people, because it is mightier than I: if by any means I may beat them and drive them out of my land: for I know that he whom thou shalt bless is blessed, and he whom thou shalt curse is cursed.
7 And the ancients of Moab, and the elders of Madian, went with the price of divination in their hands. And when they were come to Balaam, and had told him all the words of Balac,
8 He answered: Tarry here this night, and I will answer whatsoever the Lord shall say to me. And while they stayed with Balaam, God came and said to him:
9 What mean these men that are with thee?
10 He answered: Balac, the son of Sephor, king of the Moabites, hath sent to me,
11 Saying: Behold a people that is come out of Egypt, hath covered the face of the land: come and curse them, if by any means I may fight with them and drive them away.
12 And God said to Balaam : Thou shalt not go with them, nor shalt thou curse the people: because it is blessed.
13 And he rose in the morning and said to the princes: Go into your country, because the Lord hath forbid me to come with you.
14 The princes returning, said to Balac: Balaam would not come with us.
15 Then he sent many more, and more noble, than he had sent before:
16 Who, when they were come to Balaam, said: Thus saith Balac, the son of Sephor: Delay not to come to me:
17 For I am ready to honour thee, and will give thee whatsoever thou wilt: come and curse this people.
18 Balaam answered: *If Balac would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot alter the word of the Lord my God, to speak either more or less.
19 I pray you to stay here this night also, that I may know what the Lord will answer me once more.
20 God therefore came to Balaam in the night, and said to him: If these men be come to call thee, arise and go with them: yet so that thou do what I shall command thee.
21 Balaam arose in the morning, and saddling his ass went with them.
22 *And God was angry. And an angel of the Lord stood in the way against Balaam, who sat on the ass, and had two servants with him.
23 The ass seeing the angel standing in the way, with a drawn sword, turned herself out of the way, and went into the field. And when Balaam beat her, and had a mind to bring her again to the way,
24 The angel stood in a narrow place between two walls, wherewith the vineyards were inclosed.
25 And the ass seeing him, thrust herself close to the wall, and bruised the foot of the rider. But he beat her again:
26 And nevertheless the angel going on to a narrow place, where there was no way to turn aside, either to the right hand or to the left, stood to meet him.
27 And when the ass saw the angel standing, she fell under the feet of the rider: who, being angry, beat her sides more vehemently with a staff.
28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said: What have I done to thee? why strikest thou me, lo, now this third time?
29 Balaam answered: Because thou hast deserved it, and hast served me ill: I would I had a sword that I might kill thee.
30 The ass said: Am not I thy beast, on which thou hast been always accustomed to ride until this present day? tell me if I ever did the like thing to thee. But he said: Never.
31 Forthwith the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel standing in the way, with a drawn sword, and he worshipped him, falling flat on the ground.
32 And the angel said to him: Why beatest thou thy ass these three times? I am come to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse, and contrary to me:
33 And unless the ass had turned out of the way, giving place to me who stood against thee, I had slain thee, and she should have lived.
34 Balaam said: I have sinned, not knowing that thou didst stand against me: and now if it displease thee that I go, I will return.
35 The angel said: Go with these men, and see thou speak no other thing than what I shall command thee. He went therefore with the princes.
36 And when Balac heard it, he came forth to meet him in a town of the Moabites, that is situate in the uttermost borders of Arnon.
37 And he said to Balaam: I sent messengers to call thee, why didst thou not come immediately to me? was it because I am not able to reward thy coming?
38 He answered him: Lo, here I am: shall I have power to speak any other thing but that which God shall put in my mouth?
39 So they went on together, and came into a city, that was in the uttermost borders of his kingdom.
40 And when Balac had killed oxen and sheep, he sent presents to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him.
41 And when morning was come, he brought him to the high places of Baal, and he beheld the uttermost part of the people.
1: Year of the World 2553, Year before Christ 1451.
5: Josue xxiv. 9.
18: Numbers xxiv. 13.
22: 2 Peter ii. 15.