Notes & Commentary:
Ver. 2. Altar. They both join in sacrificing to Chamos or the devil, whom Balaam styles his lord, Yehovah: but the true God was pleased to hinder the idol from interfering at present, and answered Balaam, in order that he might see the folly of his conduct, and repent; and that others, who are more willing to listen to him, than to the servants of God, might be instructed by his declaration. (Haydock) — “God’s voice is heard sounding from a profane mouth.” (St. Jerome, de 42. mans.) (Worthington)
Ver. 4. Speed. Hebrew shephi, may signify also “on the straight road,” (Septuagint) “into the plain,” (Louis de Dieu) “all alone,” (Onkelos) or most probably “upon an eminence.” (Kimchi) (Calmet) — God, in the visible form of an angel. (Menochius) — To him. Balaam might suppose that he was addressing his idol. But Moses informs us, that the true God or his angel was present, and forced Balaam to deliver an unwelcome message to the king. (Haydock)
Ver. 7. Parable. Beginning to speak in a beautiful and poetic style, like a man inspired. (Calmet) — Mashal, denotes a striking and elegant prophecy. (Menochius) — Aram, when placed alone, properly means Syria; but when Padan or Naharaim are added, Mesopotamia is meant, whence Balaam came, Deuteronomy xxii. 5. — East of Moab, though lying to the north, or higher part of Mesopotamia. (Calmet)
Ver. 9. Hills. But all in vain. (Calmet) — I am prevented from cursing him; and if I should do it, my imprecations would be turned into blessings by a superior Being. (Haydock) — Alone, without standing in need of any auxiliaries, and devoid of fear, Deuteronomy xiii. 28., and Jeremias xlix. 31. The Jews had but few connections with foreign nations, keeping at a distance from them, as being of a different religion. (Calmet) — Indeed, when they applied for aid to the Egyptians, &c., it generally turned out to their detriment, that they might learn to trust in God alone, who would effectually protect them, if they observed his law, as he had repeatedly promised. (Haydock) — Nations. Israel shall not be like other people. He is under the peculiar care of God, covered with glory, full of confidence, and inspired with the love of independence; so that he will have nothing to do with the rest of the world. (Calmet)
Ver. 10. Dust. God had promised to multiply the seed of Abraham as the dust of the earth, Genesis xiii. 16. Balaam had just beheld several thousands of them, and in rapture, exclaims, according to the Hebrew, “Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel?” Their camp was divided into four great battalions, surrounding the ark and the Levites. Who can tell the number of one of these divisions, much less of all the multitudes there assembled, and what millions may, in a short time, proceed from them? You have reason, therefore, O Balac, to tremble, if they continue faithful to their God. But strive to make friends with them. — Let, &c. Hebrew may also admit of the version of the Septuagint, “May my soul die among the souls of the just, and may my offspring be like this.” We behold in this sentence, the sentiments of all worldly and interested people, who wish to obtain a reward without submitting to the necessary labour. Impotent desires! selfish views! (Haydock) — “All,” says St. Bernard, (in Cant. serm. 21,) “wish to enjoy the felicity which Jesus Christ has promised. But how few are willing to imitate Him who invites us to do it.” (Calmet) — Thus, infidels desire sometimes to die like Catholics, though they will not live in that religion. (Worthington) — Even those who are in the Church, frequently give in to this delusion, making fine prayers, and, in the time of temptation, forgetting all their sighs and tears, to whom God will say, as St. Gregory justly observes on those words of Job, xli. 3, I will not spare him nor his mighty words, and framed to make supplication. For, like Balaam, when the fit of devotion is over, such people are ready to give the most pernicious advice against the lives of those, whom they pretend they would be desirous to resemble in death. “That prayer is vain, which is not followed by continual perseverance in charity.” (St. Gregory, Mor. xxxiii. 27.) The false prophet says not a word about living like the just; he only wishes, that after his soul has enjoyed all the pleasures of this world, it may depart to joys eternal, while his posterity is left behind in the midst of temporal prosperity. — Soul die, or be separated from its body. Even Balaam establishes the immortality of the soul. (Haydock)
Ver. 13. Thence. He has a mind to try a new experiment. We have observed, that the object of malediction was to be in view, chap. xxii. 41. But Balac, supposing perhaps that the multitude made too deep an impression upon the soothsayer, judged it expedient to place him in another situation, where he might see only a part of Israel. Some, however, imagine that he had only seen a fourth part, or the uttermost part of the people, who lay nearest to him before; (ver. 10, and chap. xxii. 41) and hence, would have him to take now a distinct view of the whole; and, in this sense, the Samaritan and Glassius translate from whence, &c., thus, “for thou hast seen only part of Israel, and couldst not see them all.” (Calmet) — By a similar superstition, the Syrians imagined that the God of Israel was a God of the hills, and that they could more easily conquer his people on the plain country, 3 Kings xx. 23. (Menochius)
Ver. 14. Place. Hebrew sede tsohpim, or “the field of the sentinels.” (Chaldean) Such were commonly stationed on the top of high hills, to give notice, by kindling a fire, &c., of the approach of an enemy, Isaias xxi. 11., and Jeremias vi. 1. (Calmet)
Ver. 18. Hear. Hebrew, “to me.” Septuagint read had, instead of hadai, and translate, “Give ear, thou witness, (martus) son,” &c. (Haydock)
Ver. 19. Changed. Hebrew, “repent.” Septuagint, “to be overawed by threats.” Origen, “to be terrified.” In the book of Judith, (viii. 15,) it is said, For God will not threaten like man, nor be inflamed to anger, like the son of man. (Calmet) — Do. Will he suffer me to curse Israel, after he has once given me a decided prohibition? (Menochius)
Ver. 20. To bless, not by my own intention, or by that of Balac, but by God, who hath only suffered me to proceed on my journey, on condition that I would declare his will, chap. xxii. 35. (Haydock) — Hebrew, “Behold, I have received an order to bless;” or, with the Septuagint, “I have been chosen to pronounce a blessing; I will bless, and will not revoke it, or leave off.” (Calmet)
Ver. 21. Image-god, (simulachrum) “a statue.” Chaldean, “falsehood.” Hebrew may also signify “perversity, or punishment.” As long as Israel refrains from idol-worship, and from other transgressions, as they do at present, God will be so far from punishing them, that he will fight their battles, as their king; (Haydock) and at the sound of the silver trumpets, will grant them victory, chap. x. 9. (Menochius) — The sound. Hebrew, “the shout of a king among them,” encouraging his people by his presence and by his words. (Haydock) — “I behold those who do not serve idols in the house of Jacob….the word of the Lord their God is helping them, and the majesty of their king is among them,” Chaldean. (Menochius)
Ver. 22. Rhinoceros. Hebrew ream, which is sometimes rendered unicorn. Bochart thinks it means the oryx, or the strong Arabian goat. The animal, of which the Scripture so often speaks, was remarkable for its strength, (Calmet) and could not easily be tamed, Job xxxix. 9. (Haydock) — The Septuagint generally translate monoceros, which is a fish, with a horn proceeding from its upper jaw. This is often shewn in cabinets for the horn of the unicorn. There are various animals which have only one horn. Pliny and Aristotle instance the oryx, &c. Various authors of credit specify likewise the rhinoceros, which has “a horn upon its nose,” and is found in Ethiopia. The emperor of that country sent one to the court of Persia, which Chardin saw and describes. It is as large as an elephant, and the people have learnt the method of taming both these huge beasts. (Calmet) — It seems the art was unknown in the days of Job, if this be the animal of which he speaks. (Haydock) — Moses (Deuteronomy xxxiii. 17,) seems to attribute two horns to the ream; and Pausanius allows a greater and a less one to the rhinoceros; the latter is very strong and erect. It is of a brownish colour. (Calmet) — Whatever may be the precise meaning of ream, it certainly denotes an animal of superior strength, and very formidable. Balaam represents God, or the people of Israel, in this light. God had given repeated instances of his dominion over all nature, in delivering the Hebrews out of Egypt. They were also capable of striking the Moabites with terror, on account of their known prowess, and surprising numbers, ver. 24. (Haydock)
Ver. 23. Soothsaying. This may be joined to what goes before, as an explanation why Israel is so much to be feared; because the people have no dealings with the devil, in which case neither he nor all his agents can hurt them, since God is their protector, and will direct them when and how to act. — Hath wrought. Septuagint, “will bring to perfection.” (Origen, contra Cels.) The Hebrew may also signify, “undoubtedly there is no charm powerful enough against….Israel,” or “Jacob has no regard for the vain art of divination. Israel does not apply to augury. This very time will be memorable among their posterity for the wonders which God has wrought.” Indeed, never was there a greater display of the divine power in favour of the Hebrews, than in this 40th year after their exit from Egypt; and in the following, which was noted for the victories and miracles of Josue. (Haydock)
Ver. 24. Lioness. Septuagint, “lion’s whelp.” Some explain the Hebrew, “a lion” of full growth and strength. But the antithesis of the Vulgate is more natural and beautiful. (Calmet) — The lioness, being solicitous for its young ones, becomes more furious. — A lion, ready to fall upon its prey. So Israel will not lay down the sword, till he has conquered the nations of Chanaan, (Menochius) and those who dare to molest him. The allusion to the prediction of Jacob in favour of Juda seems very plain, Genesis xlix. 9. (Haydock)
Ver. 25. Neither, &c. When infidels cannot prevail upon people to side with them entirely, in their false worship, they endeavour to induce them at least not to bless, nor follow up the true religion. (Worthington)
Ver. 28. Phogor. Hebrew, “Pehor, which looketh towards Jeshimon, or the desert.” This was a part of the same chain of the mountains Abarim, with Phasga, ver. 14. Balac foolishly supposed that in a different aspect, he might still obtain what he wanted; and the soothsayer was no less infatuated in following him. But he soon felt an internal monitor, who informed him, that he need not put himself to no farther trouble, in retiring alone, to prepare himself for the operation of the spirit. More glorious predictions in favour of Israel, presented themselves so forcibly, that he could hardly refrain, and durst no longer forbear proclaiming them aloud, chap xxiv. 1. (Haydock)
Bible Text & Cross-references:
Balaam, instead of cursing Israel, is obliged to bless them, and prophesy good things of them.
1 And Balaam said to Balac: Build me here seven altars, and prepare as many calves, and the same number of rams.
2 And when he had done according to the word of Balaam, they laid together a calf and a ram upon every altar.
3 And Balaam said to Balac: Stand a while by thy burnt-offering, until I go to see if perhaps the Lord will meet me, and whatsoever he shall command, I will speak to thee.
4 And when he was gone with speed, God met him. And Balaam speaking to him, said: I have erected seven altars, and have laid on everyone a calf and a ram.
5 And the Lord put the word in his mouth, and said: Return to Balac, and thus shalt thou speak.
6 Returning he found Balac standing by his burnt-offering, with all the princes of the Moabites:
7 And taking up his parable, he said: Balac, king of the Moabites, hath brought me from Aram, from the mountains of the east: Come, said he, and curse Jacob: make haste and detest Israel.
8 How shall I curse him whom God hath not cursed? By what means should I detest him, whom the Lord detesteth not?
9 I shall see him from the tops of the rocks, and shall consider him from the hills. This people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.
10 Who can count the dust of Jacob, and know the number of the stock of Israel? Let my soul die the death of the just, and my last end be like to them.
11 And Balac said to Balaam: What is this that thou dost? I sent for thee to curse my enemies: and thou, contrariwise, blessest them.
12 He answered him: Can I speak any thing else but what the Lord commandeth?
13 Balac therefore said: Come with me to another place, from whence thou mayst see part of Israel, and canst not see them all: curse them from thence.
14 And when he had brought him to a high place, upon the top of Mount Phasga, Balaam built seven altars, and laying on every one a calf and a ram,
15 He said to Balac: Stand here by thy burnt-offering while I go to meet him.
16 And when the Lord had met him, and had put the word in his mouth, he said: Return to Balac, and thus shalt thou say to him.
17 Returning he found him standing by his burnt-sacrifice, and the princes of the Moabites with him. And Balac said to him: What hath the Lord spoken?
18 But he taking up his parable, said: Stand, O Balac, and give ear: hear, thou son of Sephor:
19 God is not as a man, that he should lie, nor as the son of man, that he should be changed. Hath he said then, and will he not do? hath he spoken, and will he not fulfil?
20 I was brought to bless, the blessing I am not able to hinder.
21 There is no idol in Jacob, neither is there an image-god to be seen in Israel. The Lord his God is with him, and the sound of the victory of the king in him.
22 *God hath brought him out of Egypt, whose strength is like to the rhinoceros.
23 There is no soothsaying in Jacob, nor divination in Israel. In their times it shall be told to Jacob and to Israel, what God hath wrought.
24 Behold the people shall rise up as a lioness, and shall lift itself up as a lion: it shall not lie down till it devour the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.
25 And Balac said to Balaam: Neither curse, nor bless him.
26 And he said: Did I not tell thee, that whatsoever God should command me, that I would do?
27 And Balac said to him: Come, and I will bring thee to another place, if, peradventure, it please God that thou mayst curse them from thence.
28 And when he had brought him upon the top of Mount Phogor, which looketh towards the wilderness,
29 Balaam said to him: Build me here seven altars, and prepare as many calves, and the same number of rams.
30 Balac did as Balaam had said: and he laid on every altar, a calf and a ram.
22: Numbers xxiv. 8.