Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
With this chapter begins the fourth and last division of the Book of Numbers, comprising 14 chapters. In them are narrated the events which befell Israel while encamped in the plains of Moab, and certain instructions and arrangements are laid down by Moses with reference to their actual entry upon the promised inheritance.
The plains - Hebrew ערבה ‛ărābâh; the word is the plural of that which is used to denote the whole depressed tract along the Jordan and the Dead Sea, and onward, where it is still called the Arabah (compare Num 21:4 note), to the Elanitic gulf.
On this side Jordan by Jericho - Rather, across the Jordan of Jericho, i. e., that part of Jordan which skirted the territory of Jericho. This form of expression indicates the site of the camp in its relation to the well-known city of Jericho. See Deu 1:1.
Balak the son of Zippor - The comparison of Num 22:4 with Num 21:26 suggests that Balak was not the hereditary king but a Midianite, and that a change of dynasty had taken place. His father's name, Zippor, "Bird," reminds us of those of other Midianites, e. g., Oreb, "Crow," Zeeb, "Wolf." Possibly the Midianite chieftains had taken advantage of the weakness of the Moabites after the Amorite victories to establish themselves as princes in the land.
Balaam the son of Beor was from the first a worshipper in some sort of the true God; and had learned some elements of pure and true religion in his home in the far East, the cradle of the ancestors of Israel. But though prophesying, doubtless even before the ambassadors of Balak came to him, in the name of the true God, yet prophecy was still to him as before a mere business, not a religion. The summons of Balak proved to be a crisis in his career: and he failed under the trial. When the gold and honors of Balak seemed to be finally lost, he became reckless and desperate; and, as if in defiance, counseled the evil stratagem by which he hoped to compass indirectly that ruin of God's people which he had been withheld from working otherwise. He thus, like Judas and Ahithophel, set in motion a train of events which involved his own destruction.
The name Balaam signifies "destroyer," or "glutton," and is in part identical with "Bela, son of Beor," the first king of Edom Gen 36:32. The name "Beor" ("to burn up") is that of the father, or possibly ancestor, of the prophet.
Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people - Rather, Pethor which was ... land. Pethor (Pitru, Assyrian) was on the river Sagura (modern: Sajur) near its junction with the Euphrates.
Rewards of divination - Rightly interpreted in Pe2 2:15 as "the wages of unrighteousness."
Balaam must surely have known that God's blessing was on the people with whose marvelous march forth from Egypt he was acquainted Exo 15:14; Exo 18:1; Jos 2:9, and from whom he had himself probably learned much (compare the language of Num 23:12 with Gen 13:6, and that of Num 24:9 with Gen 49:9). But his reply to the messengers next morning Num 22:13, betrays the desire to venture to the utmost of that which God would not forbid rather than to carry out God's will in hearty sincerity.
Balak, like the ancient pagan world generally, not only believed in the efficacy of the curses and incantations of the soothsayers, but regarded their services as strictly venal. Hence, when his first offer was declined, he infers at once that he had not bid high enough.
Ye also - i. e., as the other envoys before you. Had Balaam possessed a sincere spirit of obedience, he would have found in the first instructions Num 22:12 a final decision upon the matter. His hypocritical importunity with God when the fresh messengers came from Balak demonstrates his aversion to God's declared will.
The angel - i. e., the Angel that led the Israelites through the wilderness (compare Num 20:16 and references), and subsequently appeared as the Captain of the Lord's host to Joshua Jos 6:13. In desiring to curse Israel, Balaam was fighting against Israel's Leader. The presence of the Angel in his path was designed to open his eyes, blinded by sin, to the real character of his course of conduct.
In a path of the vineyards - i. e., in a path shut in by vineyard-walls on each side. The progress from the road through the open field Num 22:23 to that walled in, and thence to the strait place, where there was no room to turn Num 22:26, shows that Balaam was approaching a city, no doubt that which was the goal of his journey.
And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass - The account was perhaps given by Balaam to the Israelites after his capture in the war against Midian. Compare Num 31:8. That which is here recorded was apparently perceived by him alone among human witnesses. God may have brought it about that sounds uttered by the creature after its kind became to the prophet's intelligence as though it addressed him in rational speech. Indeed to an augur, priding himself on his skill in interpreting the cries and movements of animals, no more startling warning could be given than one so real as this, yet conveyed through the medium of his own art.
Is perverse - Rather, is headlong. Compare Peter's words Pe2 2:16, "the madness of the prophet."
Go with the men - A command, not a permission merely. Balaam, no longer a faithful servant of God, was henceforth overruled in all his acts so that he might subserve the divine purpose as an instrument.
A city of Moab - Or, Ir-Moab, probably the same with Ar-Moab Num 21:15. As Balaam in his journey would avoid the districts occupied by the Israelites, he must have approached this city from the east, by the course of the Nahaliel; and in the name Balu'a, still borne by one of the upper branches of this stream, there is perhaps a reminiscence of the name of the prophet.
Kirjath-buzoth - i. e., "city of streets," within Balak's dominions, south of the Arnon, and identified either with the ruins of Shihan, 4 miles west by south of the site assigned to Ar or Ir, or with Kirjathaim (Kureivat).
That thence he might see - Rather, and thence he saw.