The initial record of Israel’s Transjordan conquest did not record military interaction with Moab. As the people of Balak received a new and numerous neighbor to the north, they were concerned for their own safety. Balak the Moabite king thought the sorcerer Balaam could rescue the Moabites by cursing Israel (Num 22:1-6). The point of Numbers 22-25 may be that while Balaam was revered as a sorcerer—one whose curses could even thwart a mighty army—the Lord is so much stronger that His word spoken through a meager donkey bridled Balaam’s tongue, guiding it solely as an instrument of blessing upon Israel. Despite the Lord’s favor, Israel failed another test of faith. In the end Israel was not conquered by Moab’s military forces or Balaam’s curse—but by their own sexual immorality and idolatry.
In the drama of Israel’s interaction with Balaam, Numbers 22 could be considered as the prologue, setting out the main characters and introducing the issues that bring them together. Balak king of Moab was a powerful man who did not lack levels of officials or resources sufficient to get the attention of the powerful (Num 22:7, 15). Balaam understood that if he was going to curse Israel, he would have to inquire of Israel’s God (Num 22:7-21). Along the road back to the Transjordan, it appears that Balaam’s devotion to the word of the Lord grew faint—which brought a rebuke from God. The Angel of the Lord spoke through the donkey warning Balaam: “Go with the men, but you are to say only what I tell you” (Num 22:35). Replying to the impatient Moabite king, Balaam boldly proclaimed: “I must speak only the message God puts in my mouth” (Num 22:38).
Numbers 23-24 records Balaam’s four oracles, spoken under the influence of the Lord. In Balaam’s first oracle, he identified his fate with that of God’s people (Num 23:7-10). Balaam’s second oracle recounted God’s faithfulness to His people from the inception of the Abrahamic covenant and through the Exodus (23:13-24). Upon Balak’s third request for Balaam to curse Israel, the Spirit of God descended on Balaam and he blessed Israel in light of the Abrahamic covenant saying: “Those who bless you will be blessed, and those who curse you will be cursed” (Num 24:9b; see Gen 12:3). In his final oracle, Balaam boldly announced both the coming of a messianic figure (Num 24:17) and the fate of Israel’s foes (Num 24:18-24).
Numbers 25 underscores Israel’s depraved spiritual character. Though Israel could not be overcome by Moab’s military forces, the opportunity for sex with the Moabite women proved more than a sufficient foe. Israel was not walking in the monotheism of Psalm 115; instead, “Israel aligned itself with Baal of Peor, and the LORD’s anger burned against Israel” (Ps 115:3). The condemnation was severe: “Moses told Israel’s judges, ‘Kill each of the men who aligned themselves with Baal of Peor’” (Num 25:5). Israel was unashamed (Num 25:6) and the Lord’s wrath caused the death of 24,000, halted finally by the zeal of Phinehas (Num 25:7-13). Phinehas’ courage was remarkable to the Psalmist even generations later (see Psalm 106). Despite Israel’s moral catastrophe, the Lord yet strengthened Israel to take vengeance on the Midianites (Num 25:16-18).
The themes of God’s sovereignty and Israel’s failure in Numbers 22-25 are formative for the storyline of Scripture.
(1) Peter and John understood Balaam to represent a compromising, idolatrous, and immoral spirit. In 2 Peter 2, Peter encouraged his audience to persevere in the Christian message, reminding them that God will punish false teachers. Peter wrote that the false teachers of his day were like Balaam, susceptible to unrighteous wages (2 Pet 2:15-16). John rebuked the church in Pergamum saying, “I have a few things against you. You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to place a stumbling block in front of the sons of Israel: to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality” (Rev 2:14).
(2) In 1 Cor 10:6-11, Paul urged his audience to avoid Israel’s idolatrous and immoral ways. Paul noted that when Israel made the golden calf (Exod 32:1-6) and cohabited with the Moabites (Num 25:1-5), idolatry led to immorality. Israel’s heritage provided Paul with illustrations of behavior he would have the Corinthians avoid. After all, the Corinthians were partakers of the new covenant, among those upon whom the ends of the ages had come (1 Cor 10:11).