The focus of this reading is the story of Balaam. This story can easily be confusing because it seems to be sending mixed signals, but when looking at the wider story some deeper sense seems to be drawn out.
In Numbers 20 we see Moses mess up and fall out of favour with God. In light of this, God brings out a new spokesperson to bring his blessing to his people.
Balak, the king of Moab, sees the threat that Israel poses to his nation. The Moabites were the descendants of Lot, when his daughters slept with him (Genesis 19:30-38). They are like distant cousins to the Israelites.
Balak invites Balaam to speak a curse over them. Balaam is a diviner, a foreign sorcerer who uses sacrifices to hear from the gods. Despite this, God decides to speak to him concerning Israel, that he isn’t to curse Israel but bless them instead.
The irony here is that even though God’s people fail and aren’t faithful to him, he is still able to find people outside of those loyal to him to bring about his will. So while Moses isn’t loyal, here Balaam is committed to only speaking what God has chosen to say to him.
We then get an interesting story of Balaam and his donkey, to remind us that this is still a fallen man. Just because God is choosing to use this man doesn’t mean he condones the practice of evil by worshipping other gods.
Balaam is a great sorcerer who is able to see into the future through his divination, yet here he can’t see what is in front of him while his donkey can. Balaam, who was considered very wise at the time, is speaking foolishly, while his own donkey is able to speak and speak words of wisdom. In many ways it’s a silly story, but it shows us how even great men and women can be foolish when it comes to the ways of God.
From here we see Balak invite Balaam to curse Israel three times, and three times Balaam blesses Israel. By force of habit, he tells Balak to use sacrifices to find out the will of the gods, but it is God, the God of Israel, who puts the words in his mouth.
The final time Balaam speaks is to pronounce curses over the nation of Balak and the surrounding nations who would try to fight Israel. Here’s a list of the nations and how they fit into the story so far.
Moabites - Descendants of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:30-38)
Edomites - Descendants of Esau, brother of Jacob (Genesis 25:19-28)
Amalekites - Origin unknown
Kenites - Traditions and linguistics suggest these are the descendants of Cain, but if so it is unclear how they survived the flood
Kittim - Descendants of Noah through Japheth (Genesis 10:1-3)
Asshur - Descendants of Noah through Shem (Genesis 10:1, 22)
Eber - Descendants of Noah through Shem (Genesis 10:1, 22-24)
Even at this international level, we’re meant to see that these different people groups are all part of one larger family. Part of the shame of the human condition is that this family is at odds with one another.
This moral of this story about Baalm is this, God will bring about his will. Regardless of what the will of the other people is. Regardless of whether he gets to use one of his own people, or whether he has to go out and find someone who doesn’t know him. God will bring about his will.
The psalm is attributed to the sons of Korah, and falls into the category of praise psalm. It can also, however, fit in the category of royal psalm, as it is recognises the rule and reign of God as king over all the earth.
Psalm 47:1 - A call to praise
Psalm 47:2-5 - God is a victorious king
Psalm 47:6 - A call to praise
Psalm 47:7-9 - God reigns over all the earth
The psalm opens with a call to praise God. What’s interesting is that this call is to ‘all peoples’ (Psalm 47:1). This includes those who are non-Israelites. The reason they are to praise God is because he has subdued all the nations underneath Israel.
This may seem strange to us. Why would a nation who has been defeated by the Israelites want to worship their God? This was actually a fairly common practice. Just as when a people are conquered they come under the authority of the conquering king, these people conquered by God through the Israelites, are now under God’s authority.
From this we see that Israel had a theology for the whole earth being reunited under God. They saw this coming about through military conquest. Jesus’ death and resurrection would ultimately come and wage war against the powers of death and sin, and unite the earth under God, so in many ways the Israelites weren’t wrong. But it wouldn’t look like anything they had been expecting.
The psalmist calls again for the people to praise God as their king, for he will reign over all nations. But now the idea is developed further. The people of different nations are not to remain subdued and conquered underneath Israel. They are to gather before God, just as the Israelites. Equals.
In this psalm we get to see this idea of God’s kingdom and the uniting of all the nations here in the Old Testament, two ideas many people assume are unique to the New Testament.
Anything you think I've missed? Maybe you've got a question that still needs answering. Send me a message over on my Instagram (@brynjoslin). I'd love to talk it through with you some more.
This Bible study devotional covers Numbers chapters 22-24. Here we read about the pagan prophet Balaam and the blessings he spoke of Israel despite the King of Moab's attempts to have them cursed.
As always, Spoken Gospel are committed to showing you how Jesus fulfills these specific passages. In Numbers 22-24, we see that Jesus is the one who speaks a blessing to us when all we have earned is a curse.
Understanding the context of your passage is always important. BibleProject always do an incredible job of breaking down each book so you can see how your passage fits into the wider story.
BibleProject have done an animated recap of Leviticus to help you fit today's passage into the overarching story of Numbers.
Spoken Gospel outlines the book of Numbers and point out some of the key themes, all in the medium of spoken word.