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Numbers xxii. 1-19

While a part of the army of Israel was engaged in the campaign against Bashan, the tribes remained "in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho." The topography is given here, as elsewhere, from the point of view of one dwelling in Canaan; and the locality indicated is a level stretch of land, some five or six miles broad, between the river and the hills. In this plain there was ample room for the encampment, while along the Jordan and on the slopes to the east all the produce of field and garden, the spoil of conquest, was at the disposal of the Israelites. They rested therefore, after their long journey, in sight of Canaan, waiting first for the return of the troops, then for the command to advance; and the delay may very likely have extended to several months.

Now the march of Israel had kept to the desert side of Moab, so that the king and people of that land had no reason to complain. But the campaign against the Amorites, ending so quickly and decisively for the invaders, showed what might have taken place if they had attacked Moab, what might yet come to pass if they turned southward instead of crossing the Jordan. And there was great dismay. "Moab was sore afraid261 of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel." Manifestly it would have been unwise for Balak the king of the Moabites to attack Israel single-handed. But others might be enlisted against this new and vigorous enemy, among them the Midianites. And to these Balak turned to consult in the emergency.

By the "Midianites" we must understand the Bedawin of the time, the desert tribes which possibly had their origin in Midian, east of the Elanitic Gulf, but were now spread far and wide. On the borders of Moab a large and important clan of this people fed their flocks; and to their elders Balak appealed. "Now," he said, "shall this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field." The result of the consultation was not an expedition of war but one of a quite different kind. Even the wild Bedawin had been dismayed by the firm resolute tread of the Israelites, a people marching on, as no people had ever been seen to march, from faraway Egypt to find a new home. The elders of Moab and of Midian cannot decide on war; but superstition points to another means of attack. May they not obtain a curse against Israel, under the influence of which its strength shall decay? Is there not in Pethor one who knows the God of this people and has the power of dreadful malediction? They will send for him; Balaam shall invoke disaster on the invaders, then peradventure Balak will prevail, and smite them, and drive them out of the land.

There can be no doubt in what direction we are to look for Pethor, the dwelling-place of the great diviner. It is "by the River," that is to say, by the River Euphrates. It is in Aram, for thence Balaam262 says Balak has brought him. It is in "the land of the children of Ammo" (xxii. 5), for such is the preferable translation of the words rendered "children of his people." The situation of Pethor has been made out. "At an early period in Assyrian research," says Mr. A. H. Sayce,1010   "The Higher Criticism and the Monuments," p. 274. "Pethor was identified by Dr. Hincks with the Pitru of the cuneiform inscriptions. Pitru stood on the western bank of the Euphrates, close to its junction with the Sajur, and a little to the north of the latter. It was consequently only a few miles to the south of the Hittite capital Carchemish. Indeed, Shalmaneser II. tells us explicitly that the city was called Pethor by 'the Hittites.' It lay on the main road from east to west, and so occupied a position of military and commercial importance." Originally an Aramæan town, Pethor had received, on its conquest by the Hittites, a new element of population from that race, and the two peoples lived in it side by side. The Aramæans of Pethor called themselves "the sons of (the god) Ammo"; and, according to Mr. Sayce, Dr. Neubauer is right in explaining the name of Balaam as a compound of Baal with Ammi, which occurs as a prefix in the Hebrew names Ammiel, Amminadab, and others. It is also worthy of mention that the name of Balak's father—Zippor, or "Bird"—occurs in the notice, still extant, of a despatch sent by the Egyptian government to Palestine in the third year of Menephtah II.

It may be further said with regard to Mr. Sayce's valuable work, that he does not attempt to deal particularly with the prophecies of Balaam. "They must," he says, "be explained by Hebrew philology before263 the records of the monuments can be called upon to illustrate them. It may be that the text is corrupt; it may be that passages have been added at various times to the original prophecy of the Aramæan seer; these are questions which must be settled before the Assyriologist can determine when it was that the Kenite was carried away captive, or when Asshur himself was 'afflicted.'"

The divination of which so great things were expected by Balak is amply illustrated in the Babylonian remains. Among the Chaldeans the art of divination rested "on the old belief in every object of inanimate nature being possessed or inhabited by a spirit, and the later belief in a higher power, ruling the world and human affairs to the smallest detail, and constantly manifesting itself through all things in nature as through secondary agents, so that nothing whatever could occur without some deeper significance which might be discovered and expounded by specially trained and favoured individuals." The Chaldeo-Babylonians "not only carefully noted and explained dreams, drew lots in doubtful cases by means of inscribed arrows, interpreted the rustle of trees, the plashing of fountains and murmur of streams, the direction and form of lightnings, not only fancied that they could see things in bowls of water, and in the shifting forms assumed by the flame which consumed sacrifices and the smoke which rose therefrom, and that they could raise and question the spirits of the dead, but drew presages and omens, for good or evil, from the flight of birds, the appearance of the liver, lungs, heart, and bowels of the animals offered in sacrifice and opened for inspection, from the natural defects or monstrosities of babies or the young of animals—in short, from any and everything that264 they could possibly subject to observation." There were three classes of wise men, astrologers, sorcerers, and soothsayers; all were in constant demand, and all used rules and principles settled for them by the so-called science which was their study.

We cannot of course affirm that Balaam was one of these Chaldeans, or that his art was precisely of the kind described. He is declared by the narrative to have received communications from God. There can, however, be no doubt that his wide reputation rested on the mystical rites by which he sought his oracles, for these, and not his natural sagacity, would impress the common mind. When the elders of Moab and Midian went to seek him they carried the "rewards of divination" in their hands. It was believed that he might obtain from Jehovah the God of the Israelites some knowledge concerning them on which a powerful curse might be based. If then, in right of his office, he pronounced the malediction, the power of Israel would be taken away. The journey to Pethor was by the oasis of Tadmor and the fords at Carchemish. A considerable time, perhaps a month, would be occupied in going and returning. But there was no other man on whose insight and power dependence could be placed. Those who carried the message were men of rank, who might have gone as ambassadors to a king. It was confidently expected that the soothsayer would at once undertake the important commission.

Arriving at Pethor they find Balaam and convey the message, which ends with the flattering words, "I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed." But they have to treat with no vulgar thaumaturgist, no mere weaver of spells and incantations. This is a man of intellectual power,265 a diplomatist, whose words and proceedings have a tone of high purpose and authority. He hears attentively, but gives no immediate answer. From the first he takes a position fitted to make the ambassadors feel that if he intervenes it will be from higher motives than desire to earn the rewards with which they presume to tempt him. He is indeed a prince of his tribe, and will be moved by nothing less than the oracle of that unseen Being whom the chiefs of Moab and Midian cannot approach. Let the messengers wait, that in the shadow and silence of night Balaam may inquire of Jehovah. His answer shall be in accordance with the solemn, secret word that comes to him from above.

Three of the New Testament writers, the Apostles Peter, John, and Jude, refer to Balaam in terms of reprobation. He is "Balaam the son of Beor who loved the hire of wrongdoing"; he "taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication"; he is the type of those who run riotously in the way of error for hire. Gathering up the impressions of his whole life, these passages declare him avaricious and cunningly malignant, a prophet who perverting his gifts brought on himself a special judgment. At the outset, however, Balaam does not appear in this light. The pictorial narrative shows a man of imposing personality, who claims the "vision and the faculty Divine." He seems resolute to keep by the truth rather than gratify any dreams of ambition or win great pecuniary rewards. It is worth while to study a character so mingled, in circumstances that may be called typical of the old world.

Did Balaam enjoy communications with God? Had he real prophetic insight? Or must we hold with266 some that he only professed to consult Jehovah, and found the answer to his inquiries in the conclusions of his own mind?

It would appear at first sight that Balaam, as a heathen, was separated by a great gulf from the Hebrews. But at the time to which the narrative of Numbers refers, if not at the period of its composition, the boundary line implied by the word "gentile" did not exist. Moses had clearly taught to the Hebrews ethical and religious truths which neighbouring nations saw very indistinctly; and the Israelites were beginning to know themselves a chosen race. Yet Abraham was their father, and other peoples could claim descent from him. Edom, for example, is in Numbers xx. acknowledged as Israel's brother.

At the stage of history, then, to which our passage belongs, the strongly marked differences between nation and nation afterwards insisted upon were not realised. And this is so far true in respect of religion, that though the Kenites, a Midianite tribe, did not follow the way of Jehovah, Moses, as we have seen, had no difficulty in joining with them in a sacrificial feast in honour of the Lord of Heaven. If beyond the circle of the tribes any one, impressed by their history, attributing their rescue from Egypt and their successful march towards Canaan to Jehovah, acknowledged His greatness and began to approach Him with sacred rites, no doubt would have existed among the Hebrews generally that by such a man their God could be found and His favour won. The narrative before us, stating that Jehovah called Balaam and communicated with him, simply declares what the more patriotic and religious Israelites would have had no difficulty whatever in receiving. This diviner of Pethor had heard of267 Israel's deliverance at the Red Sea, had followed with keen interest the progress of the tribes, had made himself acquainted with the law of Jehovah given at Sinai. Why, then, should he not worship Jehovah? And why should not Jehovah speak to him, make revelations to him of things still in the future?

So far, however, we touch only the beliefs, or possible beliefs, of the Israelites. The facts may be quite different. We are in the way of considering revelations of the Divine will to have been so uncommon and sacred that a man of very high character alone could have enjoyed them. If indeed God spoke to Balaam, it must have been in another way than to Abraham, Moses, Elijah. Especially since his history shows him to have been a man bad at heart, we are inclined to pronounce his consultation of God mere pretence; and as for his prophecies, did he not simply hear of Israel's greatness and forecast the future with the prescience of a clear calculator, who used his eyes and reason to good purpose? But with this the gist of the Bible narrative cannot be said to agree. It seems to be certainly implied that God did speak to Balaam, open his eyes, unfold to him things far off in the future. Although many cases might be adduced which go to prove that an acute man of the world, weighing causes and tracing the drift of things, may show wonderful foresight, yet the language here used points to more than that. It seems to mean that Divine illumination was given to one beyond the circle of the chosen people, to one who from the first was no friend of God and at the last showed himself a malicious enemy of Israel. And the doctrine must be that any one who, looking beneath the surface of things, studying the character of men and peoples, connects the past and the present and anticipates268 events which are still far off, has his illumination from God. Further it is taught that in a real sense the man who has some conception of Providence, though he is false at heart, may yet, in the sincerity of an hour, in the serious thought roused at some crisis, have a word of counsel, a clear indication of duty, a revelation of things to come which others do not receive. Still we must interpret the words, "God said to Balaam," in a way which will not lift him into the ranks of the heaven-directed who are in any sense mediators, prophets of the age and the world. This man has his knowledge so far from above, has his insight as a true gift, receives the word of prohibition, of warning, veritably from a Divine source. Yet he does not stand in a high position, lifted above other men. The whole history is of value for our instruction, because as surely as Balaam received directions from God, we also receive them through conscience; because as he opposed God so we also may oppose Him in self-will or the evil mind. When we are urged to do what is right the urgency is Divine, as certainly as if a voice from heaven fell on our ears. Only when we realise this do we feel aright the solemnity of obligation. If we fail to ascribe our knowledge and our sense of duty to God, it will seem a light thing to neglect the eternal laws by which we should be ruled.

Reaching Pethor the messengers of Balak state their request. Instead of going with them at once, as a false man might be expected to do, Balaam declares that he must consult Jehovah; and the result of his consultation is that he declines. In the morning he says to the princes of Moab, "Get you into your land, for Jehovah refuseth to give me leave to go with you." The question whether Israel was a fit269 subject for blessing or for cursing has been practically settled in his mind. When he lays the matter before Jehovah, as he knows Him through His law and the history of Israel, it is made unmistakable that no malediction is to be pronounced. But what, then, was the secret of Balaam's delay, of his consultation of the oracle? If it had been an absolute determination to serve the interests of righteousness, he could now frame his reply to the princes in such a way that they would understand it to be final. He would not say demurely, "Jehovah refuseth to give me leave," for these words allow the belief that somehow the power to curse may yet be obtained. Balaam permits himself to hope that he will find some flaw in Israel's relation to Jehovah which will leave room for a malediction. He delays, and professes to consult God, diplomatically, that even by the refusal his fame as a diviner acquainted with the Unseen Power may be established. And the answer he returns means that his own reputation is not to be hazarded by any divination which Jehovah will discredit.

Had not the future proceedings of Balaam cast their shadow back on his career and words, he might have been pronounced at the outset a man of integrity. The rewards offered him were probably large. We may believe that whatever reputation Balaam had previously enjoyed this embassy was the most important ever sent to him, the greatest tribute to his fame. And we would have been inclined to say, Here is an example of conscientiousness. Balaam might go with the princes at least, though he can pronounce no curse on Israel; but he does not; he is too honourable even to profess the desire to gratify his patrons. This favourable judgment, however, is forbidden. It was270 of himself, of his fame and position, he was thinking. He would not have gone in any case unless it had precisely suited his purpose. Understanding that Israel is not to be cursed, he manages so that his refusal shall enhance his own reputation.

Still, the small amount of sincerity there is in Balaam, superimposed on his self-love and diplomacy, is in contrast to the utter want of it which men often show. They are of a party, and at the first call they will make shift to denounce whatever their leaders bid them denounce. There is no pretence even of waiting for a night to have time for quiet reflection; much less any anxious thought regarding Divine providence, righteousness, mercy, by means of which duty may be discovered. It is possible for men to appear earnest defenders of religion who never go even as far as Balaam went in seeking the guidance of truth and principle. They pass judgments with a haste that shows the shallow heart. Tempted by some envious Balak within, even when no appeal is made, they set up as soothsayers and take on them to prophesy evil.

The messengers of Balak returned with the report of their disappointment; but what they had to say caused, as Balaam no doubt intended, greater anxiety than ever to secure his services. One who was so lofty, and at the same time so much in the secrets of the God Israel worshipped, was indeed a most valuable ally, and his help must be obtained at any price. Did he say that Jehovah refused to give him leave? Balak will assure him of rewards which no God of Israel can give, very great recompense, tangible, immediate. Other messengers are sent, more, and more honourable than the former, and they carry very flattering offers. If271 he will curse Israel, Balak the son of Zippor will do for him whatever he desires. Nothing is to hinder him from coming; neither the prohibition of Jehovah nor anything else.

The conduct of Balaam when he is appealed to the second time confirms the judgment it has been found necessary to pronounce on his character. He behaves like a man who has been expecting, and yet, with what conscience he has, dreading, the renewed invitation. He appears indeed to be emphatic in declaring his superiority to the offer of reward: "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more." The air of incorruptible virtue is kept. The Moabites and Midianites are to understand that they have to do with a man whose whole soul is set on truth. And the protestation would deceive us—only Balaam does not dismiss the men. Giving him all credit for an intention still to keep right with the Almighty, or, shall we say? allowing that he was too clever a man to imperil his reputation by intending a curse which would not be followed by any ill effects, we find immediately that he is unwilling to let the opportunity pass. He asks the messengers to tarry for the night, that he may again consult Jehovah in the matter. He has already seen the truth as to Israel, the promise of its splendid career. Yet he will repeat the inquiry, ask once more regarding the prospect he has distinctly seen. It is ambition that moves him, and perhaps, along with that, avarice. May he not be able to say something that will sound like a curse, something on which Balak shall fasten in the belief that it gives him power against Israel? It would, at all events, be a gratification to travel in state272 across the desert, to appear amongst the princes of Midian and Moab as the man after whom kings had to run. And there was the possibility that without absolutely forfeiting his reputation as a seer of things to come he might obtain at least a portion of the reward. He will at all events do the messengers the honour of seeking another oracle for their sakes, though he dishonours the name of God from whom he seeks it.

It was possible for Balaam during the interval of the two embassies to recover himself. He was one who could understand integrity, who knew enough of the conditions of success to see that absolute consistency is the only strength. There was a straight way which he might have followed. But temptation pressed on him. Tired of the narrow field within which he had as yet exercised his powers, he saw one wider and more splendid open to him. The wealth was no small inducement. He was in the way of divining for reward; this was the greatest ever in his reach. And Balaam, knowing well how base and vain his pretext was, resigned his integrity, even the pretence of it, when he bade the messengers wait.

Yet was his fault a singular one? We cannot say that he showed extraordinary covetousness in desiring Balak's silver and gold. For the time, in the circumstances, scarcely anything else could be expected of a man like him. To judge Balaam by modern Christian rules is an anachronism. The remarkable thing is to find one of his class at all scrupulous about the means he employs to promote himself. We say that he was guilty of perverting conscience; and so he was. But his conscience did not see or speak so clearly as ours. And are not Christian men liable to have their heads turned by the countenance of those in a higher rank273 than their own, and to succumb to the enticement of great wealth? When they are asked to reconsider a decision they know to be right, do they never tamper with conscience? It is one of the commonest things to find persons nominally religious indulging in the same desires and acting in the same way as Balaam. But the earthly craving that makes any one go back to God a second time about a matter which ought to have been settled once for all, involves the greatest moral hazard. No human being, in any situation, has spiritual strength to spare. There is a point where he who hesitates casts the whole of his life into the balance. For young persons, especially, a great warning, often needed, lies here.

The fault of Balaam, a fault of which he could not fail to be conscious, was that of tampering with his inspiration. The insight he possessed—and which he valued—had come through his sincere estimate of things and men apart from any pressure brought to bear on him to take a side either for money or for fame. His mind using perfect freedom, travelling in a way of sincere judgment, had reached a height from which he enjoyed wide prospects. As a man and a prophet he had his standing through this superiority to the motives that swayed vulgar minds. The admission of sordid influences, whether it began with the visit of Balak's messengers or had been previously allowed, was perhaps the first great error of his life. And it is so in the case of every man who has found the strength of integrity and reached the vision of the true. The Christian who has held himself free from the entanglements of the world, refusing to touch its questionable rewards, or to be influenced by its jealousy and envy, has what may be called his inspiration, though it lifts274 him to no prophetic height. He has a clear mind, a clear eye. His own way is plain, and he can also see the crookedness of paths which others follow and reckon straight enough. He can go with a firm step and say fearlessly, "Be ye followers of me." But if the base considerations of gain and loss, of ease or discomfort, of the applause or enmity of other men, intrude, if even in a small way he becomes a man of the world, at once there is declension. He may not be ambitious nor covetous. Yet the withdrawal of his mind from its sole allegiance to God and the righteousness of God tells at once on his moral vision. It is clouded. The oracle becomes ambiguous. He hears two voices, many voices; and the counsels of his mind are confused. Like others, he now takes a crooked course, he feels that he has lost the old firmness of speech and action.

It is a sad thing when one who has felt himself "born to the good, to the perfect," who has gained the power that comes through reverence, and sees greater power before him, yields to that which is not venerable, not pure. The beginnings of the fatal surrender may be small. Only a throb of self-consciousness and satisfaction when some one speaks a word of flattery or with show of much deference prefers an astute request. Only a disposition to listen when in seeming friendship counsel of a plausible kind is offered, and milder ways of judging are recommended to lessen friction and put an end to discord. Even the strong are so weak, and those who see are so easily blinded, that no one can count himself safe. And indeed it is not the great temptations, like that which came to Balaam, we have chiefly to dread. The very greatness of a bribe and magnificence of an opportunity put conscience on its guard. Peril comes rather when the appeal for275 charity, or the casuistry of protesting virtue, sends one to reconsider judgment that has been solemnly pronounced by a voice we cannot mistake; when we forget that the matter is only rightly determined for men when it is clearly and irrevocably decided by the law of God, whatever men may think, however they may deplore or rebel.

"Thou and God exist—

So think!—for certain; think the mass—mankind—

Disparts, disperses, leaves thyself alone!

Ask thy lone soul what laws are plain to thee—

Thee and no other,—stand or fall by them!

That is the part for thee: regard all else

For what it may be—Time's illusion."

Men in their need, in their sorrow, their self-esteem, would have the true man revoke his judgment, yield a point at least to their entreaties. He will do them kindness, he will show himself human, reasonable, judicious. But on the other side are those to whom, in showing this consideration, he will be unjust, declaring their honour worthless, their sore struggle a useless waste of strength; and he himself stands before the Judge. The one sure way is that which keeps the life in the line of the statutes of God, and every judgment in full accord with His righteousness.

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