1Balaam, however, perceiving that the LORD was pleased to bless Israel, did not go aside as before to seek omens, but turned his gaze toward the wilderness. 2When Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped, tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him, 3and he recited his poem:

The oracle of Balaam, son of Beor,

the oracle of the man whose eye is true,

4The oracle of one who hears what God says,

and knows what the Most High knows,

Of one who sees what the Almighty sees,

in rapture* and with eyes unveiled:

5How pleasant are your tents, Jacob;

your encampments, Israel!

6Like palm trees spread out,

like gardens beside a river,

Like aloes the LORD planted,

like cedars beside water;

7Water will drip from their buckets,

their seed will have plentiful water;

Their king will rise higher than Agag*

and their dominion will be exalted.

8They have the like of a wild ox’s horns:

God who brought them out of Egypt.

They will devour hostile nations,

break their bones, and crush their loins.a

9Crouching, they lie like a lion,

or like a lioness; who will arouse them?

Blessed are those who bless you,

and cursed are those who curse you!b

10In a blaze of anger at Balaam, Balak clapped his hands* and said to him, “It was to lay a curse on my foes that I summoned you here; yet three times now you have actually blessed them!c 11Now flee to your home. I promised to reward you richly, but the LORD has withheld the reward from you!” 12Balaam replied to Balak, “Did I not even tell the messengers whom you sent to me, 13‘Even if Balak gave me his house full of silver and gold, I could not of my own accord do anything, good or evil, contrary to the command of the LORD’? Whatever the LORD says I must say.d

The Fourth Oracle. 14“But now that I am about to go to my own people, let me warn you what this people will do to your people in the days to come.” 15Then he recited his poem:

The oracle of Balaam, son of Beor,

the oracle of the man whose eye is true,

16The oracle of one who hears what God says,

and knows what the Most High knows,

Of one who sees what the Almighty sees,

in rapture and with eyes unveiled.

17I see him, though not now;

I observe him, though not near:

A star shall advance from Jacob,

and a scepter* shall rise from Israel,

That will crush the brows of Moab,e

and the skull of all the Sethites,

18Edom will be dispossessed,

and no survivor is left in Seir.

Israel will act boldly,

19and Jacob will rule his foes.

20Upon seeing Amalek, Balaam recited his poem:

First* of the nations is Amalek,

but their end is to perish forever.f

21Upon seeing the Kenites,* he recited his poem:

Though your dwelling is safe,

and your nest is set on a cliff;

22Yet Kain will be destroyed

when Asshur* takes you captive.

23Upon seeing* [the Ishmaelites?] he recited his poem:

Alas, who shall survive of Ishmael,

24to deliver them from the hands of the Kittim?

When they have conquered Asshur and conquered Eber,

They too shall perish forever.

25Then Balaam set out on his journey home; and Balak also went his way.

* [24:4] In rapture: lit., “falling,” therefore possibly “in a trance.” However, this interpretation is uncertain.

* [24:7] Agag: during Saul’s reign, king of Amalek (1 Sm 15:8), fierce enemy of Israel during the wilderness period; see v. 20 (Ex 17:816).

* [24:10] Balak clapped his hands: a gesture suggesting contempt or derision, apparently made in anger (cf. Jb 27:23; Lam 2:15).

* [24:17] A star…a scepter: some early Christian writers, as well as rabbinic interpreters, understood this prophecy in messianic terms. So, for example, Rabbi Akiba designates Bar Kosiba the messiah in the early second century A.D. by calling him Bar Kokhba, i.e., son of the star, alluding to this passage. Although this text is not referred to anywhere in the New Testament, in a Christian messianic interpretation the star would refer to Jesus, as also the scepter from Israel; cf. Is 11:1. But it is doubtful whether this passage is to be connected with the “star of the Magi” in Mt 2:112. The brows of Moab, and the skull of all the Sethites: under the figure of a human being, Moab is specified as the object of conquest by a future leader of Israel. The personification of peoples or toponyms is common enough in the Old Testament; see, e.g., Hos 11:1; Ps 98:8. In Jer 48:45, which paraphrases the latter part of our verse, Moab is depicted as someone whose boasting warrants its ruin. In view of the use of Heb. pe’ah (here “brows”) in Nm 34:3 to indicate a boundary, some see in the “brows” of Moab and the “skull” of the Sethites a representation of features of Moab’s topography, i.e., the borderlands and the interior plateau. The Sethites: cf. Gn 4:25; here probably a general designation for nomadic/tribal groups on the borders of Palestine, unless they are to be identified with the Shutu mentioned in Execration texts of the early second millennium B.C. and the fourteenth century Amarna tablets from Egypt; however, the Shutu are not attested in Moab. On the basis of Gn 4:25 and Gn 25, one might also think of a reference to humanity in general.

* [24:20] First: lit., “the beginning.” In the Bible, Amalek is a people indigenous to Palestine and therefore considered as of great antiquity. There is a deliberate contrast here between the words “first” and “end.”

* [24:21] The Kenites lived in high strongholds in the mountains of southern Palestine and the Sinai Peninsula, and were skilled in working the various metals found in their territory. Their name is connected, at least by popular etymology, with the Hebrew word for “smith”; of similar sound to qayin, i.e., “Kain” or “smith,” is the Hebrew word for “nest,” qen—hence the play on words in the present passage.

* [24:22] Asshur: the mention of Asshur, i.e., Assyria, is not likely before the ninth or eighth centuries B.C.

* [24:2324] Upon seeing: this phrase, lacking the Hebrew text, is found in the Septuagint, but without “the Ishmaelites” designated as the subject of the oracle. The Hebrew text of the oracle itself shows considerable disarray; the translation therefore relies on reconstruction of the putative original and is quite uncertain.

a. [24:8] Nm 23:22.

b. [24:9] Nm 23:24; Gn 12:3; 27:29; 49:9.

c. [24:10] Nm 23:11.

d. [24:13] Nm 22:18.

e. [24:17] 2 Sm 8:2.

f. [24:20] Ex 17:14; 1 Sm 15:3.

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