In this chapter, Balak commissions Balaam to curse Israel, and Balaam encounters an angel when traveling to Moab.
The story of Balaam is a pretty major departure from the story of Numbers that we have seen so far. There are a number of reasons why this story is aberrant from the stories of Numbers (and Genesis and Exodus), but before discussing the deviances, I will first discuss how and why it fits into the story arc.
Just as we have seen in the past couple chapters, the Moabites are deeply afraid of the Israelites, and for basically the same reasons as everyone else. They are afraid that the Israelites will consume the natural resources of the land and they are afraid that the Israelites will settle in their territory rather than make the difficult journey to wherever they might be going; the Moabites probably don't know or care where the Israelites are going, since the Moabites only see them as a present threat. This is laid out in verse 3, which states that the Israelites will "lick up all that is around us", and in an arid, desert-like environment, that is a serious threat. We aren't just talking about lost income, we are potentially talking about famine and death.
The Moabites have even more reason to be afraid, because they just saw the Israelites wipe out two Amorite kingdoms, and have a reasonable suspicion that Israel might wipe them out too. Of course, as I previously stated, Moab is a distant relative to Israel through Abraham, the grandfather of Jacob and the uncle to Lot, father of Moab. So from this we know that Israel won't actually invade Moab, because that would be "the wrong thing to do", because it breaks the implicit alliance of blood relations.
What this chapter tells us then, is that Moab distrusts Israel to maintain that implicit alliance, probably because of the harshness of the conditions in that land. We have seen Israel complain about lacking water and food on many occasions, so it is a definite possibility that Israel will destroy nearly everyone in the region to claim their natural resources. That is, if you consider two nations in an alliance, and one of them has wealth, food and water, while the other is deeply impoverished but has a large military: a conflict is inevitable. Moab, in this case, appears to select a preemptive strike, hiring a local shaman to curse Israel in preparation for a military attack, "to fight against them and drive them out."
From Israel's perspective, this is an unforgivable betrayal of the implied alliance, but from Moab's perspective, they feared that Israel would have done the same to them. Still, since the bible is written from Israel's perspective, Moab will be frequently vilified for this going forward. We will also see the relations between Moab and Israel progressively deteriorate due to a variety of territorial disputes and ongoing warfare. It's worth noting that some of the territory they captured was formerly belonging to Moab (see Num 21:26).
To summarize, the story of Balaam fits into the chronology of Numbers, and it also fits the theme of Numbers by highlighting the territorial and resource concerns of the native kingdoms. In addition, it also reinforces the theme of the LORD's sovereign protection of Israel as his vassal state. We see this in how the LORD warns Balaam against cursing Israel, by the LORD's resistance to Balaam, and later by guiding Balaam to pronounce three blessings over Israel instead of curses. This is a continuation of the LORD's material provision for Israel through the desert, as well as his protection of Israel when they were in Egypt.
With all that discussion out of the way, there is also one substantial way that this story diverges from the Exodus/Numbers redemption narrative: the protagonist of this story is not an Israelite.
This is interesting for a number of reasons, but what I will focus on the most is that it shows us how the LORD relates to people not under the Abrahamic covenant. Of course, we have seen this implicitly through many of the stories, reading about Pharaoh and so on. But this story shows us in much greater detail how the LORD speaks to Balaam directly, while the Exodus is mostly a story about Moses and Pharaoh is only mentioned indirectly, as it relates to Moses and Israel. To be sure, the story of Balaam also relates to Israel, and is probably included for that reason, but it also includes dialogue between Balaam and the LORD that I will examine in detail as we move forward.
In fact, this story is a bit of a detour from the invasion narrative because, while it plugs in with the Moabites' response, it doesn't really advance the main agenda of the story. As we are told in v. 1, Israel is now "camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan". They will actually remain here for the rest of the Pentateuch. The rest of Numbers, and the entirety of Deuteronomy, take place while the Israelites remain encamped opposite of Jericho, which is within the promised land.
Balaam's adventure is primarily treated as a platform for sharing his prophetic utterances about Israel's bright future, with the secondary characteristic being the LORD's divine protection. But both of these are intended as a prelude for the long-delayed invasion of the promised land, which is now on the cusp of becoming a reality. Everything after Balaam's prophecies is also preparation for the invasion, as Moses recounts the laws of the LORD, expands on this, restates that, adds a few more laws into the mix: this all follows reliably in the meandering and didactic style of the Pentateuch.
So on the one hand, the story of Balaam follows in the chronology of the invasion story, but on the other hand, it also begins to transition us into the style of late Numbers and Deuteronomy, which is encouraging the people for the battles ahead. While Deuteronomy encourages us through the words of Moses, the story of Balaam encourages us through the prophecies of a non-Israelite. So the story of Balaam does not match the stylism of Deuteronomy, it does largely mimic it in purpose.
The specific theme of this story is the LORD turning curses into blessings for Israel; that Balak hired Balaam to curse, and instead he blesses Israel three times. Blessings and curses are extremely significant in the OT and we have seen several of them already, so I won't give a full discourse here. Some significant blessings in the past were the LORD pronouncing a blessing over Abraham (Gen 12), Isaac blessing Jacob over Esau (Gen 27), and the LORD blessing Adam and Eve in Gen 1:28. The most significant curse is Gen 3:17, where the LORD cursed the ground, but critically did not curse man himself. Man nevertheless has suffered greatly from the cursed ground, and that curse is what resulted in death (Gen 1:19), because man was taken from the ground, and so that same curse causes man to return to the ground in bodily death.
So curses and blessings have played a significant role in the biblical history, and Balaam's curse should not be treated lightly. In modern life we might not think much of curses or blessings, call them mere words, but to the patriarchs these words carried tremendous power to change peoples' lives, and the LORD uses Balaam to prove his sovereignty over man and to affirm his blessings over Israel.
Alright, so that covers all the background for this chapter. Now I will discuss some of the specific details of the story.
First I want to talk about Balak's invitation to Balaam. After receiving the invitation, Balaam consults with the LORD, refuses the first invitation, but at the LORD's direction, he accepts the second invitation. This scene, as well as Balaam's profession of faith in the LORD, presents us with a theological challenge. This challenge is whether there were true worshipers of the LORD besides the sons of Israel in ancient Mesopotamia. Since Balaam is speaking to Balak's representatives and invoking the name of the LORD, that would seem to suggest yes. On the other hand, this is in a book written by Israelites so there could be a certain amount of glossing the name of the LORD into these stories (for instance, see Gen 2:4 and onwards). Lastly, for various reasons we could suggest that Balaam is feigning devotion to the LORD, but actually worships other gods.
Realistically, I would say that this is a land in a time period of strong polytheism. The whole concept of monotheism is fairly undeveloped at this point, and even the Israelites are not particularly on board with the idea yet. There is a lot of controversy around the divine name, Yahweh/Jehovah, and when it would have been well-known to any particular group of people. That's why one of the factors I mentioned above is the "Yahwah gloss" if you will, inserting the name of the LORD into stories where the original speakers would not have known it. But even if we discount that factor and assume that Balaam was familiar with the LORD, then from that we can deduce that either 1) the Israelites or their forebears had spread around the divine name before or during their time in Egypt, 2) the LORD was one of many known, possibly worshiped, deities in the region and the Israelites were just the strongest group of his followers.
We have similar problems when discussing the origin of Abraham's faith. While we can read the LORD's sovereign promise to him in Gen 12, we are given absolutely no clue what Abraham knew of the LORD at that time, why Abraham trusted the LORD, or how any of that actually happened. No doubt part of that is the lingering ambiguity of early Genesis (which raises more questions than it answers, on the whole), but even here in Numbers we can see this ambiguity coming back to confound us. At the end of the day, I believe these questions are simply unanswerable if one is only looking at the biblical text. We simply aren't told how or why Balaam invokes the name of the LORD.
I mention all this for two reasons. First, Balaam's relationship with the LORD strongly influences the tenor of this story because of how much dialogue occurs between these two figures. While I wouldn't say that's what the story is about (rather, the story "is about" the prophecies and blessings for Israel), I would say that their relationship is the framework of this story. Second, I have heard a number of commentators try to explain away this "problem" by saying that Balaam is feigning devotion to the LORD. Many of these commentators attempt to construct a consistent "history" in the OT by saying that the LORD was not worshiped before Abraham, nor was he worshiped outside of Israel until the days of the NT. While I appreciate the intent of this history, I fear that this overstates the biblical text and goes outside of the proper domain of theological analysis. I believe the biblical text is unclear on these points and any definitive answer is therefore extending beyond what is written.
Moving on, we can see that Balaam does ascribe to worship the LORD to some extent, most likely in a polytheistic mixture of many supposed-deities. Num 21:29 tells us that the Moabites principally worship Chemosh, so I'm surprised that Balaam is highlighting Yahweh as his lord here. Either way, the LORD instructs him to go, but we can already see Balaam will not be permitted to curse Israel. In v. 22 the LORD is angry with Balaam for no stated reason. Having just given Balaam permission to go, his anger is difficult to understand. Most commentaries I've read suggest that Balaam was probably planning on cursing Israel despite the LORD's prohibition, and that's why the LORD was angry.
Balaam is really interesting. In this chapter he sounds very pious, and yet the LORD is angry with him and in Num 31 we are told that Israel killed Balaam because he counseled Moab on how to entrap the Israelites into sin (more on this later): that's another reason why people like to disparage Balaam as a fraud, and I don't think the criticism is unmerited. It's definitely possible that Balaam is only worshiping the LORD pro forma, for the appearance of things. It would certainly fit the culture, which tends towards overly polite formality between strangers (see e.g. Gen 23). Balaam seems to show a loyalty to Yahweh, but it could just be an act. Perhaps.
Regardless, God becomes angry with Balaam and we are given the next strange happening, that Balaam's donkey can see this angel of the LORD while Balaam cannot. The donkey avoids the threatening angel (with sword in hand to slay Balaam), and after seeing the angel three times is given speech to rebuke Balaam. As if the story could get any weirder, Balaam answers the donkey's question rather than (for instance) running away in shock when his donkey starts talking to him. To be fair, this is just a story and it is going to be crafted for impact rather than realism, but I always get a good laugh out of verses 28-30 because of their discourse. Not only is Balaam's donkey talking, but Balaam seems to be taking her seriously.
What makes this story even stranger (to me) is that the angel solemnly warns Balaam and then tells him to just go on what he was doing! For whatever reason, it seems the LORD didn't want to stop Balaam from going, just stop him from speaking something other than "the words which I tell you". Most commentators think that Balaam was planning to go and just curse Israel, or do whatever he needed to do to get paid. That's contrary to what the LORD told him and it explains why the LORD sent an angel to stop him, as well as the angel's subsequent warning. I agree with this explanation: it seems to be the most rational and consistent view on the story, and we are given hints of it in the angel's warning.
Next, Balak's response to Balaam is pretty funny when he goes out to the boundary of his territory to ask why Balaam has delayed. We have seen all the reasons why Balaam was slowed down, but Balak seems pretty frantic. Obviously he is still very concerned about Israel and wishes to curse them as soon as possible.
Lastly, this chapter contains the first reference to the pagan deity Baal in the OT, in v. 41 ("Balak took Balaam and brought him up to the high places of Baal"). Baal is one of the most popular pagan gods in the entire OT, frequently paired with Asherah, and is mentioned dozens of times. However, "baal" is also the Hebrew word for lord or master, so in some cases it can be difficult sometimes to figure out what meaning is intended, or even if it's a single god versus many gods. "Baal" is similar to "adonai", which also means lord. I don't know enough of the nuances to distinguish between them, except that baal is usually used to describe pagan deities while adonai is almost always a descriptor for Yahweh (as both an adjective, lord Yahweh, and a noun, lord). The only time I can find adonai not used to describe the LORD is in Gen 19:18, when Lot is speaking to the two angels (and he knew they were angels). But that is pretty close.
In both of these words, baal and adonai, we get the sense of power these gods hold over the people who worship them. The LORD is adonai for those who follow him, while the baals (pagan gods) are baal (lord) for those who seek the baals. Throughout the Abrahamic covenant we have seen lordship language used to describe Yahweh, primarily in the vassal-lordship sense as the LORD protects and provides for his people, while they homage him. Through the word "baal", we can see that the pagan gods also rule over their people while those people serve their gods. Again, see Num 21:29 for similar language, describing the Moabites as "people of Chemosh" and his "sons" and "daughters". So not only is Israel the people of Yahweh, but the other nations are the "peoples" of their respective gods.