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Such I conceive to be the simple account of the general contents of a passage of Scripture, which has been the subject of much speculation. At the time when Canaan was invaded, the superstitions prevalent among idolaters made it natural for them to have recourse, in any exigency, to those who cultivated arts of sorcery, and were believed to be able to influence the gods. Balaam was such a person; and he proceeded in precisely the manner in which we should expect to find an impostor of his class proceeding, if he had a king for his suitor and an occasion of great publicity for the exercise of his cunning, and was contriving to turn the transaction to as great account as possible, both in respect to present gain, and to permanent credit as a master of his craft.
He needed only to know the force and enthusiasm of the Israelites, and the want of spirit and of preparation on the part of those whom
Israelites would prove too powerful for their neighbours. - The text of verses 22 – 24 is very uncertain; but I understand, to sum up all in a few words, that the pretended seer chose to end his discourse with a climax, saying that the conquests and revolutions he had spoken of were not all that were ever to take place; that there would be others yet, in later times; a declaration which he might make with little risk to his reputation, since he added, that he did not undertake to declare when the events he foretold in such indefinite terms should occur. “ Who shall be living,” he asks, “ when God shall do this ? ” — “Until Ashur shall carry thee away captive” (22). “ And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Ashur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever” (24).
,” I take to mean Assyria, from whose neighbourhood he had come; “ Chittim,” people beyond the sea, the word having a vagueness of somewhat the same kind as our word Indies ; and “ Eber," the Hebrews, of whose present triumphs he had been speaking. And what he says has this definiteness, and no more; that the revolutions of empire should not stop with that which was now impending; that after the Israelites had conquered the Kenites and others, land forces should at some time come from the inland direction, that of Assyria, and conquer them; and then sea forces, at some time, would come from the other quarter, and conquer the conquerors. The thing was very likely to occur in some age of the world's life. But if it did not, the soothsayer lost nothing ; he would not be here to be refuted.
they had terrified, to be sure that they must conquer. It was not, however, for him to lose the opportunity of enriching himself, and making himself conspicuous, by prejudging the question from the first, and saying that he could do nothing. His consent to use his mediation, when first applied to by the messengers, indicates a friendly disposition towards Balak, and naturally excites that prince to further solicitation. On the other hand, his declaration, that he can only do as Jehovah shall dictate, goes to confirm his character with them for candor, disinterestedness, and veracity; they could not be surprised to learn that Balaam, powerful as he was, could achieve nothing of what they desired, except so far as he should be able to conciliate or overrule the deity, who had so powerfully protected his people against the gods of Egypt; and by placing the question on this ground from the first, he provided himself with a defence, when his final announcement of inability to pronounce the curse should be made. His further measures, as they are recorded in this passage, all bear upon the threefold object of keeping the king in his toils till he should have received a large reward ; making his consequence widely known; and preparing himself to pronounce at last a decision, which should establish and extend his estimation as a proficient in his pretended art.
Another measure adopted by him, of which we are told further on, is equally consistent with his character, as I have represented it. He had seen that the Israelites, remaining well organized and resolute as they seemed, could not be driven back by the feeble races into whose neighbourhood they had come ; and this conclusion he communicates to Balak in the form which has been commented on, saying, that Jehovah, their
divinity, would not consent to have them cursed.* He knew, however, that if they could be seduced into the idolatrous and lascivious practices of Midian, a course of such hostility to their institutions and law would be fatal to all subordination, and involve an abandonment of all private sense of character; and that, in the social dismemberment which would follow, they would be in a condition to be overcome. In advising to this attempt, he offered no contradiction to his previous course. On the contrary, the spirit of the counsel evidently was, Though Jehovah, their God, refuses to permit them to be doomed, as long as they are obedient, yet he cannot prevent them from breaking their fealty to him, and, if you can persuade them to disloyalty, his protection will be forfeited.
The scene of these transactions, was the country of Midian and Moab, and the camp of Balak. Thither also we are accordingly to look for the origin of the narrative, written or oral, which has been transmitted to us, and which, in all probability, was preserved by Moses in the same shape in which it reached him. It probably became known to him, after the attack upon the Midianites, of which we are soon to read. The reason of his publishing and preserving it, is easily assigned. It was to his purpose to use all methods to encourage his inexperienced people to the work which was before them, a work to be only begun in his life-time, and prosecuted after his death; and nothing could serve this purpose more effectually, than an authentic narrative of a transaction like that on which we have been remarking, indicating, as it did, the panic which prevailed in the region, and tending to extend it further, and thus showing, that the Israelites had little to fear, except from their own timidity.
* Compare Numb. xxii. 21.
The treacherous advice, which, a little further on, we shall find retrospectively alluded to, as having been given by Balaam,* was attended, for the moment, with but too good success. The Israelites, dazzled and bewildered, it is likely, by magnificent and seductive appliances of vice, to which, in their simple wandering life, they had been all unused, were prevailed on by the idolaters of Moab and Midian, to take part in the riotous and lustful orgies of their gods; and, as before by an insubordination which threatened the permanency of the state, so now by practices which outraged the great principle and object of its institution, they created a necessity for a severe and exemplary visitation of the Divine displeasure. To present the principles of interpretation, which I regard as applicable to the narrative in the twenty-fifth chapter, would be only to repeat what I submitted in treating of the insurrection of Korah and his confederates.t I but add the remark, that the reasons, which in the former case dictated a direct supernatural interposition, not existing in the present instance (since there was now no collision between different portions of the people, to exasperate them one against another), the punishment of the offenders was committed to that portion who remained faithful ; the rather, it may be thought, as this course would tend to excite them to a greater abhorrence of the sin. I
* Numb. xxxi, 16.
# pp. 358, 359. | In xxv. 2, 3, there is no intimation that the guilty part of the people abjured their faith in Jehovah, or so much as adopted a belief in BaalPeor along with it. What they did was, to participate in the licentious acts by which his devotees professed to honor him. “ And Israel (some of the Israelites, as the context shows, and as the Samaritan copy expressly reads] joined himself unto Baal-Peor”; rather bound themselves with his badge. —“Take all the heads (chiefs) of the people” (4); i. e. apparently, take them to sit in judgment on the guilty; compare 5. “ Hang them up”; that is, their bodies, after they are slain, as I am to show hereafter. "Against the sun "; compare Deut. xxi. 23. — “ Those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand" (9). The hint
Preparatory to a division of the territory, about to be conquered, into districts proportioned to the population of the several tribes, another census is directed to be taken ; and from the fact, that the names of the great families composing the respective tribes are now recorded, it may be gathered, that the arrangement contemplated such a subdivision of the territory of each tribe, that its several branches (distinguished by their descent from different sons of the common progenitor of the tribe) should each compose a separate neighbourhood. The numerical statements exhibited in this chapter, compared with those of the former census, are such as to increase our distrust of the integrity of the text, in cases where figures are concerned. The sum of the whole people is less, by about two thousand, than what was ascertained forty years before; and this does not surprise us, when we consider the life they had led meanwhile, and the great mortality on two occasions. But the changes represented to have taken place in some of the tribes, are so remarkable as to justify the belief of a vitiation of the record. For example, the tribe of Simeon is represented to have been reduced by nearly two thirds of its number; and that of Manasseh,
thrown out above (p. 357, compare 56), on the uncertainty of numbers, has of course equal application here. “ The plague” (compare 5, 8,) is the execution done by the faithful upon the offenders. — “Phinehas, the son of Eleazar,” &c. (11 – 13); Phinehas, by the zeal he hath manifested for my honor and the people's virtue, hath shown himself worthy of that priesthood, which is his and his posterity's by hereditary claim, and which I now confirm to him. The act of Phinehas was of the greater importance, as it exhibited an example of determination, to excite others, (thus checking the sin, and arresting the extension of its punishinent, compare 8, 11,) and as the crime, which it avenged, was that of persons of high rank (compare 14, 15), and was done with publicity and defiance, to the overthrow of all subordination (which was the very point Balaam had had in view) and in mockery of the people's repentance. Compare 6.
* Numb, xvi., xxv.