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“A Star Will Come out of Jacob”: Early Regal Images in Numbers 24:15-19

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This brief study is the second in a series dealing with regal/messianic hopes in the Old Testament. The first study dealt with Genesis 49:8-12 and the regal images that are raised there. The same will be done here with Numbers 24:15-19. We said that this background study is important to an understanding of the New Testament portrait of the Messiah since the New Testament (NT) writers constantly employed the Old Testament (OT) in their preaching and writing about Christ. And they did so for good reason, for they believed that all of the OT spoke about Christ, either directly or indirectly, by type, example, etc. Undoubtedly, much of this approach has its background in the ministry of Christ himself, for he had taught his disciples that everything that was spoken about him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms had to be fulfilled (cf. Luke 24:44). This means that in some way there is reference to him as the messiah/savior/priest/king throughout the whole OT, including the Pentateuch (for this made up the “law” as Luke referred to it here). It is to the Pentateuch, and to Numbers 24:15-19 in particular, that we now turn our attention in this short paper. (This paper is one of several to follow which will attempt to show Davidic regal conceptions in the Old Testament as backdrop for the NT presentation of the Messiah.)1

The Context of Numbers 24:15-19

Israel had destroyed the Canaanites (Num 21:1-3) and when denied right of passage they defeated the Amorites, captured their king, Sihon, and occupied his land (Num 21:21-32). Next, they struck down the entire army of Og, king of Bashan, leaving no survivors and taking possession of his land (Num 21:34-35). With Israel’s victories fresh in his ears, Balak, king of Moab, and the Moabites were greatly unsettled. Balak, therefore, promised Balaam, the sorcerer (cf. <yv!j*n+ tar^q=l! [24:1]), a handsome fee, if he would only curse the Israelites. Balaam’s first three oracles include the fact that God had not cursed the Israelites (23:8), but indeed, as their one and only king, had delivered them from Egypt and blessed them (23:21-22). Israel is said to be like a lioness (ayb!l*K=) and a lion (yr!a&k^) bent on devouring its prey ([r#f# [23:24] ) and her king (oKl=m^) will be greater than Agag and her kingdom will be exalted (otk%l=m^ ac@N~t!w+ 24:7). Here again we also find the imagery of physical blessing as “water will flow from their buckets” and “their seed will have abundant water” (24:7) and all this is in connection with Israel’s king.

A Look at Numbers 24:15-19

With these three oracles in place Balaam then announces the coming of a great king in Israel (Num 24:15-19), after which he predicts the demise of the Amalekites, the Kenites, and Asshur and Eber (24:20-25).2 Balaam says that “he sees him, but not now,” and “he beholds him, but not near” (24:17). The same verb (ha*r* “see”) is here used as in 23:9, 21a.3 But here Balaam speaks not of the present, but of the future. As Milgrom comments:

These two verbs occur in the first two oracles . . . Their scope is graduated, indicating a heightening of Balaam’s visionary powers. In the first oracle, he is endowed with normal physical sight. In the second, he attains the spiritual power to see Israel’s invulnerable state in the present. Now his vision soars from the plane of the present to behold the distant future. The verb ra’ah also means “to divine” (e.g., 1 Kings 22:19).4

The content of what Balaam sees concerns a “star (bk*oK Ir^D*) coming out of Jacob,” a “scepter arising out of Israel” (fb#V@ <q*w+). The nearest antecedent to the “star” is the “him” (i.e. cf. the 3 m.s. suffix on har and rWv) of the immediately preceding lines which indicates that a person is in view.5 While the term bk*oK is not often used in the OT to refer to a king (but cf. Isa 14:12), when used in parallel with fb#V# this is certainly the meaning. This is further confirmed by connecting the escalating greatness of Israel’s king in the immediate context (24:7) with what the star is said to do in vv. 17-19. Additionally, it may be noted that the verb ir^d* is often used in the OT to refer to “marching,” which itself may imply a king as the leader of an army (see Deut 33:29; Isa 63:3 for its military connotation).6

Balaam’s prediction concerns the rise of David and the Davidic kingdom.7 The “star” refers to David who struck down the Moabites8 (Num 24:17; 2 Sam 8:2) and the Edomites (Num 24:18; 2 Sam 8:13, 14; 1 Kings 11:15, 16; 1 Chron 18:12, 13). Thus under David Israel prospered and the nations roundabout were subjugated and often had to bring tribute (e.g., 2 Sam 8:2, 6). But, the prophecy cannot be exhausted at this point, for David did not completely destroy Moab and Edom, with the result that later writers would be free to use this imagery to speak of the one who would come and deal ultimately with the enemies of God.9 The use of the term “star” does more than point to a ruler, it also connects that ruler with the realm of the god(s) in the ancient Near East. This is true from the Isaiah 14:12 text (albeit in a negative fashion) and is true much later in statements made about Jesus Christ. His birth was connected with astral events (Matt 2:2) and he received the name of “the bright Morning Star” (Luke 1:78-79; Rev 22:16) in connection with his descent from the line of David.

Summary of Numbers 24:15-19

In summary, then, Balaam’s oracle is a prophecy of David and his kingdom, though such a fulfillment does not exhaust the oracle. The ultimate ruler to come will destroy the enemies of Israel for what they have done to God’s people, but under his leadership the nation will grow strong. The reference to him as a “star” is a way of connecting this ruler to the deities and speaking of his coming in connection with the will of the gods. In Israel’s theology this would ultimately mean his close connection to YHWH which may be reflected in the “sonship” language of the Davidic covenant developed at a later date (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7). With the reference throughout the oracles, and indeed in this one, to the defeat of those who curse Israel on the one hand, and the ascendancy of God’s nation on the other, we may legitimately connect the Balaam incident in general and the reference to a coming ruler in particular, to the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.10 This scene is yet another frame forward in the outworking of YHWH’s dealings with Israel. We see again, as we did in Genesis 49:8-12 that the recipient of the promise is specifically an individual, though the nation as whole will benefit.

Pomykala11 (p. 22-24) sees these as not explicitly Davidic royal traditions. They do not in themselves “bear any specifically Davidic characteristics.” But the centrality of “Judah,” “a lion,” and “conquest” in Gen 49:8-12 make the connection to David most likely and their use for non-Davidide most unlikely. These prophecies set the foundation for there is no other legitimate hope in the OT for Judah and the people of Israel, except in the promise of a Davidic ruler. The promises envisioned in Genesis 49:8-12 and Numbers 24:15-19 were concretized in 2 Samuel 7:12-16. They speak to the Davidic covenant and the promises that underlie that hope.

1 There is an ongoing discussion among scholars as to the precise date for the development of the “messianic” idea in Israel. The present author is not arguing that this text as originally given has all the messianic intent of later texts, but only that with its exalted regal language it is ripe fodder for later writers to nourish their messianic hopes on. After we have looked at several texts throughout the OT and the intertestamental period, we will then examine the NT to see where and how these ideas are utilized.

2 So the oracles as a whole speak of the increasing strength and supremacy of Israel and the subjugation and demise of her foes.

3 See Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 105, who refers to the verb har as the main Leitwort that holds chs. 22-24 together and is complemented by the reiterated “phrase-motifs” about blessing and cursing in this section.

4 Jacob Milgrom, Numbers rbdmb, The JPS Torah Commentary, gen. ed. Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia/New York: 1990), 207.

5 But cf. George B. Gray, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers, The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, ed. S. R. Driver, A. Plummer, and C. A. Briggs (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1903), 369. He argues that since Israel is the subject in verse 14, and the other poems as well (23:9 in particular), she is also the subject here. This is highly unlikely as the text says that the star will come out of Israel, with the clear inference that the star cannot be at the same moment both Israel and one who comes out of Israel.

6 BDB, p. 202 (1). But see also Gray, Numbers, 369.

7 This does not mean a prophecy ex eventu as many commentators understand it. See e.g., Martin Noth, Numbers (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), 192-93.

8 The reference to the “sons of Seth” is difficult, but should probably be understood in parallel with Moab, and therefore referring to Moab, and not to the Shutu people of Canaanite origin referred to in certain 19th century B.C.E. Egyptian Execration Texts. See R. K. Harrison, Numbers, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary, ed. Kenneth L. Barker (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990), 322.

9 It is clear that David did not completely subjugate the Edomites for at many points in Israel’s history they rose up against her (cf. 1 Kings 11:14ff.; 2 Kings 8:20, 14:7; 2 Chron 28:17). They were, however, completely conquered in 129 B. C. E. and incorporated into the Jewish state by John Hyrcanus. See Josephus, Antiquities 13:257, who says, “Hyrcanus took also Dora and Marissa, cities of Idumea, and subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews.” See also 15, 254, which says, “but after Hyrcanus had made a change in their [Idumeans] political government, and made them receive the Jewish customs and law….”

10 Cf. Philip J. Budd, Numbers, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. John D. W. Watts, vol. 5 (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1984), 271.

11 Kenneth E. Pomykala, The Davidic Dynasty Tradition in Early Judaism: Its History and Significance for Messianism, SBL: Early Judaism and Its Literature 7 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1995), 22-24.

Related Topics: Christology