(Num. 24:17) Does this passage predict Jesus?

CLAIM: Balaam says, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come forth from Jacob, a scepter shall rise from Israel, and shall crush through the forehead of Moab, and tear down all the sons of Sheth” (Num. 24:17). Biblical interpreters debate whether this is a biblical prophecy. This excerpt from the prophet Balaam is short, but seems to be predictive of the Messiah. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: While this is a short passage, we believe it to be a messianic prophecy. We hold this view for a number of reasons:

First, even though Balaam was a Pagan prophet, he could still predict the Messiah. Some interpreters hold that it is unlikely for this prophecy to be made by the Pagan prophet Balaam (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11; Rev. 2:14). However, if God can speak through Balaam’s ass (Num. 22:28), then it shouldn’t surprise us to see him speaking through a greedy prophet like Balaam! Moreover, Paul quoted Pagans like Cleanthes and Aratus (Acts 17:28) and Menander (1 Cor. 15:33), and he affirmed the statement of the Pagan Epimenides, writing that his “testimony is true” (Titus 1:12-13). In fact, even the non-believing Caiaphas makes a correct prediction about Christ’s death (Jn. 11:49-53). So, it shouldn’t surprise us to see God speaking through a greedy prophet like Balaam—especially when the text specifically says that the Spirit of God was on him (Num. 24:2). Allen writes, “The truth of the Scripture could never be dependent on the worthiness of the writer or the personal piety of the speaker. Else we would have gradations in inspiration and shadings in trustworthiness. I say this reverently but strongly; the words of Balaam the pagan mantic, when he was speaking under the control of the Holy Spirit of God were as sure as the words of the Savior Jesus in a red-letter edition of the NT.”[1]

Second, the context is focused on the future—not the present. Balaam says, “I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the days to come” (v.14). The NASB footnote renders this “the end of days” (v.14). Clearly, this is a prediction of the future.

Third, Balaam’s words are clearly messianic. He refers to this figure as the “star” and “scepter.” Jacob told his boys, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen. 49:10). As we have already argued in Genesis 49:10, this passage is messianic as well. So this symbolism is identical. Moreover, the crushing of the enemies of God is consistent throughout the messianic predictions (Ps. 2, 110).

[1] Allen, R. B.. Numbers. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1990. 909.