The children of Israel were camped by the plains of Moab. Balak, King of the Moabites was afraid of the Israelites because they had grown numerous and he called on Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam accepted the wages of divination though ironically the Lord permitted him to prophesy and bless Israel as well as speaking of Messiah to come. Balaam uttered four prophecies, arguably seven, if the fourth one is broken down into its constituent parts. The first two concern Israel and the latter two also include the coming Messiah.
Numbers 24:17 reads.
“I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab, And destroy all the sons of tumult.”
This prophecy is unmistakably linked with Genesis 49:10 especially concerning the sceptre that will not depart and Messiah’s coming. To gain a fuller understanding and significance of this prophecy we will consider the motifs of ‘star’ and ‘sceptre’ in related passages, plus look at the historical context of the brow of Moab being battered, and fulfilment in both King David and Messiah.
There is no lack of support from Jewish interpreters who view this text as a messianic reference. Interestingly, Rabbi Akiva named ‘Bar Kozeba’, ‘Bar Kochba, ‘son of a star’ and declared him to be the Messiah based on Numbers 24:17.[i] Rashbam stated that the plain meaning of the reference refers to Messiah.[ii] Tur HaAroch thought the reason why Messiah was compared with a star was that he would gather Israelites from all over the world as stars are dispersed worldwide and that the Messiah will be accepted as head of all the nations in addition to being the King of the Jews.[iii]
Since there is a reference to the brow of Moab being battered (Numbers 24:17) and Edom shall be a possession (Numbers 24:18), which we can trace to 2 Samuel 8:2-14 and which also includes the Edomites becoming David’s servants (2 Samuel 8:14), there is a strong Davidic link. Chizkuni appears to relate this prophecy solely to David since he does not mention Messiah with reference to Numbers 24:17 and he understands “I see him but not now” as referring to King David who would not rule Israel for another four hundred years.[iv] However Chizkuni references Ibn Ezra and it is possible that he might have entertained the possibility, like Ibn Ezra to interpret this as David with Messiah possibly in view also.
Not surprisingly several Jewish interpreters relate this passage both to King David and King Messiah. Normally with Hebraic parallelisms the same thought is stated in two ways which helps to confirm its intended meaning. Nonetheless Rabbeinu Bahya had a novel interpretation and saw the parallelism as altering between King David and King Messiah by employing a Midrashic approach.
“A Midrashic approach: the words “I will see but not now,” refer to David, whereas the subsequent words: “I can see it but not in the near future,” refer to the messiah. The words: a star comes forth from Yaakov” refer to David, whereas the words וקם שבט מישראל, “a scepter-bearer emerges from Israel,” is a reference to King Messiah. The words ומחץ פעמי מואב again refer to David, of whom it is written in Samuel II 8,2 that “he defeated the Moabites and made them lie down on the ground and measured them with a rope.” The words וקרקר כל בני שת again refer to the King Messiah of whom it is written (Psalms 72,8) that וירד מים עד ים, “he will rule from sea to sea.” The words: והיה אדם ירשה again refer to David seeing the Edomites all became slaves to David (Samuel II 8,14) whereas the words וישראל עושה חיל, “and Israel will perform deeds of valour” refer to King Messiah of whom we have read (Ovadiah 1,21) “For the liberators shall march up on Mount Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau, and Dominion shall be the Lord’s.”[v]
Lastly there is support for Numbers 24:17 as referring to Messiah from the Targums as King and Redeemer and the one who would defeat the Moabites.[vi]
The Star and the Sceptre
References to ‘star’ and ‘sceptre’ are found throughout Scripture though we only need concern ourselves with the relevant ones in connection with this passage concerning the coming of Messiah. The appearance of an extraordinary star in Israel was a sign of the Messiah’s coming in Matthew 2:1 and it is likely that the magi were aware of Balaam’s prophecy and this guided them.[vii] The ‘Star’ is a messianic title in connection with Yeshua in Revelation 22:16, the Son of David. “I Jesus have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Rod and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.”
A noticeable messianic reference with reference to the throne of Messiah being everlasting and the sceptre of righteousness is found in Psalm 45:6-7, “Your throne O God, is forever and ever; a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of Your kingdom. You loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness above Your companions.”
Hebrews 1:1-9 explains that God has in these last days spoken through His Son and shows that Messiah is greater than the angels since He was begotten (Psalm 2:7) and to the Son, He says “Your throne O God is forever and ever and quotes the rest of Psalm 45:6-7. Clearly the sceptre refers to a king, though Yeshua was promised an everlasting throne. Since Yeshua is a Son of David, this fits in harmoniously with Balaam’s prophecy speaking of King David and King Messiah. Yeshua is the Morning Star (c.f. 2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 2:28; 22:16-17), who will imminently return and reign in His Kingdom.[viii]
And batter the brow of Moab.
This passage speaks primarily of David though secondarily and pre-eminently of Messiah.[ix]Concerning Numbers 24: 17b-18 this prophecy was fulfilled by David (2 Samuel 8:14), Seir relates to Edom to which the conquest of Moab and Edom are alluded to (Psalm 60:8; 108:9).[x] The word translated ‘forehead’ is usually rendered side or border[xi] and Seir was another name for Edom (c.f. Genesis 32:3; Deuteronomy 2:4).[xii]Although a part of this prophecy may have been fulfilled by David, Jesus the Son of David will fulfil this in entirety, when He returns to conquer His enemies and establish His Kingdom on earth.[xiii]
[i] The Messiah would be the Star Coming out of Jacob https://jewsforjesus.org/jewish-resources/messianic-prophecy/the-messiah-would-be-the-star-coming-out-of-jacob
[ii] Rashbam on Numbers 24:17 https://www.sefaria.org/Rashbam_on_Numbers.24.17?lang=bi
[iii] Tur HaAroch on Numbers 24:17 https://www.sefaria.org/Tur_HaAroch%2C_Numbers.24.17?lang=bi
[iv] Chizkuni on Numbers 24:17 https://www.sefaria.org/Chizkuni%2C_Numbers.24.17.6?lang=bi
[v] Rabbeinu Bahya, Bamidbar 24:17 https://www.sefaria.org/Rabbeinu_Bahya%2C_Bamidbar.24.17.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
[vi] Judeo-Christian Research Comparison of Pentateuch: Jewish Publication Society, Targums Onkelos, Jonathan Ben Uzziel/Palestinian, Jerusalem Fragments
[vii] John Gill John Gill’s Exposition of the whole Bible https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/geb/numbers-24.html
[viii] Merill Unger Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament (Tyndale, 2002; Chattanooga), p218
[ix] Jamieson, Fausett & Brown Jamieson, Fausett & Brown’s Commentary (Zondervan, 1961; Grand Rapids), p131
[x] Ibid, p131
[xi] Edited by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Victor Books, 1989; USA), p244.
[xii] Ibid, p245
[xiii] Warren W. Wiersbe The Wiersbe Bible Commentary (David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p289