In Numbers 24:17, with reference to Balaam's fourth Oracle, it is written, (NIV)

"I see him but not now,

I behold him, but not near.

A star will come out of Jacob, a sceptre will rise out of Israel.

He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.

What is the meaning of this text?

Is it a reference to King David or the Messiah, or a double meaning? Rabbi Moses ben Maimon suggests the latter:

I shall see him, but not now. This is David - I shall behold him, but not nigh. This is the king Messiah - A Star shall come out of Jacob. This is David - And a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel. This is the king Messiah - And shall smite the corners of Moab. This is David, (as it is written, 2 Samuel 8:2 : And he smote Moab, casting them down to the ground) - And shall destroy all the children of Sheth. This is the king Messiah, of whom it is written, (Psalm 72:8), He shall have dominion from sea to sea.

Source: Gill's Expository Bible. Bible Hub. Numbers 24:17

  • Since you are using the New International Version, do you expect the answer to be from a Jewish perspective or a Christian perspective?
    – Double U
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 19:14
  • @Anonymous-I just want to understand what the text means.The quote from Rabbi Moses ben Maimon,is the best i have found as yet.
    – Bagpipes
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 19:51
  • But Rabbi Moses ben Maimon is a medieval Jewish rabbi and philosopher. The New International Version is from the 20th century. There may be differences in bibles in that the chapters and verses may be labelled differently or books are or are not part of the canon. I think it's best to retrieve the exact quote from Maimonides.
    – Double U
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 20:09
  • After rereading the question's description, it is unclear why you put Maimonides there. Does Maimonides believe that the said biblical verses are referring to King David or Messiah, or does Maimonides believe that those verses have double meaning?
    – Double U
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 20:33
  • 1
    @Anonymous,Yes Rabbi Moses ben Maimon obviously does believe the text is referring to King David and the Messiah.This is where the double meaning comes into play.Read his words.
    – Bagpipes
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 20:56

6 Answers 6


"The Star" is a reference to the Messiah, and "out of Jacob" is interpreted even by Jewish commentaries as "the son of David" which you quote. Interestingly, many in Matthew's day called Jesus "son of David"(Matt. 9:27,12:23,15:22,20:30,20:31,21:9,21:15) so the teachers of the day must have taught that the Messiah was the "son of David".

In the KJV it says:(Num.24:17-18)

"I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly.

The "corners of Moab" are different than the "foreheads of Moab"; since both Moab and Edom became territories(Moab is modern day Jordan), (Edom is Northwestern Arabia), the future reference to the prophecy is territorial-Moabs 'corners' are in contention today-although God gave Moab their land(Dt. 2:9). Part of Edom(Sinai Peninsula) is in Israeli hands, the other part in Saudi Arabia's-fulfilling the prophecy.

What one must remember is that the context for this prophecy is "the latter days"(vs 14), therefore, the "Dual Fulfillment" spoken of by Maimonides by both "David", and the "son of David"(Messiah). The enemies are the same, yet the reference is greatly expanded. Numerous expositors have commented on "the sons of Sheth" as meaning the "sons of Seth", essentially all mankind, as Noah came from Seth.

Keil and Delitzsch had this to say:(from Commentaries, Numbers 24)

And neither the Samaritan text nor the passage in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 48:45), which is based upon this prophecy, at all warrants an alteration of the reading קרקר into קדקד (the crown of the head), since Jeremiah almost invariably uses earlier writing in this free manner, viz., by altering the expressions employed, and substituting in the place of unusual words wither more common ones, or such as are similar in sound (cf. Kper, Jerem. libror, ss. interpres atque vindex, pp. xii.ff. and p. 43). - כּל־בּני־שׁת does not mean "all the sons of Seth," i.e., all mankind, as the human race is never called by the name of Seth; and the idea that the ruler to arise out of Israel would destroy all men, would be altogether unsuitable. It signifies rather "all the sons of confusion," by which, according to the analogy of Jacob and Israel (Numbers 24:17), Edom and Seir (Numbers 24:18), the Moabites are to be understood as being men of wild, warlike confusion. שׁת is a contraction of שׁאת (Lamentations 3:47), and derived from שׁאה; and in Jeremiah 48:45 it is correctly rendered שׁאון בּני

Therefore, it is possible that instead of "Sheth" meaning "Seth", it means "Heth"; which was the 2nd son of Canaan:(Wikipedia)

Heth is, according to Genesis 10:15, the second son of Canaan, who is son of Ham, son of Noah. Heth is the ancestor of the Hittites, second of the twelve Canaanite nations descended from his sons, who lived near Hebron (Genesis 23:3,7).[1] In Genesis 10:15-16, Heth is placed between Sidon and the Jebusites, Amorites, Girgasites, Hivites, Arkite, Sinite, Arvadite, Zemarite, Hamathite and other peoples, showing their descent through their children, called "Children of Heth"(Genesis 23:3, 5, 7, 10, 16, 18, 20)

who's 'daughters'(descendants) married Esau(Edom) and lived in Mt. Seir. The "Hethites" were a part of the Canaanite nations to be destroyed; this prophecy is to be fulfilled in Zech. 14:21. It is significant to note that although God gave Mt. Seir to Edom(Dt.2:5), they obstructed the passage of the children of Israel(Num. 20:18), and frequently attacked them without provocation(Ps. 137:7)

To conclude: these "traditional enemies" who attempted to conjure Balaam to prophecy against Israel show up again as "modern enemies", which the Lord will destroy when "His feet touch the Mt. of Olives".(Zech. 14:3-4)

Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south.

  • Thanks for your answer and being brave enough to 'take it on.'It certainly opened doors for me concerning the Edomites and the Moabites.
    – Bagpipes
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 13:55

This passage should be read within the context of both Psalms 72:8 and Numbers 24:19 because both verses use the word "dominion" (V'yared) and only Moshiach (Messiah) will have "dominion" from "the River to the ends of the earth" as David says in Psalms 72:8,

May his empire stretch from sea to sea, from the [Euphrates] River to the ends of the earth.

The "star" prophesy was erroneously applied to Simon Bar Chochba and his revolt against Rome in 132 CE. To quote from Wikipedia,

The Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva indulged the possibility that Simon could be the Jewish messiah, and gave him the surname "Bar Kokhba" meaning "Son of the Star" in Aramaic, from the Star Prophecy verse from Numbers 24:17: "There shall come a star out of Jacob."

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. I can't locate 'Messiah' in either of the verses you've quoted - could you please include the verses you're referencing so that we can see where you're finding those words?
    – Steve can help
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 7:23

those verses do not mention the Messiah they are just understood to be a reference to the Messiah. The Messiah in Judaism simply means a person anointed to fulfill a purpose outlined in the Jewish Bible. For instance Cyrus the Persian was called Moshiach in Isaiah 45.1. In the context of the star prophesy, a warrior-king shall arise from within Israel and be anointed as the King descended from David who shall conquer Israel's enemies and bring in an everlasting "Messianic Age" of universal enlightenment and peace. It might be confusing to reference Maimonides dual prophesy but I'll try and address what he says: Once we split the "star" verse, we can more fully address RAMBAM'S statements on the two Messiahs (Moshiach). “I see him, but not now” (Num. 24.17) this refers to David;

“I behold him, but not nigh” this refers to the Messianic King.

“A star steps out from Jacob” this refers to David;

“and a scepter will arise from Israel” this refers to the Messianic King.

“He will smite the great ones of Moab” this refers to David, as it says, “He smote Moab and measured them with a rope;”(2 Samuel 8.2)

“and break all the children of Seth” this refers to the Messianic King, of whom it is said, “His rule will be from sea to sea.”(Zechariah 9.10)

“Edom will be a possession”(Numbers 24.18) this refers to David, as it is said, “Edom became servants to David; (2 Samuel 8.14)

“[and Seir] shall be a possession” this refers to the Messianic King, as it is said, “Saviors shall ascend Mount Zion [to judge the mount of Esau]…” http://www.chabad.org/library/moshiach/article_cdo/aid/101744/jewish/Laws-Concerning-Kings-and-the-Messiah.htm

What Maimonides (Rambam) is saying is that some of the verse refers to King David while other parts of the verse refer to the descendant of King David we call "Moshiach" which is why the star prophesy was applied to Simon Bar Kochba and his revolt in 132 - 135 CE against Rome.

In Ramban's opinion, King David is the arch-type of the Moshiach (anointed warrior king) who will usher in everlasting peace and universal enlightenment!


Historically, the Kingdom of David (and Solomon) was a vast empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean Sea just as Psalms 72.8 prophesy. (The Psalms are considered prophetic according to some - see for example Acts 2 where there is a quote from Psalms 18.)

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! ☺ It would also be good to actually add citations to sources. Perhaps cite scientific papers illustrating these concepts. Due to the nature of this site, a reference may be required to support your conclusions. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 4:53

im curious, can anyone one else see, if the Christ our messiah arises (not descending from heaven) out of Jacob (Israel) from the north, is this alluding to another tribe not Judah (southern modern Jewish state) maybe the GOD of Israel is referring to one of the northern so called lost tribes of Josephs seed Ephraim or Manasseh as they were prophesied to be a great (company of nations) in the end days, it seems to state the obvious in reference to the messiah and the coming kingdom of God how it will grow like a mustard seed, as a women hid a small amount of leaven in three measures of dough until the whole lump was was leavened, or a man finds treasure of great value in a field and hides it and sells all that he has to buy that field. these are the kingdom of heaven parables. pointing to the kingdom starting out small, hid or encrypted until growing in size to cover the whole earth as a tiny mustard seed grows into a large tree. just an observation. shalom seekers of the truth.


I see him. It is neither neutral in the sense of that nor the people of Israel. This is the star and the scepter that Balaam will speak of. He sees it in his mind before pointing to it.

A star: a character appearing brilliantly on the stage of the world. This symbol is very used. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, the star designates a king. Throughout antiquity, great monarchs prided themselves on being born during the appearance of a remarkable star. Compare Matthew 2:1ff.

A scepter: symbol of sovereignty. The temples. The Hebrew word means two sides of a thing of a country; it has been applied here to both sides of the land of Moab as if to say the whole land, but it is more natural to hear both sides of Moab's head personified.

It pierces. The Hebrew word means to dig by searching. Jeremiah, reproducing this passage (Jeremiah 48.45), substitutes for this verb a word close in form, which means the skull (compare the temples here).

The sons of tumult: the turbulent Moabites. Israel had received the order from God to spare these people who descended from Lot, nephew of Abraham. But one day, his hostile conduct toward Israel, a continuation of that of their current king, Balak, will bring about the punishment that Balaam describes here.

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