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A Strange Story and a Strange Guy!

7Balaam and Donkey

by Dennis Pollock

The ancient prophet Balaam has to be one of the oddest characters we find in the whole Bible. The Scriptures condemn him as one of the bad guys, a man who desperately tried to curse and bring ruin upon the people of Israel. And yet we also read that he spoke by the Holy Spirit and seemed to have an awareness of and appreciation for YHWY, the God of Israel. He was anointed with the Spirit and proclaimed the word of the Lord, and yet he serves as a symbol for greed and wickedness, and came to a very bad end. And, oh yes, he also carried on a conversation with his donkey!

In his time and in his region, Balaam was a pretty big deal. There was a remarkable text found in the Transjordan area consisting of 119 fragments of plaster inscribed with black and red ink. It was among the rubble of a building destroyed in an earthquake. It was written in Aramaic, and begins with the title "Warnings from the Book of Balaam the son of Beor. He was a seer of the gods." These words and warnings are in red ink, which the writer used when he wanted to call attention to what he considered a highly important topic.

Trouble in Moab

From this ancient manuscript and from the Biblical narrative it would appear that Balaam’s specialty seemed to be pronouncing curses and judgments upon nations and peoples. The first Biblical reference to the prophet is found in the 22nd chapter of the Book of Numbers. The Israelites have been trudging around in the wilderness for a long time by now. Aaron has already died and Moses will not be around too much longer. The people of Israel were now camped in the plains of Moab, just across the Jordan River from Jericho. Balak, the king of Moab was quite nervous about having these millions of Hebrews in his territory. They had just utterly annihilated the neighboring Amorite armies, and it would seem that they had Moab on their to-do list. The Bible tells us that the Moabites at this point were “exceedingly afraid” and were “sick with dread.” These strange, mysterious people who worshiped an invisible God and lived by such a strict code of laws were now camped on their doorstep.

The Moabite king had no confidence that his armies could best the Hebrews under ordinary circumstances. So, he endeavored to enlist some supernatural assistance. He sent messengers to the celebrity-prophet Balaam, asking him to come over and put a curse on the people of Israel. Balaam’s reply is fascinating and makes him almost sound like a godly, wise man. He declares, “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the LORD speaks to me” (Numbers 22:8). So far, so good. Balaam doesn’t simply jump at the chance to make big money through a simple curse or two. He tells the messengers that he must hear from God. And what’s more, his use of the term LORD (all capitals) demonstrates that he knew of and used the Jewish name for God, which is YHWH. All in all, he sounds very much like a believer.

Not only that, but the Bible tells us that God spoke to him that night and told him not to go with these men nor to curse Israel, for they were a blessed people. Here is a man who hears from God! At this point he hardly sounds like the Biblical villain that he is shown to be in so many future passages. He obediently goes to the Moabite messengers the next morning and tells them that he cannot go with them; God (again calling Him YHWY) has refused to give him permission to go.

The messengers return to King Balak and tell him of Balaam’s refusal. The king, believing Balaam to be his last chance, sends another group, offering him far more wealth and essentially writing him a blank check if he will but curse Israel for him. Balaam tells them that even if the king offered him his house full of silver and gold, he could not do what the king asks. He declares, “I could not go beyond the word of the LORD my God” (Numbers 22:18). So now he is declaring YHWY as his God. If we didn’t know the rest of the story, at this point we would figure that this Balaam is a tremendous man of God, right up there with Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, and the others.

Fatal Mistake

It is at this point, however that we first see evidence of Balaam’s fatal flaw, a chink in his spiritual armor which would lead to an early death and a place of infamy in the holy Scriptures. Even though he has heard the Lord tell him not to go with Balak’s men, and he has been assured that Israel is a blessed people and must not be cursed, Balaam finds the offer of such wealth tantalizing – so much so that he wonders if perhaps he could not find a way to get the LORD to change His mind. He tells the men: “Now therefore, please, you also stay here tonight, that I may know what more the LORD will say to me” (Numbers 22:19).

And with that simple statement, and the greed which lay behind it, Balaam seals his own fate. He goes before the LORD once again, asking God to allow him to go with these men who were offering him such wealth as he had never seen in his life. Amazingly this time God gives him permission to go with the men, but tells him he must only say what God gives him to say. No doubt this pleased the prophet greatly and he happily told the men the next morning that he would be able to go with them after all. But the Bible gives us an insight which Balaam clearly did not recognize. We are told: “God’s anger was aroused because he went” (Numbers 22:22). This seems odd to us at first glance. Did not God give him permission to go? Why would God be upset at the prophet doing what he was told he could do. We’ll consider that a little later.

On the journey, we read of one of the strangest events in the entire Bible. At a narrow place between two walls, Balaam’s donkey stops and refuses to budge. Although Balaam could not see what was going on, we are given the reason for the sudden recalcitrance on the part of his donkey. An Angel of the LORD has appeared just in front of the donkey with a drawn sword in his hand. Balaam strikes his donkey a couple of times, but she refuses to move and eventually lies down. After another blow with his staff, we are told that God opened the donkey’s mouth, and the man and his donkey actually have a conversation!

The donkey asks why Balaam is striking her, and Balaam, without missing a beat, replies that if he had a sword he would kill her. Suddenly the prophet’s eyes are opened and he sees the fearful angel with the sword, who tells him, “Your way is perverse before me.” Balaam immediately offers to return home, but is told to go on, and only to say what God tells him to say.

Attempts to Curse

When Balaam reaches King Balak, altars are set up and Balaam is given the opportunity to perform his specialty, to curse the people of Israel so that the Moabites might conquer them in battle. But instead of curses, blessings and praises stream out of the prophet’s mouth. Balak is incredibly frustrated, but decides perhaps the location was wrong. So he takes him to another place, sets up more altars for sacrificial offerings, and commands Balaam to curse Israel. Once again the prophet opens his mouth, and once again blessings pour forth. Balak rebukes the prophet, but Balaam defends himself by saying that whatever the Lord speaks, that he must proclaim.

A third location is chosen, but the results are the same. At the time of his prophesying the Bible tells us, “The Spirit of God came upon him,” which is an Old Testament way of saying that he was filled with the Holy Spirit. This story just keeps getting stranger and stranger. So now we learn that Balaam was filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesying the word of the Lord, but at the same time God was not at all pleased with him. Balaam serves as a prime example of greed throughout the Scriptures. In writing thousands of years later, Peter says of wicked men of his own time, “They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15). After his failed attempts to curse Israel, Balaam returns to his home.

Plan B

Balaam and DonkeyBut the story doesn’t end there. Immediately after this the Bible tells us that the men of Israel began to “commit harlotry” with the women of Moab. Later in the book of Numbers, Moses declares that this sexual immorality between the men of Israel and the women of Moab was “through the counsel of Balaam.” And in the second chapter of Revelation Jesus says that Balaam (the prophet) taught Balak (the king of Moab) to put a stumbling block before Israel by inciting them to sexual immorality with their Moabite women.

So with a little reading between the lines, what we have here is Balaam moving on to plan B. He apparently told Balak, “There’s no way I can curse Israel directly. But if you can entice their men to get sexually involved with your women, God will judge them Himself and bring ruin upon them. Balak thought it was worth a try, and sure enough it did provoke God to bring judgment upon Israel which wiped out 24,000 of the Israelites. It didn’t really accomplish Balak’s goal, however, since Israel went on to crush the Moabites. In another battle a little later we learn that Balaam was numbered among those killed! However much silver or gold Balaam might have received from Balak for his seduction advice didn’t do the prophet much good, for he was dead in a very short time.

There are some phenomenal lessons for us today in this ancient story, far more than we can cover in this brief devotional. I’ll try to hit what I consider the biggest one: When God says something, we would do well to listen and not to seek a second opinion. Balaam’s problems all started when he told the second group of Balak’s messengers, “I’ll see what more the LORD will say to me.” There was no need for more. God had made it quite plain the first time. “These are my people. They are blessed. You are not to go with them.” But Balaam couldn’t get his mind off the phenomenal wealth that was being offered him. Perhaps if he asked nicer, or begged more fervently, or prayed more eloquently…

The Word is Enough

We do the same thing today. God has said so very many things in His inspired word, and yet we ignore His words and pray about situations where no prayer is needed. “Is it OK for me to sleep with my boyfriend before marriage?” “Is it OK for me to engage in homosexual activity?” “Should I marry this man who is so nice to me, even though he is not born again? Surely I can win him over somewhere down the road!”

And just as Balaam went on his way, never dreaming that the God of heaven and earth was very much angered at his rebellion, we go on our ways, doing things the word of God clearly condemns, and assuming all is well. After all, no lightning bolt has fallen on our heads, we are still healthy and things are going pretty well. “God must be saying I’m OK!”

Many folks these days are desperately in need of Balaam’s faithful donkey. Perhaps they would listen if he would tell them that disaster is ahead. It may not come tomorrow or next week or next year. But if we continue to despise the word of the Lord, it will surely come.

God has sent His Son Jesus Christ to die in our place, but the grace of Jesus is not a license for rebellion. Indeed, God’s grace through Christ should make the idea of displeasing our God repugnant in our sight. All who truly love the Lord Jesus will also love the word of God. And to those who love His word, it is not necessary to hear His commands a second or a third or a tenth time before we obey. Once is enough!


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