Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Balaam and the Talking Donkey

When I was little my Mom would read books to me with scripture stories of the Bible. There was one book with a black cover that had a selected stories from the Old Testament in them and my absolute favorite story in that book was that of Balaam and his talking donkey. This was better than Doctor Dolittle!

Recently I reread through it and while thinking about it I noticed and realized some things that I hadn’t before.
And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.
And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.
And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time. (Numbers 22:2-4)
Background: Israel has left Egypt and after the 40 years in the wilderness they are now entering the promised land and the current inhabitants are getting swept off. King Balak knows what’s coming.
He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:
Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land: for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed. (Numbers 22:5-6)
All King Balak knows is that whenever Balaam says something will happen to someone, it happens. (We know this as the gift of prophecy) Balak doesn’t have any idea that the Balaam’s God is also Israel’s God; he just hopes that he can pay Balaam to say something bad will happen to Israel.
And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand; and they came unto Balaam, and spake unto him the words of Balak.
And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the Lord shall speak unto me: and the princes of Moab abode with Balaam.
And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee? (Numbers 22:7-9)
I think it is cool that even though the Lord knew exactly who and what those men were doing visiting Balaam, He still wanted to hear Balaam tell Him about it. This indicates that the Lord liked to hear from Balaam and talk to him. If the Lord liked to hear from Balaam, the Lord must like to hear from us too. From His perspective, our thoughtful and sincere prayers must be very important and interesting to Him.
And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying,
Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse me them; peradventure I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out.
And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.
And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land: for the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you. (Numbers 22:10-13)
Note that Balaam clearly says why he will not go. The LORD has not given him permission. Maybe if he had been more clear that the Lord had blessed Israel and would not curse them, then future requests would have been nipped in the bud.
And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us. (Numbers 22:14)
Note that the princes of Moab only gave King Balak part of that partial message Balaam gave them from the Lord. Perhaps they do not believe it was the Lord that instructed Balaam not to go. Maybe they think Balaam is just being stubborn and is blaming his God for it to save face.
And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they. (Numbers 22:15)
Because King Balak hasn’t been told that 1)the Lord told Balaam not to go and 2) Israel is not cursed but blessed, he thinks Balaam is being stubborn and he figures he just needs to use a bigger carrot.
And they came to Balaam, and said to him, Thus saith Balak the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me: (Numbers 22:16)
Balak wants to make sure that inconvenience hasn’t been a factor in Balaam’s refusal.
For I will promote thee unto very great honour, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people. (Numbers 22:17)
How many of us have been offered practically a blank check to do something we’ve already been told we shouldn’t do? I hope this never happens to me, but if it did, I really really hope I would be faithful.. (Sheesh! Why can’t people offer us a blank check to do what we know we SHOULD do?!)
And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more.
Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the Lord will say unto me more. (Numbers 22:18-19)
Balaam's words sound righteous, but he had already been told once by the Lord to not go with them and had already been told not to curse Israel. At this stage he should have said, “I’ve already told you that the Lord told me ‘No!’” I can only suppose that since the first messengers had left he had been thinking a lot about what he had lost by not going to Balak and that was a factor in not immediately refusing. Instead, he stalled to buy time.
And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do.
And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. (Numbers 22:20-21)
The Lord knew Balaam was weakening, so the Lord was trying to work in a way that Balaam would be able to handle. The Lord gave Balaam a specific sign to look for that would tell him whether he should go with the messengers—“if the men come to call thee”. Unfortunately, Balaam seems to have lost it at this point. It seems Balaam was so excited that there might be a possibility that he could go with the men, that he ignored the condition completely, got up, got ready to go, and went with them.

But about this sign. I don’t know what it was customary for a host to do when sending travelers on their way in the morning, but it seems to me that the Lord carefully crafted this sign. It seems to me that the men would only have come to call Balaam in the morning if they had really honestly believed him to be a prophet and wanted to hear what the Lord would say. But wait, if they honestly believed him to be a prophet, then they would already have realized that the answer would still be the same “No Curses Allowed”, so they probably would feel like they didn’t even need to ask what the answer was. I bet that if Balaam had waited in bed, he would have waited in vain.
And God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.
And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.
But the angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side.
And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again.
And the angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff. (Numbers 22:22-27)
Balaam’s donkey feared and obeyed the angel more than Balaam. Its loyalty went to the higher authority. Balaam should have feared and obeyed God more than King Balak and his messengers.
And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?
And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. (Numbers 22:28-29)
A talking donkey! Amazing! But does Balaam bat an eye? No! You’d think animals talked to him every day! Actually, because Balaam was a man of God, he must have been thoroughly acquainted with miracles of all types and perfectly comfortable with wonders to the point that he expected them. But the thing he couldn’t stand here was that his donkey was messing with him. Of all things for the donkey to ask when it starts talking is, “What have I done? Why have you hit me these three times?”

Balaak is even madder that the donkey is asking what it did wrong. Hel-LO! You’ve gone off the road and you’ve smooshed my foot and you’ve lain down for no good reason and now you’re asking me what you’ve done wrong?! YOU KNOW what you’ve done wrong! “You’re making fun of me! I wish I had a sword right now so that I could kill you!”
And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.
Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face. (Numbers 22:30-31)
The donkey says, “Have I ever done something like this to you before?” We can imagine Balaam thinking about this and saying, “Noooooo..” and right when he is starting to think about what could be causing the donkey to act so strangely, he SEES. The angel. With a sword. And Balaam drops like a sawed tree.

Why was Balaam so scared when he saw the angel with the sword in his hand?

He realized that at the same time that he was mad enough to kill his donkey for leaving the road and crushing his foot and refusing to move, the Lord was mad enough to kill him for disobeying by going with King Balak’s messengers when he wasn’t supposed to. Balaam remembered that he told the donkey he wanted to kill it with a sword, and here was an angel standing there with a sword, all ready to dispatch Balaam. (“with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged..”)
And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me: (Numbers 22:32)
If Balaam thought the donkey’s way was perverse, his own way was worse. If Balaam hit his donkey for disobeying, what would the Lord do to Balaam?
And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive. (Numbers 22:33)
Here the angel puts Balaam’s sins into perspective. If the donkey had disobeyed the warning of the angel and had gone on anyway, the angel would have had four choices:
1) Kill both disobedient Balaam and disobedient donkey.
2) Kill the disobedient Balaam and save disobedient donkey.
3) Kill disobedient donkey and save disobedient Balaam.
4) Kill neither the disobedient Balaam or disobedient donkey.
The angel says he would have killed Balaam and saved the donkey, because Balaam’s knowledge and responsibility was much, much greater than the donkey's, so his sin of disobedience was much much greater and deserved the penalty of death more than the donkey did.
And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again. (Numbers 22:34)
Perhaps Balaam hadn’t been able to see the angel, because he had stopped paying attention to the Lord’s guidance. He let himself only hear what he wanted to hear when the Lord told him the required condition for going with the messengers, so he had been deafening his own spiritual ears and blinding his own eyes. But now he's finally willing to go back home and stay.
And the angel of the Lord said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak. (Numbers 22:2-35)
At this point, there is probably a part of us that is saying, “So…Balaam got his way, right? He finally got to go like he wanted!” Well, this wasn’t a joy ride. He would not be able to anticipate any honor and praise and riches and promotion coming out of this errand, because he knew that the Lord would not allow him to curse Israel.

Maybe Balaam wanted to go see what it was like in the big time with the big shots. (Who wouldn’t find it an honor to be asked to come and do something for the president of the United States or a king!) The problem with being excited to meet the big shots is that it is too easy to be awed and want to do what they ask you to do, even when it is wrong. It’s too easy to forget where your loyalty lies. Perhaps the Lord had wanted to save Balaam from this temptation at the beginning.

So why was Balaam now instructed to go?

Having disobeyed, as part of his repentance he needed to make restitution, which meant he needed opportunities to demonstrate absolute obedience to the Lord.

Also, King Balak needed to be taught that it was not possible to bribe a prophet to curse or bless whomever he wanted. Perhaps Balak would have figured this out sooner if Balaam had been firm and continued to refuse to as he should have, but now the lesson was coming for sure. (The blessing process is very interesting. Numbers 23 & 24.)

We know from Numbers 23 and 24 that Balaam was obedient to the Lord and blessed Israel three times. Naturally Balak was disappointed. He said to Balaam, “I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times. Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the LORD hath kept thee back from honour.” (Numbers 24:10-11)

This was a thrust—"the Lord is keeping you back from honor". But with an eternal perspective we know that the Lord wanted to bestow much greater honor on Balaam in the resurrection than Balak could ever give in mortality. To his credit, Balaam withstood Balak’s jab by prophesying of the Messiah. (Numbers 24:17-19) This teaches us that our testimonies can help us withstand the fiery darts of the adversary.

If Balaam had just stuck to his guns after that, all would have been well. But evidently he couldn’t stand the long-term disapproval of Balak or the prospect of returning home empty-handed, because it was he who gave the Moabites the idea to go and tempt Israel into idolatry and sexual immorality.
But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. (Revelation 2:14, emphasis added)
And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.
And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor… (Numbers 31:14-16, emphasis added)
Leading people into temptation was a worse sin than disobeying. It made him into one of a generation of vipers.

And what was the end of Balaam? Remember the angel who stood in his way ready to smite him with a sword?
Balaam also the son of Beor, the soothsayer, did the children of Israel slay with the sword among them that were slain by them. (Joshua 13:22)
Definitely a cautionary tale. Balaam wasn't immune to temptation, even as a prophet. Neither are any of us.

(Image credit -


Clean Cut said...

Just had to say thanks for this post. I loved your commentary and it actually proved quite helpful as I prepared to teach this lesson yesterday in Sunday School. :)

Michaela Stephens said...

YAYYY! That made my day!