As I wrote a couple of years ago in Torah! Torah! Torah!, if you skip over Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy because you think this section of the Bible is just a bunch of Thou Shalt Nots, you’re missing out on some great stories and important lessons.
One of my favourites is the story of Balaam, Son of Beor. If you’ve heard of him, it’s probably because you’re aware of the time a talking donkey saved his life.
That’s definitely a highlight of the story, but it’s just one of many fascinating moments in his unusual adventure.
When we first meet Balaam in Numbers 22, he’s apparently some sort of spiritual mercenary, or diviner for hire. Balak, the King of Moab, is afraid his territory will be overrun by the Israelites, so he sends messengers to find Balaam and hire him to put a curse on the Hebrews. Balaam’s response when the messengers arrive is interesting:
8 “Spend the night here,” Balaam said to them, “and I will report back to you with the answer the Lord gives me.” So the Moabite officials stayed with him. – Numbers 22:8
Apparently, Moses wasn’t the only prophet of that era who communicated regularly with God. Somehow, Balaam, who was not one of God’s chosen people Israel, had a pipeline to Yahweh too, and He let him use his abilities as a prophet to gain personal profit.
Sure enough, God came to Balaam during the night, and told him not to curse the Israelites, because He has blessed them. And Balaam obeyed.
13 The next morning Balaam got up and said to Balak’s officials, “Go back to your own country, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” – Numbers 22:13
Balak doesn’t give up easily, and he sends more emissaries to fetch Balaam, who again checks in with God for instructions. God seems to give Balaam permission to go with them, but then appears to change His mind, and sends an angel to interfere on the journey.
Did God really do a flip-flop on this point? Not according to Apologetics Press.
In the New International Version, Verse 20 says, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” But the New King James and other translations phrase it differently, saying ‘If these men come to call on you, rise and go with them…’.
And yet, in Verse 21 in both translations, Balaam got up, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials – without waiting for them to ask. Apparently, God’s anger with Balaam was related to the fact that he a little too eager to do the will of man, rather than the will of God.
Balaam figured it was inevitable they would ask, so he probably felt like waiting for them to come to him was unnecessary hair-splitting. But to God it was a critical distinction.
Do you think you ever make that mistake? How many of your semantic grey areas are black and white in God’s eyes?
In any case, this is where the wacky talking donkey incident happens. Aside from being a really entertaining story, I think the wake-up call that says even an ass can sometimes see things more clearly than we can is as instructive for us as it was for Balaam.
For his part, perhaps being admonished by a lowly burro knocks Balaam off of the high horse he’d been riding in light of all of the flattery and promises of remuneration he’d received from the Moabites.
And perhaps that equine rebuke is precisely what set the stage for Balaam’s faithful response – in the next couple of chapters, he spoke only the words the Lord had given him. Rather than cursing the Israelites, he blessed them repeatedly, and Balak grumpily sent him away empty-handed.
And then Balaam – being a faithful servant of the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob – rode straight to Moses’ tent and offered his services to the people He’d just blessed on God’s behalf. Right?
That’s the ending you’d expect in such a story. This narrative should have been a turning point in Balaam’s life, like Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus.
But it wasn’t.
Instead, in Numbers 24:25, “Balaam got up and returned home.”
Back to the same old, same old.
And in Numbers 31, Balaam is killed, along with many of his people, when the Israelites finally do swoop in and deal with the Midianites.
Why did the Israelites slaughter Balaam, you ask? In Numbers 31:16 and Revelation 2:14, we learn that ‘Balaam taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.’ (This shameful incident is detailed in Numbers 25, but not attributed to Balaam until later in the narrative.)
Therefore, despite the fact He was clearly a prophet of God who, in Numbers 23 and 24, heaped blessings on Israel, praises on God and prophesied disaster for God’s enemies, Balaam is described throughout the Bible as a villain.
2 Peter 2:15 says Balaam ‘loved the wages of wickedness,’ for example. Jude 1:11 mentions Balaam in the same breath as Korah and Cain.
What a waste.
There are probably lots of ‘what not to do‘s in Balaam’s sad, senseless story, but what stands out for me is the sin of compartmentalization, also known as obedience without application.
Balaam was obedient enough to refuse to use his heavenly powers of divination to curse the Israelites when told specifically not to, but had no problem using his earthly powers of manipulation to curse them quite effectively. How could he not have seen that this word from God wasn’t just related to Column A or Column B, but applied to the whole spreadsheet of His life?
In what ways do you compartmentalize God in your life?
And once he was shown so repeatedly and so decisively that the God he served so faithfully was on Israel’s side, why did he return home? How could he do anything but defect from Moab and Midian and join Moses’ team?
Have you ever had a profound encounter with God, felt transformed and anointed by it and then reverted right back to your same old, same old?
There’s only one donkey in Balaam’s story, but for my money, there are two asses.
How many asses are there in your story?
Peace be with you.