The strange story of a strange man
Balak, King of Moab, had a serious problem on his hands. He was convinced that the people of Israel would try to conquer his land (Numbers 22:1-4). He was equally convinced that his army was no match for Israel (v.6). What was he to do? Suddenly it hit him! What he could not conquer he could perhaps curse!
It was commonly believed in those days that the mere pronouncement of a curse from the right person representing the right god made the curse effective and unalterable. The right curse from the right person would so weaken Israel that Moab would be able to conquer her.
And there was no doubt in Balak’s mind about the right person to do this cursing. It was the man named Balaam, who was a diviner and prophet.
It cannot be emphasised strongly enough that Balaam was not a true prophet of the living God. He was merely a trafficker in the various deities of the various nations. For the proper fee, he would use his magical arts to learn what a particular deity wanted a particular person or nation to do. He would then convey that desire to the proper party.
While Balaam did not truly know the God of Israel, he knew about him; and, for Balak’s money, he, Balaam, was willing to pretend that he knew the God of Israel very well.
When Balak’s delegation came, Balaam asked for a night to determine what God would say (v.8). It was all a sham and a hoax. But, much to Balaam’s surprise, the God of Israel actually stepped in and spoke to him. It is clear that someone else was in charge.
God clearly told Balaam that he must not go to Balak to curse Israel (v.12), and Balaam dutifully sent the delegation away (v.13). But another delegation more impressive than the first was soon at his door to ‘sweeten the pot’ (vv.15-17).
Balaam again refused (v.18) but, desperately wanting to go and so add to his bank account, left the door ajar. He would again approach the God of Israel about this matter. And again, much to his surprise, God spoke to him. This time God agreed to let him go on condition that he, Balaam, speak only that which God commanded him (vv.19-20).
The story is strange enough to this point. But now it gets even stranger! As Balaam journeys along, the Lord stands in the road ‘as an adversary against him’ (v.22). While Balaam does not see him, his donkey does and refuses to take another step. Interpreting his donkey’s intractability as mere contrariness, Balaam beats the poor animal three times.
At this point, the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey to rebuke Balaam for the beatings (vv.28-30). Then also Balaam was enabled to see what his donkey had seen – the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn (v.31).
Why was the Lord standing there in that way? He says to Balaam: ‘Behold I have come out to stand against you, because your way is perverse before me’ (v.32). He further says that he would have killed Balaam if it had not been for his donkey (v.33).
Having spoken in this way, the Lord once again grants Balaam permission to go to Moab, but on condition that he, Balaam, speak only what the Lord told him to speak (v.35).
What are we to make of this strange account? Why is it here?
Many regard it as mere legend that has no basis in fact and certainly no meaning for us. But close inspection of the narrative leads to several conclusions or lessons that are just as meaningful for us as they were on that long ago day.
The first of these lessons is that God cannot be controlled by human devices. F. B. Huey writes: ‘Living in a world of superstition and magic, people in the ancient world believed that the gods could be made to do their bidding and that events could be controlled by incantations, curses, and other means that today would be called “black magic” or “voodoo”.’ S. G. DeGraaf adds: ‘The real intent of magic is to gain mastery over the divine powers and thereby over the deity, in order to harness the deity for one’s own purpose’.
Balaam began by thinking that he could control the God of Israel, or at least give the impression he was controlling him. He soon learned that no one controls the true God. This truth was drilled into his head by God speaking unexpectedly and directly to him (vv.9-12), by the donkey speaking (v.28), and by the Lord standing in the road (v.35).
The significance of the donkey speaking is this: as God enabled the donkey to speak, so he could and would enable Balaam to declare the message that he, God, wanted to have delivered to Balak.
Balaam must be content to be God’s donkey. He must not mould and shape God’s message to suit himself but declare it as God gave it to him. DeGraaf rightly says: ‘The Word of the Lord is not for us to use to advance our own interests. Instead it is there to possess us’.
Much modern-day religion has departed from this truth. Much of it refuses to speak God’s message, but seeks to tailor that message to the desires of the people so that both pews and offering plates will be full!
And much of it is directed to this end of controlling God – getting God to do what we want done by exercising our ‘faith’, through ‘naming it and claiming it’! But God has a will and purpose over and above our desires, and nothing we do can bind him to suit our personal whims and forego his higher purposes.
The pathway to blessing lies not in us trimming the truth to suit ourselves, but in submitting to God’s revealed truth. The pathway to blessing lies not in us trying to get God to serve us, but in us serving him.
A second lesson for us has to do with the importance of embracing from the heart what God tells us to do. This truth emerges from the ‘roller-coaster’ part of the story. God first forbids Balaam to go to Moab (v.12), then permits (v.20), then forbids (vv.32-33), and then permits (v.35).
Was God having trouble making up his mind? Is the God we serve one that is indecisive and vacillating? Or is there something deeper going on here?
The latter is, of course, the case. In permitting Balaam to go to Moab after commanding him not to go, God was positioning Balaam for judgement (Numbers 31:7-8). And why would God want to judge him? For many reasons, but in this instance because Balaam did not embrace from the heart the first message that God gave him.
God told him not to go to Moab, but Balaam, with dollar signs flashing before his eyes, still wanted to go. He did not submit in his heart to the Word of God. So God gave him what he wanted. It is not necessarily a blessing when God gives us what we want, as Psalm 106:15 makes plain: ‘And he gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul’.
We must conclude, then, that it is not sufficient to merely comply with the letter of God’s commands. We must also comply with their spirit.
Another truth that emerges is this: the God of power who made the donkey talk is going to finally redeem all creation. Some lightly dismiss the miracle of the donkey talking. To them it is too far-fetched to believe. Donkeys don’t talk!
But if we believe that God is the creator of this natural order and that he retains the right to break into it and set aside the laws which he himself put in place, we have no trouble believing the donkey talked.
We can go even further. That donkey is still talking! She represents God revealing his glory in the created order; and, in doing so, she declares that coming day when God will finally rescue all creation from the terrible ravages of sin and restore it to its original beauty and glory (Romans 8:18-22).
A final lesson for us to consider is this – there is one with a drawn sword standing in the path of each one of us.
The Lord stood in the way because Balaam was ‘perverse’ (v.32), and all of us by nature are perverse. We are twisted by sin and live in a manner which is contrary to God. Because of this we stand under his judgement.
Just as Balaam could not avoid the angel in the road, because of the walls on each side of him, so it with us. Our way is walled up; we must meet the judge in the road.
And just as the donkey saw the angel, so all creation speaks to us today about the reality of God and the necessity of meeting him. The only way we can prepare for that meeting is by abandoning our rebellion and casting ourselves on his mercy.