Weird Bible Stories, Part 4

The story of Balaam’s talking donkey is, I think, the weirdest story in the Bible. Mind you, if you can accept that a serpent spoke to Eve, I guess it isn’t a stretch to believe that a donkey spoke to Balaam. Here’s what happened:

Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times? ” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now. ” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said. (Numbers 22:28 – 30 | TNIV)

It was just an ordinary donkey that the Lord used to get the wayward prophet’s attention. God can do anything He wants to; He is God, after all. My father used to say that I was so stubborn God would have to use a two-by-four to get my attention. Thankfully that never happened to me, but the Lord did open the mouth of this animal and it spoke, which definitely got Balaa’s attention!

Setting the scene

The Israelites had all but completed their 40-year trek around the desert. You’ll recall that 40 years before, they had been about the enter the Promised Land when they rebelled against the Lord and He punished the nation by forcing them to turn around and begin a four decade sojourn through the desert until that sinful, rebellious generation died off. And here they are, about to go in and possess the Land God had given them.

But before they could do that, they had to get themselves ready. A new census had to be taken and Moses’ successor needed to be chosen. Other things needed to happen before God’s people could claim their promise of a new home, so here they sat.

Then the Israelites traveled to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho. (Numbers 22:1 | TNIV)

Much of what took place there is recorded in the first couple of chapters of Joshua and parts of the book of Deuteronomy. Even though God had given His people the land they were about to enter, it wouldn’t be a cake walk; they would face obstacles and difficulties. The modern Christian can well understand this. Coming to faith in Jesus Christ, with all of His power and promises available to him, certainly doesn’t eliminate all of life’s trials and problems! We wish it did, but the reality is sometimes life gets a little harder when after we confess our faith in Christ and start living for Him!

They waited and went about the business of preparing to enter the Land. Meanwhile, the people across the Jordan were very aware that the Israelites were about to make life very uncomfortable for them. In the famous story of Rahab and Hebrew spies, we learn that the citizens of Jericho were, in fact, quite terrified of the Hebrews.

We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. (Joshua 2:10, 11 | TNIV)

Imagine, if you can, an entire nation sitting on the border of your country, waiting to march in and take possession of it. You’b be scared too! And that’s the setting for the story of Balaam.

A prophet for hire

The first encounter

Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites. The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, “This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field. ” So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the Euphrates River, in his native land. Balak said: “A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” The elders of Moab and Midian left, taking with them the fee for divination. When they came to Balaam, they told him what Balak had said. (Numbers 22:2 – 7 | TNIV)

Balak was terrified of the Hebrews, so much so that he was sure no military in the Land could come against them. With no military solution at hand, he turned to the supernatural. In sending for a “seer,” Balak was doing what was very common in his day. The ancients believed in the power of the spoken word. He truly believed that if a seer like Balaam, who was the most powerful seer/prophet in the land, pronounced a curse on Israel, it would come to pass. Talk about misplaced faith!

Or was it? Balaam was pure pagan; he was not Israelite nor was he a man of God. And yet, he addressed the Lord properly and the Lord spoke to him. But make no mistake about it, Balaam was not a good prophet gone bad or bad prophet trying become good. He was a pagan, through and through. The Lord will speak through a donkey, and He’s about to speak to this pagan. This is one of the biggest lessons – and maybe one of the most difficult to grasp – of this weird story. Yet it serves to underscore the great doctrine of the sovereignty of God. He is God, and every living thing is His creation and He can do whatever He pleases with His creation.

Balaam was a “prophet-for-hire” in the ancient world. He made a living telling people what they wanted to hear. He looked at Yahweh as just another god; just another resource he could use to make a buck.

But this time, something went wrong. Balaam accepted payment to curse Israel, but God had other plans. He spoke to this man in no uncertain terms.

But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed. “. (Numbers 22:12 | TNIV)

So, he didn’t go with them back to Balak.

The second encounter

But King Balak was desperate, so he persisted.

But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God. Now spend the night here so that I can find out what else the Lord will tell me. ” That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”. (Numbers 22:18 – 20 | TNIV)

The first time Balaam did the right thing. But the second time, he ups the ante. He knows he’ll get paid more if he goes with these men back to king Balak, so instead of doing what he did the first time, he invites the men to stay the night so that he could ostensibly go and pray about it. He didn’t need to do that; the Lord had already told the prophet what to do and what not to do. So why is he going through the motions to seeking the Lord? Haven’t we all done exactly what Balaam did? We went to God, didn’t get the answer we wanted, so we kept going to back until we did? We might be able to excuse a pagan like Balaam of treating God like this, but we Christians should know better!

Then the Lord did a curious thing: He told Balaam to go back with the men; the exact opposite thing He had previously said. Why would God do that; why would God essentially go back on His word? Here we see an interesting thing: God is actually allowing a person to do something that person really wants to do, even though it’s not God’s will. He’ll do that sometimes, usually to teach that person a lesson or others a lesson. Some theologians call this “God’s permissive will,” in that He permits people to do things that may be outright sinful or things that are not really beneficial to them.

At any rate, the prophet Balaam goes back to king Balak, and it’s during the journey that Balaam has a most fascinating conversation with his donkey.

The best part of the story

The story of the talking ass is by far the best part of the Balaam’s story. And it’s a classic set-piece in which we have the Angel of the Lord, a blind seer who says what he wants, and donkey who can see the Angel and speaks at the Lord’s command! Balaam, an obviously intelligent man sees less than a dumb animal, who itself knows God is near while the human is utterly clueless.

Some readers stumble over a talking donkey, but the Lord, once again, permitted something to happen in order teach us a lesson. It’s not the Lord talking through the donkey, it’s the donkey saying the things a donkey in such a situation might say. As a matter of fact, the New Testament affirms that this incident really did happen, just as it is recorded here in Numbers.

But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—an animal without speech—who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. (2 Peter 2:16 | TNIV)

And you have to feel sorry for the poor donkey. She tried to protect her owner not once, not twice, but three times from the drawn sword of the Angel of the Lord, only to be beaten by her owner for her trouble. This really goes to show the sad character of Balaam, the supposed prophet. Here’s a man who “speaks for God,” yet treats one of God’s creatures in such a despicable way. This man is one messed up individual, and we see God going to extraordinary lengths to get his attention. If he’ll stop long enough to listen to an ass, maybe he’ll stop long enough to listen to God.

Peter mentions Balaam’s “wrongdoing.” What was his wrongdoing? We have a hint in the way The Living Bible paraphrases these verses:

So the next morning he saddled his donkey and started off with them. But God was angry about Balaam’s eager attitude, so he sent an Angel to stand in the road to kill him. As Balaam and two servants were riding along, Balaam’s donkey suddenly saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword. She bolted off the road into a field, but Balaam beat her back onto the road. (Numbers 22:21 – 23 | TLB)

Balaam’s “wrongdoing” was going to see Balak, but it started with his “eager attitude.” To discover what that was, we turn to a number of other New Testament verses. Peter cautioned against “the way of Balaam:”

They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. (2 Peter 2:15 | TNIV)

Jude, in his one chapter letter, warned his readers about “the error of Balaam” –

Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion. (Jude, vs. 11 | TNIV)

And finally, John in Revelation, talks about “Balaam’s doctrine.”

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. (Revelation 2:14 | TNIV)

God evidently considers these warnings necessary and appropriate for Christians even today, and so He preserved them in His Word. “The way of Balaam” is simply greediness; a willingness to prostitute spiritual gifts and privileges for “the wages of wickedness” (II Peter 2:14). In other words, Balaam was more than willing to preach something contrary to God’s Word for his own personal gain.

“The error of Balaam” was evidently his willingness to compromise his own standards of morality and truth in order “greedily” to accommodate those of his pagan patrons (Jude 11). Balaam was willing to tell people what they wanted to hear, even though it went against what he knew to be true, and he was able to change his beliefs on a dime to match those of his employers.

Finally, “the doctrine of Balaam,” which even in John’s day was already infiltrating the church, was to use his own teaching authority to persuade God’s people that it was all right for them to compromise God’s standards of behavior, even “to commit fornication” (Revelation 2:14) with their idol-worshipping enemies.

This sad sack Balaam stands for all eternity as an example of a worldly, wishy-washy, calculating believer in God who would do just about anything to further his himself and his interests. Jesus didn’t have Balaam in mind when He spoke these words, but they certainly apply to him and people like him:

And how does a man benefit if he gains the whole world and loses his soul in the process? For is anything worth more than his soul? (Mark 8:36, 37 | TLB)

No wonder Micah (the faithful prophet) urged God’s people to “remember” Balaam and his tragic end (Numbers 31:8).

Among those killed were all five of the Midianite kings-Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba. Balaam, the son of Beor, was also killed. (Numbers 31:8 | TLB)

 

 

 

 

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