The Story of Balaam

Numbers 22:21-23:12

1. Introduction

This really is the oddest of odd stories, isn't it, that of Balaam and his donkey? I don't know whether it is fact, fiction, or a mixture of both!

2. The Whole Story

Our reading, long though it was, only told part of the story - we came in in the middle, as it were. We need to have a look at the whole thing, to see if it makes any more sense, or any less sense!

The thing is, the people of Israel are in the process of conquering the Promised Land, and doing so whole-heartedly! Moab looks like being their next target, so Balak, King of Moab, sends for Balaam, a prophet from a country near the Euphrates river, to formally curse the Israelites. Apparently It was a routine business arrangement for the prophet, in a day when everyone believed in the power of words (especially formal 'blessings' and 'cursings') to influence events.

But Balak has made a big mistake, since it turns out that Balaam is one of God's followers, even though he isn't part of the Tribe of Israel, and he says no way will he curse Israel - or perhaps it's cast a spell on her - without God's say-so. And God says "No", so Balaam does, too. So they send rather more important people, with rather bigger fees, to try to persuade Balaam, who says rather loftily that they can give him the whole of the King's treasury if they want to, but he is not going to curse the Israelites without God's say-so. This time God tells him to go with the men, but only to speak what God himself tells him to say.

Then the story gets a bit complicated. For a start, it says that God was angry with Balaam for going, but considering God's just told him to go that seems very improbable. Perhaps Balaam was trying to double-cross God. This is a very old story, and God seems nearly as anthropomorphic as He does in the stories about Eden.

Anyway, you get this extraordinary episode with the angel and the donkey - the donkey, terrified, trying to run away and only getting itself into a narrow twitten down between two fields, so it's stuck. And Balaam hitting the donkey - well, you would, wouldn't you? And the donkey opening its mouth and speaking to Balaam in human speech. And the angel being cross with him, as though it was his own fault he couldn't see him. And so on. And Balaam says he will go home, if necessary, but he is told to go on, but only to speak what he is told.

Balak is a bit miffed that Balaam took so long in coming to him - in obeying his summons, as he sees it - but finally they get themselves organised and offer a bull on each of seven altars, and Balaam waits to hear what the Lord will tell him to say. And what he says is an oracle of blessing, not cursing.

Our reading ended there, but Balaam goes on to try again three more times to curse the Israelites, and ends up blessing them three more times. After which he went home again. And other Scriptures tell us that later, he was put to death "for divination", so obviously not totally walking in the Lord's way.

Apparently the story is very old. They think that for stylistic and other reasons, the oracles must have been written down in about the 10th or 12th centuries BC, over three thousand years ago! One of the oldest bits of Scripture we have, probably.

Which might explain why it's quite so extraordinary. God seems impossibly anthropomorphic - needing to be told what is going on, changing his mind about things the whole time, "appearing" to Balaam and meeting with him. And that wretched donkey! I am tempted to make some frightful pun about covering one's ass, but perhaps will refrain!

3. What Does It Say To Us?

Well, it's an ancient and rather strange story. I don't know whether it's true, or whether it's a piece of legend that crept in somewhere along the line and, to be honest, I don't much care. It's part of the Bible, and I'm sure we can learn from it, just as we can from all the other stories in the Bible. But what on earth does it have to say to us?

The God that is portrayed in this story bears little resemblance to the God that we see through Jesus, probably because the people who wrote this story down had only a very limited vision of God. More like a rather superior human being than the Creator of the Universe. I don't think we need let that worry us, though, because the whole of the Old Testament refines and redraws our picture of God, from the anthropomorphic being of the very early days, to the magnificent and holy Creator whom Jesus told us we could call "Father".

Nevertheless, God, in this story, demands obedience. Balaam is not to put a spell on the Israelites, no matter how much money the Moabites pay him to do so. And God will go to great lengths to stop him, including speaking through his [pause] donkey. Well, what did you think I was going to say? Balaam's name later becomes a by-word for greed, so it's apparent that the Jews understood him to have been planning to curse the Israelites, in spite of him saying that there wasn't enough money in the treasury to bribe him with!

I don't think I've ever been bribed to disobey God, have you? But there are other temptations. You will have yours, just as I have mine. We can all be tempted to do what we know not to be God's will for us, whether by money, or by the promise of power, or pleasure, or any other reason. Whether or not what we want to do is actually sinful, like gambling or committing adultery or withholding our tithe, or whether it is just that it would be wrong for us in this present time - a job, perhaps, that we wouldn't be happy in, or where we wouldn't meet someone God wanted us to know. The point is, we can often be tempted away from the path.

But God has promised to keep us on the straight line. Remember what he says in Isaiah 30:21:

"And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'"

"This is the way; walk in it." God said this to Balaam, all those centuries ago, and God is still saying it to us, today. But how do we hear? This is always the vexed question, isn't it? God doesn't tend to appear to us in the form of an angel, or speak to us through animals. It would make life a lot easier if he did, I reckon.

I suppose the answer is that much of the time we don't actually need to hear. Now that, of course, is a very different thing from not wanting to hear! We carry on as seems good to us, and if we are truly and honestly seeking God's plan for us, the way will open. And if we drift off the path, God has ways of showing us that, too. We won't necessarily hear a voice from heaven, or a verse of the Bible leaping off the page in letters of fire - although both those things can happen! We may well find God's voice in something a friend says to us, that hits home with a power that can only have come from God. We may well find doors shutting in our faces - we can't do that thing, or get that job, or apply for that benefit. Or whatever. God has ways, and be assured, if God wants you to do something, you'll know!

Of course, God doesn't normally force us to obey, not like poor old Balaam was forced. If we insist on disobeying, then we shall be allowed to. God always has a plan B. But we might miss out on a particular blessing that God would have wanted to give us. And if we go on and on disobeying, then maybe we will find that one day we don't even want to be God's person any more. And that would be tragic.

But maybe this evening God is challenging you to do something, or to start doing something, or even to stop doing something. I've no idea, but it's perfectly possible. And the question is, are you going to listen to God and do as he asks, or are you going to disobey?

Balaam listened to God, and turned down a fortune to do so. But he found it worth his while. Quite apart from the donkey-nonsense, God will have blessed him for his obedience. Are we going to obey God, and thus receive his blessing? Amen.

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