“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” – Proverbs 14:12 (ESV)
The group of guys I meet with every Saturday morning (Hi fellas) is serious about becoming disciples who make disciples. This is a most worthy objective, and although it requires intention and perseverance, one doesn’t become mature by gritting his teeth. There are no shortcuts — you just have to put in the time, doing the right things for the right reasons. With this thought in mind, I’d like to tell you the story of an Old Testament prophet named Balaam. His story starts in the book of Numbers, beginning with chapter 22.
During the time Moses was leading the children of Israel in the wilderness, following the Exodus from Egypt, Balak the king of Moab wanted to be rid of his new neighbors. He rounded up his advisers and sent them to hire Balaam — a prophet — to curse the Hebrews. He explained he had noticed that whomever Balaam blessed stayed blessed, and whomever he cursed stayed cursed.
First thought best thought?
Balaam invited the men to stay as his guests overnight while he asked for God’s guidance. When God told Balaam not to go with the men, or to curse His blessed ones, he refused the offer of the Moabite king and sent the men back to their homes. As he did, he told them that he wasn’t allowed to exceed the authority God had given to him. At this point, it seems that Balaam is a man of integrity, and his response seems to be the right one.
For his part, King Balak was annoyed but rounded up his most senior and impressive nobles and sent them to Balaam to request his services a second time. They conveyed a message that the King would pay Balaam’s price, honor him, and do anything he said to do, if only he would come and curse “those people.” Once again, Balaam said no, but invited the Moabite nobles to stay the night while he sought God’s guidance.
What part of “Thou Shalt Not” don’t you understand?
God told Balaam he could go with the men, but He commanded Balaam only to do what God instructed him to do. Then something interesting happened. As Balaam was going, God became angry at Balaam, and He sent an angel armed with a sword to discourage him from going to Balak. Balaam’s donkey saw the angel, but Balaam couldn’t, and the donkey left the path and went into a ditch to avoid the fearsome creature. The angel appeared ahead of the donkey in a narrow passage through a vineyard and the donkey pressed hard against one of the walls in that narrow passage, crushing Balaam’s foot. And a third time, the angel appeared to block the path in a narrow alleyway, and the poor donkey — seeing no escape — simply lay down.
Balaam thought each of these incidents was an occasion for an ass-whoopin’ (see what I did there?) and struck the animal each time the donkey seemed to misbehave.
An extraordinary privilege
Most of us don’t get the rest of the story so immediately, but Balaam received an extraordinary gift. God enabled the donkey to speak to his master. The beast rebuked the man, asking him why he chose to beat her after all the years she had served him without ever acting this way. Humorously, the prophet didn’t seem to question the circumstances or the reality of a talking donkey, but joined the debate with gusto, saying to the donkey she was lucky he didn’t have a sword of he’d have killed her.
Then God opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel and the sword. And the angel asked why the prophet had chosen to beat his animal. But more, he explained that his mission was to turn Balaam back from his current course. If the donkey hadn’t balked, the angel would have killed him while sparing the donkey.
Balaam repented and confessed his wrong — even offering to return home — but the angel said he could go with the men. He told Balaam he could only say what he was instructed to say, nothing else.
A king’s welcome
King Balak went out to great his would-be spiritual hit man. He chided Balaam for his reluctance, asking if Balaam thought the king couldn’t pay him enough. Balaam said God wouldn’t let him do anything other than what He commanded. Balak then took Balaam up to one of the high places of pagan worship to look down on his Hebrew enemies.
And a kings’ frustration
On three separate occasions, per Balaam’s guidance Balak built seven altars and sacrificed a bull and a ram on each one. At Balaam’s instruction, the king would wait by his offerings while Balaam went aside to hear from God. Each time, Balaam would come back to the king with a word from God — not a curse for Israel, but a blessing. Each time the blessing was more lavish and effusive. The second blessing is a personal favorite. Here’s Eugene Peterson’s Message translation as it appears in Numbers 23:
On your feet, Balak. Listen,
listen carefully son of Zippor:
God is not man, one given to lies,
and not a son of man changing his mind.
Does he speak and not do what he says?
Does he promise and not come through?
I was brought here to bless;
and now he’s blessed—how can I change that?
He has no bone to pick with Jacob,
he sees nothing wrong with Israel.
God is with them,
and they’re with him, shouting praises to their King.
God brought them out of Egypt,
rampaging like a wild ox.
No magic spells can bind Jacob,
no incantations can hold back Israel.
People will look at Jacob and Israel and say,
“What a great thing has God done!”
Look, a people rising to its feet, stretching like a lion,
a king-of-the-beasts, aroused,
Unsleeping, unresting until its hunt is over
and it’s eaten and drunk its fill.
The king couldn’t stand it! He confronted Balaam saying in effect, “I brought you here to curse my enemies, and all you did was bless them!” Balaam protested that he had already told the king that He wasn’t allowed to deviate from what God told him to say.
The end of the alliance
As they relocated to the third location with the construction of the seven altars and the sacrifices of bulls and rams, the Bible says Balaam didn’t engage in his usual sorcery. Instead, he looked at the camp of Israel and spoke prophetically, blessing Israel and condemning Balak — and some other neighboring tribes for good measure.
Naturally, Balak was furious, and sent Balaam away without paying him anything. Both men returned home. End of story.
To be continued?
This episode in scripture seems to be one with a good ending. A prophet is solicited to do evil and steadfastly refuses to defy the will of God. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, as I will explain in my next post.