“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” – Psalm 119:11 (NIV)
In Part I, I recounted the biblical story of Balaam from the Old Testament book of Numbers. Most of what I have to say in this post will resonate more if you read that post (I’ll wait). But for those of you who don’t have time right now, the story is as follows:
The children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness following their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Balak, the king of Moab, did not like his new neighbors and sent for the prophet Balaam to put a curse on the Hebrews. Balak had heard that Balaam’s blessings and curses were pretty strong stuff. Balaam refused to go at first, but Balak upped the offer. On the way, God sent an angel (invisible to Balaam, but visible to his donkey) to block his way. When Balaam’s frustration boiled over, resulting in his hitting the donkey, the donkey put the prophet to shame by speaking to him about his bad behavior. Oh, and Balaam had King Balak build altars and sacrifice to the Lord, only to pronounce blessings on the children of Israel instead of curses.
Panning for gold in the dust of history
Maybe your pastor preached about Balaam somewhere along the line. I don’t ever remember hearing a sermon about the guy. Even so, his story is in the Bible for a reason. I argue it’s because there are many lessons to take from this less-well-known Bible story. Here’s what I learned:
- It’s more important to know God than to know about God – Balaam was familiar with Israel’s God, but he was not a Hebrew. Other sources say he was a sorcerer — a practitioner of magic. Even though he inquired of God, and God communicated His will to Balaam, it’s clear that Balaam less a friend than an acquaintance.
- It’s about what you love – If Balaam had truly known and loved the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, no amount of money would have enticed him to entertain Balak’s offer. Notice that when Balak’s second delegation — the more impressive one — came to Balaam, they conveyed that Balak was able and willing to PAY. Clearly, money was higher on Balaam’s list of priorities, or he wouldn’t have gone away to pray a second time to ask if God would, just this once, curse Israel.
- God cares – even for a stinker like Balaam — Note that God spared Balaam’s life on his foolish trip to Moab. He certainly had the prerogative to strike him down and chose not to. Instead, He opened the mouth of the donkey, and the eyes of the man to see the angelic messenger of judgment.
- God moves – but not because of magic — One might be tempted to imagine Balaam as a success due to his effective use of ritual. I say that God’s words to and through Balaam were in spite of Balaam, not because of him. Remember that God made a covenant with Abraham to make him a great nation through whom all nations would receive a blessing. God’s actions in blessing his chosen people in defiance of wicked Balak was a result of God’s faithfulness and never-ending love.
- God’s will is unstoppable — I find it humorous that the obstinate Balaam got his correction from an animal known for its stubbornness. As Jesus said that if people wouldn’t worship him, rocks and stones would cry out His praise, so unreliable prophets end up being upstaged truth-wise by talking livestock. Note also, that God held Balaam to speak only what He instructed, and God resolutely and resoundingly blessed His people.
- A miss is as good as a mile — Elsewhere in scripture we find characters such as Ruth and Rahab — foreigners whose faith made them righteous, and who even found their way into the earthly lineage of the Messiah, Jesus. Balaam had a similar opportunity to be a hero of the faith — at least in terms of the conversational familiarity he enjoyed with the Lord — but, as we’ll see, he squandered it.
So how did it turn out for Balaam?
In Numbers 25, we read that instead of a divine curse or a military conquest, the Moabites sought to overthrow Israel by seducing them. The Moabite women made themselves sexually available to the Hebrew men, through this encouraging them to worship their god, Baal of Peor, provoking the judgment of God. If you think the Bible is this sanitized book that faints at sex and violence, I encourage you to get over it by clicking though and reading Numbers 25.
In chapter 31, we learn that Balaam died by the sword of the Hebrews in Moses’ final campaign acting as God’s instrument of judgment. Verse 8b says, “They also killed Balaam … with the sword.” But why?
As Moses’ fighters killed the men of Midian, they took the Midianite women captive. Moses objected strenuously, saying:
“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people.” Numbers 31:15-16 (NIV)”
There you have it. Balaam wanted Balak’s money. When God wouldn’t cooperate by cursing His chosen ones, Balaam taught Balak how to undermine his enemies via the honey trap. It didn’t fool God, though, and Balaam paid with his life.
Echoes and warnings
Interestingly, Balaam’s name appears in scripture several more times — in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Nehemiah, and Micah in the Old Testament — condemning him for his involvement in “the Peor incident” and reminding the reader of his grisly end. His name became a warning to the children of Israel.
But that’s not all. Three books of the New Testament also call Balaam’s folly to our attention, making it all the more unusual that his story seems to be taught so infrequently. Here are the New Testament references in their entirety:
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 (NIV)
“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 1:11 (NIV)
“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 (NIV)
Now that you know the rest of the story, I want to offer a few other lessons from the tale of Balaam:
- Always interpret scripture with scripture — If we only considered the text in Numbers 22 – 24 when considering Balaam, we might conclude that he was a righteous man. Subsequent passages show that wasn’t so. Throughout your life, be careful not to build doctrinal castles on single Bible verses or interpretations that aren’t supported elsewhere in scripture.
- Take the long view — When faced with a moral dilemma, think beyond the current circumstances. Balaam’s greed resulted in a payday for him, but a violent death soon after. Be sure that your solution to a problem doesn’t create more problems.
- Evaluate according to the plumb-line of scripture — Compare your plans, your desires, and your feelings against the teachings of scripture. Plans, desires, and feelings are useful, but they can also mislead you. Better to check against a transcendent moral arbiter.
- Own your convictions — Notice that Balaam always protested to Balak that he could only say what God told him to say. This suggests that Balaam had no fixed principles, that he would have been only too happy to go along with the whole curse plan, but God wouldn’t let him. It’s easy to get a wedge between an external conviction and the person who is mouthing it. And Balaam shows the cost.
- Trust God first and always — How bitterly ironic that Balaam should utter the words in Numbers 23:19, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (ESV). If only he had truly believed this. He wouldn’t have asked God but one time regarding whether to entertain an emissary from Moab.