Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Mar 20 2019 - Numbers 22:1-36 – Balaam, his donkey and an angel

The Old Testament is full of wonderful stories. Today we have a donkey with whom its owner holds an animated conversation. It’s a wonderfully memorable story, but it's not told to amuse children, it's far more serious and far more complicated than that.

The Israelites have travelled to Moabite country in preparation for crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. There were hundreds of thousands of Israelites spread across the plains of Moab, so many that Balak, king of Moab, "was filled with dread" (v.3).

Balak is determined to get rid of these people from his territory. It was common in those days to pronounce a curse on your enemies before you engaged them on in battle. Balak had heard of a notable prophet called Balaam who seemed to be effective in pronouncing curses on people – for a price (see v. 6). So Balak sends messengers to Balaam seeking to hire his help.

Here is the first puzzling feature of the story. Balaam asks the messengers to stay with him overnight while he enquires what the LORD would have him do. The name LORD here is Yahweh, the God of Israel, the living God. Clearly Balaam, though a Gentile, knew something of the living God. How he had come by that knowledge we do not know, we can only surmise that Yahweh had revealed something of himself to this man – as he had to Melchizedek, king of Salem.

The Lord tells Balaam not to go with these messengers and curse the Israelites for the Lord has blessed them (v.12). And that would be the end of the story but for the persistence of Balak who sent further messengers with a better offer (v.17) – one which he thought Balaam could not refuse. This time the Lord told Balaam he could go with the messengers but warned him to say only what the Lord gave him to say.

Here is the second puzzle in the story for the Lord is then angry with Balaam for going with the messengers and seeks to stop him, even if it means striking him dead. What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? It seems clear that God knew the prophet's heart and that though he had been told not to go to Balak, yet Balaam was determined to go. So, in effect, the Lord's permission was him saying, "Very well, I have told you not to go but if you are determined to go, be it on your own head." Balaam is a highly conflicted personality, as references to him in the New Testament indicate (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Rev. 2:14). He knew something of the living God but was willing to use his prophetic powers in the service of pagan kings for a suitable fee.

So the Lord sent an angel to stand in the path and prevent Balaam's progress. Gordon Wenham says concerning the donkey, "its acts and words anticipate the problems Balaam is about to face. The ass was caught three times between the angel's sword and Balaam's stick. Soon Balaam will find himself trapped three times between Balak's demands and God's prohibitions."

Despite the drawn sword of the angel, God's primary purpose is to stop Balaam in his tracks and ensure that he understands that he can say nothing against the Israelites whom the Lord has blessed and will bless. No one will be permitted to oppose the purposes of God to bless his people.

The story warns us of the danger of a divided heart that seeks to serve both God and mammon. When rebellious thoughts are entertained in our hearts we are blinded to the reality of God's presence and power. He is a God of burning holiness who cannot be trifled with. To set ourselves against him is to discover that he is against us. That is a fearful prospect.

Father God, we thank you that you have revealed the glory of your holiness but also of your amazing grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. Keep us single-minded in our devotion to you. May we know that we are a people whom you have blessed beyond measure and called to be a blessing to others.

Peter Misselbrook