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.

Mar 20 2013 - Luke 4:1-30 – Good news for the poor

In Luke's Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry with a reading from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
   and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4:18-19)

Having read this passage to the congregation in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus concludes, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." Jesus adopts this passage of Scripture as his manifesto. It is a declaration of what he, the anointed one, the Christ of God, has come to do.

The passage has echoes of the Jubilee legislation of Leviticus 25. In the year of Jubilee, Jewish bond-slaves were to be released and returned to their own family lands; debts were to be cancelled and each person was to enjoy the inheritance which God had given to his people. These laws were designed to prevent some in society accumulating great riches while others became poor. Jesus came to proclaim a great year of Jubilee. He came to proclaim good news to the poor and freedom for the captives.

This theme is taken up in a stirring, if somewhat quaint, hymn by Charles Wesley:

Blow ye the trumpet, blow!
The gladly solemn sound
Let all the nations know,
To earth’s remotest bound:
  The year of jubilee is come!
  The year of jubilee is come!
  Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.

Ye slaves of sin and hell,
Your liberty receive,
And safe in Jesus dwell,
And blest in Jesus live:
  The year of jubilee is come!
  The year of jubilee is come!
  Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.

Ye who have sold for naught
Your heritage above
Shall have it back unbought,
The gift of Jesus’ love:
  The year of jubilee is come!
  The year of jubilee is come!
  Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.

Our captive world still needs to hear the liberating message of the gospel: Jesus gives freedom to the captives and sight to the blind.

But this message of liberation is not simply about the hereafter; it must also affect the way we live here and now. This was recognised by the Wesleys and by Wilberforce. They believed that the gospel was not only to give hope for the future to the few, but hope now for the many who live in despair. It must bring freedom to the oppressed and, quite literally, freedom to those held in slavery. It must transform the way we live in this world that we might transform the lives of others.

We need to look carefully at our own lives to examine those areas where we may be lending support to systems of oppression and to structures which maintain our own riches at the expense of others – which result in their enslavement. Our embrace of the gospel must involve our adoption of this same gospel manifesto – an adoption that must be more than mere words. We are to become good news for the poor. Our lives, shaped by the Spirit of the risen Saviour, are to be lived in a way that anticipates that great day when all of creation will be liberated from bondage and will enjoy the freedom of the children of God. It's quite a calling!

Find out more this week about the evils of human trafficking and what you can do to join the fight against it.

Father God, thank you that through Jesus you have freed me from bondage to sin and death and made me your child. Open my eyes and make me sensitive to the many ways in which people are oppressed and enslaved in your world. Help me not to perpetuate such slavery through my own self-centred living but to do all I can to campaign and work for its alleviation. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Peter Misselbrook