At the beginning of chapter 2, Peter employed a long (seven verses’ worth) sentence to make an important point—IF the Lord has already proven trustworthy to judge righteously and compassionately while rescuing every possible person, THEN the Lord will continue to prove the same. Peter’s audience could rest in the surety of God’s judgment against those who ravaged the flock and God’s rescue of the righteous remnant.
Peter then wrote in the strongest terms about false prophets, bringing Balaam up as his illustration.
The Prophet Balaam
They [the false prophets] have left the straight road and have gone astray, following the road of Balaam son of Bosor, who loved the wages of doing wrong, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.2 Peter 2:15-16 (NRSV)
How many of you have ever been behind the scenes? I mean behind the back of a stage, where all the props are kept, and the dressing rooms are, and all the stagehands are running around, and the performers are getting ready, and lining up to get on stage for their cue?
Backstage is a whir of activity, but it has to be kept quiet once the performance goes on. The stage crew, sound crew, light crew, props crew are all making it happen, but you are not ever going to see them from the audience. You only see what is happening on stage.
That is where Israel was in this story about Balaam. They had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. But we will see that God works behind the scenes, interceding for God’s own.
Balak King of Moab’s Fear
It was near the end of their years of desert wandering. They had politely asked King Sihon of the Amorites to give them passage. Instead, King Sihon waged war against God’s people. When he was defeated, the tribes of Israel pitched their tents and made camp on their newly acquired territory. King Og of Bashan also marched against God’s people, but was defeated, and the tribes took possession of the land of Bashan as well.
So now the king of Moab became terrified that Israel would have plans to take their lands also, that it was merely a question of time.
The Israelites set out, and camped in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho. Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were so numerous;
Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel.Numbers 22:1-3 (NRSV)
In Hebrew the word used for fear meant gut wrenching, to feel a sickening dread to the point of vomiting.
Israel could have had no idea King Balak was in such a bad way. God had already told them. “Do not harass Moab or engage them in battle, for I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”
Moab and Ammon were the descendants of Abraham Patriarch of Israel’s nephew, Lot. Like the Edomites (descendants of Esau), the Moabites and the Ammonites were brothers of Israelites. But King Balak was terrified, and apparently had no idea God was protecting them. So, Balak turned to the only neighbors he had left standing, the Midianites
Balaam, the Bārû Diviner
Evidently, the Moabite and Midianite kings had a meeting about this Big Problem and decided conventional warfare was out of the question; they needed supernatural help. They would send for a practitioner of occult arts who had an international reputation.
In fact, Balaam was a bārû diviner, a seer. He read signs in the livers of specially sacrificed animals, and could influence the wills of gods using this secret knowledge. The plan was to put a powerful curse on the tribes of Israel, cause their luck to run out, and the Moabites and Midianites would then together drive the problem away.
The delegation of Midianite and Moabite princes had to travel 350 miles to the Euphrates River, in Mesopotamia where Balaam lived. Balaam invited them to spend the night while he inquired of Israel’s god, using his sorcery. In ancient times it was believed that each nation had their own god. Balaam’s plan was to use his power on Israel’s god, just as he had done countless times before, for a price. He was sort of an equal opportunities diviner.
For a fee, Balaam would strong arm whatever god you wanted.
But Balaam had not bargained on the power Jehovah
God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.”Numbers 22:12 (NRSV)
Initially, Balaam gave his regrets, saying the Lord had refused to permit the Moabite-Midianite alliance’s plan to work. but King Balak would not give up with his intention. He sent an even bigger delegation a second time, with even more important princes.
Balaam demurred on this second more forceful invitation as well; however, he did offer a note of hope.
Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, “Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God, to do less or more. You remain here, as the others did, so that I may learn what more the Lord may say to me.”Numbers 22:18-19 (NRSV)
Even though he knew God’s word on the matter, apparently Balaam—driven by his greed—still worked his sorcery through the night, trying to get the Lord to change God’s mind.
God decided Balaam would need a more powerful encounter with the word of the Lord.
That night God came to Balaam and said to him, “If the men have come to summon you, get up and go with them; but do only what I tell you to do.” So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the officials of Moab.Numbers 22:20-21 (NRSV)
Balaam and His Donkey
Now, the next line of the narrative seems incongruous—
God’s anger was kindled because he was goingNumbers 22:22 (NRSV)
Had God not just told Balaam to saddle up his donkey and go along with the Moabite-Midianite delegation?
We know (if we read ahead in the story) God gave Balaam permission to go in order to eventually bless Israel
But Balaam had no intention of obeying the Lord. And God knew the intentions of Balaam’s heart. So God blocked Balaam’s way three times.
1. The angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as [Balaam’s] adversary. Now [Balaam] was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him.
The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road.
2. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side.
When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so [Balaam] struck it again.
3. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left.
When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff.Numbers 22:22-27 (NRSV)
The angel of the Lord was a “theophany,” a visible appearance of God.
Each time, Balaam, the famous seer, could not see the divine being right in front of him, but his humble donkey could. Three times Balaam beat his donkey, trying to force her to go up against God, because he was too blinded by his own pride and greed to see danger.
Jesus said, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. But Balaam’s pride was in his way, his confidence that he could manipulate Almighty God into cooperating with Balaam’s greed. Balaam could not see God.
To Be Continued . . .
[Balaam and his donkey | The Jewish Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]