I am continuing with the story Peter introduced as his example of how foolish -and- dangerous the false prophets were in the first century church. Yesterday, Balaam the seer could not see what his simple little donkey could see—the Lord blocking his way. So Balaam beat his donkey each time.
Today, an even more astonishing event will humble Balaam even further.
Balaam, the Bārû “Seer”
Did you notice that Balaam resorted immediately to violence in his anger and frustration? Rather than the wisdom you and I would assume a sage to have, Balaam responded with dangerous foolishness, cruelty, self-centered and self-indulgent rage.
- Balaam did not try to work with the little donkey, to find out what was wrong.
- He did not take into account his donkey’s intelligence, soulish nature, or normal behavior.
- He did not even pause to wonder what might make a creature balk with such consistency.
- He did not sense anything supernatural happening.
- He just got out his stick and started hammering.
You and I should take pause, however. Not only is this a picture of foolishness by scripture’s standards, it is an illustration of basic emotional nescience, intellectual vacuity, and spiritual callousness.
It would have been better to choose almost anyone else, in any walk of life, someone simply strolling by, than to have continued with such a fraud.
This would have been a point that undoubtedly came immediately to mind for Peter’s readers as they remembered the story of Balaam.
Balaam, the Bārû “Oracle”
But something far more astonishing than a balking donkey was about to occur, in the presence of the Midianite-Moabite delegation of the most august princes of the realm.
Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam,
“What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!”
But the donkey said to Balaam,
“Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”
And [Balaam] said, “No.”Conversation between Balaam and his donkey, Numbers 22:28-30 (NRSV)
As surprising as it might be for you and I to hear a donkey speak, Balaam seems to have taken it in his stride, for he answered his donkey, as though this were a perfectly ordinary part of his day.
It is actually more astonishing that Balaam should have answered in the way he did!
- Because you have made a fool of me!
- I wish I had a sword in my hand!
- I would kill you right now!
Someone who had built an international reputation and fortune upon the foundation of his supernatural acumen; the arcane intricacies of his deep, dark sorcery; of power so immense he could bend the wills of gods . . .
. . . was more worried about how he looked in the moment rather than what portent the moment held.
. . . was more intent on battling wills with an ordinarily dumb animal rather than ascertain who was having a battle of wills with him.
. . . was more eager to slaughter his own beast of burden, in momentary satisfaction of his inordinate rage, rather than take note that a donkey—his donkey—was actually speaking to him.
It took the donkey to bring Balaam to his senses.
Look, Balaam, try to see what is going on. You know me, your faithful donkey, you have ridden me all your life. You have all the data you need to understand something unusual is happening.
- Have I ever randomly gone off the road into the fields? No.
- Have ever scraped your foot (or any part of you) against a wall (or anything else)? No.
- Have I ever suddenly lain down in the middle of the road, and especially with you riding upon me? No.
Perhaps there had begun that slow, creeping tingle in Balaam’s arms and legs, that pressure in the chest where one’s heart is beating, that shiver in the neck and prickling in the hair as one realizes one has gotten the situation all wrong. That dawning realization of intense embarrassment, even shame and humiliation, for this was a very public display as the delegation gathered round in stupefaction.
Balaam, the Bārû “Diviner”
It was in this moment that God chose to reveal to Balaam what had been happening completely unbeknownst to him in the spiritual realm.
Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face.
The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perversebefore me. The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times.
If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.”God, Numbers 22:31-33 (NRSV)
In reading God’s word to Balaam, I wonder if the delegation heard it as well? In any case, they certainly saw Balaam fall to the ground and kneel in trembling obeisance (either to the angel of the Lord all could now see, or to the empty air before which the donkey had also fallen). They certainly noted a pause filled either with silence, the sound of thunder, or God’s words, before hearing Balaam’s reply.
Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.”
The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.”
So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.Balaam to God, Numbers 22:34-35 (NRSV)
Was Balaam truly repentant?
Is that why God let him continue?
Or was Balaam more like Pharaoh, when he said he had sinned? Not repentance, just momentary fear. Balaam was slowly realizing that Jehovah was not like other gods.
Balak had been waiting so anxiously for Balaam that he had run to the farthest border of his land, the river Arnon, to meet up with the famous sorceror, and rebuked him for taking so long. The newly chastened Balaam said,
“I have come to you now, but do I have power to say just anything? The word God puts in my mouth, that is what I must say.”Balaam to King Balak, Numbers 22:38 (NRSV)
Balak would have been confused by those words. Balaam’s business was based on being able to use occult arts to bend gods to his command. But for the first time in his career Balaam realized there was going to be more involved in this gig than putting a curse on a nation, and making some money.
Jehovah was powerful, not to be persuaded, not to be influenced, not vulnerable to sorcery, not to be bought.
God will not be manipulated.
I had to pause after typing those words. That is not what many Christians believe. But the truth is, prayer is not to
- Get God to deal with the situation the way you and I are hoping.
- Help God brainstorm ways to make this situation turn out well for us.
- Remind God how good we have been, so God owes us.
- Bargain with God to get what we want.
Ignoring all God’s interaction with him so far, Balaam offered sacrifices with Balak, and worked his wizardry, reading the animals’ livers. Balaam still did not understand.
Prayer is to bring our thoughts in line with God’s. Prayer is for you and I to discern the Lord’s will, draw upon God’s wisdom and strength to do well in our circumstances, and to reflect God’s character.
[Balaam offered sacrifices with Balak | The Jewish Museum James Tissot, Public Domain]