Balaam and his talking donkey are probably the best known characters in the book of Numbers. However, because something is well know does not mean it is well understood. Israel, with all her complaining and disobedience, is the recipient of God’s blessing (God’s shalom – wholeness, fruitfulness, peacefulness, etc.). God promised Abraham that he would bless his descendants and all those who bless them as well. He also said that he would curse those who curse Israel. The story of Balaam is one of blessing and cursing.
Israel has just come off a major victory and they are now entering the land of Moab and Midian. Balak, the leader of the Moabites, is nervous and is not sure of the intentions of Israel. The story gives us no indication that Israel has plans to attack, but then again they have attacked in the past and been victorious. So Balak decides to be proactive in dealing with this ensuing threat. (This is the only admirable quality of Balak!)
Enter Balaam. We know from extra-biblical sources (sources outside of the Bible) that Balaam was a world renowned sorcerer-exorcist. His curses worked. He was often sought after to curse not only individuals but entire nations. For this reason Balak sends an entourage to hire Balaam.
Round one of negotiations. God tells Balaam, “Do not go with these men.” (What is the God of Israel doing talking to this sorcerer?!)
Round two of negotiations. Balak thinks Balaam is playing hardball so he ups the price, “I will make you rich beyond your wildest imagination!” Rich, heh? Stay the night and let me see what God says. Money took root in Balaam’s heart. God already told him not to go. So this time when God says, “Go with them but don’t do anything unless I tell you to,” we see God giving Balaam over to his hearts desire – to get rich! This is why after God says go we read that God was angry with Balaam.
Along the way Balaam’s donkey averts disaster three times. The donkey sees what Balaam does not. The angel of the Lord, with sword drawn, is ready to strike down Balaam. “Whoever curses you I will curse,” are the very words that God spoke to Abraham. (while blessing brings life, cursing brings death) Finally, after the third aversion Balaam beats his donkey (for the third time) and the Lord opens the mouth of the donkey. The scene is like something right out of Narnia where animals talk and humans accept it as a matter of fact.
The main point – “Do not say anything unless I tell you to say it!” This is the command of the angel (or is it the Lord?).
Balaam arrives and attempts to curse Israel, but to Balak’s chagrin, words of blessing flow from Balaam’s mouth. Blessing #1 – You are chosen so be fruitful and multiply!
Balak thinks that perhaps Balaam is unable to curse such a large multitude and so he takes him to another high place (possibly places of pagan worship) where he can only see part of Israel. Once again Balaam steps up to speak a curse but blessing flows from his mouth. Blessing #2 – You are being made holy and wise!
Really, Balaam? Two blessings? Balak is willing to try one more time. He takes Balaam to another place, but this time Balaam doesn’t even try to curse Israel he simply speaks blessing. Blessing #3 – You will live in a prosperous and fruitful land!
Tired and angry, Balak sends Balaam away. Balaam reminds Balak that from the very beginning he said, “I can do nothing unless God allows me.”
A closer look at the story reveals that what Balaam was attempting was an exorcism of God! At each high place he set up seven altars and sacrificed there. This is only known in exorcism rites. Essentially, Balaam was trying to exorcise the Spirit of God from Israel. However, Balaam comes to understand the impossibility of this task.
The story isn’t over though. If you keep reading you discover that Balaam offers Balak another solution – exorcise Israel from the Spirit of God. So Balak sends in beautiful women from Moab and Midian to entice the men of Israel. Israel takes the bait and the women, which God forbid after leaving Egypt.
If we pay attention we just might see some hope in this story, for Israel as well as us. First of all, God’s commitment to blessing Israel is clear. God is faithful and will remain faithful to his chosen people even if we Gentiles (and the Jews for that matter) don’t fully understand how. Second, the blessings Balaam spoke over Israel are blessings over us who have been grafted into Israel’s story through Jesus. First, God calls and gathers people to himself, making them fruitful and numerous. Second, God cleanses his people from sin and opens their eyes to his will. Finally, God reminds his people that for those who continue to live as if the kingdom were here in full there will be a day when they will live fully in the kingdom; in a prosperous and fruitful land.
There is a warning in this story as well. God will not abandon us, but we must be alert to the enemy’s attempts to exorcise us from the Spirit of God. Maybe the “curse” won’t come in the form of beautiful Moabite and Midianite women, but it will come. In that day we would do well to heed the apostle Paul’s advice to “stand firm and after doing all we can to remain standing.”
May we bless Israel and receive the blessing of God. Amen.