While I was preparing to teach on the prophet Balaam, I went to the church library to check out some of the best commentaries on the Book of Numbers. I found the three good commentaries that were not in my own library. As I was in the process of checking them out, I discovered something interesting. Two of the commentaries had never been checked out before. The third had been checked out once, five years ago, by one of my fellow-elders. It would appear that very few people are studying the Book of Numbers; in fact I suspect that few are even reading Numbers.
I’m quite sure I know the reason why the Book of Numbers is so often ignored. People think that these last three books of the Pentateuch (Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are boring. Let’s face it; there are some portions of the Pentateuch that appear to be irrelevant, and that are commonly considered boring. Having admitted to this, I now wish to point out that one of the most fascinating stories in the Bible is found in the Book of Numbers. I am speaking of the story of Balaam, the “diviner,” who was hired to curse Israel by Balak, the King of Moab. Who can possibly keep from giggling as they read of Balaam arguing with his donkey? And best of all, the donkey wins!
In our study of the Old Testament prophets, we have already considered Abraham and Moses. We then turned to the subject of false prophets, based upon Deuteronomy 13 and 18. There, Moses warns us about false prophets and those who would lead us away from worshipping the one true God. The story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers provides us with a case study of a false prophet. He is a false prophet who seeks to curse Israel, but who can only pronounce blessings upon God’s people. There are some very important lessons for us to learn from Balaam. Let us listen well to the story, and look to the Holy Spirit to teach us from this fascinating text.
It may help to get “the lay of the land” of the Book of Numbers before we take up the story of Balaam. Numbers begins with the Israelites at Mount Sinai, after the giving of the law. They are preparing to move out in military fashion, ready to possess the promised land (Numbers 1:1—10:10). They then make their way from Sinai to Kadesh Barnea. Twelve men, each representing one tribe of Israel, were sent to spy out the land, and while all had glowing reports of the bounty of the promised land, ten of the men expressed fears concerning the size of the Canaanites and doubts about Israel’s ability to take the land from them. Because of this, the Israelites rebelled against God and refused to attack the Canaanites. This led to God’s judgment upon that first generation of Israelites who were delivered from Egyptian bondage (10:11—14:45). For 40 years, this generation of Israelites had to wander about the wilderness until virtually all died. That wandering period, along with the setting down of certain laws, is described in chapters 15-19. In chapter 20, the second generation of Israelites sets out toward Moab, the launching point for Israel’s invasion of Canaan. Along the way Israel comes to the wilderness of Zin, the same place to which the Israelites had come shortly after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 16:1). Here, Miriam dies and is buried (20:1). Since there is no water there, the people begin to grumble once again (20:1-5). Moses is instructed to “speak to the rock” and, by this means, to produce water for the people to drink. In his anger, Moses strikes the rock twice with his rod (20:10-11), and for this act of irreverence, Moses himself is forbidden to enter the promised land (20:12-13). This is also the time for Aaron to “be gathered to his people,” that is, for Aaron to die. His priestly garments are removed from him and placed on his son Eleazar. Then, in the sight of all the congregation, Aaron ascends Mount Hor, where he dies (20:22-29). All these events signal the end of an important chapter in Israel’s history, a chapter which began at the exodus, and which concluded with the death of that generation of Israelites who failed to trust and obey their God.
The final section of the Book of Numbers deals with the second generation of Israelites as they prepare to enter and to possess the land of Canaan. These chapters describe the journey of the Israelites as they approach the promised land (chapters 21-25). The people are numbered in preparation for war (chapters 26-27), and they are instructed concerning God’s requirements for their conduct (chapters 28-36).21 It is in this closing section of the Book of Numbers that the account of Balaam is found.
When the Canaanite king of Arad heard that the Israelites were approaching, he attacked them, taking some Israelites captive. God gave this king and his people into the hands of the Israelites, and they were utterly destroyed (21:1-3). Leaving Mount Hor, the Israelites sought to pass by Edom, along the coast of the Red Sea, but they became impatient and began to grumble. God sent fiery serpents among the people as a divine judgment, and many died. When Moses interceded with God, he was instructed to make a bronze serpent which was to be lifted up for the people to see. Everyone bitten who looked up to the bronze serpent lived (21:4-10).
The remainder of chapter 21 describes those events immediately preceding the introduction of Balaam in chapter 22. Israel is making its way to Pisgah (verse 20), which seems to be a ridge near the top of Mount Nebo. This spot provided a panoramic view of the promised land. It is from Pisgah that Moses will view the promised land before his death on Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). When the Israelites send messengers to Sihon, the king of the Amorites, asking for his permission to pass through his land, he refuses, assembling his army to wage war against them (Numbers 21:21-23). The Israelites prevail and take possession of his land (21:24-31). They then capture Jazer, defeating and dispossessing the Amorites who live there (21:32). Going up by way of Bashan, the Israelites encounter Og, the king of Bashan, who comes out to fight them. Like Sihon, Og is defeated, and the Israelites possess his land as well (21:33-35).
1 The Israelites journeyed and camped in the plains of Moab on the side of the Jordan across from Jericho. 2 And Balak, the son of Zippor, saw all that the Israelites had done to the Amorites. 3 And the Moabites were greatly afraid of the people, because they were so numerous. The Moabites were sick with fear because of the Israelites.
It is not difficult to understand why the Moabites would feel threatened by the approaching Israelites. What a sight it must have been to look out and see an innumerable host of Israelites camped nearby, and heading your way! They were aware of how the Israelites had prevailed over those who opposed them along the way. In particular, Balak, the king of Moab, had heard of Israel’s victory over the Amorites. We are told that the Moabites were “sick with fear.”
One must wonder, however, just why the Moabites were so frightened. They should not have feared for their lives. The Ammonites and the Moabites were the offspring of Lot, and thus related to the Israelites:
30 Lot went up from Zoar with his two daughters and settled in the mountain, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave, he and his two daughters. 31 Later his firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man in the earth to go in to us, according to the way of all the world. 32 Come, let’s make our father drink wine so that we may lie with him to preserve the family from our father.” 33 So that night they made their father drink wine, and the firstborn came and lay with her father; and he did not know when she lay down or when she got up. 34 Then in the morning the firstborn said to the younger, “Since I lay with my father last night, let’s make him drink wine also tonight, and then you go and lie with him, to preserve the family from our father.” 35 So they made their father drink wine that night as well, and the younger arose and lay with him; and he did not know when she lay down and when she got up. 36 So the two daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. 37 And the firstborn gave birth to a son, and she called his name Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 And as for the younger, she also gave birth to a son, and called his name Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today (Genesis 19:30-38).
Because of their kinship with the Moabites, God commanded the Israelites not to harm them:
9 Then the Lord said to me, “Do not harass Moab and provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land as your territory. The reason is, I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as their possession. . . . 17 The Lord said to me, 18 “Today you are going to cross the border of Moab, that is, of Ar, 19 But when you come close to the Ammonites do not bother or provoke them because I am not giving any of the land of the Ammonites as your possession; I have already given it to Lot’s descendants as their possession” (Deuteronomy 2:9, 17-19).
4 So the Moabites said to the elders of Midian, “Now this mass of people will lick up everything around us, as the bull devours the grass of the field.” Now Balak, the son of Zippor, was king of the Moabites at this time. 5 And he sent messengers to Balaam, the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river in his native land, to call him, saying, “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are settling next to me. 6 So now, please come and curse this nation for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will prevail so that we may conquer them, and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”
One might reason that because the Israelites had slain all the Amorites, this is what they were going to do to the Moabites as well. This might explain why the Moabites are so fearful about the coming of the Israelites. And yet, to be fearful of the approach of the Israelites as life-threatening, the Moabites would have to be ignorant of the special privileges God had established for them as the descendants of Lot. If the Moabites actually feared that they were going to be slaughtered by the Israelites, we would expect them to say as much. But as we look more closely at the words of verses 4-6, this does not appear to be what the Moabites feared.
From the Moabites’ own words, we would have to conclude that their fears were economic. They call attention to the large number of Israelites who are approaching. They do not mention war, nor slaughter. They speak of the Israelites coming near to them and settling down alongside them. They are concerned that the Israelites will consume all the natural resources of the land, leaving less for themselves: “Now this mass of people will lick up everything around us, as the bull devours the grass of the field” (verse 4). This sounds a great deal like the basis for the conflict between the herdsmen of their ancient ancestors, Abraham and Lot:
5 Now Lot, who was traveling with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. 6 But the land could not support their living together, for their possessions were great, and they were not able to live together. 7 So there was strife between Abram’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot. Now the Canaanites and the Perizzites were living in the land at that time (Genesis 13:5-7).
Israel was to be a source of blessing to the world, and certainly to the Moabites. And yet the Moabites feared the presence of the Israelites, so much so that they were willing to hire a man like Balaam to put a curse on them. Their aim was to somehow weaken this great nation by cursing them, so that they would be able to defeat them and “drive them out of the land.”
To accomplish this, the Moabites formed an alliance with the Midianites, thinking, perhaps, that there would be strength in numbers (or perhaps merely wanting to spread out the cost of hiring a high-priced “consultant” like Balaam). The Midianites were also somewhat related to the Israelites in a back-handed fashion. Midian was one of the sons of Abraham, through Keturah (Genesis 25:1-5). Also, when Moses fled from Egypt, he settled down in the land of Midian, where he married the daughter of a Midianite priest and had two sons (see Exodus 2:15ff.; Acts 7:29). Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, is the Midianite who gave Moses some very helpful administrative advice (Exodus 18).
The Moabites and the Midianites conspired together to recruit a man who had connections with the spiritual underworld, and who could therefore arrange to have a curse put on the Israelites. No doubt diviners were plentiful in those days, but there seemed to be one man who was “tops in his field.” His name was Balaam, and he was from Pethor, a city located along the Euphrates River:
Balaam was from Pethor, a city on the River, probably the Euphrates. Possibly Pethor was not far from the great city of Mari, discovered in 1933 in the Euphrates Valley. The discovery of a vast number of cuneiform tablets at Mari, beginning in 1933, revealed among other things the existence of a complex cult of prophets and seers whose activities precisely resemble those of Balaam. The fact that he undoubtedly represented the prophetic customs and practices of Mari and vicinity makes possible a better understanding of Balaam’s narrative in Numbers.22
The term the River … usually denotes the Euphrates (e.g., Gen. 31:21; Exod. 23:31; Josh. 24:2-3, 14-15).… Pethor is almost universally agreed to be ancient Pitru (modern Tell el-Ahmar), a site on the Sajur, a tributary of the Euphrates, about two miles from its confluence with the Euphrates, and about 12 mi. south of Carchemish.… The distance between Pethor (Pitru) and the plains of Moab would be over 370 miles. The journey would take an estimated 20-25 days, hence the four journeys in the story about 90 days.23
It is ironic, is it not, that Balaam comes from Mesopotamia, not far from where Abraham once lived. Balaam certainly knows something of the religion of the Israelites because he frequently refers to their God as “Yahweh.”24 Nevertheless, it seems obvious that he is not well-informed about the nation Israel, since he has to be told that Israel has been blessed by “Yahweh” (22:12). Balak must have believed that Balaam was the best man for the job he had in mind. If it was necessary to go so far to recruit a man with his credentials, it seemed to be worth it.
The distance may also serve another purpose. I confess that this is speculative on my part, but is it possible that Balak purposed to find a diviner who lived a good distance from Moab, so that the diviner would be ignorant of the success of the Israelites? A man who was too well-informed about Israel, their God, and their history, might very well decline when asked to curse them. Balaam seems to be just far enough removed from Canaan to be unaware of factors that were vital to his decision regarding Balak’s offer.
I remember a joke about the fellow who counterfeited some money. He wasn’t too smart, because he accidentally printed the wrong denomination on the bill he was counterfeiting. He printed a large quantity of twenty-one dollar bills! He knew that no one would accept these bills. Then he had a great idea. He would take this money way up into the Appalachian mountains, and he would pawn this money off on some unsuspecting hillbillies. When this counterfeiter reached a gas station in a very remote place, he asked, “Say, would you mind giving me change for this twenty-one dollar bill?” The hillbilly owner responded, “Sure. Will two sixes and a nine be okay?” I wonder if Balak hoped that Balaam lived far enough away from Canaan that he would not really grasp all that brought the Israelites to this place at this time.
There are many reasons why we confidently conclude that Balaam was not a true prophet; indeed, that he was not even a true believer in God. For the moment, let us simply observe that Balaam was merely a well-known “diviner,” with a reputation for effectively cursing nations. I do not mean to say that he was a complete fraud, and that his “curses” had no effect on others. His reputation seems to indicate otherwise. If his “cursing” was in vain, then why did God forbid him to do so? I believe that his powers did not come “from above,” but “from below,” that he was “connected,” but not to the God of Israel.
Balak’s message to Balaam is most informative: “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are settling next to me. So now, please come and curse this nation for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will prevail so that we may conquer them, and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (22:5b-6).
Israel had come out of Egypt—some 40 years earlier. Balak does not bother to inform Balaam how this great exodus had come to pass. He does not mention the covenant God had made with Abraham, nor does he bother to tell Balaam that the Israelites had destroyed those who opposed them along their way. He does admit to being outnumbered by the Israelites, and he reveals his plan to defeat the Israelites and drive them out of the land. But when Balak says to Balaam, “For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed,” I am absolutely amazed. Balak’s words immediately bring to mind the words of God in the Abrahamic Covenant:
1 Now the Lord had said to Abram, “Go out from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s household, to the land that I will show you; 2 and I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, in order that you might be a blessing; 3 and I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).
It is neither Balak nor Balaam who bestows “blessings or cursings” on nations. It is God who blesses and curses, and this all takes place in relationship to the nation Israel, on whom He has pronounced a blessing. Now, the only question is, “Will the Moabites and Midianites be blessed or cursed?” This will be determined by their response to the nation Israel. Those who bless Israel will be blessed; those who curse Israel will be cursed. In the light of the Abrahamic Covenant, we see that Balak’s plan to curse Israel is destined to bring a curse upon him and the Moabite nation.
7 And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fee for divination in their hand. And they came to Balaam and spoke to him the words of Balak. 8 And he said to them, “Stay here tonight, and I will bring back to you whatever word the LORD may speak to me.” So the princes of Moab abode with Balaam. 9 And God came to Balaam, and said, “Who are these men with you?” 10 And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me saying, 11 “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Come now and put a curse on them for me; perhaps I will be able to defeat them and drive them out.” 12 But God said to Balaam, “You must not go with them; you must not curse the people, for they are blessed.” 13 So Balaam got up in the morning, and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your land, for the LORD has refused to permit me to go with you.” 14 And the princes of Moab rose up and they went to Balak, and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.”
The elders of Moab and Midian set out on their long journey to Pethor, where Balaam lived. In their hands was the “divination fee” which they were willing to pay Balaam for his services (verse 8). You will notice that Balaam made no immediate commitment one way or the other. He asked the delegation to spend the night there with him, thus giving him the opportunity to inquire of the LORD (“Yahweh,” the God of Israel) concerning their offer. This is incredible when you stop to think about it. Balaam uses the particular name for the God of Israel (“Yahweh”), rather than employing one of the more generic names available (e.g., “Elohim”)25. Stripped to its essentials, Balaam’s request must therefore have been something like this: “Yahweh, there is this group of men here, who have asked me to go with them, so that I can curse Your people. Would that be all right with You?”
In the first place, Balaam must have known more than he lets on. If not, more information was given him than what we are told. In our text, Balaam is informed by his esteemed visitors, “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are settling next to me. So now, please come and curse this nation for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will prevail so that we may conquer them, and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:5b-6). The name of that nation, and the name of their God is not to be found in these words. Balaam’s words to his visitors betray the fact that he knew who this people was, because he knew the name of their God was “Yahweh.” If Balaam knew this much, then surely he knew about Israel’s exodus from Egypt, and he probably knew something of the covenant God had made with this nation (e.g., Genesis 12:1-3). How could Balaam dare to ask Yahweh if it would be all right for him to accompany these men to meet Balak, so that he could curse Israel? This is absolutely incredible!
I believe that God’s appearance to Balaam was in the form of a dream, while he was sleeping. The expression used here, “God came to…,” is not one which would suggest that God has come in response to Balaam’s efforts to communicate with Him. Indeed, its other occurrences would strongly imply that God came unexpectedly. God unexpectedly “came to” Abimelech in a dream, warning him that he was a dead man if he so much as touched Abraham’s wife, Sarah (Genesis 20:3). In a similar fashion, God “came to” Laban, who was in hot pursuit of Jacob, for fleeing from him without any farewells (and also because Rachel stole his household gods). In a dream, God warned Laban not to so much as speak harshly to Jacob (Genesis 31:24). These previous uses suggest to me that God spoke to Balaam in a dream, in a way that He done before with other pagans like Abimelech and Laban.
The first thing God says to Balaam is in the form of a question, “Who are these men with you?” (22:9). Of course God knows who these men are. He does not need Balaam to inform Him of such things. Why, then, does God ask a question to which He already knows the answer? As parents, we do the same thing all the time. When we catch our children doing something wrong, we may ask, “Just what do you think you are doing?” We know the answer, but we want to see how forthright they are with their answer. If they seek to hold back the truth, we know that repentance is a long range goal. If they tell it all, not holding back any facts and seeking to make no excuses, we can deal quite differently with them.
It was a good question. Who were these men? They were the emissaries of Balak, the king of Moab. These were men who represented nations and governments that were opposed to the nation Israel. These were men who were seeking to persuade Balaam to curse the very people God had blessed. In the light of this, what were these men doing in Balaam’s house, as his guests? To invite one to be a guest in your home was to grant them the highest level of intimacy and fellowship. This is why the Apostle John instructs that false teachers not be shown such hospitality:
9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not remain in the teaching about Christ does not have God. The one who remains in this teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house and do not give him any greeting, 11 because the person who gives him a greeting shares in his evil deeds (2 John 1:9-11).
No wonder God rebukes Balaam for having these men as his house guests. Inviting them to stay the night was the first of a sequence of mistakes Balaam made with regard to Balak and his requests.
Balaam’ answer to God’s question leaves much to be desired. He did not come clean with God, and tell all. Did he suppose that Yahweh did not know all? Consider this comparison of what Balaam was told by Balak’s representatives with what Balaam himself told God, in answer to His question:26
5 And he sent messengers to Balaam, . . . saying, “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are settling next to me. 6 So now, please come and curse this nation for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will prevail so that we may conquer them, and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”
10 And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me saying, 11 “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Come now and put a curse on them for me; perhaps I will be able to defeat them and drive them out.”
Balaam leaves out the fact that Balak expresses concern that the Israelites will live beside him, and not that he fears that the Israelites will annihilate the Moabites. In other words, his actions cannot be justified as “self-defense,” but rather are the protection of national self-interest. Balaam most certainly does not tell God that Balak has flattered him by stating that whomever Balaam blesses is blessed, and that whomever he curses is cursed. I think Balaam is well aware that this is God’s prerogative, and not man’s. And so, even though God asks Balaam a very open-ended question, Balaam responds in a very tight-lipped fashion. Balaam seeks to withhold information from God.
The same tendency can be seen in Balaam’s report to Balak’s emissaries, concerning God’s response to his request to accompany them and to meet with Balak:
12 But God said to Balaam, “You must not go with them; you must not curse the people, for they are blessed.”
13 So Balaam got up in the morning, and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your land, for the LORD has refused to permit me to go with you.” 14 And the princes of Moab rose up and they went to Balak, and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.”
In fact, God forbade Balaam to go with these dignitaries and to meet with Balak. Also, God forbade Balaam to curse the Israelites, informing him (if he did not already know this) that this was a people whom He had blessed (verse 12). Balaam does not tell his guests the whole story. He does not tell them that God forbade him to do what they were attempting to hire him to do; he tells them rather that God refused to give him permission to go with them. Both answers are similar in kind, but quite different in intensity. To be refused permission to go with these men is quite different from being forbidden to do what they have asked Balaam to do. In other words, God’s will was not only crystal clear; it was emphatically stated. The most important truth of all was never conveyed to this dignified delegation: The Israelites could not be cursed because God had blessed them. It was not just Balaam who was unable to curse the Israelites; no one could do so.
15 And Balak again sent princes, more numerous and more honorable than the first. 16 And they came to Balaam, and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, “Please do not let anything hinder you from coming to me. 17 For I will honor you greatly, and whatever you say to me I will do. So come, put a curse on this nation for me.” 18 And Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the commandment of the LORD my God, to do less or more. 19 Now therefore, please stay the night here also, that I might know what more the LORD might say to me.” 20 And God came to Balaam at night, and said to him, “If the men come to call you, rise up and go with them; but the word which I will say to you, that you must do.”27 21 So Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab.
One would have thought it was all over. Balak had made Balaam a tempting offer, but God had forbidden him to accept it, and so Balaam sent the delegation back to Balak. Balak’s response is interesting and informative. First, we see that he refuses to take “No” for an answer. He is determined to have Israel cursed, and he is likewise determined that Balaam is the man to do it. Second, we can see that Balak really offers Balaam nothing new; he simply enhances the offer he has already made. Balak initially sought to flatter Balaam with the delegation of princes he had sent, and with the money they had in their hands as a fee for divination. Balak now sends a larger and more noble delegation and seems to offer even more money. By inference, this new delegation of high-powered dignitaries says, “Name your own price.”
At first impression, Balaam’s response to this enhanced offer seems commendable. Isn’t he telling Balak that he cannot and will not come, no matter how much money he is offered? It may seem so, but I doubt that this is really the case. It is my personal opinion that Balaam is attempting to use God to further his own interests. He seems to be saying that there is no way he can be persuaded to violate the commandment of Yahweh, his God (verse 18). And yet, if Balaam is so determined not to transgress the commandment of the Lord, then why does he invite this delegation to spend the night with him “also”28 as though God may have some further word? What more does God need to say to him besides “No!”? Surely God’s words to him the first time he entertained such a delegation would have sufficiently informed him that God was not pleased with this kind of hospitality. Furthermore, if God had blessed Israel, and this blessing could not be reversed, then what profit would there be in continuing negotiations regarding his cursing the Israelites?
Balaam had an inadequate grasp of who God was. For one thing, Balaam did not grasp the sovereignty of God. The pagan “gods” were far from sovereign. We know, of course, that they did not even exist. But these “gods” were thought to be open to manipulation, by means of persistence (repetition) and extreme measures. The prophets of Baal sought to gain the attention of Baal by mutilating themselves (1 Kings 18:26-27). The heathen have their prayer wheels and other means by which they seek to multiply their prayers, thinking that this will gain the attention of their gods.29
How many times have I seen this kind of perseverance (bull-headedness) actually succeed in the realm of humanity. There are all too many parents these days who don’t really mean what they say. They tell their child not to do something, and their child looks them in the eye while he or she does this very thing. The parents all too often just shrug their shoulders, as if to say, “What can I do about it?” And so the child learns that “No” isn’t really a final “No.” Persist at the forbidden action long enough, and the parents will “fold.” Balaam seems to think of God in the same way. Why else would he seek to make further inquiry of Him, when he has already been given a clear “No”?
Once again, God came to Balaam in the night. This time God instructs Balaam that if the men come to call him, he is to get up and go with them; however, he must be careful to do only that which God says. God appears to be changing His mind here, does He not? How can we explain this, especially when the Angel of the Lord nearly takes Balaam’s life for going with these men? I will attempt to deal with this apparent problem by making the following assertions:
(1) God clearly forbade Balaam to go: “But God said to Balaam, ‘You must not go with them; you must not curse the people, for they are blessed’” (22:12). There is no question as to what God’s will for Balaam was in this situation. Balaam was told not to go and not to seek to curse the people He had blessed. I can almost hear Balaam trying to avoid this very obvious command by saying, “God forbade me to go with that first group of men, and for the price they offered for my services. But now a new delegation has come, offering me even more money. Perhaps circumstances have changed sufficiently for me to reopen my inquiry as to God’s will in this matter.” But nothing had really changed in principle. Balak was seeking Balaam’s services to curse the very people God had blessed. Balaam was raising the same question to which God had already answered, “No.”
(2) It wasn’t that Balaam did not know the will of God; it was that he did not want to do it. When Balaam asks the men to spend the night so that he can inquire further of the Lord, it is clear that Balaam does not want to do what God has commanded. Balaam wanted to disobey God and to go with the men. The money and the fame which Balak offered Balaam was too much for Balaam to turn down. He was intent upon getting around God’s will.
(3) Balak has no intention of taking “No” for an answer. He is a man of considerable power and wealth on the one hand, and a very desperate man on the other. He knows that apart from some form of supernatural intervention, he will not be able to expel the Israelites from the land. Balak refuses to accept Balaam’s refusal to come. I doubt very much that Balaam wanted to “cross” Balak.
(4) God does not approve of everything He allows. God was angry because Balaam went with the princes of Moab (22:22). Let there be no doubt that God is not pleased when men do the evil that He permits. God sometimes allows men to sin, even though He has condemned and forbidden it. This is a good example of what we might call “God’s permissive will.” God forbade Balaam to go with the delegation that had come, and also He forbade Balaam from cursing Israel, the people He had blessed. God’s direct revelation to Balaam, forbidding him to go, was His will in precept. When He permitted Balaam to accompany these men to meet with Balak, it was His permissive will. God allows men to do those things which He has forbidden. Woe to those who persist in their path of sin, for it is surely the road to destruction. Just because God allows men to sin does not mean that He approves of sin.
(5) When God allows men to do what He has forbidden, it is because it will fulfill His purposes. When God does permit men to sin, it does not mean that His Word or His will has changed. It means that He has purposed to allow us to sin, for His glory. In some way, God will use our disobedience to instruct others and to bring about His purposes in a way men would never have imagined, or to bring about our own demise. The sin of Judas Iscariot in betraying the Savior was the instrument God used to accomplish our redemption on the cross of Calvary. The rejection of Jesus as the Messiah by the nation Israel opened the door to the evangelization of the Gentiles (Romans 11:11). The sin of Ananias and Saphira was used of God to bring fear on the church in Jerusalem (Acts 5:11). David’s sin in numbering the Israelites resulted in the purchase of the land on which the future temple would be constructed (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21; 2 Chronicles 3:1).
Although God uses the sinful acts of men to accomplish His purposes, this in no way minimizes or reduces the penalty meted out to them for their sin. How easy it would be for someone to wrongly conclude that “since my sin ultimately fulfills the purposes of God,” I can live in sin with impunity, as though I were doing God a favor!”30 This is not the case at all. God hates our sin, and He punishes sinners for their sins. Let us never seek to turn grace into a license to sin. As we will see all too soon, Balaam paid a very high price for his sin.
(6) When men sin, God may withhold His punishment for a time. Divine punishment for sin is often delayed, so that we can see the awful consequences of sin. God delayed His punishment on the land of Canaan, so that its sin would be fully developed, and so that the wickedness of the Canaanites can be clearly seen. Though the punishment God prescribed on the Canaanites was severe, it was justly deserved (Genesis 15:13-16; see also Matthew 13:24-30; James 1:13-15).
(7) Apart from God’s grace, Balaam would have died on the way to meet Balak. Three times the donkey saved Balaam from the sword of the Angel of the LORD.
21 So Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab. 22 Then God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the way to oppose him. Now he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his sword drawn in his hand; and the donkey turned aside from the way and went into the field. And Balaam beat the donkey, to turn her back to the road. 24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a path among the vineyards, where there was a wall on either side. 25 And when the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed herself into the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall, and so he beat her again. 26 Then the angel of the LORD went farther, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27 So when the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she crouched down under Balaam. Then Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he beat his donkey with a staff. 28 Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” 29 And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made me look stupid; I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you.” 30 And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am not I your donkey, upon which you have ridden ever since I was yours unto this day? Have I ever attempted to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.” 31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his sword drawn in his hand; so he bowed his head, and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? Look, I came out to oppose you, because what you are doing is perverse before me. 33 The donkey saw me, and turned from me these three times. If she had not turned from me, I would have slain you, but saved her alive.” 34 And Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood against me in the way. So now, if it is evil in your sight, I will go back home.” 35 But the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but you may only speak the word that I will speak to you.” So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and set out with the princes of Moab. This must have been quite a scene to behold. Accompanying Balaam were the dignitaries who had been sent to persuade Balaam to come and curse the people of God. Each of them must have had their own servants and bodyguards. Balaam himself was accompanied by two of his own servants. I can imagine that those who happened to witness this entourage of Moab’s elite must have been duly impressed. Balaam was probably soaking all this up, basking in the glory of it all. After all, this whole caravan was on his account. He was the honored member of a very distinguished group.
What Balaam could not see was that by his choice to accompany this delegation, he had set himself in opposition to God. The words of verse 22 are chilling: “Then God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the way to oppose him. Now he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him.” Balaam had angered God. More than this, by his actions, Balaam made God his adversary. The Hebrew word translated oppose in verse 22 is literally transliterated satan. Out of 27 occurrences in the Old Testament, it is rendered Satan 19 times in the King James Version (“adversary” seven times; “withstand” once).
What an amazing and terrifying thought! To deliberately and purposefully oppose the will of God is to make God your adversary. This truth is taught elsewhere:
26 For if we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us, 27 but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume God’s enemies. 28 Someone who rejected the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the son of God, and profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy, and insults the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31).
He who would oppose the people of God and the will of God has made God his adversary.
As they make their way toward Moab, the Angel of the LORD stands in the path of Balaam and his donkey. The “Angel of the LORD” is a most fascinating person. He appears with some frequency in the Old and New Testaments.31 There are different views as to who this is, but at the very least we can say that he is an angel who represents God, speaking and acting on His behalf. At most we could say that he is a visible manifestation of the second person of the Godhead, none other than a preincarnate appearance of our Lord. If Balak sent his most noble princes to entice Balaam to come to him, God sent His most awesome emissary to oppose his coming.
Here is an amazing thing. Balaam, does not see the Angel of the LORD, but his donkey does. A prophet was known as a “seer,” who spoke to men for God concerning the things he “saw” (see 1 Samuel 9:9, 11, 19). Balaam cannot “see” the Angel of the LORD, but the donkey can, and this donkey then speaks to Balaam, rebuking him (cf. 2 Peter 2:16) for his sin. The donkey is a better “prophet” (or “seer”) than Balaam. Let no prophet ever attempt to take credit for what he sees and says, for God can do as much through a donkey.
Three times the donkey will see the Angel of the LORD and refuse to continue on the path in an attempt to spare Balaam from his sword. The first encounter comes where the path ran through an open field. The donkey sees the Angel and turns aside, into the field. Balaam is furious with his donkey for turning off the road. He beats his donkey severely,32 virtually forcing her to get back onto the path. Some time later, Balaam and his mount pass through some vineyards. Just as Balaam’s donkey is making her way between two walls, she sees the Angel of the LORD once again. In order to avoid the Angel, the donkey presses hard against one wall, crushing Balaam’s foot between her body and the wall. Greatly angered by her seemingly senseless behavior, Balaam beats his donkey once again. Going on farther, the Angel blocked the donkey’s path while she was confined to a very narrow place, and so all she could do was to lie down, refusing to go on. This really angers Balaam, who now employs his staff to beat his donkey. I cringe as, in my mind, I can hear the squeals uttered by the donkey in her pain, as she endures the brutal blows of Balaam’s staff.
What happens next seems absolutely incredible to the reader, and yet it did not appear to make much of an impression on Balaam. The donkey suddenly speaks to her master. She asks Balaam what she has done wrong for him to beat her so severely these three times. Balaam hardly appears to notice the incredible fact that a donkey is speaking to him. In effect, Balaam’s answer to the donkey’s question is, “Because you made a jackass out of me. And so help me if I had a sword in my hand right now I would kill you.” This is my paraphrase, of course, but it is not far from the sense of the text. Balaam was angry with his donkey because she had made him look like a fool. The donkey’s actions seemed completely inexcusable, so long as one is unaware of the presence of the Angel of the LORD, with His sword poised to kill Balaam. Balaam’s actions were irrational and cruel to a donkey who could see the Angel, who was aware of the danger He presented, and who sought to spare her master’s life.
There is a great deal of humor in our text, even though it deals with a very serious matter. Balaam seems to be very concerned about status and prestige. Surely this is why Balak sent an even more prestigious delegation the second time. There was probably plenty of pomp and circumstance as this entourage made its way back to Moab. We have seen these three incidents through the eyes of the donkey, and to some degree, through the eyes of Balaam. But what must this have looked like to one of the princes who was in the caravan, as they witnessed these events? Balaam, a man highly regarded for his ability to influence or control the “gods,” cannot manage to make his donkey go where he wants. These princes watch as Balaam completely loses control of himself, cruelly beating his animal. This did not do his image any good, and it would seem that his image was very important to Balaam.
But it gets even more incredible. The princes watch as Balaam strikes his donkey repeatedly in the open field, forcing her back onto the path. Then they look on as the donkey suddenly draws away, pressing hard against the wall, with Balaam’s foot catching the worst of it. Once again, they watch Balaam beat his animal. And then they look on (I think with smiles on their faces) as the donkey lays down beneath Balaam, so that he must jump off and beat the animal until she gets to her feet. And just when it would appear that things could not get worse, they watch in disbelief as Balaam and his donkey carry on a conversation. Can you imagine their astonishment if Balaam had turned to these princes and said something like this: “Men, I’ve just had a little talk with my donkey here, and we’ve decided that it would be best for us not to continue on with you.”
It is very doubtful that those who looked on saw the Angel of the LORD. It must have been something like what Saul’s fellow-travelers on the road to Damascus experienced, when our Lord appeared to him in a blinding light. We read, “Now the men who were traveling with him stood there speechless, because they heard the voice but saw no one” (Acts 9:7). A similar incident is recorded in John 12:27-30. The princes who accompanied Balaam (not to forget his two servants) must have gaped, wide-eyed, when they saw Balaam fall prostrate to the ground. What in the world was this man doing? Had he completely lost his mind? To the onlooker, it would have seemed so.
Balaam tells his donkey that if he had a sword in his hand, he would kill her that very moment. How foolish his words seem to us, since we know that there was One present who did have a sword, and who was ready to use it that very moment on Balaam. The donkey’s response to Balaam is most interesting:
And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am not I your donkey, upon which you have ridden ever since I was yours unto this day? Have I ever attempted to treat you this way?” (Numbers 22:30).
Of all the things I would have said to Balaam if I were his donkey, this is not even on my list. Why does the donkey speak as she does? Actually, her words make a lot of sense. Balaam was a man who was supposed to be “in touch” with the spiritual forces (especially those on the dark side). He was a man who was consulted for guidance regarding the future. Very often, then as now, the diviner would predict the future based upon the arrangement or relationships of physical elements (e.g., the pattern of tea leaves in a cup, or of the physical organs of an animal prepared for sacrifice). It shouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist to discern that there was some kind of significance to the three-fold refusal of the donkey to stay on the path. There was a lesson to be learned here, but Balaam completely missed it.
If I may be so bold as to attempt to paraphrase the words of a donkey, I believe her words were meant to be understood something like this:
“Stop and think about this for a moment, master. How long have I been your beast of burden? A long time, right? And have I ever acted in this fashion before? You know that I have not. And if I have not acted this way before, through all the years you have ridden me, doesn’t this suggest to you that something out of the ordinary is going on here? Don’t you think that there may be a message for you in all of this? If I turned off the path three times for what appeared to be no reason at all, doesn’t this cause you to wonder if you are on the right path or not?”
It is only now that Balaam’s eyes are opened so that he is able to actually see the Angel of the LORD, standing in the way, with His sword drawn. Instantly, Balaam is on his face, prostrate before the Angel of the LORD. The Angel then asks Balaam essentially the same question, “What reason did you have for beating your donkey these three times?” The Angel does not wait for Balaam to respond. Instead the Angel explains, “I came out here to oppose you, because what you are doing is perverse. The donkey is a better ‘seer’ than you. She saw me and turned back these three times. This was to save you from certain death. Had she continued on, I would have killed you and let her live. You were about to kill her for saving your life. She is a far better prophet than you.”
Think of it. If Balaam’s words to the donkey could kill, that donkey would have been dead (see 22:29). In effect, Balaam was cursing his donkey. Balaam cursed the donkey, yet she was the only reason Balaam had not been killed by the Angel of the LORD. Balaam was cursing his one and only source of blessing. Balaam cursed and would have killed the instrument of his deliverance. Is the connection between this incident and what Balaam is seeking to do to Israel not clear? God had promised to bless Israel and also to make Israel a source of blessing to all who treated His people with favor. Balaam was seeking to turn God’s blessing into a curse, and by so doing, he was bringing a curse upon himself.
Balaam can think of no excuse that will adequately explain or justify his actions. He admits his sin, though some think he has not owned up to it in full measure. His only excuse is that he did not realize it was God who opposed him on his journey. He offers to go back home if it is evil in the Angel’s sight. Did Balaam say if it was displeasing to the Angel? How could it be otherwise? How could he not see this?
Instead of ordering Balaam to go back home, the Angel instructed him to go on with the men, but he must only speak that which God gave him to say. And so, once again, Balaam is on his way to Balak, but his mission will produce the opposite of what the Moabites want, and nothing like what Balaam hopes for. If Balaam has learned but one lesson, it is this: one who speaks for God must do so precisely, just as God has spoken—no additions or omissions, no embellishments or watering down of the truth.
Our text has many lessons to teach us. Let me conclude by pointing out a few of these lessons.
(1) It is never more dangerous or foolish than to be for what God is against, and against what God is for. Balaam was seeking to curse those whom God had blessed. That made Balaam against those whom God was for. In so doing, Balaam found God to be his adversary. How much better it is for us to have God as our Advocate! As the Apostle Paul puts it, “What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Those who would have God as their Adversary are those who must some day bow before Him as Lord of all:
5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross! 9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:5-11).
(2) Our challenge is not to “convert” God to be on our side, but to be converted, so that we may be on His side. Many people are just like Balaam in that they are seeking to get God to join them, to be on their side. The message of the Bible is that we are on one side, and God is on the opposite side. We are sinners, both by nature and by choice; God is righteous. We are naturally in an adversarial relationship to God. It was God who took the initiative so that we might no longer be His enemies, but His sons:
11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed in the body by hands—12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who turned both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, in his flesh, 15 when he nullified the law of commandments in decrees. The purpose of this was to create in himself the two into one new man, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and non-citizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life? 11 Not only this, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation (Romans 5:8-11).
All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6, NKJV).
(3) Getting away with sin for a season should in no way lead one to conclude that there will be no dire consequences in the future. Balaam disobeyed God by going with the delegation to meet with Balak. Balaam might well have thought that he was “making progress” with God, and that there was good reason to hope that God would change His mind about Israel. God had told Balaam “No” at first, and yet He later permitted him to go and to meet with Balak. God threw a good scare into Balaam on his journey, but he did survive. How easy it would be for Balaam to reason that he would not be punished for his sin, and that he might even be rewarded for it.
How eager men are to believe that God will not condemn them eternally for their sins. Eve foolishly believed Satan when he assured her that she would surely not die for eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:4). Down through the centuries, men whom God momentarily allowed to get away with their sins have reasoned from this that God will not punish them for their sin:
4 The wicked man is so arrogant he always thinks, “God won’t hold me accountable; he doesn’t care.” 5 He is secure at all times. He has no regard for your commands, he disdains all his enemies. 6 He says to himself, “I will never be upended; because I experience no calamity.” 7 His mouth is full of curses and deceptive, harmful words, his tongue injures and destroys. 8 He waits in ambush near the villages, in hidden places he kills the innocent. His eyes look for some unfortunate victim. 9 He lies in ambush in a hidden place, like a lion in a thicket, he lies in ambush, waiting to catch the oppressed; he catches the oppressed by pulling in his net. 10 His victims are crushed and beaten down, they are trapped in his sturdy nets.11 He says to himself, “God overlooks it, he does not pay attention” (Psalm 10:4-11).
6 Arrogance is their necklace, and violence their clothing. 7 Their prosperity causes them to do wrong, their thoughts are sinful. 8 They mock and say evil things, they proudly threaten violence. 9 They speak as if they rule in heaven, and lay claim to the earth. 10 Therefore they have more than enough food to eat, and even suck up the water of the sea. 11 They say, “How does God know what we do? Is the sovereign one aware of what goes on?” (Psalm 73:6-11).
3 Above all, understand this: in the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges 4 and saying, “Where is his promised coming? For ever since our ancestors fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately suppress this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed from water and by water. 6 Through these things the world existing at that time was destroyed when it was deluged with water. 7 But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, by being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. 8 Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. 9 The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes, the heavens will disappear with a horrific noise, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze, and the earth and every deed done on it will be laid bare. 11 Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, 12 while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God. Because of this day, the heavens will be burned up and dissolve, and the heavenly bodies will melt away in a blaze! 13 But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides (2 Peter 3:3-13).
Balaam is a reminder that there is a “payday,” someday. It is not until the end of the Book of Numbers that Balaam dies, but he dies because of his sin. My friend, never mistake the longsuffering of God for apathy. God will most certainly reward the righteous and punish the wicked.
(4) Many people who attempt to convince us they are eagerly seeking God’s will, but without success, are those who already know God’s will, and have no intention of doing it. Balaam persists at “inquiring” of God, as though he were seeking God’s will. God had made His will very clear to Balaam—”Don’t go with them, and don’t curse those whom I have blessed”—but Balaam wanted a different answer.
(5) The story of Balaam underscores the vital role which the Pentateuch33 plays for Old and New Testament saints alike. Balak told Balaam that the one whom he curses is cursed, and the one whom he blesses is blessed (22:6). The student of Genesis knows better.
1 Now the LORD had said to Abram, “Go out from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s household, to the land that I will show you; 2 and I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, in order that you might be a blessing; 3 and I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).
It is God who blesses and curses. And beyond this, cursing and blessing are determined on the basis of how one deals with Abraham and his offspring. If one wished to be blessed, then he must bless those whom God has blessed. Anyone who curses those whom God has blessed will be cursed. Balak sought to flatter Balaam by telling him that he could bless or curse whomever he wished. The truth was that God had blessed Israel, and there was nothing Balaam could do to change this.
The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) brings the events of Numbers 22-25 into focus. It is in the Book of Genesis that we learn of the covenant God made with Abraham, which describes the blessing God pronounced upon Abraham and his offspring (12:1-3). It is in Genesis and Exodus that we learn of the link between the Israelites, the Moabites, the Ammonites (Genesis 19:30-38), and the Midianites (Genesis 37:28, 36; Numbers 10:29). It is from the Pentateuch that we are first warned about diviners, like Balaam, who are false prophets (see Deuteronomy 13, 18). The Pentateuch is foundational to our understanding of God’s dealings with Israel, and with the Gentiles. It is foundational to our understanding of the gospel. Would that Balaam had been better informed concerning the matters dealt with in the Pentateuch.
(6) Beware of the grave danger of seeking to “use” God. If our text teaches us anything, it is that Balaam did not appreciate the monumental differences between the one true God, the God of Israel, and the “gods” of the heathen nations. Balaam was skilled in the manipulation of the “gods,” but he hardly sensed that it was God who was using him. It is fairly easy to see the folly of Balaam’s ways, and yet many Christians seek to use God, rather than to serve Him. We try to convince God that our happiness is more important than our holiness, that our pleasures are more important than pleasing Him. How often we know that what we are pursuing is in violation of His Word, and yet we persist at seeking to change His mind, or at least in seeking to convince ourselves that what we want is not really that bad. The pagan gods were not real, but the product of man’s fallen imaginations—”god” the way we would like him to be. These gods could be manipulated and used because they were man-made. We serve the God who made man, and who will not be manipulated. It is our duty and privilege to conform to Him, rather than for us to seek to conform Him to our wants and wishes.
(7) There is nothing more important than being on the right path, nor more dangerous than being on the wrong one. As I read the Book of Proverbs, I see two paths constantly being described. The one path is the way of righteousness, which is the way of life. The other path is the way of sin, which is the way that leads to death. Balaam is on the wrong path. It is a path that will inevitably lead to his death, as the final chapters of Numbers confirm. Even Balaam’s donkey could see the danger, but not Balaam. As we leave this text, let me remind you that there are only two paths, only two “ways.” Jesus is the one and only Way to eternal life. Sin and self-interest is the way that leads to eternal destruction. Which path are you on, my friend? If you have not yet trusted in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of eternal life, you are on the path to destruction. Turn from that path today by trusting in Jesus Christ, who died for your sins, and whose righteousness alone can justify you in God’s sight.
21 I obtained this information from a very helpful chart in J. Sidlow Baxter’s, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), vol. 1, p. 156. Baxter has an uncanny way of simplifying and summing up things which seem very complicated. I find myself constantly picking up this great work, now six volumes in one. This book makes a great gift.
24 In Numbers 22:18, Balaam speaks of “the LORD my God.” The term “LORD” is a translation of the Hebrew “Yahweh” (or Jehovah), and “God” is a rendering of “Elohim.” “Yahweh” would probably be understood as the technical term for Israel’s God.
27 There is more than one way that this statement could be translated, but the rendering of the NIV makes the most sense in the context: “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”
31 Genesis 16:7, 9, 10, 11; 22:11, 15; Exodus 3:2; Numbers 22:22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 31, 32, 34, 35; Judges 2:1, 4; 5:23; 6:11, 12, 21, 22; 13:3, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21; 2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Kings 19:7; 2 Kings 1:3, 15; 19:35; 1 Chronicles 21:12, 15, 16, 18, 30; Psalms 34:7; 35:5, 6; Isaiah 37:36; Zechariah 1:11, 12; 3:1, 5, 6; 12:8; Matthew 1:20, 24; 2:13, 19; 28:2; Luke 1:11; 2:9; Acts 5:19; 7:30; 8:26; 12:7, 23.
32 A number of translations render the Hebrew term “struck” (NASB, NKJB, New Jerusalem Bible). I don’t think this rendering is quite strong enough. I much prefer the term “beat,” or preferably, “beat severely.” In the King James Version, this word occurs 500 times. In the KJV, 348 times the term is rendered “smite,” 92 times “slay,” 20 times “kill,” 9 times “beat,” five times “slaughter.” It is very often used to depict the utter defeat and wholesale slaughter of Israel’s enemies in battle. It is not as though Balaam simply took a switch and struck the animal a few times to get her moving toward Moab; Balaam beat this animal mercilessly, in order to impose his will on it.