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Written by Jim Jordal   
Tuesday, 22 December 2015

BALAAM AND THE TALKING DONKEY

by Jim Jordal

One of my favorite biblical episodes is that of a somewhat greedy and self-absorbed Midianite poet and diviner named Balaam, who rode his donkey into biblical history during an angelic encounter so dramatic that the terrified donkey spoke out in human language. 

The entire account is recorded in Numbers chapters 22-24. It seems that Midianite King Balak and his Moabite allies, fearful of the expansionist tendencies of the new state of Israel, sent a delegation of nobles to bribe the financially and ethically challenged Balaam to prophesy against Israel. Rather than directly refuse, Balaam took the matter under advisement overnight. In the morning he declined, saying that they should return to their own land because God had told him that he could not curse Israel because they were a blessed people. 

The chagrinned Balak then sent another even more distinguished delegation to promise great honor to Balaam if he would curse Israel. Again Balaam refused, saying he could not violate God’s command even for any amount of wealth or fame. But as Balaam meditated that night God changed his command, telling Balaam to go with the delegation, but to do only what God commanded. 

So in the morning Balaam saddled his donkey and set out with the officials of Moab. But God was angry at what we might consider Balaam’s perfidy in wishing to gain some of the wealth of Midian in return for his services. So God sent an angel with drawn sword to block the path. The donkey, seeing the angel, turned into a field, whereupon an angry Balaam struck him. Again, the angel blocked the trail in a narrow place between two walls, scraping Balaam’s foot against the wall. Again, Balaam angrily struck the donkey. Finally, the angel blocked the entire pathway, causing the donkey to lie down under Balaam. At this point God opened the donkey’s mouth, and the animal asked why he had been struck these three times. Balaam replied it was because the donkey had made a fool of him (probably in the eyes of his consorts), and said that if he had a sword he would kill him. Now Balaam’s eyes opened to see the angel, and he fell on his knees in fear.

The angel told Balaam that he was sent to block the way because of God’s anger at Balaam’s perverse behavior, and that if the donkey had not prevented it, he would have killed Balaam.

Balaam now continued on to meet Balak, who gave him a tumultuous welcome since he believed he had finally suborned Balaam enough to get him to curse Israel. But no, Balaam again refused. But Balak was a persistent fellow who then changed the situation three times in the attempt to get Balaam to curse Israel. After the third refusal, Balak became angry and ordered Balaam to leave.

What remain for us today---besides a humorous story--- are the principles revealed in the four oracles attributed to Balaam. Each contains a new manifestation of God and his interaction with Israel and its growth into a regional superpower. The first sets the tone for the others with this magnificent statement: “ How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him...”(Num. 23:8-9a). The second oracle a few verses later presents us with God’s undying favor for his people and the promise that once spoken this blessing cannot be withdrawn.

In his third oracle Balaam sees the tents of Israel spread across the plain and likens Israel to a wild ox or a lioness that will break the bones of Israel’s enemies. He then pronounces an eternal blessing: “Blessed is everyone who blesses you (God’s people), and cursed is everyone who curses you.”

 His final oracle proclaims the advent of Christ with this statement: “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” At this Christmas time let’s remember that these blessings proclaimed by Balaam still operate today. God still favors his people who trust in him. He still blesses those who obey and follow him. And nothing will change this eternal relationship.