A prophet without love for G-d’s people is a false prophet.
As I write this week’s study observations my youngest daughter Bethany is quick to remind me that “ass, is a naughty word daddy!” She is of course correct, the slang use of the term can be inappropriate however in Balaam’s case as in the case of Haman, I am comfortable with its use—he should consider himself lightly chastised, after all, I could have said, “Y’ma shmo!” (May his name be cancelled out!)
So, why An Ass and a Talking Donkey? The simple message of this mysterious historical text is this; the donkey was a righteous ass while Balaam was just an ass. One seldom has the opportunity to hear a talking animal, but per chance an animal ever begins to talk to you, pay close attention. Those of us who fail to hear and obey the clear direction of G-d the first time, may end up only being saved by the skin of our ass—“as one escaping the flames.”
Okay, enough with the puns. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
Here are some of the questions people often ask about the historical account of Balaam and the talking donkey:
· Was Balaam a prophet of G-d?
· If G-d didn’t want Balaam to curse Israel, why did He consent to Balaam going?
· Why did Balaam curse Israel from the high places?
· If Balaam was such a bad guy, how come whenever he blessed or cursed, his word came to pass?
· Balaam talked with G-d, so he must have had a relationship with G-d, right?
· What’s the difference between Balaam of northern Syria and Malki-Tzedek of Salem, neither of them were priests of Israel, both heard from G-d?
· Donkeys can’t talk so this is just a parable right?
And many more…
Let’s go through the text and see if we can answer some of these questions.
Setting the scene:
Israel—by the hand of Adonai (YHVH)—has just defeated yet another enemy—King Og and all his people have been wiped out. Israel had become a great people in the desert, through trial and discipline G-d had led them to the last stage of their journey into the land of promise. Balak and the people of Moab are said to be terrified—filled with dread—of the people of Israel as they watch them journey along the outskirts of the Moabite territory. One of the great ironies of this story is the fact that prior to this event G-d had commanded Israel not to attack Moab because they were descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Deuteronomy 2:9 says:
“Then Adonai said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab, nor provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession, because I have given Ar to the sons of Lot as a possession.’”
The chronology of this passage of Scripture from Deuteronomy places it prior to the event we are studying in Numbers 22 – 23. Israel had no intention of attacking Moab.
Being filled with dread at the sight of Israel’s approach, Moab calls on Midian—Moses’ relatives—to join them in calling Balaam from his home land of Northern Syria, beside the Euphrates river.
Balak knows that Moab cannot defeat Israel based on military strength so he turns to magic/divination as a solution to Moab’s—self-assessed—dire situation.
It is obvious from the text that Balaam was renowned and that there was an expectation of payment for his services. This places him in stark contrast to the Prophets of G-d and to Malki-Tzedek, neither of whom required payment for blessing. Another difference is that the prophets and priests of G-d were known to point people to G-d/Adonai whereas Balaam was known for the success of his cursing and blessing. In short, he was known for his divination rather than his connection to the G-d of Israel.
Balak and the Moabites and Midianites are asking Balaam to curse Israel. This directly opposes G-d’s promises to Israel and is therefore an affront to Adonai Himself. Adonai had promised, “I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you.” (Gen 12:2-3, 27:23) It is important to remember that G-d’s name is forever attached to Israel, and any action taken against her as a people is an action taken against G-d. Only Adonai is entitled to discipline His people—when required.
Balaam invites the petitioners from Balak to stay the night. No prophet of Adonai would have entertained the idea of directly opposing G-d’s plans for Israel, had Balaam been in right relationship with G-d he should not have even considered their request or allowed them to stay.
It is important to note that it is here in verse 8 that Adonai is mentioned for the first time in this section of Scripture. He is not called Elohim—G-d, gods, judges, rulers—but YHVH—the personal, unpronounceable, Holy name of G-d—by Balaam. Why is this? It is because Elohim is a generic term for G-d whereas YHVH is the personal name G-d had revealed first to Avraham and so to Israel. This personal name was directly associated with the people of Israel as His chosen nation. Balaam was obviously familiar with this name for G-d and the people who belonged to Him, there is therefore some irony in his decision to approach the Father--Adonai--to ask if he might destroy His children. It seems he knew of G-d but did not Know Him. Perhaps the possibility of payment was the greater motivation for Balaam at this point in the story?
G-d comes to Balaam and asks, “Who are these men with you?” G-d, of course, knows the answer. Like the question asked of Adam and Eve in the garden, this question is meant for Balaam’s sake. Balaam repeats the request. He asks—and I paraphrase—“These guys want me to curse your children so that their enemies can decimate them, is that okay with you?” Really Balaam? That’s what you’re going with? How many of you parents out there wouldn’t be instantly filled with fury if an acquaintance asked to decimate your children?
Let’s be clear from the start, so that we’re not inclined to give Balaam undue sympathy later: G-d answers, “DO NOT GO with them… you MUST NOT PUT A CURSE ON THOSE PEOPLE because they are BLESSED.”
Balaam gets up the next morning and tells the Moabites to go tell there king that Adonai won’t let him curse Israel. This is yet another stark contrast to the prophets of Israel. Israel’s prophets are renowned for standing in the gap for their people: when G-d sought to destroy Israel Moses said, “Then blot me out of Your book also.” Balaam has no problem cursing Israel but he is choosing to obey G-d temporarily, though disappointed by the missed opportunity to make some money (2 Peter 2:25, Rev 2:14) because Adonai is El Elyon—G-d above all gods—and Balaam knows it. Balaam is wisely weary of crossing Adonai, it is simply good business sense from his perspective. A prophet without love for G-d’s people is a false prophet.
So Balak sends some more prestigious officials to ask Balaam to come and curse Israel. Balaam replies—I paraphrase—“Even if you gave me all the kings’ riches, I still couldn’t disobey Adonai my God.” If Adonai, the G-d of Israel is Balaam’s God, why is he even entertaining Israel’s enemies and in addition, opposing G-d’s predetermined blessing? The appropriate response is, “No I won’t curse my G-d’s people, go and don’t come back.” Instead he says, “Stay the night and I’ll see what else Adonai will say about all this.” In other words, “Maybe Adonai has changed His mind and I’ll be able to make some money after all.”
G-d speaks again to Balaam saying, “Go with these men but only say what I give you to say.” G-d is giving Balaam over to his sin in much the same way He had given Pharaoh over to the hardness of his heart. The result will be that G-d will glorify His name and show His gifts and calling on Israel to be irrevocable. (Romans 11:29) Notice that G-d—Elohim—speaks to Balaam rather than Adonai, whom Balaam claims as his G-d. G-d speaks here by way of the name His acquaintances know Him by rather than by the personal name His children know Him by. Again, Balaam knows of Him but he does not Know Him.
Balaam gets up and goes with Balak’s men and straight away G-d is angry with him. Why? Didn’t G-d just tell him he could go? Actually G-d specifically told him not to go, then, when Balaam pushed the point, G-d allowed him to pursue his own sinful motivation. (Romans 1:24) So yes, G-d was angry when Balaam chose to go ahead and do what G-d had originally told him not to. What might a right response have been? Perhaps Balaam might have responded, “I’ve decided not to go, these are a people You’ve blessed and if I profess to worship You in truth, then I should honor those You honor.”
From here on only the name YHVH--Adonai—is used until verse 38. We see the title Angel of YHVH used ten times over the next thirteen verses. Some—and in most cases I agree—associate the Angel of Adonai with the manifest presence of Messiah, prior to His human birth. In other words, if the Angel of Adonai is Yeshua, He is present in humanoid form but is not human at this point in earth’s chronology. On the other hand, given that Messiah was with G-d in the beginning and at a certain point in humanity’s history was born as a man—fully man and fully G-d with us—and then died and rose again, ascending into the heavens and given that G-d—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—lives outside of time—which is subject to Him; maybe He has, from our perspective, traveled back in time to meet with our forebears in His now resurrected humanoid form? Whatever the case, the Angel of Adonai seeks to kill Balaam—who can’t see the Angel of Adonai, the G-d he claims as his own—while his donkey sees the Angel of Adonai the whole time and tries desperately to avoid destruction. One might say, “Balaam’s ass saw what his eyes couldn’t.”
So now we have a talking donkey telling Balaam that he’s an ass for beating him because he’s been a faithful donkey all these years and only great danger would ever cause him to act this way. Here’s where a number of people say, “This must be intended as an allegory or metaphor, this is obviously not an historical account because donkeys don’t talk.” Really? If that’s true, it must be true of the entire book of Numbers—at very least—and by extension it must be true of Deuteronomy. Both these books are supported by numerous archeological evidences that testify to their historical accuracy, both books are written with an informative accuracy and calculation in mind, hence the title Numbers, a numbering of Israel’s people, her journey’s and history is written in much the same way as the books of Matthew and Luke, books that were intended as factual accounts of events. As believers we must be careful not to discount talking donkeys. If we discount any one miraculous event, we must call all metaphysical events into question. We must then say, “A man raising from the dead? Not possible. It must be a metaphor for something?” No, it’s not an allegory folks, it’s an historical account with a talking donkey in it and yes, the Red Sea did part, Israel did survive centuries of persecution, Yeshua did rise from the dead and miracles still happen today. But you probably won’t get to hear your pet speak unless you’re being an ass like Balaam was.
It is interesting that in verse 32 it is not Adonai or G-d that speaks but it is specifically the Angel of Adonai that speaks to Balaam. Finally Adonai opens Balaam’s eyes and the Angel of Adonai asks, “Why have you beaten your donkey?” The Angel of Adonai has previously appeared at a number of points of inception throughout Israel’s historical journey; firstly to Avraham, then to Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe and will soon appear to Yehoshua as one who does not take sides. On each occasion that the Angel of Adonai appears to a child of Israel He is seen by that person—if not always recognized instantly—here, on the other hand, Balaam does not see Him when He first appears. In order for Balaam to see the Angel of the L-rd, his eyes must be opened. This is a strong indictment against Balaam’s character and his relationship to Adonai.
Those among Israel who saw the Angel of Adonai were coming into right relationship with G-d, they became known by Him and He was known to them. Balaam knew of Adonai and even called Him his Elohim—deity—but Balaam did not know Adonai. Being related to someone does not mean we are in relationship with them. I am reminded of the sons of Sceva, who tried to cast out a demon in the name of, “Yeshua, who Paul preaches.”(Acts 19:13) The response of the demon was, “I recognize Yeshua and I know of Paul but who are you?” It then proceeded to beat them senseless. We are known by friend and foe alike based on relationship. We have relationship to a foe, we are in relationship with a friend. Balaam, who is no friend of Adonai, requires a revelation of sight in order to see Him, Balaam has a relationship to Adonai but he is clearly not in relationship with Him.
It is also in verse 32 that the Angel of the L-rd says, “I have come to oppose you,” or “I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to Me.” The Hebrew word here translated Adversary is in fact shatan—from which we get the English Satan (The Adversary). The point is that G-d is the Adversary--shatan--of the Adversary—Ha-Shatan—a wonderful Hebraic metaphysical play on words.
The Angel of Adonai now says, “If not for your donkey, I would have killed you.” To which Balaam responds, “I’ve sinned, I didn’t know you were opposing the way before me. Now, if it’s pleasing to you, I will return--tishuva.” Notice that Balaam confesses but does not repent--tishuva. He says, “If it is displeasing to You I will return.” He has just admitted that his actions are displeasing to G-d and now, in the face of his own destruction he is still looking for a way to make some money. Again Adonai gives him over to his sin and allows him to continue, with the reminder that Adonai has power over Balaam’s mouth in the same way that He has power over a dumb Ass—as the RSV puts it. Ironic.
Numbers 22:36-35, 23:1-11
Balak rushes to meet Balaam and the Moabites with him. He complains at the delay and reminds Balaam that he has plenty of money to bribe him with. Then Balaam says, “I can only speak what G-d—Elohim—tells me to speak.” Notice that having meet Adonai face to face—the Angel of Adonai—Balaam now calls Him G-d—Elohim—thus showing his rejection of the opportunity for personal relationship. Balaam has, for the fourth time, willfully rejected an opportunity to be in right relationship with Adonai.
Balak makes some pagan sacrifices and sends some meat to Balaam and the following morning they all go up to the high places of Baal—lords, gods, husbands, false deities—to offer seven sacrifices—pagan—in an attempt to evoke a response from Adonai. Adonai comes to Balaam, not because of his sacrifices but because Adonai intends to again confirm blessing over Israel. G-d commands Balaam to bless Jacob/Israel and Balaam must obey much to Balak’s chagrin.
How does this relate to me today?
As Messianic Jews we understand G-d’s promises to Israel through the teaching of Messiah Yeshua. We know that the gifts and calling of G-d are irrevocable and that He is zealous in love for His children, fierce for our protection. This is also true for Gentile Christians who have accepted Yeshua’s Kingship because in Messiah we are grafted into the tree, whose roots are the Patriarchs of Israel. We understand then, that the account of Balaam is an affirmation of G-d’s protection and blessing over us. As the proverb says, “Like a flittering sparrow and a darting swallow, an undeserved curse cannot land.” We should be careful not to allow ourselves to become stepped in spiritualized superstition that makes us fearful of every little incident as if it were an omen of some spiritual attack. G-d controls all things, even the mouth of our adversary. We are secure in His loving arms, we need not fear the undeserved curses of others, be they human or demonic. In Yeshua we are safe, purchased through the blood of the lamb of G-d. We have been freed from curse in that Yeshua became a curse for us when He died on the cross of Calvary.
We also realize that it is not what we know about G-d that is important—truth is seldom found in the accumulation of knowledge—but rather it is that we are known by Him and that we seek to know Him more intimately. Not only are we able to call Him Adonai, in Messiah Yeshua we are also able to call Him Abba—Daddy—and He calls us sons and daughters.
© Alastair Brown 2013