Sunday, May 20, 2018

BALAAM—NOT SUCH A BUFFOON

If the story were to be written as a play, the character of Balaam would probably be cast as the hapless buffoon, who because of his stupidity, had to be rebuked by his own talking donkey. But Balaam was no buffoon. For such a seemingly minor figure of the Old Testament, it is surprising how often he is mentioned in not only the Old Testament, but also in the New.

Balaam was a mysterious figure who came into the lives of the children of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land. At the time, the Israelites were camped on the plains of Moab, on the opposite side of the Jordan River from Jericho. The people of Moab were very fearful of the great number of people who were camped within their land. They had heard stories about the Israelites—stories that seemed unbelievable.

It had been said that the Mighty God of the Israelites rescued these people from the powerful Pharaoh of Egypt and had brought great plagues upon the people of that land. The accounts that they heard of the plagues almost defied description. Nevertheless, as unbelievable as it all sounded, the Moabites believed them to be true because they had seen what the Israelites had done to the Amorites as well as to the people of Bashan, nations that used to border their own land.

They had heard of how the Israelites, as they had approached the land of the Amorites of the east side of the Jordan River, sent messengers ahead to the Amorite king, named Sihon.

“Let our people pass through your land,” the messengers requested of the king, “we will not allow our livestock to eat from your fields and we will not eat of your grapes as we pass. In fact, we will not even drink water from your wells! All that we request is passage through your land” (Numbers 21:21-22).

Despite such a seemingly reasonable request, King Sihon of the Amorites refused to give them permission. Instead, he gathered his people to go out to war against Israel.

One would think that the Amorites should have been victorious in such a battle. They were in their homeland with their own defenses, and the people of Israel had been a wandering people and without any home for forty years. Nevertheless, not only were the Amorites soundly defeated, but the Israelites also ended up taking possession of their entire land.

The children of Israel then turned north to the land of Bashan in their route to Canaan. As the Israelites approached Bashan, the king of that land, a man named Og, led his people to wage war against the Moses and his people. As was the case with the Amorites, the armies of Bashan fell to the sword of the Israelites. King Og, with all of his family was killed. The land of Bashan was also no more. It was now in the hands of the Israelites. 

On To Moab

And now another king of another land, King Balak the son of Zippor of the land of Moab, saw these same Israelites camped within his own borders. The Moabites were in great dread of what might happen to their own land, and also to themselves. Balak had observed what had happened to his neighboring kings and knew that he needed help against this multitude that was amassed at his doorstep.

King Balak knew of a man who lived up by the Euphrates River in a town called Pethor—a man by the name of Balaam, son of Beor. Balaam was a prophet, I suppose we must say, but he was not a prophet of the sense in which we normally think of a prophet. Perhaps a diviner would be a better term. He was a sorcerer.

He must have had a reputation of being a sorcerer of note, for that reputation extended well beyond his own land. The land of the Euphrates River is quite some distance from the land of Moab, where King Balak lived. Nevertheless, Balaam’s reputation was known even there. When King Balak sent messengers to Balaam so that the sorcerer would come to his aid, Balak said of him “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6).

King Balak’s hope was that he could convince the diviner Balaam to come down to Moab and curse the Israelites. He thought that with the Israelites under a curse they would be so weakened that, as he put it, “Perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land.” 

Who Is This Balaam Guy?

The sorcerer Balaam is one of those figures of the Bible for whom we really have very little information. Just how much of his “blessings and cursings” were done by trickery and ruse, and how much was done by actually conjuring up demonic forces, of course we do not know. Joshua later called him a “soothsayer” or a “diviner”—one who practiced divination. It was a practice that was expressly forbidden by God (Deuteronomy 18:10).

Hoping to persuade Balaam to come to Moab, King Balak sent messengers, along with the appropriate fees for divination, to the town were Balaam lived. The envoy from the king told the sorcerer about the Israelite people who had come out of Egypt, and they also brought with them the request from their king: “Now therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land” (Numbers 22:6).

“Spend the night here,” Balaam said to the messengers when he heard their request, “and I will bring word back to you as the LORD may speak to me” (Numbers 22:8).

Interestingly, Balaam uses the covenant name of God (Yahweh) when he speaks of consulting with God. It is difficult to know what to make of this, but it is clear from the narrative and from the other Biblical references to Balaam, that he was not a follower of the God of the Israelites. Some have thought that Balaam was perhaps a former prophet of God who had been corrupted into becoming somewhat of a mercenary, thereby hiring out his skill to the highest bidder. The fact that Peter calls him a prophet (2 Peter 2:16) may lead some credence to this idea.

Whatever the true history of Balaam, it is clear that through some string of history that originated with Abraham, Balaam must have had knowledge of the LORD God. Balaam is one of those figures in history who used what may have been a gift of God simply as a way of enriching himself.

It is a practice that is far too common even in our own day, and with the advent of mass media, has become even easier. The term “televangelist” in these days has taken on the connotation of someone who uses his television market for his own self-enrichment more than anything else. That is not to say that all television preachers have similarly corrupted themselves, but enough have that the very term has been sullied. 

Why Would God Speak Through an Evil Man?

We cannot know God’s entire motive in consenting to speak with Balaam. It is, of course, unusual for God to make his will known to non-believers, but it is not unheard of. Earlier in the history of the Jewish nation, God also had a conversation with the pagan king Abimelech in order to protect Abraham and his wife Sarah (Genesis 20:3), as did God also to Laban the Aramian to preserve the welfare of Jacob (Genesis 31:24).

Even in the New Testament, God spoke through Caiaphas, who, although he was the high priest, could not be credited with following the word of God. Caiaphas told the council that had convened to discuss the problems they were having with Jesus that “it is expedient for you that one man die for the people.” To that statement, John writes this commentary: “Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation” (John 11:49-51). 

God’s Instruction to Balaam

In the case with Balaam, God instructs him not to return with the messengers. Not only did God tell Balaam this, but also tells him “you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12).

Balaam, in reporting back to the messengers, tells Balak’s men that the LORD refused to let him return with them to Moab, but he conveniently leaves out the part about the Israelites being blessed by God. In their turn, the messengers, as they returned the word to king Balak, leave out the part about the word of the LORD preventing the prophet from returning with them. They only tell their king that “Balaam refused to come with us.”

These convenient omissions from what was spoken to both Balaam and to the messengers left king Balak with the impression that the problem was simply that the price of divination that the king had sent was not high enough. Given Balaam’s subsequent actions, it would not surprise me if this were not Balaam’s original intention. Whatever the case, King Balak decided to send dignitaries of a higher rank and of greater number in order to impress Balaam. With them, they carried the message that Balaam could name his price for returning with them to curse the Israelites.

Balaam’s response to this offer may have been unambiguous, but his actions were not: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the LORD my God” (Numbers 22:18).

Balaam, for all of his pious sounding words, was a scheming individual. Peter tells us, in his reference to Balaam, that he “loved the wages of unrighteousness” rather than trying to live up to the standards that he had expressed outwardly. 

The Age-Old Enticement of Riches

Peter knew the temptation. He could relate to this enticement of accepting riches for granting favors in the Name of God. After Jesus had ascended into heaven, Peter was on a journey in Samaria explaining the resurrection of Christ in the villages. In one of the villages was a man named Simon (whose life, interestingly enough, had many parallels with that of Balaam). When Simon saw that the apostles imparted the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of his hands, he offered them money.

Peter’s response was markedly different from that of Balaam’s. “May your silver perish with you,” Peter said, “because you thought that you could obtain the gift of God with money” (Acts 8:20). More importantly, what he did after he spoke confirmed what he had said. He rebuked Simon to the point that the man was convicted of his sin.

Balaam however, was not so quick to turn down such an offer of riches. After his initial sanctimonious words, he told the dignitaries sent from Balak, “I will find out what else the LORD will speak to me.”

This time it was God who approached Balaam. God came to him at night, perhaps in a dream: “If the men have come to call you,” He said to Balaam, “rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.”

In the morning, Balaam saddled his donkey, which was soon to become famous, and went with the leaders from Moab. Interestingly however, we read in the narrative that God was angry with Balaam for going.

Why, after telling Balaam to go with the men, should God be angry? 

The Problem with Stubborn Subordinates

As in many other aspects of this story, we are not given any insight into God’s perspective and are simply left to wonder why. Certainly, as God has said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:9), but any person in authority has perhaps found himself or herself in a similar situation as was God.

In these types of situations, the person who is under the authority has already been given the instructions as to what they may or may not do, as had Balaam. Nevertheless, it is clear that they have already set their heart to do what is in their mind. They think that they have only to find a way to make their case convincing, or, failing that, simply to act on their own outside of the will of the one in authority over them.

Having myself at times been faced with this dilemma and seeing the stubbornness of an assistant, I have sometimes decided to let the person finally follow their own way, but without expressing my approval. In doing this, it has been my hope that they will learn through hard experience what they had refused to learn by listening and obeying.

Of course, I do not know all that was in the heart of God in telling Balaam to go with the men, but we do know that God was angered at Balaam’s eagerness to go. The enticement of wealth was so great to Balaam that he could not see the true heart of God. Balaam’s blindness continued as he started down the trail, seated on his donkey. 

The Donkey Becomes Famous

In God’s anger, he sent an angel to block the way of the donkey. God told the angel that he was “to stand in the way as an adversary.” The angel, with sword unsheathed, was blocking the path. The donkey saw the angel in the path, but Balaam was blind to all of this. When the donkey headed off into the field to avoid the angel, because Balaam saw none of this, he struck the donkey to get it to return to the road.

A little further on, the angel again took up a position in the path of the donkey—this time on the road where it was bordered by a wall on each side as it went through a vineyard. The donkey, because of the walls in this lane, this time was unable to go off into the field. He instead pressed close to the wall on one side to try and get around the angel, thereby pinching the foot of Balaam against the wall. Balaam, again blinded to the reality of the situation, again responded by beating the donkey.

When the angel stood in the way a third time, it was where the path wound very narrowly between two walls. Here the path was so narrow that the donkey could not squeeze around the angel, so, having no other option, the donkey simply lay down right in the road. This really made Balaam angry. He began beating his donkey with a stick.

I would think that what happened next would have put Balaam in deep shock, but he seems not to even wonder about what was happening. As the false prophet was thrashing his beast with a stick, the donkey begins to speak. “What have I done,” the donkey says, “that you have struck me these three times?” 

The Strange Conversation

Balaam, rather than be shaken back to his senses, simply responds to his animal as if he were speaking to the men who accompanied him, “Because you have made a mockery of me!” he told the donkey.

Well, that much was true enough. Balaam had been made a mockery. Moreover, as Balaam and his donkey continue with their conversation, the beast reasons with the prophet. In the discussion that followed, it becomes evident that the donkey’s position was the superior one in the disagreement between the two. Balaam continues to be made the subject of the mockery.

It is this conversation with his donkey that we get the picture of Balaam as a foolish buffoon who had to be rebuked by his own jackass. He indeed looks foolish enough, but that is one of the least offensive parts of his personality. 

Balaam Sees the Problem

Suddenly, the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam so that he was able to see the angel with the sword in his hand. The angel informed Balaam that had the donkey not avoided him, he would have killed Balaam and let the donkey live. Evidently, in the opinion of the angel, the beast of burden was the more righteous of the two.

“I have sinned,” Balaam said, “for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I will turn back” (Numbers 22:34).

Again, we are left to wonder about the situation. Here, Balaam evidently recognizes his sin, but it also seems that he still has his own agenda. “If it is displeasing to you,” Balaam says. I would say that an angel with a blade of cold steel standing in your path to block your way would have been quite a good indication of the real desire of God.

It seems that there is no “if” here, but Balaam still questions because he remains enticed by the reward promised to him by the men of Balak. The angel leaves Balaam to continue, but with the stern warning that he should only speak the word that the angel of the Lord would tell him. 

Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch

Back in the land of Moab, the king Balak receives word that Balaam was on his way. Balak went as far as the border of his land to meet the sorcerer and he asks him immediately why he had delayed in coming. “Did I not urgently send for you?” he put to Balaam. “Am I really unable to reward you?”

Balaam, by this time was somewhat beside himself and quite unsure of what he should do. He wanted the riches, to be sure, but he had also received some stern warnings from God that he could not easily ignore. His patience with the whole situation had grown quite thin.

“I am here now,” he barked back, “but do you think that I can just speak anything? I must speak what the LORD puts in my mouth” (Numbers 22:37-38).

Balaam instructs Balak to build seven altars and prepare seven bulls and seven rams to offer up as sacrifices. It is unclear just why this was done, but it is interesting to note that when Balaam went off to meet God and receive the words that he was to speak, Balaam immediately told God that he had set up the seven altars and made the sacrifices, as if it was in response to something God had told him to do.

God does give Balaam the words that he was to speak, but it was not a cursing of the Israelites as King Balak had hoped. Balaam instead pronounces a blessing upon God’s people.

This, of course, angers the king Balak a great deal. He brings the prophet Balaam to another site where they could overlook a great number of the people of Israel to see if he would curse them from that site. Again Balaam tries and again he instead pronounces a blessing. The two men give it a third try and for a third time a blessing is given. In fact, in this blessing Balaam speaks the words “Blessed is everyone who blesses you and cursed is everyone who curses you” (Numbers 24:9). 

Balak Fires Balaam (Or Tries To)

King Balak is angry. He tells Balaam to “flee” to his place. By now the king simply wants to be rid of him.

But Balaam defends his actions, reminding Balak that it is as he had told him: “Did I not tell your messengers...I could not do anything contrary to the command of the LORD?”

Nevertheless, Balaam had a plan. He was still working for that reward. “I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the days to come,” he told the king. Balaam had been prevented from pronouncing the curse that Balak wanted, but the conjurer had another trick up his sleeve. His scheme begins to be apparent almost immediately. 

Plan “B”

The next event begins like this: While Israel was still near that site, and the way that the Bible describes it, “the people began to play harlot with the daughters of Moab.”

The Moabites, instead of trying to fight the Israelites, now invited them to party with them. The Moabites invited the Israelites to join them in the sacrifices to their gods. The Israelites ate and bowed down to the gods of the Moabites” (Numbers 25:1-2).

But this was not a simple and solemn type of ritual. It also involved drunkenness and promiscuity. This action became, in the history of the people of God, one of their great sins. It is known as the Sin of Peor, because the Israelites joined themselves not only to the pagans of the land but to the false god of Baal-peor.

It is not initially apparent that this was the result of the advice of Balaam, but Moses, later recounting the events surrounding the Sin of Peor and the part the women of Moab played in the sin says this: “Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD” (Numbers 31:16 NAS).

The result of this sin was a plague. Some have suggested that it was a sexually transmitted disease which the Israelites contracted from the Moabite women and against which they had no immunity. It indeed seems like this may be the likelihood, but whatever it was, the end result was that 24,000 Israelites died in the plague. What the armies of the Moabites could not accomplish, the Moabite women did by enticement.[1] 

What the Story of Balaam Means to Us

This then, is the story of the actions of Balaam, the mysterious and false prophet who rises out of the pages of the Bible to scheme against God’s chosen people. Were his story left as it is here, we may well dismiss him simply as a greedy buffoon who used his skill or gift, whichever was the case, in a mercenary manner.

However, there is an evil behind what Balaam advised the Moabites that had far-reaching effects, and it actually affects us even to this day. Having failed to curse the Israelites and defeat them by warfare, Balaam’s plot was to infiltrate them by seduction.

God’s people continue to be seduced by the effects of evil to the present day. Unfortunately, this will apparently be the case even until the very last days.

In the last of the books of the Bible, we read that the church at Pergamum will continue to struggle with the corruption of Balaam. It is written there: 

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality (Revelation 2:14 NIV). 

The Apostle Peter also writes of some of these effects when he speaks of the seducers whose “idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood!

“They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—a beast without speech—who spoke with a man’s voice and restrained the prophet’s madness” (2 Peter 2:13-16 NIV). 

Interestingly, Peter seems to indicate that this evil is more than simply a capitulation to worldly temptation. Rather, it is a result of failing to understand the proper place of authority, especially the authority of God. Like Balaam, whose only regard for authority was how he could manipulate it to his own advantage (financial or otherwise). Peter writes the following description of people that exhibit this attitude: 

This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not bring slanderous accusations against such beings in the presence of the Lord. But these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. (2 Peter 2:10-12 NIV) 

The “counsel of Balaam” as Moses had called it, was more than simply a temptation of the flesh. It is more than that. It is a teaching that we can despise authority. The teaching has appeared in diverse situations throughout history.

In fact, it is a subject that appears repeatedly in the Bible. Jude, the New Testament writer, also speaks of this: 

In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. In the very same way, these dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings…

Yet these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error. (Jude 1:7-11 NIV) 

It becomes obvious that the error of Balaam may parade as sexual sin, but its roots extend much deeper. It is an insubordination and a lack of respect for authority. This rebellious nature causes men to become as “brute beasts” and “unreasoning animals” (in the words of Peter and Jude) so that, in the end, they do not even understand the concept of authority. It is these things that will destroy them.

Balaam’s conversation with his donkey is, in some ways, an insightful dialogue and even prophetic in its own sense. It is more than a good setting for a comedy skit, for it shows the delusion of the way of Balaam. As he was blinded to the reality of the situation and his only response was to beat his donkey.

While the donkey was able to see things as they really were, Balaam showed himself to be, as Jude said, someone who speaks abusively against what they do not understand and who become like “unreasoning animals.”

Despite being a prophet and someone who had a wide-ranging reputation, Balaam had been reduced to the point where he had to be, “rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—a beast without speech—who spoke with a man’s voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.”

Balaam was no buffoon, but he became a fool. His was an evil that brought a plague upon the Israelites. This evil continues to plague God’s people today. It is an evil that reduces people to brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they also will perish.

From the book of Revelation, we know that the corruption of Balaam will continue right up to the last days of earth, but we need not be a part of this corruption. Peter continues to tell us: 

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?

You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and hasten its coming.

Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:11-12; 17-18 NIV)


[1] Allow me to interject at this point that the plague was finally halted by the zealous actions of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron. Some have found it difficult to reconcile the sudden and violent act of Phinehas with a work of righteousness, but we must remember that Phinehas was not battling simple cases of fornication, but a deep and ominous rebellion that would deprive his people of the very understanding of God. Peter comments on this and also Jude, as we will see later in the chapter.

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