Balaam’s Ass – part one

Before we begin a new series next week, we’ll spend the next two days looking at the (rather comical) story of Balaam’s ass in Numbers 22-24. It deals with some of the issues about God’s sovereignty raised in yesterday’s discussion of James 5.

This began life – as many of these posts have – as a sermon. But it wan’t a passage I chose to speak on – it was chosen for me by my (mischievous) congregation when I foolishly asked them to vote on which Old Testament stories they wanted preached over our summer break. I suspect that this story got voted for simply to see how many times I could use the word ‘ass’ in an amusing fashion. I don’t think I disappointed on that score. Yet in the process, I trust people learned a bit about God’s sovereignty through this bizarre story.

This is a story in three scenes. And within each of these scenes, look out for the three part structure. A bit like the format of an Irish joke, where the same thing happens the first two times, and then there’s a twist on the third. Where the Englishman and the Scotsman exist simply to set up the punch-line for the poor Irishman. (Americans: read “Polish.”) Because this common, three-part structure is one of the clues that tells us to read these three scenes together. If we want to understand what each scene’s about, we’ve got to look at them as a whole.

Scene 1 (the Ass-ignment)

The opening scene begins with the first of many ass puns; but also with Israel wandering in the wilderness. They’re coming round to approach the promised land from the East. They’ve been defeating all the other nations in their path; nations who came out to fight against them. They’ve picked up quite a reputation as a people whose God looks after them. And now they’re wanting to pass through the land of Moab. This has the Moabites running scared:

22:3b-4 Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites. 4 The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, “This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.”

So Balak, the king of Moab, decides to do something about it. (After all, he doesn’t want to get his grass licked!) So he sends messengers to talk to a guy called Balaam. Balaam’s got a reputation of being a bit of a prophet; someone who’s got access to some divine power. So he sends this message to Balaam:

22:6 Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”

 And Balak offers to pay Balaam for his services.But when Balaam first receives the message, he tells the messengers to stay the night & he’ll ask God about it. Then God comes to him in a dream and tells him:

22:12 “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.”

So the next day, Balaam sends the messengers back, saying ‘The Lord has refused to let me go with you.’ Balak thinks Balaam is just trying to bargain with him, so he sends a delegation of more important people, and the offer to ‘reward him handsomely’.

22:18 But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the LORD my God.”

That’s refusal number two, if you’re keeping count. But interestingly, Balaam leaves the door open a bit. Clearly he’s tempted. He invites the messengers to stay the night, and says he’ll ask God again. And God – he decides to give Balaam a bit more rope, to see what he’ll do:

22:20 That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”

So Balaam’s third and final response to Balak is to go with his delegation back to Moab.

Scene 2 (the Ass-ault)

This introduces scene 2, where Balaam saddles up his donkey for the trip to Moab.

22:21-22a Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. 22 But God was very angry when he went…

Wha? God’s angry with Balaam? Didn’t he just tell him to go with them after all? Isn’t Balaam just obeying God’s orders? What’s going on?

Probably, God sees his motives: that he’s been tempted by the offer of wealth and honour. He’s heading off fully intending to curse Israel, rather than wait for God’s instructions. Remember, God said ‘Go with them, but do only what I tell you.’ I think God knows what’s in Balaam’s heart, so he intercepts him.

22:22 But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him.

But although there’s an angel standing in his way, Balaam can’t see it. In fact, the only one who can see it is his donkey. You know, this scene reads like a comedy sketch. A little bit Monty Python. Many commentators actually see this as an ancient satire. A farce. It makes fun of what’s going on in the scenes either side of it. We’ll look at that in a moment. So let’s read this scene in the humorous way it was (probably) intended.

And again we have three parts to the scene: three times the angel of the Lord appears to block Balaam’s path:

  • The first time, the donkey spots the angel and hangs a right into a nearby field to avoid it. Balaam sees nothing, and is unimpressed. He smacks his ass to get it back on the road.
  • The second time, the donkey sees the angel in a narrow passage, and so she leans against the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. This time, Balaam gives her a good ass-kicking.
  • The third time, the donkey again sees the angel’s cornered them, so she just lies down under him. Leaving Balaam sitting on his ass going nowhere.

Balaam’s fuming by this point, each time having become increasingly – wait for it – exassperated. Now God ups the ante, and makes the donkey talk back to him. That’s right, God speaks to Balaam through his own ass.

22:28  Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”

Surprisingly, the donkey doesn’t sound like Eddie Murphy. Even more surprisingly, Balaam is forced to talk back:

22:29-30 Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” 30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said.

Not only has he been drawn into an argument with a donkey; he lost!! It’s become ridiculous at this point. So God now puts him out of his misery, and lets him in on the joke, as it were.

22:31-33 Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. 32 The angel of the LORD asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.””

(In an ironic twist, the donkey’s saved his ass.) But more importantly, Balaam gets the message and repents:

22:34-35a Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.” 35 The angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.”

There’s the vital command again, which lets us know that this is what Balaam had wrong. He was going to try to use his powers to curse Israel and gain fortune for himself, rather than being a servant of God. Suitably chastened, Balaam continues on his way to Balak.

Scene 3 (the Ass-cents)

When he arrives, Balak repeats his offer of reward if he curses Israel.

22:38 “Well, I have come to you now,” Balaam replied. “But I can’t say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.”

Then, in another series of threes, Balaam takes Balak to three high places. At each place the setup is the same. He has Balak build seven altars, and sacrifice seven bulls and rams. He tells Balak that he’ll say whatever God tells him to say. Each time, God tells him to bless Israel, so he does. And each time, it’s now Balak’s turn to be increasingly exasperated.

It comes to a head the third time, when Balaam stops seeking God like a pagan sorcerer, and now sees the will of God like a true prophet. Have a listen:

24:1-4 Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not resort to divination as at other times, but turned his face toward the wilderness. 2 When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came on him 3 and he spoke his message: “The prophecy of Balaam son of Beor, the prophecy of one whose eye sees clearly, 4 the prophecy of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened:

And he goes on to give an even more powerful blessing on Israel. But this time Balaam does get around to offering some curses – curses against Moab and the surrounding nations who oppose Israel.

Needless to say, Balak’s not a happy camper. A bit like Yosemite Sam jumping up and down, steam coming out of his ears, saying ‘I hate that Balaam’, but being powerless to do anything. The Bible leaves the story with Balak walking off in a huff, and Balaam returning home. A bit of an anticlimax, really, and the bigger story of Israel being blessed by God rolls on. So what does all this mean?

That’s for tomorrow…

(For those who are keen, read the full account in Numbers 22-24.)

2 thoughts on “Balaam’s Ass – part one

  1. Twila says:

    What a perfectly timed blog posting. I was reading the Balak-Balaam story THIS morning and saying it didn’t make sense for God to be angry. So I went searching for an answer and up popped your blog postings of the last two days. And as good, your explanation made logical sense to me. I thank you for posting it! Your applications on Day 2 were great as well. Thank you! And as a final comment I love the name of the blog: Coffee With The King!

    • timmacbride says:

      I’m pleased it helped you. When I prepared to preach this text 5 years ago it was the question that puzzled me, too. I remember it took a couple of weeks of reading to understand what was going on in the story.

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