The Bible is hard to understand in places. In this morning’s reading I encountered the story of Balaam, the pagan diviner/soothsayer, and his talking donkey. The brief background to the story is this. Balak, king of Moab, realizes that he cannot defeat the Israelites militarily, so he seeks to engage Balaam, who has a track record of cursing Balak’s enemies so that they are defeated. In a way he is a professional “curser,” a mystical mercenary available to the highest bidder.
However, God informs Balaam that the people of Israel are under His blessing, so he is not permitted to curse them. Indeed, if he does, his own curse will come down upon him rather than Israel. So when the emissaries of Balak come to Balaam, he refuses to go with them, since God has forbidden it. Yet later in the text when they come back, with promises of greater reward he is permitted by God to go, though under the strict understanding that he must only speak what God gives him to say.
We pick up the text in Numbers 22:20-35:
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.”
21 Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. 22 But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.
24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again.
26 Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. 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?”
29 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.
31 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.”
34 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.” So Balaam went with Balak’s officials.
Wow. Where do we start? There seems to be an initial contradiction in v20 and v22 where God tells Balaam that he can go, but when he does go, in v22, “God was very angry…” This is what caused me to get my commentary out this morning, because it looks like God is fickle, saying one thing and then changing his mind the next. The most likely explanation of God being angry, and then sending an angel to kill (or possibly warn) Balaam, is that he knew Balaam’s heart, that Balaam wasn’t going to follow the instruction to only speak what God gave him to say, but that he was going to “sell out” and curse Israel for the vast financial rewards available. God, in knowing this, decides to prevent him from doing so.
And now, the talking donkey. I don’t actually have any issue with the historical reliability of this story. I’ve seen enough Disney/Pixar movies to know that donkeys can talk (Shrek for example). Seriously, it is well within the capabilities of the creator God to move one of his creatures to speak, even though it does not normally. The situation is actually hilarious on a number of levels. The all-seeing mystic is blind to the angel of the Lord, but the dumb donkey does see it and by moving away, actually saves Balaam’s life. I also find it funny that Balaam seems to adapt to the situation very quickly and ends up debating with the donkey. The donkey asks if he has been in the habit of behaving badly, and Balaam answers “No.” Instead of, presumably, screaming out loud “My donkey is talking. Am I going mad?”
Behind the amusement though are some serious points:
- God cannot be manipulated, by a professional curser or anyone else. When God “changes” his mind in response to the prayers of his people, that’s because the change was always within his acceptable range of possible actions.
- Even those who seem to be spiritual are sometimes blind to the actual reality of the situation around them.
- Truth can come from the strangest sources. This is part of my philosophy of receiving criticism. Even if I think a person’s viewpoint may have little validity, I say to myself, “If God can speak through a donkey, then there may be truth to be had here. Seek for what it is, and don’t worry about the source.”
- God knows our hearts. God cannot be mocked. Balaam officially agreed to follow the Lord’s command, but God knew his heart wasn’t in it, and that he would weaken when the temptation of reward was placed in front of him.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Mt 6:8)
Don’t try and con God.
He knows the truth.