When your donkey speaks to you, pay attention.

Adventures with Moses in the Wilderness –

Balaam and Barak

Numbers 21:21 – 22:1, The Conquest of Sihon and Og
Numbers 22:2-21, King Balak of Moab appeals to Balaam.
Numbers 22:22-35, Balaam’s donkey teaches him a lesson.
Numbers 22:36 – 23:10, Balaam goes to Balak and pronounces an oracle.
Numbers 23:11-26, Balak requests a different oracle.
Numbers 23:27 – 24:9, Balak requests a third oracle.
Numbers 24:10-25, Balaam’s final oracle.

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Balaam. Click to enlarge. See below for provenance.
Numbers 21:21 – 22:1, The Conquest of Sihon and Og (12/11/11)

Now, you recall that the Israelites were on their way to Canaan, the Promised Land, when they ran into Edom.  The Edomites looked out and saw roughly a million Israelites and wouldn’t let the Israelites go through their land.  Like the Israelites, the Edomites were descended from Abraham, and thus not a suitable target for conquest, so Moses and his group had to go around. 

At that point they were way out on the east side of the Jordan River, headed west toward Canaan, and they ran into the lands of the Amorites.  The Amorites also didn’t want the Israelites coming through, and they came out with armies against Israel.  The Amorites lost.

Numbers 22:2-21, King Balak of Moab appeals to Balaam. (12/13/11)

According to Messengers of God, by Ronald Isaacs, seven heathen prophets are recognized by the rabbis:  Balaam and his father Beor, and Job and his four friends.  Today we meet Balaam.  The location of Balaam’s hometown, Pethor, is not known, but probably it wasn’t too far from Moab, since Balak’s messengers and then Balaam himself traveled back and forth while the Israelites were massing on the border.

Having seen the defeat of the Amorites at the hands of the Israelites, King Balak decides to try a different approach, that is, to get someone to put a curse on them.  Unfortunately for him, Balaam consults God first.

Numbers 22:22-35, Balaam’s donkey teaches him a lesson. (12/14/11)

We read yesterday, in Numbers 22:20, that God told Balaam to go with Balak’s men.  Now, two verses later, God is angry because he’s going.  This has always puzzled me.  John Wesley said that in vs. 20 God’s permission is conditional – “if they come for you” – but that in vs. 21 Balaam sets out on his own, and that therefore God was angry.

Anyway, the angel of the Lord stands in the middle of the road, and Balaam’s donkey, who appears to be a lot smarter than Balaam, stops.  This is, by the way, the only story in the Bible with a talking animal (unless you count the serpent in the Garden of Eden or the war horse in Job, who hears the battle and says, “Aha!”).  After conversing with the angel and the donkey, Balaam offers to return home, but the angel says again that he should go.

Numbers 22:36 – 23:10, Balaam goes to Balak and pronounces an oracle. (12/15/11)

Balaam finally gets to Balak, and he has Balak build some altars and provide sheep for sacrifices.  Balaam warns Balak, however, that he won’t necessarily get the results he wants.  And he doesn’t.  Far from a curse on Israel, Balaam utters a prophetic message about Israel’s imminent prosperity.

Numbers 23:11-26, Balak requests a different oracle. (12/16/11)

You’ve probably heard the expression that someone “just can’t buy a break.”  That was Balak’s problem.  None of yesterday’s altars, oxen, and sheep did him any good, so today he decides that maybe Balaam will be able to curse them from a different location.  He takes Balaam to another place, builds more altars, and sacrifices more oxen and sheep.  He’s trying to buy a break in one place that he couldn’t get in another.

Now, this sounds pretty silly to us, but by his own lights, Balak was onto something.  The gods of Canaan were, for the most part, localized.  They only had power in their own valley, on their own hill, on the banks of their own river, or whatever.  It was not entirely unreasonable for him to speculate that even if the LORD had power in Pethor, that might not be true in Pisgah.  Unfortunately for Balak, God is Lord everywhere, and he gets the same answer – a blessing, not a curse – that he got before.

Numbers 23:27 – 24:9, Balak requests a third oracle. (12/19/11)

Balak figures, in for a penny, in for a pound.  He takes Balaam to yet another place, Peor, to see if by some outside chance he can get a curse on Israel there.

Note that this is the first time Balaam is prophesying through the spirit of God.  Apparently the two earlier times he was using nachash, which is variously translated secret arts, magic, enchantments, omens, or divinations. He gives Balak the same answer as before – a blessing on Israel, not a curse – and for good measure he repeats what God said to Abraham right at the beginning of their relationship (Genesis 12:3).  This agreement between the arcane arts and prophecy should make us wary of dismissing Truth just because we didn’t learn in it in Sunday School.  As Jarrod C. once told us in a sermon, “you’ll never find the Truth on one side of an issue, and Jesus Christ on the other side.”

Numbers 24:10-25, Balaam’s final oracle. (12/20/11)

Balak finally gives up trying to get Balaam to curse Israel; however, note that he never accepts any responsibility for his own lack of alignment with the will of God.  He’s just like us.  Balaam is on a roll, however, and he ignores Balak and blesses Israel again.  He also has a few words to say about the Amalekites, Kenites, and some of the other Canaanites.

In this Christmas season, we should take special note of vss. 17-19.  These verses are widely accepted as a Messianic prophecy.  Many scholars, both Jewish and Christian, ancient and modern, take this passage to refer both to King David and to the Christ, and I suspect this is the opinion of the average person in the pew.  I certainly recognized it right off as a familiar Messianic prophecy.

Other scholars object.  I didn’t do an exhaustive investigation, but there seem to be a couple of positions.  One is that it wasn’t taken to be Messianic prophecy at the time; however, by this test most Messianic prophecies would be have to be ruled out.  Another is that God wouldn’t use the “wicked” Balaam for such an exalted purpose.  In the first place, Balaam doesn’t strike me as being any worse than the rest of us, and in the second place, if God didn’t use sinful people for his good purposes, who would he use? 

More Adventures with Moses in the Wilderness
Census and Organization
The Order of March
Failure to Enter Canaan
Laws and Consequences
Complaints in the Desert
Balaam and Barak
Almost Ready to Leave
Scheduled Sacrifices
Getting Close to Canaan
Home at Last!

Copyright 2011, 2012 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.

The illustration of Balaam being reproved by his donkey is from the family Bible of John O. Spencer and Lydia Bunn, married 18 Nov. 1857 in Hector, Schuyler Co., NY. A complete listing of the posted images from this Bible is given at
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Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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