The Israelites have traveled around the borders of Edom and have arrived in the land of Moab, across the Jordan River from the city of Jericho. As they traveled, they encountered two kings who attacked them: Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Both armies were completely defeated by the Israelites. Having captured the lands of these two kings, the Israelites settle in their territories.
At the beginning of chapter 22, a third king, Balak of Moab, is extremely concerned after seeing what the Israelites have accomplished against Sihon and Og. Balak confers with the Midianites, another group of people living nearby, and they decide to send for Balaam, an internationally known expert in divination.
Why did Balak not attack Israel as the other two kings had? It seems that Moab was controlled by Sihon during his reign, so the fact that Sihon was defeated did not bode well. R. Dennis Cole explains that Balak
saw as his only resort to reach beyond the confines of his kingdom and thus the realm of his god Chemosh and his consort Ashtar for obtaining divine intervention into his impossible situation. His gods had been ineffective against Sihon of the Amorites and would have thus been even less effective against the Israelites and their God Yahweh.
Balak’s gods had already been defeated by Sihon’s gods, and Israel’s god had defeated Sihon’s gods, so Balak surmised that he needed supernatural help.
In verses 4-7, Balak sends a delegation to Balaam, who lived approximately 400 miles away, or about a 25-day journey. Once the delegation reaches Balaam, they are to ask him to come back with them, so that he can curse the nation of Israel, and thus give Balak military victory. In return, he will be paid a fee for his services. This was a standard procedure for divine men in the ancient near east.
Balaam instructs the delegation to spend the night so that he can consult with the God of Israel. God does indeed speak to Balaam and tells him that he cannot curse Israel because God has blessed them. Balaam is not allowed to go with the delegation back to Moab.
The delegation returns to Moab and informs Balak that Balaam refused to come. Balak, thinking the issue is with the payment, sends another delegation to Balaam and tells him that he will be rewarded handsomely if he will only come and curse Israel. Again Balaam consults with God, but this time God tells Balaam to go with the delegation, but “do only what I tell you.”
Up to this point, the reader is led to believe that Balaam might be a true pagan prophet of God. God has certainly spoken to pagans in other biblical narratives, so perhaps Balaam is a true believer. There are hints, though, that he is not a true believer. The fact that he expects to be paid for his services is disturbing, and the fact that his international fame has been gained by cursing and blessing through many different gods is also ominous. Verses 21 and following finally clarify that Balaam is not the spiritual man of God that we might think he is.
Balaam saddles up his donkey and travels back to Moab with the second delegation. Along the way, God becomes angry with him and places an angelic messenger in his path. Why did God become angry with Balaam after telling him to go with the Moabite delegation? We can’t know for sure, but some scholars have speculated that God became angry because Balaam still thought he might curse the people of Israel. He thought that perhaps with the proper sacrifices, he might change God’s mind. After all, sacrifices were a common method for manipulating the pagan gods.
Three times the angel of the Lord, with a drawn sword in his hand, stands in the path in front of Balaam and his donkey. Twice the donkey turns aside to avoid the angel, and the third time the donkey simply stops and sits on the ground because there is no way to avoid the angel.
Why does the donkey see the angel of the Lord, but not Balaam? The clear implication is that Balaam is not as spiritually astute as we thought. In fact, that a donkey, which was considered to be one of the stupidest animals, could see the angel, but not Balaam, is quite an indictment. To make matters worse, Balaam beats the donkey mercilessly, even though the donkey saved his life!
After the third beating, God has the donkey speak to Balaam and ask him why he is beating the donkey when the donkey has faithfully served him. Suddenly, Balaam’s eyes are opened and he sees the angel of the Lord and falls down on the ground. The angel tells Balaam that he would have killed Balaam if the donkey had not turned aside.
Balaam admits his sin, and offers to return to his homeland and not continue the journey. The angel tells him to go to Moab, but reminds him once again: “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.”
What is the point of this story of the talking donkey? Why is it here? Balaam’s sin, the thought that he was in control of the situation, that he could determine whether to bless or curse Israel, led him to acute spiritual blindness. Cole writes, “A female donkey, presumably the epitome of stupidity and stubbornness in that day, was more spiritually perceptive than this renowned prophet.”
Cole quotes D. Olson, who believes that Balaam has learned
that the life of a prophet is like riding a donkey. Balaam’s own personal ability to steer the course of history and see what lies ahead is minimal, less than the animal on which he rides. Lest Balaam have any thought he can make an end run around God, the angel teaches Balaam that he must lay down his own initiative in cursing or blessing Israel and allow God to use him as God sees fit.
In verses 36-41, Balak greets Balaam and chastises him for not coming sooner. Balaam reminds Balak the hard lesson that he has learned about the God of Israel: “But can I say just anything? I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.”
During the following days, Balaam will prophesy three times at the behest of Balak. Even though Balak’s goal is for Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam will instead only prophesy what God tells him to prophesy. Chapter 23 (verses 1-12) recounts the first oracle of Balaam. Due to limited time, we will only discuss the first oracle, but I encourage you to read through chapter 24 to understand everything that God speaks through Balaam, the pagan prophet.
Each of the three oracles follows the same sequence:
- Balak takes Balaam to an observation point to view Israel.
- Balaam instructs Balak to offer sacrifices to the God of Israel.
- Balak obeys Balaam by sacrificing the prescribed animals.
- Balaam tells Balak to stand by his offering altars.
- Balaam goes alone and Yahweh reveals himself.
- Balaam returns to Balak, who is standing by his offering.
- Balaam obeys Yahweh and speaks the oracle.
After the first sequence occurs, Balaam returns from his communion with God and speaks what God has revealed. One could paraphrase the first oracle in the following way: “Balak asked me to come and curse Israel, but I cannot curse those whom God has not cursed. I see that they are a multitude that cannot be counted, a group of people separated from all others. I wish that I could die a righteous death, just like these people!”
What is the significance of this oracle? Gordon Wenham notes the following:
Through the Spirit Balaam is able to appreciate Israel’s peculiar character. Because God has chosen her, she is different from the other nations. Therefore she lives apart from them and is conscious of her distinctiveness, not reckoning itself among the nations. Here Balaam alludes to a fundamental principle of Old Testament theology: God’s choice of Israel to be his own people (cf. Exod. 19:5–6; Deut. 7:6ff.; Rom. 9).
In addition, Balaam refers back to the promises made to Abraham by God: “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted.”
Finally, the phrase, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his,” could be, according to Wenham, “construed as an example of Genesis 12:3: Balaam, a non-Israelite, prays to be as blessed as the children of Abraham.”
The most curious aspect of chapters 22-24 in Numbers is that we have a non-Israelite prophet, speaking the words of God instead of Moses. Why is this? Recall that in chapter 20 of Numbers Moses sins against God and is banned from entering the Promised Land. Chapters 22-24 demonstrate, according to R. Dennis Cole, that “even when the leadership of the nation fails, as in the case of Moses’ sin of violating the holiness of God (Num 20:11–12), God will use whatever means necessary, even a pagan divination expert, to accomplish his desire of blessing the nation.”