Numbers 22-24: Balak, Balam, & the Talking Donkey

We see these events from the point of view of Balak, king of Moab, and Balaam. Balaam is summoned to the king in the hopes of placing a curse on the Israelites.

Introduction

The next series of events that are recounted are extremely interesting and place the Israelites almost as secondary characters. We see these events from the point of view of Balak, king of Moab, and Balaam. Balaam is summoned to the king in the hopes of placing a curse on the Israelites.
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Balak's Decision

Balak fears Israel after he witnesses them defeat the Amorites. Since Moab was a tribal confederation to which Midian also belonged,[1] Balak calls for elders from Midian to discus the issue. He decides to send for Balaam, with the desire for Balaam to curse the Israelites and grant favor to Moab in battle.
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Balaam Seeks God

The princes of Moab take Balak's request to Balaam, who does not rush into a decision. Instead, Balaam consults God before deciding on the matter. This is the manner in which we should make our decisions today. While, it does appear that Balaam may be pagan, he hears from the one true God when he seeks consul. I'm not sure if Balaam sought out the God of Abraham, though we do know that some of the Midianites worshipped the God of Israelite (e.g. Moses' father-in-law). Overall, Balaam reminds me of the false prophets of today. They speak of God, claim to commune with God, but at the heart of the matter, Balaam did what Balaam wanted.

Naturally, when God speaks to Balaam, He tells him not to curse Israel—Balaam doesn't have the power to strip Israel of God's love or protection. God ask Balaam who the men with him are, likely God's way of putting things in to perspective and showcase God's position of authority over all. On top of not cursing Israel, God tells Balaam not to go with the men (presumably back to Balak). The princes, who were likely afraid to take Balaam's "no" back to the king, begin to barter with him to get a "yes."

At the promise of great power, Balaam says he will check again with God. Though he reminds the princes that he can't go against God's will, this is a pointless action. Balaam isn't going to God for the sake of Balak or because he truly wants what he's asking for. When Moses interceded to "change" God's mind for the sake of Israel, he went humbly with a heart for the people he interceded on behalf of. There is nothing humble about Balaam's inquiry; he simply wanted the power promised to him by Balak's men.

In response, God comes to Balaam at night. God instructs Balaam to only go with the princes if they ask him. The next morning when Balaam wakes, he saddles his donkey leaves with princes without prompt. Angry at Balaam's disobedience, God sends the Angel of the Lord.
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A Talking Donkey

Photocredit: FreeImages.com/MARIE JEANNE Iliescu
The Angel of the Lord stands in Balaam's way, but Balaam is unable to see the angel. The donkey, on the other hand, could see the angel and knew to be afraid. She turns from the path and goes into the adjacent field. Unaware of what is occurring, Balaam strikes the donkey for leaving the path and tries to force her back in the direction he insists upon going. The angel then appears in a vineyard, presumably blocking Balaam's new direction. This time, the donkey thrusts herself into a wall, injuring Balaam's foot in the process. Again he strikes the donkey in ignorant anger. Determined to continue, Balaam forces the donkey on. When the angel appears again, the donkey lays down beneath Balaam. In anger, Balaam strikes the donkey with his staff—presumably he used his hand the first 2 times.

Perhaps feeling sorry for the donkey, or simply wanting to show Balaam the error of his ways, God grants the donkey the ability to speak. Immediately, the donkey confronts Balaam about his mistreatment of her. As the two talk, the Lord opens Balaam's eyes so that he can see the angel. Upon seeing the sword wielding angel, Balaam falls to his face (presumably in both shame and adoration). Like the donkey, the Angel questions Balaam regarding his treatment of the donkey. The angel also explains the donkey's behavior and warns Balaam that he is going against God's instruction. Admitting to his sin, Balaam offers to return home. Surprising, the angel does not agree to this, but instead sends him forward with the warning to only speak that which God commands.
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Balaam & Balak Meet

The first order of business when the two men meet, is for Balak to ask Balaam why he didn't come to him. I'm not sure if Balak is referring to the fact that Balaam initially refused or that Balaam arrived after the princes returned. We don't know if the princes were there for Balaam's encounter with the angel or not, though it seems unlikely. If they were not present, it stands to reason they arrived without Balaam and assumed he'd changed his mind. Once this situation is cleared up for Balak, the two converse and Balaam maintains that he can only do what God commands. The 2 men then journey to Kirjath-huzoth, where Balak hopes to begin the process of cursing the Israelites.
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The First Sacrifice

One of two things happens when Balaam and Balak reach their destination. Either Balak's pagan origins leads him to believes he can persuade God to change His mind by offering sacrifices, or, knowing that the sacrifices wouldn't work, Balaam extorted Balak to perform sacrifices anyway (similar to preachers today charging outrageous prices for their insight to the word of God). Balak offers sheep and oxen to Baal in hopes of gaining favor, unaware that it is God who is making the decision. Balaam instructs Balak to build 7 altars. On each altar, Balaam sacrifices 1 ox and 1 ram. Balaam either means for these to be sacrificed to God or God comes on behalf of Israel despite Balaam dabbling paganism.
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The First Prophecy

When God comes to Balaam, he gives him a prophecy. Balaam recounts the prophecy to Balak, stating that the Israelites will live in the land alone. He reiterates the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, in which Abraham's seed would be uncountable like the dust. Balak becomes upset that not only does Balaam not curse Israel, but he done the opposite and pronounced a blessing on them. Balak still thinks he can change God's mind; it is unclear whether Balak knows he is dealing with God or still thinks he is dealing with Baal.
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The Second Sacrifice & Prophecy

The second time, Balak takes Balaam to Zophim and the top of Pisgah (Mt. Nebo). Again, they build 7 altars, offer 7 bulls, and offer 7 rams. Then, Balaam consults with God. Balaam tells Balak the words God revealed to him, which are some of the most important assertions about God's character we have. God informs Balaam (and Balak, through Balaam) that He is not a man, He doesn't lie, and He will do what He says.
19God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? 20Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.Numbers 23:19-20 KJV
Balaam informs Balak that God didn't bring the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt only to fail; therefore, nothing (and no one) can stand against Israel. Balaam says that they will rise up as a great lion and lift up a young lion. The young lion is prophesied to eat the prey and drink the blood of the slain. Balak begs Balaam not to bless Israel, or even curse them, as he wants another chance to convince God to curse the Israelites.
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The Third Sacrifice & Prophecy

The third time, the pair journey to Peor to repeat the persuasion ritual of Balak's choice. Again, they build 7 altars, sacrificing 1 bull and 1 ram on each altar. God, unchanging, still means to bless Israel. Balaam heads toward the wilderness where he can see the Israelites. Here, the Spirit of God comes upon him and gives another prophecy. Balaam learns that the Israelites will be more powerful than Agag, king of the Amalekites. He is told of the land's abundance under Israel's dominion. Again, Israel is compared to a lion who will conquer and prosper.
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Balak's Anger

It is understandable that Balak was angry at Balaam; he went out of his way to summon Balaam, sacrificed 21 bulls and 21 rams (poor animals died for nothing), and was still rejected of his goal. On top of not gaining a curse for Israel, Balak watches Balaam bless the Israelites multiple times. When viewed from Balak's point of view, he was doing everything he could to make his goal a reality. The problem wasn't how hard he worked or how much effort he put it, but the fact that it simply wasn't meant to be. We must remember this as we walk through life, as well.

Lesson to Learn

Balak walked contrary to God, so he was destined to lose, just as we are when we embark on paths that do not align with God's plan. Balak could have listened the first time and chosen a different course, but he kept knocking on the same door, hoping God would change His mind. This is something we must watch for today; God will always tell us when we are taking the wrong path, just as He stood in Balaam's way and refused to grant Balak's request. It is up to us to listen.

Sent Away

Balak sends Balaam away in anger, though Balaam reminds him that from the beginning, Balaam had warned Balak that he could only do that which God commanded. Interestingly, we aren't told if Balaam was actually one of God's people or just followed God's word that one time. In any case, we are reminded that when those around us say things we do not want to hear, we have to consider whether God is speaking to us through that person or if that person is just spouting nonsense.
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The Fourth Prophecy

Balaam's final prophecy foretells of both King David and Jesus.[1] Likely, the intent was for Jesus, since Balaam says he will see the person one day. Balaam also foretells the star of Bethlehem, a great king, and the destruction of the children of Sheth. Sheth is likely a reference to Seth, which would make the final prophecy a reference to all people.[1][2][3] It is also possible that the word "sheth" was not a person's name but meant "tumult" thus rendering the prophecy valid for the sons of tumult.[4] Jesus will destroy everyone at His second coming, which would definitely apply to the destruction of the children of Seth, so perhaps this is what Balaam was speaking of. David, also associated with a star, defeated Moab and Edom. Technically, he fulfilled the prophecy, but to a lesser extent than Jesus. Balaam prophesies that the one who will be given dominion will be from the progeny of Jacob. Finally, he predicts the fall of Amalek, the Kenites, Assur, and Eber.
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References

  1. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible. pg. 271-275. 2014
  2. Uittenbogaard, Arie. "The name Sheth in the Bible". Abiram Publications. 2016
  3. "Sheth". Bible Hub. 2016
  4. "Sheth". Bible Study Tools. 2016

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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