Understanding the Old Testament

Balaam

(All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible translation)

The story of Balaam in Numbers 22 - 24 is one of the more amusing tales in the Bible. It begins with Balak, the king of Moab. Even though the Israelites had passed through his kingdom peacefully, Balak was dismayed when he saw the Israelites destroy the powerful Amorite kings. (Numbers 22:1-4)

Perhaps realizing that his army was not strong enough to defeat the Israelites, Balak resorted to sorcery. He sent for Balaam, whom Joshua 13:22 identifies as a soothsayer (also translated as a diviner or a magician), and asked him to curse the Israelites. Numbers 22:5 and Deuteronomy 23:4 tell us that Balaam lived in Pethor, on the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia, far to the north of Moab.

Balak offered Balaam a hefty fee. However, Balaam wisely consulted God, who told him not to go. Then Balak increased his offer, and Balaam asked God again. This time God told him to go, but on the condition that Balaam speak only what God instructed him to say.

Even though God had told Balaam to go, Numbers 22:22 makes clear that the Lord was angry with him for going, and there are at least two possible explanations.

One is that God was offended that Balaam asked a second time, apparently for purely mercenary reasons. But an alternative explanation is that God became angry during the long journey because Balaam “loved the wages of unrighteousness.” (II Peter 2:15)

In any event, the Lord sent an angel to slay Balaam. Three times the angel—who was invisible to Balaam—stood in his path ready to strike him down, but each time he was saved by his donkey, who could see what Balaam could not. First the donkey turned aside, then she stopped and leaned against a wall, and finally she simply lay down. And on each occasion Balaam struck his perceptive donkey.

At this point the Lord gave the donkey the ability to speak, and she asked her master, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (Numbers 22:28) As if a talking animal were a normal everyday occurrence, Balaam had a brief conversation with the donkey. (Numbers 22:29) But when God allowed Balaam to see how close he had come to being killed by the angel, the soothsayer finally understood.

So each time Balak brought Balaam to curse the Israelites, he blessed them instead—just as the Lord instructed him.

.Questions to ponder or discuss: They say everyone has a price. Is there an amount of money that would make you disobey God by deliberately commiting a sin? Would it matter if the sin were only a “minor” sin? Why is the temptation of riches sometimes hard to resist?

Copyright 2018 by Don Davidson

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