I don’t know about you, but I find the story of Balaam rather a curious one. Just who was this guy? Why did God work with him? A talking donkey, really?! And what’s the point of the inclusion of this account in Scriptures? These and other questions scrambled together in my head, so I knew I had to do some Bible detective work to find answers. I was not disappointed….
Much to my surprise, it did not take much work at all to find some ready solutions to my puzzlement. Beginning with his name, I discovered Balaam means “not of the people” in Hebrew. I was proud of myself for having deciphered he could not possibly be a person of longterm faith before I looked into the matter. My hint was that he was being hired as a “diviner” which was forbidden in Israel. (Num. 22:7) This emphasized to me, once again, how important it is to reason and think while we are reading these stories! Anyway, his name also means “a foreigner”. That’s interesting….this makes other questions crop up though, like, “Why was he given insight by God?” He was a false prophet of a foreign nation that obviously had a reputation for “good credentials/resume” in worldly divination, prophesying and cursing people. An interesting business, indeed! A professional and sucessful huckster?!
More questions to the fore: So why did God work with him? And, why the spectacular donkey incident? I kept digging…Balaam is the son of Beor. Beor means “burning.” We know Bible names always have significance, Hmmm…Balaam definitely was a guy who “played with fire” as the saying goes. He ultimately dared to defy the God of Israel and His people. He lived in Pethor. I’m sure more puzzle pieces lie there…Pethor means “soothsayer” and is located in Mesopotamia. Perhaps the hometown of other famous pagan false prophets? Or was it renamed soothsayer in honor of our friend Balaam at some big political bash, I wonder? Apparently the town was also located on the Euhrates River (Which means “fruitfulness”) – along which Balak’s entourage journeyed to collect the soothsayer, no doubt. v. 5 Why does the Bible make note that it was “near the River”, I wonder? Perhaps to contrast the worldly strength/fruit of the flesh with the River of God’s land/people – the Jordan (“descender”)? The Jews were baptised in that River thus identifying with the death of sin and resurrection to New Life. (cp. Joshua 3:17, Matthew 3:6)
Now the donkey connection. Why a donkey? Why repeated incidents? What did Balaam learn from this experience? My own surmisings conclude that Balaam was a prideful, arrogant and self-important man. He knew he had potentially big money and honors on the way in the emmissaries from the powerful King of Moab and Midian. I believe the first account of his sending the leaders away that first night while he consulted the LORD was his own assertion of control over them. I contend he was possibly/probably surprised that God did indeed, actually talk to him – much like the witch of Endor. The next day Balaam sent them home in no uncertain terms because he knew God really HAD spoken to him. I believe God was giving even this false prophet opportunity to repent and convert to true faith.
But human nature forgets. And Balaam was representative of that nature. So when “leaders more numerous and more distinguished than the former” make the journey to Pethor He is tempted again to do their bidding. v. 15 God speaks to him and he is told to go with them. But it must still have been in a double-minded way so “God was angry” and sent his angel as an adversary. v. 22
Balaam’s violence against the donkey demonstrates, his closed spirit to receiving true supernatural messages from the only true God. Balaam was so angry he answered back to the animal. I would like to think that if my sheep spoke to me – I would be so shocked I’d be speechless!:) God was still longsuffering and merciful to this prophet, however- He opened his eyes (cp. open the eyes of my heart in Ephesians 1:18 yesterday) and he allowed for Balaam to repent. “I have sinned” v. 34 Balaam now cooperates with God and delivers the message Balak least wants to hear – a blessing on his enemies, Israel. Unfortunately, Balaam did not bear the fruit of faith. Like the seed on parched ground it soon withered away.
The rest of the Bible gives us further insight into this story and its repercussions. The final puzzle pieces are pressed into place.
Numbers 31:8,16 – Balaam had further interaction with Balak and gave him advice to intermarry with Israel which became a snare to God’s people (compare the connection between Numbers 24:25 and Numbers 25:1-2) He was ultimately killed by Joshua and his army. (Num. 31:8, Joshua 13:22)
II Peter 2:15 is the clincher. It tells us Balaam “loved the ways of unrighteousness” and that it took the “dumb donkey” speaking “with the voice of a man” to “restrain his madness.” This chapter describes in great detail the secretive and destructive behavior of false teachers like Balaam.
Revelation 2:14 The Lord Jesus makes explicit the teaching of Balaam. Things the First Century Church and our own day are also vulnerable to: to keep teaching people to worship idols and to encourage immorality (by marrying and intermingling with the world) which become stumbling blocks to faith and salvation for God’s people.
Important lessons indeed! We must still work hard to resist the attraction to the Balaams in our own lives – both internal and external.
I have had my curiosity satiated on this, another wonderful journey in God’s amazingly marvelous word. Hope you are having many similar journeys of your own!