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Numbers 22:1-41

The next section of the book of Numbers contains our chapters 22 – 24. It is too long a passage to read at one sitting so we will consider it over two Lord’s Day evenings, taking only chapter 22 this evening. But it is important to remember that these three chapters form an integrated whole.

Text Comment

With chapter 22 we begin the final major section of Numbers. For the third time on their journey from Egypt to Canaan Israel stopped and remained at one place for a considerable period of time. First she stopped for more than a year at Mt. Sinai; then for a considerable time at Kadesh; and now she is encamped on the Plains of Moab. Her campaign against Og had taken Israel into the northern Transjordan. After her victory she returned southward and went into camp. She was separated from the Promised Land only by the Jordan River. She could look across it to Canaan. She was almost there; close enough to taste the Promised Land!

As we begin this last section of Numbers it is important to note something that the author of Numbers intends for his readers to note: history repeats itself. The same sorts of things happen at each of these longer encampments: the people sin and the Lord proves himself faithful to the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The history of God’s people proceeds and is explained repeatedly according to two principles: God’s faithfulness and man’s sinfulness.

Verse two is the beginning of the Balak/Balaam story and, as we will see, this is another narrative that illustrates the literary artistry with which the biblical writers composed their histories so as to employ them to teach both theology and ethics, what we are to believe and how we are to live. In fact, in this first verse we are introduced to what will prove to be the leitwort or thematic keyword of the narrative. It is the Hebrew word (ראה) “to see.” [With its poetic synonym “to gaze” (שור).] The account begins with Balak, king of Moab, seeing what Israel had done to the Amorites. What we are going to see is a dumb animal seeing what a man whose supposed to be a prophet cannot and then the pagan seer or prophet beginning to see the future but only because Yahweh has given him the vision of it. God is the source of true sight, the only source!

In any case, Balak’s fears are groundless. Israel has made no motion toward Moab, indeed she skirted Moabite territory. She had, in fact, been commanded by Yahweh notto take an acre of Moab’s territory. Unnecessary fears are the cause of a great deal of stupid behavior among human beings!

You can call Balak’s confidence in Balaam’s power a touching pagan naïveté [Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 105] or you can call it stupidity, as the following narrative reveals it to be.

Israel had skirted the territory of Moab but the Moabites didn’t trust Israel to leave them alone. They were too weak to take Israel on themselves and so consulted with the Midianites, tribesmen who lived in the Sinai and in the deserts east of the Jordan. Putting their heads together they realized that their only hope of eliminating the Israelite threat was to purchase a curse upon Israel before engaging her in battle. So they decide to engage the services of an internationally known “hexer” by the name of Balaam who lived in a town near the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia. Balaam would have been a typical priest diviner who used the ordinary tricks of his trade – omens and dreams – and made his income by predicting the future and by pronouncing blessings and curses. Balak assumed that Balaam could pronounce such a powerful curse on Israel that it would lead to her defeat. They appreciated that service this valuable would not come free of charge!

Probably nothing so surprising had ever happened to Balaam: the Lord appeared to him. In the Bible, when God asks a man a question it is for the man’s benefit, not God’s, as if the Lord needed information. So, for example, when the Lord asked Adam in the garden of Eden, “Who told you that you were naked?” he was giving Adam a chance to confess his sin. Here he is giving Balaam the opportunity to reflect on the question: whom would he obey, his customers or the Lord himself? [Duguid, 271]

Balaam is now trapped between the desire of Balak that he curse Israel, for which he would be handsomely paid, and the direct order of the Lord not to curse Israel, to obey, of course, would bring him no payment at all. This conflict is the background of all that will happen subsequently.

Balak takes Balaam’s first refusal as a negotiating ploy, as perhaps it was. Notice, for example, that in v. 13 Balaam did not tell the negotiating team from Moab that the Lord had refused to allow him to curse Israel because she was blessed by God and nothing could overturn his blessing. Nor did Balaam imply any unwillingness on his part to conduct the business if only he could.

The fact that Balaam wanted to hear more from the Lord again suggests that he was looking for some way to involve himself in what would obviously be a lucrative enterprise. Balaam is no hero here. This is not piety you are hearing from him. He would later, as we read in Numbers 31, advise the Midianites to seduce Israel by sexual temptation into participating in Moab’s idolatrous worship [31:16; 25:1-3] Israel would eventually execute him for that!

In any case the “what else” in v. 19 is the unspoken premise behind all ANE divination: the same ritual procedures were repeated until the answer was got that the customer wanted to hear! [Milgrom, 189] Throw the dice or inspect the liver often enough and you’ll get the omen you’re looking for!

In a surprising turn – the readers are meant to be surprised and to wonder why the Lord seems to have changed his mind – Balaam is permitted to return with the delegation from Moab and Midian but he is placed on notice that he must do precisely what Yahweh tells him. Up to this point we are given the impression that Balaam is a man of great spiritual stature. He is given audiences with God. His words are powerful to affect the affairs of nations or at least kings suppose that they are. [Wenham, 170] Now in the verses that follow we are given to see who and what Balaam really is: how blind and how powerless and Balaam, of course, will be shown the same thing.

The Lord’s anger at Balaam indicates immediately that things are not as they may have seemed. It is worth noting that Balaam is not said to have explained to the delegation a second time that he had been told once again that he could only speak as the Lord gave him leave. The impression is that he gave the delegation to understand that he had straightened out his difficulties with the Lord and was ready to accompany them on the mission for which they were to pay him.

Here is our word “see” again. The donkey – an animal proverbial in the ancient world for its stupidity and stubbornness – sees the angel of the Lord but Balaam doesn’t. There are donkeys or burros wandering loose in Cripple Creek and we see them every summer. They not only look dumb; they are dumb. But as a specialist in divination, Balaam should have realized and we expect him to realize that the animal’s behavior was an omen. But instead he beats the donkey, an unrighteous act in itself.

Three times the donkey saw the angel; three times Balaam didn’t. Three times he beat his animal without ever realizing that its strange behavior must be a signal of something important. What is more, he was so dense that he beat his donkey for saving him from an angry angel of the Lord. Balaam, in other words, is an ass who deserves a beating himself.

The supposedly so powerful Balaam can’t kill his donkey because he doesn’t have a sword, but he is supposed to destroy an entire people by the utterance of his word!

The fact that the donkey speaks seems almost insignificant. Remember ancient people knew more about animals than you and I do. They knew what they could and could not do. They would have been astonished beyond belief to be spoken to by an animal. But here Balaam and his donkey have a conversation. And the donkey proves himself wiser and more insightful than Balaam. He saw what Balaam didn’t and he explained his surprising behavior in such a way as to suggest that Balaam should have understood that something important was up. Balaam is being compared to his donkey and fares poorly in the comparison. But, most important, Balaam, after he learns this lesson, says to Balak that he can speak only what the Lord puts in his mouth. In other words, he is exactly like his donkey. Whatever power of speech he may have to affect the course of events, it is a power he has from the Lord to speak the words the Lord will give him. He is like the donkey in that way.

In other words, in the episode with the donkey, the donkey is to Balaam what Balaam will become to Balak. Balak is going to experience, also three times over, someone acting in a way directly contrary to his wishes, until the Moabite king “is progressively reduced to impotent fury, quite [like] Balaam’s blind rage against the wayward [donkey].” [Alter, 106]

Now for the first time Balaam sees.

The number three functions as another organizing feature of this narrative. Again linking Balaam to his donkey, the point is made first by the narrator and then by the angel that Balaam beat his donkey three times because the donkey saw the angel of the Lord three times. When Balaam arrives in the Transjordan, he will bless the people of God three times. Just as the donkey spoke by the power of the Lord, so Balaam will as well. Just as a dumb animal became a conduit for the word of the Lord, so will Balaam. It is the Lord who is speaking and Balaam is compelled to utter the word that was given to him.

By the way it is clear in the Bible that we have an absolute obligation to treat our animals kindly. There are a number of different places in which the Bible addresses the power that human beings have over animals and the care with which they are to treat them and how low and how unworthy is a human being who mistreats an animal.

Finally Balaam is given to see what the donkey saw and what he sees is an angel with a sword drawn. The implication of the sword is so clear that it does not need to be stated: Balaam better do what he is told, or else. The implication of the angel’s remarks is that Balaam was intending to take the money and curse the Israelites.

That Balak was eager and anxious for Balaam to arrive is suggested by the fact that he greeted him at the border of his territory.

Again, Balaam sees, this time part of the people of Israel lying encamped on the Plains of Moab.

In this famous episode we are treated to high comedy in the service of a deadly serious point. We grin as the narrative pokes fun at the proud Balaam, proud and delighted to think that a king far away was willing to pay handsomely for his services, but revealed in a devastating encounter to be dumber than his ass! The world-famous super-seer is on his way to destroy an entire people and he can’t manage to put his own donkey in its place! And then the donkey speaks and shows itself smarter than its owner. In all of this Numbers 22 gives us a window on our world. In Acts 7:38 Stephen, in his defense before the Sanhedrin, says that Moses received from the Lord “living words to pass on to us.” Well in the same way in which this episode was a living word to believers in Stephen’s day, so it is a living word for us in the early years of the 21st century.

In the pagan world of Moses’ day as in the pagan world of ours there was everywhere the implicit belief in the power of a professional caste of seers to manipulate divine powers by means of a set of carefully prescribed procedures. In this world view paganism reveals itself as trapped in a mechanistic universe, desperate somehow to gain the upper hand over unseen powers that otherwise must grind people eventually into dust. [cf. Alter, 106-107] In those days, Balaam had an international reputation as a professional man capable of altering events in the world by the oracles he would deliver. Not just anybody can do this. You have to have education and status. You have to have the office. It seemed only sensible to Balak to buy the services of such a man.

We invest the same confidence (and the same money) in such professionals today. We may call them scientists instead of seers, or politicians instead of kings but people today in enormous numbers look to them to control events to their advantage. And such professionals in large numbers are willing, like Balaam, to take the money and cast the spell, or provide the computer model, or outline the set of steps needing to be taken to avoid this disaster or that. And the fact that no one has ever really succeeded in protecting human beings from forces beyond their control never seems to matter. Someone always stands ready to consider an investment in the services of this professional caste money well spent. Balaam was probably a smart fellow. Within the confinements of his art, no doubt he was better than most, hence his international reputation. I wouldn’t doubt that he was a man who could read the times and offer forecasts that were as often as not likely to come true. And so it is today in our quite different and utterly similar world.

Now don’t misunderstand me. Computer models have their place, no doubt. Scientists and engineers have given us the refrigerator and the telephone, medicines and air travel. All of this is, in itself, a worthy contribution to human life. But the limits of scientific knowledge are profound and virtually never observed.

Have you noticed how confident the professional caste so often is? Evolutionary biologists tell us confidently that they know how life came to be and how the extraordinary perfection, the impossibly complex systems that are basic to every form of life originated by chance. No second thoughts; no doubts, no admission of the vast areas of ignorance that might seem to cast doubt on their conclusions, and certainly not acceptance of the reality of what would seem to be virtually insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way of any real proof that undirected chemical and biological processes could ever produce the wonders of nature. They know!

Take, for example, the power of speech, a power highlighted so interestingly in this episode. God created speech, created the power of it, the means of it, made it as important to human life as it is. If God created speech there is nothing to suggest that he couldn’t enable a dumb animal to speak. The one is hardly any more miraculous than the other. We don’t think that only because we are so used to people talking. Have you ever thought about the power of speech; about how human beings are “hard-wired for language,” as Noam Chomsky, the so-called “father of modern linguistics,” once put it? Chomsky points out that the complex language programs “hard-wired” into the human brain have no real analogy in the animal world and that there is no plausible story of step-by-step evolution through intermediate forms that could possibly explain this important and fundamental instrument of human life. Stop and think with me for a moment. What is it that makes life and experience human life and human experience? What is it that creates the world we know as our life everyday? Is it not this? We think thoughts: sometimes very simple thoughts, “I am hungry;” sometimes very complicated thoughts, “e=mc⊃;.”

Animals apparently have some kinds of thoughts. The other night our dog Simon was lying on our bed and he was dreaming. He was moving about and making funny noises. He was obviously thinking about something happening. Maybe in his dream a beautiful girl dog was walking by, I don’t know. Animals have a rudimentary form of thought; but here is the difference and this is what makes everything different for you and me. We can take our thoughts, as other animals cannot, and reduce them to words, utter the words, and the same thought or the impact of that thought occurs in another mind. This power of speech is what makes conversation possible, which is what makes a relationship possible, which is what makes education possible, which is what makes culture possible, which is what makes human life as we know it possible; this extraordinary power of speech. Here is Noam Chomsky telling us – he is certainly no Christian, he does not believe in God, he does not believe in creation, but one thing he does know – this power of speech did not happen by the accumulation of accidents over time. It is simply too wonderfully complicated and complex for that.

Human children learn to speak in more than 6000 different languages. Interestingly, they don’t even have to be taught to speak. It is modeled for them, to be sure, but they don’t have to be taught to speak the way they are taught to read and write. It is an inborn power that will and must come to expression. And it will in languages that are different from one another in every possible way. The biological/chemical/neurological/physical processes that produce speech – whether in Mandarin, Swahili, Spanish, or English, speech in all of its glorious and varied manifestations – the song, the shout, the whisper, the measured tones of ordinary conversation, the sermon, the Gettysburg Address, the play – all of this is impossibly complex. People have hardly begun to understand how it happens, how it could happen in so many utterly different languages in the world. We were created to speak but that speech is so wonderful, so amazing a power that a donkey speaking is hardly any more remarkable than that a human being is able to do so. This hasn’t led Noam Chomsky to belief in God, but is precisely these sorts of facts that led life-long atheist, indeed academic champion of atheism in the previous generation, Antony Flew, a thinker more powerful by several orders of magnitude than Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens or any of these other popular atheist writers of our time, to change his mind and now argue that the world as we know it cannot be explained without assuming that an “infinite intelligence” brought it into being.

In the Psalms the oceans and the forests and the mountains know that the living God made them. But these highly educated professional men know less, much less than the inanimate creation knows.

One commentator on our passage writes this:

“As an Old Testament scholar, I regularly meet and listen to men and women whose knowledge of the Bible and the Hebrew language is far in excess of anything I could ever attain. In academic terms they are racehorses, while I am merely a plodding donkey. When I hear their lectures and read their books, I learn many true and insightful things about the Bible; yet when it comes to [its true meaning] they are utterly blind. They cannot see on the pages of Scripture the simplest truths about God. Many five-year-olds have more true Biblical insight into the gospel than they do, because spiritual truths are spiritually discerned, and for all their ‘wisdom’ these people do not have the Holy Spirit to open up their stubborn hearts and blind eyes so they can see the truth that is right in front of them…” [Duguid, 279]

That is the point here. Balaam couldn’t see the truth his donkey could see, no matter that he was the famous professional, the expert in his field. He was dumber about what was real than the donkey he was riding. God had to reveal the truth to him or he would never have seen it. And Balak will prove to be the same, a man who lives in a dream world of his own making. Balak wanted what he couldn’t have because God wouldn’t give it to him. He will learn this to his great irritation in the next two chapters.

It should not trouble us, brothers and sisters, that many in this world, including many exalted people, do not know what we know, cannot see what we see, cannot hear what we hear. It has always been so. Such are what Christian theologians call the “noetic effects of sin,” the effects of sin upon the reasoning, the observations, and the recognitions of human beings. Sin blinds a man or woman to all that is truly important. And so it should not concern us when the wise men of this world show little regard for our holy faith.

So far as Israel is concerned – she remains in the background throughout this passage – she is Balak’s enemy. He is making plans to do his worst to her. In that day and time he made plans to employ what we might today call a weapon of mass destruction [Duguid]. He was going to hurt Israel. Provoke her to battle when, unbeknownst to her, she was crippled by a curse. Many of us worry about many things that we feel may harm us. We think about such things. We imagine how events might unfold to our disadvantage and loss. We sometimes can’t sleep at night because we are worried about bad things happening to us or the consequences of things that have already occurred. And here comes this wonderful text to remind us that we have nothing to worry about. If God is for us, who can be against us.

This is going to become still clearer as we read through chapters 23 and 24. Israel was finally just feet away from the Promised Land. Only the Jordan stood between her and the land the Lord had promised her. No doubt there was some worry on the part of many of them. Once again it seemed to them that they were grasshoppers about to take on giants (13:32-33). What they needed was some assurance that the Lord could and would grant them victory. That is what we need as well, every day, if we are to undertake the epic calling that we have been given: the transformation of a human life from sin to holiness, the ministry of God’s grace in the lives of others, a successful pilgrimage through this dark and dangerous world. We need the reminder that God is at our hand and will not fail to bless and keep us as he has promised and give us the victory. In that confidence we can move mountains the Bible says and we all have mountains to move, whether or our own sins, the sins that our children must surmount, the problems we face, or the work that needs to be done through us in the world.

And so here God uses the most unlikely outsider to bless the insiders; to confirm their faith and to strengthen their resolve. He had determined to bless them and no one and nothing could prevent him from doing so. What better proof than that a man hired to curse the people of Israel ended up having to bless them; that a man who came from Mesopotamia to earn a large fee by cursing Israel must at the end of the day forfeit his fee and go back home without even his expenses covered (24:11); and that the king who figured his only hope of dealing with Israel’s larger army was if it had to go into battle already cursed ends up sputtering in anger over a hired professional who keeps spouting about how great Israel is and what a wonderful future she has!

The great burden of this entire episode proves to be that a people that God has chosen to bless cannot be harmed by those who hate them. Man cannot curse what God has blessed, or, if he tries, it will come to nothing. All of us should take this to heart much more often and much more seriously than we do. Charles Spurgeon, whom I mentioned last Lord’s Day evening, once said in a sermon: “anxiety does nothing to rob tomorrow of its sorrows; it only robs today of its strength.” And what is that strength? It is this: the Lord is on his people’s side and will not fail to protect those who trust in him. That is all that you and I ever need to know. And when we worry needlessly, forgetting God’s promise to bless us and keep us, we betray that wonderful knowledge and harm finally only ourselves and disturb only ourselves. Israel had nothing to worry about even if she had been aware of the machinations going on between Balak and Balaam. Once she heard about what happened she knew afresh that if Yahweh is for Israel who are Balak and Balaam to be against her.

This comic episode reduces Israel’s enemies to helpless, rather ridiculous figures who are clueless about what is really going on in the world.