Donkey Talk, Numbers 22
Numbers 22 gives the account of the donkey that talked.
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.[i] (Proverbs 4:23)
Animals do not talk. What would it be like if one of your animals talked to you? I do not mean the usual communication that we have every day with our pets. My dog lets me know he wants to go out to go to the bathroom, and my cat lets me know he wants food. What would it be like if one or your animals started reasoning with you?
The story of Balaam fascinates me. Balaam’s donkey talked to him. Balaam apparently had this donkey for quite some time and they were quite familiar with each other. The donkey left the road and Balaam beat him and forced him back onto the road. Then the donkey pushed up against a wall and Balaam’s foot was caught. So again, Balaam beat him and forced him back onto the path. The third time the donkey sat down. This time Balaam was in a rage. However, when he started to beat the donkey, the donkey said, “What have I done to you that deserves your beating me three times?” (Numbers 22:28)
Animals do not talk. Therefore, the story of Balaam’s donkey talking is one of the better-remembered stories in the Bible, on the level of Jonah being swallowed by a big fish.
Historically, this incident takes place at the end of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Numbers 22 and 23 record the events. Numbers 20 tells us of the death of Aaron, Moses’ brother, and Numbers 21 tells us how Israel began defeating the nations on the east side of the Jordan River. Therefore, this story takes place near the end of Moses’ life, and at the beginning of the conquest of Canaan.
The Israelites traveled up the east side of the Jordan River and camped in the Jordan Valley. Here is a picture, taken from Wikipedia, of the Jordan Valley.
They were in the territory of the Moabites. The Moabites were the descendants of Lot, born to him through his daughters. Thus, they were related to Israel because Abraham was Lot’s uncle. However, by the time the Israelites camped in the valley, the then king of Moab, Balak, had forgotten all the family connections. To Balak, the Israelites were a vast horde of people who came out of Egypt. He said, “Look, a vast horde of people has arrived from Egypt. They cover the face of the earth.” (Numbers 22:5-6) As a result, his concern was (and I quote), “This mob will devour everything in sight, like an ox devours grass in the field!” (Numbers 22:4)
Although he made an alliance with the Midianites, Balak did not believe he could challenge Israel’s strength with his military. Balak’s solution was to send for a prophet or diviner with an international reputation. Balak said of Balaam, “I know that blessings fall on any people you bless, and curses fall on people you curse.” (Numbers 22:6) Because he was convinced of Balaam’s power to bless or curse, Balak’s plan was to pay Balaam to curse Israel.
Balak sent men to hire Balaam, but God warned Balaam not to go with these men to curse Israel. God explained that Israel was blessed, and therefore could not be cursed. Balaam sent the officials back. However, his explanation was, “God will not let me go with you.” (Numbers 22:13)
This seems minor on the surface, but let’s look a little deeper. Is Balaam telling the truth? Well, he is not lying, but he is not giving the men the information they should have. God said, “You are not to curse these people, for they have been blessed!” Balak’s message and request made it clear that he wanted these people cursed. A straightforward answer or a complete answer should have made it clear to Balak that God had blessed these people and they could not be cursed. As it was, Balak took the prophet’s refusal as a negotiation. He sent more men who were also more distinguished men to persuade Balaam.
This is how Balaam responded:
Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the LORD my God. But stay here one more night, and I will see if the LORD has anything else to say to me. (Numbers 22:18-19)
Here we see that Balaam is playing a game with these men. He is trying to get more money. God had made it clear that the people were already blessed. Nothing Balaam could do was going to change that, but in a show of “trying” Balaam says he will consult with God overnight.
As a result, God tells Balaam to go ahead and go. God says, “Since these men have come for you, get up and go with them.” (Numbers 22:20) However, God was angry. This is stated plainly in Numbers 22:22. We also see it in the “since” of this statement. If Balaam had been clear, these men would not have wasted their time. As it was, Balaam left the door open when he sent the first men away. He also makes money an issue when he says, “Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the LORD my God.” (Numbers 22:18) Why did he not say something like, “I am sorry you wasted your time? I apologize. I was not clear the first time. God says these people are blessed. Therefore, there is nothing I can do to help you.”
Let’s look at how the Apostle Peter understood Balaam’s motivation. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter says, [Balaam] . . . “loved to earn money by doing wrong. But Balaam was stopped from his mad course when his donkey rebuked him with a human voice. (2 Peter 2:15-16)
God used the voice of a donkey to get the attention of this man, Balaam.
However, in spite of even this extreme, Balaam still helped Balak. Oh, he did not curse Israel, but he told Balak how to entice Israel to sin against God with sex and idols. (Numbers 25)
Balaam shows up a couple of times in the New Testament. In 2 Peter and in Jude, he shows up in connection with false teachers. In Jude, it is especially significant that he name is listed with Cain and Korah as comparable. Cain killed his brother over sacrifices and Korah led a rebellion against Moses.
The story of Balaam is given to us as a warning.
We must guard our hearts. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.”
Jesus taught us that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and strength.
Let’s quickly consider the lessons we learn from Balaam.
First, God’s will is clear.
For Balaam, this meant God stated clearly that Israel was blessed. For us, it means that God tells us clearly what He wants. The Ten Commandments are clear as to how we are to treat God and others. However, God makes it clear that the only way to please Him is to believe in Him. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. God has given us the Bible, His Holy Spirit and His people to help make it all clear to us. If this is not enough, what can be known about God is clear from what He has made. So that, humanity is without excuse. You and I have no excuse for mixing up the truth. The only way to please God is by believing in Him.
In spite of this clear communication, there seems to be massive amounts of confusion about this.
This is because the enticement of sin is powerful. For Balaam, we are told, “He loved to earn money by doing wrong.” The king offered to give Balaam anything he wanted. For us, the temptation is the same. The world offers to give us exactly what we want. 1 John lists the desires we have as, 1) the lust of the eyes, 2) the lust of the flesh, 3) the boastful pride of life. The world appeals to these desires that are born into us. And, in this lies the powerful enticement of sin. The heart is the issue. What do we want? It is our desires that put us into conflict with God. False teachings do not arise from misunderstanding the Biblical text. According to 2 Peter and Jude, they arise from evil desires, self-centered desires.
In all the confusion created by this powerful enticement, what does God do to get our attention?
God can reach us.
With Balaam, God used a donkey.
If one of my animals talked to me, it would scare me. It would scare me really bad.
God has never resorted to using animals to talk to me. He speaks to me from the Bible. He speaks to me in dreams. He speaks to me through my wife and children. He speaks to me through His people and His preachers.
God speaks to the world through creation, through the Bible and through His Church. He does not normally use donkeys, even though He can. During the tribulation, God will speak to the world with the megaphone of suffering and judgment.
How does God speak to you? Are you fighting God on something right now? Maybe this talk has been a donkey talk to you. I mean by that, perhaps God is trying to get your attention. God has been clear and you are confusing the issue because of your desires?
All of us must guard our hearts. An easy question to ask is, “Do you have peace in you heart?”
[i] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.