From Numbers 21-22
Balak king of Moab is deeply afraid of Israel. He needs all the help he can get in defeating them. So he sends for Balaam in the hope he will curse Israel. On the way the LORD is angered at Balaam and resolves to kill him. Only Balaams donkey knows what’s going on and manages to save Balaam’s life. Balaam not knowing what is going on strikes the donkey. The donkey asks why Balaam hit her. Balaam has a conversation with his donkey. In the gospel Jesus didn’t speak with his donkey. The donkey led him straight into Jerusalem where he would die on a cross.
This post is part of my bible in a year series.
Passage and Comments
Chapters 22 to 24 of Numbers consider God’s chosen people Israel from the viewpoint of another king named Balak who rules over Moab. Balak fears Israel because of their strength and recent victory against the Amorites. He knows of a spiritual man named Balaam. Balaam seems to be an unusual oddity because the LORD speaks to him and yet he is not part of Israel. Balak knows whoever Balaam curses is cursed. So he he sends for Balaam. The LORD initially tells Balaam not to go. But Balak sends more men, this time the LORD allows Balaam to go to Balak on the condition he says what he wants his to. So Balaam heads to meet Balak.
22 But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. (Num 22:22)
Were not really told why the LORD is now angered at Balaam leaving to go to Balak. However the reference to gold and silver in Num 22.18 suggest he may have went in the hope of receiving a reward for speaking against Israel. He was greedy (cf. 2 Pet 2.15).
22b Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. (Num 22:22–23)
Balaam’s donkey is quite intelligent and is the hero of the story.
It sees the angel with sword drawn and recognises it as a threat. Balaam is riding it along a road towards Balak and that’s where the angel is waiting. So the donkey heads away from the angel into the field. Balaam not recognising the threat ahead or intention of the donkey strikes the donkey for the first time. He tries unsuccessfully to direct it back onto the road and the angelic threat.
The angel moves to challenge them again.
24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25 And when the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he struck her again. (Num 22:24-25)
Now in the field they are in a vineyard. The path is quite narrow with the angel standing in the way. So the donkey seeing the threat tries to stop them pushing Balaam’s foot against the wall so they can evade the angel. Again Balaam doesn’t understand and strikes the well intentioned animal a second time.
The angel moves to challenge them again. This time there will be no escape.
26 Then the angel of the LORD went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. (Num 22:26-27)
The donkey seeing the threat and that there was no way she could go to avoid it laid down and stopped. This time Balaam is angered and strikes the donkey a third time. Wack! Probably much harder than before.
The LORD miraculously grants the donkey the ability to speak.
28 Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
29 And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.”
30 And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your lifelong to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?”
And he said, “No.” (Num 22:28-30)
Perhaps Balaam has had conversations with talking donkeys before. He doesn’t question his sanity when the donkey speaks to him.
Remember Balaam intended they travel by the road. The donkey led him through the fields instead and though the vineyard. If someone saw they this would think his choice of direction foolish.
The donkey asks him why he hit her. Balaam (humbled by being directed by a donkey) threatens her wishing he had a sword to kill her.
31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face.
32 And the angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” (Num 22:31-33)
Balaam’s eyes are opened and he now sees the angelic threat. He bows down in fear.
The angel knows the donkey has been trying to avoid him for Balaam’s sake.
He asks Balaam why he hit him three times and explains he was sent to oppose him because ‘his was was perverse before him’. Balaam would have been dead if it not for the good donkey.
34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.”
35 And the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak. (Num 22:34-35)
Balaam recognises he has sinned by repeatedly hitting the donkey who was trying to save him.
The LORD instructed Balaam to go in the first place (Num 22.20). But now with all that has happened, Balaam questions his course of action and resolves to turn back. The angel reaffirms the word of the LORD to him urging him to go on the provision he speaks only his word.
What is the point of the whole incident?
The LORD wants to make it clear to us that Balaam is only allowed to go if he speaks the word the LORD gives him and nothing else.
36 When Balak heard that Balaam had come, he went out to meet him at the city of Moab, on the border formed by the Arnon, at the extremity of the border.
37 And Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me? Am I not able to honor you?”
38 Balaam said to Balak, “Behold, I have come to you! Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak.”
39 Then Balaam went with Balak, and they came to Kiriath-huzoth. 40 And Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep, and sent for Balaam and for the princes who were with him.
41 And in the morning Balak took Balaam and brought him up to Bamoth-baal, and from there he saw a fraction of the people. (Num 22:36–41)
Balak’s introduction suggests that he did intend to reward (‘honour you’) Balaam for cursing Israel and this was Balaam’s motivation for coming.
The repeated point from God and the angel of the LORD is by now very clear to Balaam. He says ‘The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak’.
The two look down from a great height upon a fraction of the people of Israel. Will Balaam curse Israel?
Balaam is an unusual character. Normally those who speak the word of the LORD are prophets and they are held in high esteem. Balaam stands apart from these. Yet he is similar in that he must speak the words of the LORD and those only.
The story helps the people of Israel and ourselves to recognise the LORD’s steadfast love over his people. He will not allow them to be cursed by others and defeated. He must remain faithful to his promises.
As I mentioned before the donkey is the hero of the story in Numbers. He saved Balaam’s life. We have a foreign spiritual man urged to curse Israel, but ends up blessing. We have a talking donkey trying to save the life of this man. The story itself does not resonate with much in the gospel.
In the gospel, we do see God’s faithfulness to his promises and his people. We also see a donkey.
21 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
5 “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’ ”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Mt 21.1-11)
The donkey in the gospel does not speak and it does not shy away from its directed course. The donkey did not lead Jesus away from danger. Rather this donkey brought Jesus closer to the cross. Blessing and curse. Cursed is the one who is hung on a tree. Blessing for the ones who believe he is the Christ. His death on the cross has won forgiveness of our sins and new life.
Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2016. All Rights Reserved.