Good morning, Friends!
Today’s story is one of the funniest passages in the whole Bible. It’s not one everybody here may be familiar with. When we read it together in our Wednesday night Bible study a few months ago, not one person had ever heard it.
I didn’t choose this story because of the serious point or moral in it. I chose it because it doesn’t hurt to remember that there are a few funny stories in the Bible.
At the point where this story takes place, Israel was on its way from Egypt to the Promised Land. They escaped from slavery. They’d crossed the Red Sea. They’d done the whole Exodus bit. Now they were right on the very border of their new homeland. They were conquering everybody who got in their way. So they arrived in the territory of Moab, which was close to the Dead Sea in what we today we would call Jordan.
The king of Moab was a guy named Balak – Balak son of Zippor, they called him. (That’s part of why I love reading the Old Testament. You get these great weird names!)
Balak, son of Zippor, king of Moab, got up out of bed one morning. He yawned and scratched, pulled up the window shade, and yelled, “Quick, honey, call the exterminator – we’ve got Israelites!”
You see, Balak had heard about these people. He had heard about what they’d done to all the other kingdoms they’d passed through. Now they were spread along the state line across from his kingdom, and there were a lot of them. They looked like an army of locusts. And Balak’s knees started knocking together.That’s where we start the story.
Then the Israelites traveled to the plains of Moab. They camped along the Jordan River across from Jericho.
King Balak saw everything that Israel had done to the Amorites. Balak was the son of Zippor. The Moabites were terrified because there were so many Israelites. In fact, the Moabites were filled with panic because of the Israelites.
The Moabites spoke to the elders of Midian. They said, “This huge mob is going to destroy everything around us. They’ll lick it up as an ox licks up all the grass in the fields.”
Balak, the son of Zippor, was the king of Moab at that time. He sent messengers to get Balaam. Balaam was the son of Beor. Balaam was at the city of Pethor near the Euphrates River. Pethor was in the land where Balaam had been born.
Balak told the messengers to say to Balaam, “A nation has come out of Egypt. They are covering the face of the land. They’ve set up camp next to me. So come and put a curse on these people. They are too powerful for me. Maybe I’ll be able to win the battle over them. Maybe I’ll be able to drive them out of the land. I know that whoever you bless is blessed. And I know that whoever you cursed is cursed.”
The elders of Moab and Midian left. They took with them the money they knew Balaam would ask for. They wanted him to use evil magic to figure things out for them. They came to where Balaam was. And they told him what Balak had said.
“Spend the night here,” Balaam said to them. “I’ll report back to you with the answer the Lord gives me.” So the Moabite officials stayed with him.
God came to Balaam. He asked, “Who are these men with you?”
Balaam said to God, “Balak king of Moab, the son of Zippor, sent me a message. He said, ‘A nation has come out of Egypt. They are covering the whole surface of the land. So come and put a curse on them for me. Maybe I’ll be able to fight them. Maybe I’ll be able to drive them away.”
But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people. I have blessed them.”
The next morning Balaam got up. He said to Balak’s officials, “Go back to your own country. The Lord won’t let me go with you.”
So the Moabite officials returned to Balak. They said, “Balaam wouldn’t come with us.”
Then Balak sent other officials. They were more important than the first ones. And there were more of them.
They came to Balaam. They said, “Balak, the son of Zippor, says, ‘Don’t let anything keep you from coming to me. I’ll make you very rich. I’ll do anything you say. So come and put a curse on those people for me.”
But Balaam gave them his answer. He said, “Balak could give me all the silver and gold in his palace. Even then, I still couldn’t do anything at all that goes beyond what the Lord my God commands. Now spend the night here so that I can find out what else the Lord will tell me.”
That night God came to Balaam. He said, “These men have come to get you. So go with them. But do only what I tell you to do.”
Balaam got up in the morning. He put a saddle on his donkey. Then he went with the Moabite officials.
But God was very angry when Balaam went. So the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey. His two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road. The angel was holding a sword. He was ready for battle.
So the donkey left the road and went into a field. Balaam hit the donkey. He wanted to get it back on the road.Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path. The path went through the vineyards. There were walls on both sides. The donkey saw the angel of the Lord. So it moved close to the wall. It crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he hit the donkey again.
Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead. He stood in a narrow place. There was no room to turn, either right or left. The donkey saw the angel of the Lord. So it lay down under Balaam. That made him angry. He hit the donkey with his walking stick. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth. It said to Balaam, “What have I done to you? Why did you hit me these three times?”
Balaam answered the donkey. He said, “You have made me look foolish! I wish I had a sword in my hand. If I did, I’d kill you right now.”
The donkey said to Balaam, “I’m your own donkey. I’m the one you have always ridden. Haven’t you been riding me to this very day? Have I ever made you look foolish before?”
“No,” he said.
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes. He saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road. He saw that the angel was holding a sword. The angel was ready for battle. So Balaam bowed down. He fell with his face to the ground.
The angel of the Lord spoke to him. He asked him, “Why have you hit your donkey three times? I have come here to oppose you. What you are doing is foolish. The donkey saw me. It turned away from me three times. Suppose it had not turned away. Then I would certainly have killed you by now. But I would have spared the donkey.”
Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned. I didn’t realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Tell me whether you are pleased with me. If you aren’t, I’ll go back.”
The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men. But say only what I tell you to say.” So Balaam went with Balak’s officials.
Balak heard that Balaam was coming. So he went out to meet him. They met at a Moabite town near the Arnon River. The town was on the border of Balak’s territory. Balak said to Balaam, “Didn’t I send messengers to you? I wanted you to come quickly. So why didn’t you come? I can make you very rich.”
“Well, I’ve come to you now,” Balaam replied. “But I can’t say whatever I please. I can only speak the words God puts in my mouth.”
– Numbers 22:1-38
We need a little more background here.
Back in the day, people believed that there were lots of gods around. Not just one, but lots of them. Some gods were stronger than others. Some gods were supposed to take special care of certain places or peoples. Everybody believed that gods could be controlled to a certain extent, by making the right kind of sacrifices or saying the right prayers. That’s what everybody thought.
Even the Israelites bought into this point of view for a while. Their God just happened to be the strongest god around. Their God had just proved it, by taking them out of Egypt and doing a lot of spectacular signs and miracles.
Later on, the Israelites’ understanding grew and changed. They understood that God was not just the most powerful one around. God was the only one.
The commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” came to mean not just, “Be loyal only to me,” but also, “I’m the only God there is. There ain’t nobody else. We are very sorry, all other numbers are not in service at this time. . .”
Do you see how that changes things? God isn’t just the local deity who takes care of the Israelites. God is the God of the whole world. In the same way, we believe that Christ came not just for us, but for the whole world. But that’s later on.
Balak, son of Zippor, king of Moab, he really believed all this stuff. Faced with these invaders, these Israelites, who were spread out along his border like a plague of locusts, Balak did what most of us would do. He called in a specialist.
The specialist was a guy named Balaam. Balaam is the central figure of today’s story. Balaam was a professional diviner, a kind of a magician. He was in the business of telling people (for a fee) whevever the gods had in mind, and also (for a fee) arranging special blessings and curses as directed by the client.
So, here’s Balaam, all saddled up and ready to go, off to do a little consulting job for Balak, son of Zippor, king of Moab.
Now, Balaam had some doubts about whether the customer was going to be satisfied. But he was going to give it a try. The special delivery telegram from Balak read, “Let nothing hinder you from coming to you to me; for I will surely do you great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do; come, curse this people for me.” It looked like easy money.So off Balaam goes to see what he can do.
Now, God had dropped some pretty heavy hints to Balaam, via the dream channel, that cursing Israel was not going to work. Balaam was going to be wasting his time.
God said, “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed. . .”
But off he went, anyway.
So God sent an angel to stand in the road and intercept Balaam. Somehow, Balaam didn’t see the angel. But his donkey did. And the donkey took off. So Balaam made a few undignified remarks, and used his whip, and drove the donkey back onto the road.
Then the angel came and stood in tight place in the road. The angel didn’t say anything. He just kind of stood there, picking his teeth and looking dangerous. And again Balaam didn’t see it, but the donkey did. And the donkey shied away, so that Balaam scraped his foot against the side of the cliff as he tried to get by. Balaam got mad, and he whipped his donkey again.
Then the angel came a third time – in these old Bible stories things always happen three times, just so everybody gets the point. The angel came and stood in a really narrow place, so the donkey couldn’t go ahead and couldn’t back up.
The donkey is probably the smartest character in the whole story. This time, the donkey simply laid right down in the road, and refused to budge.
By now, Balaam was starting to get pretty hot under the collar. He hauled off and he started using curses that he’d been planning to save for the Israelites. He started whaling away at that poor donkey with everything he had.
And the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth. And what came out was not “Hee haw, hee haw!” The donkey said, “How come you’re hitting me?”
Balaam ought to have realized that this was no ordinary roadside breakdown. He really should have figured it out. But he didn’t. He said, “Why am I hitting you? Because you’re making such a fool out of me! If I had my six-gun along, I’d plug you right between the eyes.”
You’d think that Balaam would have stopped to wonder how it was that his donkey was talking to him. You wonder who’s the real jackass in this story.
But then Balaam’s eyes were finally opened, and he saw the angel, and he threw himself face down in the dirt. “You know,” says the angel, “if your donkey hadn’t of noticed me three times today, I’d probably have gone ahead and killed you, and spared the donkey!”
Then comes the nearest thing this story has to making a serious point. “I have sinned,” says Balaam. “I didn’t know you were standing here in the road to oppose me; but now, if you think it is wrong for me to go on, just say the word, and I’ll head on home.”
But the angel says, “No, go on down the road with these men. Go on with these princes of Moab. But only say what I tell you to say!”
Just so you know how it all came out, Balaam showed up at the palace of Balak, son of Zippor, king of Moab. Balak cooked up a big sacrifice. And Balaam brought a message back from God:
From Aram Balak has brought me, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains: ‘Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!’ How can I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?
Then Balaam went on to bless Israel, which wasn’t what King Balak had in mind at all. So Balak fixed up another sacrifice, and tried again. And Balaam said:
“Behold, I received a command to bless; God has blessed, and I cannot revoke it. . .the Lord their God is with them. . .God brings them out of Egypt. . .there is no enchantment against Jacob, there is no divination against Israel; now people will say of Israel, ‘Look what the Lord has done!’
So Balak said to Balaam, “Look, I know you can’t curse the people of Israel. At least, don’t bless them!
And Balaam answered, “Didn’t I tell you, ‘All that the Lord says, that I must do’?”
That’s how it all ends up. Happily, the Israelites didn’t invade Moab after all. They turned aside and entered the Promised Land by a different route, so Balak wasn’t killed, after all.
There are just a couple of other things to say about this story. First, if your donkey ever starts talking to you, listen. That’s a really, really important point.
Second, the real question here is, whether or not people listen, whether or not people see, and whether or not people obey. It’s worth thinking about. And it’s worth asking ourselves how well we score along those lines.
Third, the story suggests that God can’t be manipulated, in the ways that we sometimes think. What’s wrong cannot be blessed. And what is right can’t be derailed.
If God has said that a people who are poor, who are without a home, who are powerless, should be blessed, then that’s the way it’s going to be. And if God wants these people to be welcomed, to be included, to be a part of the family, then that’s what we should do – otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves opposing God.
This is something which is true here in our meeting, in our community, and in our nation. Let’s go home and think about all this.
And if your donkey ever talks to you – listen.