An Unlikely Prophet

An Unlikely Prophet

Balaam (1) 7

As I was preparing to publish the Balaam stories on this site, I re-read Numbers 22 to 24 and I found myself with more questions than answers. I knew I needed to go deeper into the background.  

Balaam was the only non Jewish prophet of whom so much is written in the Old Testament. He was the prophet whom Balak king of Moab tried to hire to curse the Children of Israel when they arrived at the plain of Moab after 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness. 

The kings of Moab and Midian took fright when they saw this vast sea of people settling at the borders of their kingdoms. Despite the fact that the Israelites had no intention of attacking Moab or Midian (all three tribes had a common ancestor, the Moabites were the descendants of Abraham's nephew Lot and his daughters, and the Midianites were the descendants of Abraham by his second wife Ketura) they still posed a considerable economic threat to Moab.

At the time of the exodus from Egypt, there were 603,550 Israelite men over 20, not counting their wives and all their children. 40 years later, after the death of that generation, there were another 601,730 men who would cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, again not counting their wives and children. It is quite conceivable that there could have been a total of 2 ½ million people camping there, maybe more. Not surprisingly, Balak must have felt that a plague of locusts was about to descend on his country, ready to devour every growing thing in the land.

He decided he needed help, and as Balaam's reputation as a 'seer' or diviner was known to the king, he sent him a message saying: “Come and curse these people for me, as I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed... ” Without a doubt Balak figured Balaam would be a good man to have 'on side' when faced with the nation of Israel squatting on his doorstep. The Israelites had already defeated a string of small city states in battle, and he was afraid they would defeat him too if he tried to drive them off the land.

Amazingly, despite the offer of great honours, Balaam refused to curse Israel. In fact he sent the first group of the king's messengers away because God told him not to go with them. Good for him, you might say, but still the story isn't that straightforward. When the king sent a second larger and more important group of envoys to Balaam, once again he refused to accept a bribe to curse Israel. That night, however, God spoke to Balaam again. This time the prophet was told to go with the king's envoys, as long as he only spoke the words that God would give him. So Balaam set off to meet King Balak.

So far so good, or is it ? May be like me, you’ve had a niggling question about why God said “No” the first time and then “Yes” the second. However, let's press on for the moment, even though that thought leaves a question mark hanging in the air, just as the sword of the Angel of the Lord was hanging over Balaam's head on three separate occasions as he journeyed to meet King Balak. A sword that would surely have killed him but for the extraordinary intervention of his long suffering donkey.

Three times the Angel of the Lord blocked the road to stop Balaam advancing on the road and three times the donkey refused to go forward. Each time Balaam beat her without mercy. Finally the donkey spoke in a human voice protesting about this ill treatment. Then, at last, Balaam's eyes were opened and he saw the angel who stood there blocking the way, poised and ready to slay him with his raised sword. The angel rebuked the prophet sternly, and Balaam fell on his face before him in the dust, and admitted his sin.

After that, the angel allowed Balaam to continue on his way. No doubt he was in a state of fear and trembling after such a close encounter with death. He'd have been even more conscious of the need to speak only the words that God would give him.

When Balaam finally met up with Balak on the mountains overlooking the plain of Moab, he asked the king to prepare a series of sacrifices and burnt offerings. Then he went aside to seek God. When he returned to the king it was not to curse Israel, but to speak out a powerful blessing over God's chosen people. The king was furious with him, and again he ordered Balaam to curse Israel. The same scenario was played out, with the offering of sacrifices, followed by Balaam going apart to hear from God, then returning to bless Israel, once again to the fury of the king. This was repeated until Balaam had blessed Israel four times in total. As he gave the fourth and final blessing, Balaam received a powerful anointing from God, that also enabled him to prophesy the coming of King David, and the destruction of Israel's enemies.

It's a strange story which, as I have already said, raises a lot of questions. I shall try to address some of them.

Firstly, who exactly was Balaam? Where did he spring from? All we know from the Bible text is that he was the son of a man called Beor, and he was probably from a semitic tribe, but definitely not an Israelite. According to the Biblical account he lived in the mountains in north eastern Syria, at Aram. However, rare non-Biblical texts were discovered in 1967, which authenticated the existence of a prophet called Balaam. According to these texts he lived somewhere between the Jabbock and Jordan rivers, at Adam. The two place names differ in one letter, which could be due to an error in recopying ancient scrolls. Whether he was from Aram or Adam, he appears to have been a well known soothsayer who was particularly famous for his curses.

Did Balaam have a spirit of divination ? Certainly his methods were questionable, as we're told he used sorcery, and the interpretation of dreams and omens to give his oracles or prophesies. When he spoke of “the Lord my God” he was probably referring to one of the Baals, or regional gods.

So why would Yahweh, the great I AM, the Almighty and HOLY God of Israel speak to a sorcerer ? Doesn't that seem like a contradiction in terms ? After all, just a short while later in Deuteronomy 18:9-14 God would make it very clear that sorcerers and those who practice divination were (and still are) an abomination in His sight.

We need to remember that God is sovereign over all His creation, even over a pagan soothsayer, and that in this instance He divinely chose to use Balaam to thwart Balak's attempts to curse the Children of Israel.

Balaam was already aware of the reality of the supernatural, and would have doubtless had a healthy respect for the spirit powers he contacted in his rites. He genuinely sought to hear the word of his god Baal. Time after time he took himself off to a quiet place and waited for his god to speak to him, even though he started by using the only means he knew, which were frankly occult. However, when he found himself in the presence of the Lord Almighty he realised he didn't need to use his old methods of divination, he developed a true fear of the Lord as he realised all he had to do was wait and listen, then simply say exactly what God showed him.

Sadly this is more than can be said of some Christians today.

We often ask God to speak to us, and He does. Not only through His Word but also by the Holy Spirit speaking in our hearts. He nudges us, prompts us and sometimes speaks very distinctly, BUT are we always as obedient as Balaam was ? If we are truly honest, we have to admit that at times we are not. We don't always do what God has asked us to do, and we sometimes do what he's specifically told us not to do.

There's another issue that the story of Balaam highlights, and I know God is speaking to me personally here. If God gives us something to say, do we always say only exactly and only what God instructs us to say? Do we not sometimes embellish it with a little personal flourish here, an extra illustration there, that surprisingly, God hasn't thought of; do we soften what God wants us to say, for fear of offending someone; or do we sometimes add a subtle dig because we think there's something else that the person really needs to hear that maybe God had forgotten ? It's so tempting, but what God requires of us is simply our obedience.

We can be so pig-headed that it sometimes takes an extraordinary event to make us come to our senses. Imagine the humiliation of a donkey having more discernment than you do! Maybe that doesn't require much imagination, but actually speaking to you? When his donkey spoke in a human voice protesting about his ill treatment of her, Balaam's eyes were opened and he saw the Angel for himself. Not only that, he heard the angel say to him : “I have come to stand against you because your way is perverse before me.”

Many take these Old Testament appearances of the 'Angel of the Lord' to be 'Christophanies', meaning that it was Jesus Christ himself who was present. This is sobering stuff. Are we willing to take it on board ? Do we really want to find ourselves into situations where Jesus needs to stand before us and rebuke us?

If we have failed to be obedient to either something God asked us to do, or perhaps not do, this can stand in the way of us both hearing from God and advancing in His plans and purposes. If we realise that this is the case, then we too need to repent, even as Balaam did, that we might receive God's pardon and grace and then be free to move forward.

I believe that it was precisely the strange way that God first said “Yes” and then “No” to Balaam, followed by the prophet's narrow escape from death at the hands of the Angel, that made him realise the importance of total obedience. His encounter with the Angel fits perfectly with the warning that the apostle Paul gives in Romans 13:4 “But if you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil.”

As a result, when he finally met Balak, Balaam made it very clear to the king that he could not curse whom God has not cursed, he had to heed to speak only what God put in his mouth. If he received a command to bless, he could not reverse it. He knew that the person who blessed Israel would be blessed, and that he who cursed Israel would himself be cursed.

This too is a serious matter. We live in days when Israel is cursed on every side, and many Christians acquiesce in this. God has called us not to curse Israel but to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. This command still holds and as Christians we need to take it very seriously

In the end Balaam blessed the Children of Israel in four separate prophesies, and in doing so, he himself received a blessing. It was not the tainted money offered by King Balak, which he refused, It was something even more precious.

In Numbers 24: 1-4 we read: 'When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. And the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said,

   “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor,

    the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,

    the oracle of him who hears the words of God,

    who sees the vision of the Almighty,

    falling down with his eyes uncovered...”

Here we seem to see a man whose eyes were finally opened. The Spirit of the Living God had come upon him, he'd heard the word of the Lord Almighty and he uttered the fourth and most powerful blessing of all on God's chosen people whose encampment was spread out on the floor of the valley below him.   

Standing at the crossroads of his life, Balaam encountered Jesus. This was one of a significant number of 'Christophany' events, when Jesus appeared in the Old Testament as the Angel of the Lord. Did that experience turn Balaam's life around ? It certainly ensured that this 'cursing' prophet became a 'blessing' prophet at least for one crucial day of his life. After he had finished blessing Israel, however, we are told that he left and returned to 'his place'. Sadly the evidence seems to be that he went back to his soothsaying and his divination as the local shaman, or priest of the Baals.

This also explains why Balaam gets such a bad rap from several New Testament writers, despite this one remarkable episode in which he did and said all that the Lord told him to do. Maybe this story is like the snapshot that catches the momentary appearance of a meteor, and before and after this one brief and bright moment there is only a long, deep darkness. So we must assume that for the most part, he lived as described in 2 Peter 2:15 where we're told that he loved the wages of unrighteousness, or in Jude 11, which speaks of ungodly men who ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward.

Then there's another question... How come it's Balaam who gets the blame for what happened next, and what exactly did happen next ?

In Numbers 25 we read yet another depressing account of Israel's disobedience and harlotry, as the Israelite men began to sleep with Moabite and Midianite women and to adopt the pagan customs of these tribes. How desperately sad to see this fall from grace, a fall that followed on immediately from the tremendous blessings uttered by Balaam.

Isn't that typical of Christians too? The greatest bless-ups are often followed by the greatest mess-ups, often with heavy consequences. It's as though we get so full of ourselves we forget how dependent we need to be on God and God alone.

In this case, Israel's disobedience involved sharing in pagan sacrificial feasts and bowing down to the gods of the Moabites. Was Balaam involved in these pagan feasts ? Most probably, as a local shaman. This also explains the chilling reference to him in Revelations 2:14. God speaks to the Church at Pergamos whose walk was compromised because some of them held to “the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.”

Whatever Balaam's involvement, the general debauchery led to a plague in which 24,000 people died. It was only stopped when Phineas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, had the courage to say enough is enough. He was so zealous for the Lord that he put to death two of the principle offenders: Zimri who was an Israelite and Cozbi, the Midianite woman with whom Zimri had been sleeping, and whom he'd brought right up to the door of the Tabernacle of meeting to show her off to his friends and family.

In today's culture we may think this is a terribly barbaric form of justice, but it serves to remind us that our own faith walk is seriously compromised when we adopt the pagan practices around us. The Children of Israel had been told to keep themselves separate and to be holy to God. As Christians we are called to do the same. Just as the Israelites slipped into spiritual adultery time and again, we too can fall into the same sin. Despite a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, despite having been called to be holy and set apart for God.

We need to remember that God hasn't changed his mind about such things as astrology, divination, mediums, spiritism and various forms of psychic healing. These are just a few of the New Age practices that now surround us on every side. Yet we see more and more Christians using these occult based therapies and so-called 'spiritual' disciplines. Wake up people, this is spiritual adultery. We need to remember that God has declared that judgement begins with the Church. We need to fear the Lord. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

As I read on through Numbers 25, I was curious to note the name of the place where this debauchery occurred: Acacia Grove. It struck me so forcefully because that's a name that's so very ordinary for us Brits. It speaks of a nice little suburban road on the edge of nearly every town or village in the land.

I flicked on through my New King James Bible, and as I did so my eye was caught by another reference to Balaam and Balak. I paused to read it. It was Micah 6:5.

O My people, remember now

What Balak king of Moab counselled,

And what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,

From Acacia Grove to Gilgal,

That you may know the righteousness of the Lord.”

Once again we find ourselves in Acacia Grove, being exhorted to only say and do that which God shows us, that we might too know the righteousness of the Lord.

Let's take some time out to consider where we stand. Whether we live in a nice little house at No 34 Acacia Grove or in the more exotic Biblical setting of Gilgal, could we too have been seduced into the very same sins of spiritual adultery that kept ensnaring the Israelites ?

If we have, in any way, let's make sure we don't try to shift the responsibility for our own sin onto someone else, onto another Balaam, for example. Even though Balaam might have gone back to being a shaman who worshipped the Baals of Moab and Midian, can we blame him for all the sins that the Israelites committed? We must take the responsibility for our own sins, and when we sin God requires our repentance, not our excuses. God's word tells us that obedience is better than sacrifice, certainly better than any sacrifice that we could make to atone for our sins.

Nothing compares, however, to the sacrifice that Jesus has already made for us. The power of the cross has not diminished one iota in the last 2000 years. We need God's gift of pardon on a daily basis, even after we've accepted his once for all gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. We need to keep coming back to the cross, to stay hidden in Him, daily filled with the glorious, unmerited gift of His indwelling Holy Spirit. This and this alone is what enables us to know the righteousness of the Lord and this alone enables us to live in all the blessings that God has prepared for us.

Ultimately it is God and God alone who blesses, and He alone who curses. Not Balaam, not Balak, not us, but God. We have a choice though, the choice that was offered to Abram in Deuteronomy 30:19 :

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!”

A final sobering note on Balaam's fate... He died of course, but not peacefully. He was slaughtered in a battle between the Israelites and the Midianites, a vengeance which God commanded because of the way he had led the Children of Israel into the sins of idolatry and spiritual adultery.

Sarah Cunnington