Toorak Uniting Church

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The story of Balaam and his donkey

Numbers 22 – 24
Rev. Alasdair Pratt
9:00am, 11 June 2006

We have heard one of the less well-known stories in the OT, and certainly one of the most peculiar. It is also very entertaining and I imagine/hope the younger people might have found it quite funny. I would, though, be disturbed if some of you didn’t ask ‘What has it got to do with my life today?’ and ‘How is the preacher going to deal with the talking donkey?’

The book of Numbers contains accounts of what happened to the people of Israel between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. During the 40 years of wandering they were not just plodding through endless tracts of desert. They were often passing through territory that belonged to others. They were, therefore, seen as intruders, as indeed they were.

That immediately raises an issue we will recognise; one which was on TV here just last week – namely, the reaction people have to immigrants. As the Moabite said, ‘This horde will soon destroy everything round us, like a bull eating the grass in a pasture.’ So, accusations against people from other countries easily emerge – ‘they’ll take our jobs; jump housing queues; ruin our way of life.’

However, though these fears are acknowledged, in Numbers Israel was blessed – which is why this strange story is included. The writer was interpreting history as God being on Israel’s side. They were a chosen people.

This may well raise difficult issues for us – not just about whether any race can be God’s ‘chosen’, but particularly when there seems to be a blatant injustice.

But, while all this may be true, if I were sitting where you are sitting I’d want to know what the preacher will say about the talking donkey!

To get there, we first need to know the context of the story. people of Israel had reached the plains outside the Kingdom of Moab. (One gold shekel for anyone who can indicate on a map where Moab was to be found!) The King of Moab, Balak, not surprisingly saw them as a threat to the security and well-being of his nation. He therefore sent messengers to a man called Balaam who was known for the efficacy of his blessings, but especially of his curses. Balak hoped that curses would weaken Israel so that she could be repelled.

The first delegation did not get very far. They were received hospitably enough, but Balaam said he needed guidance from God. The next morning he reported that God had given the thumbs-down. He was not to go to Moab. A more high-powered group was sent, increasing the financial inducements, which were also very nobly declined. However, this time God said Balaam could travel, but he had to wait for the divine message. When Balaam finally reached Balak, the king asked why he’d not come the first time, had the money not been enough? Balaam curtly replied, ‘I came, didn’t I?’

Then he gave three prophecies. Each time he refused to condemn or curse Israel. The third time he actually blessed her. Balak went into a right strop and refused to pay what he had promised. Balaam said he could not disobey God, and as he left he helpfully uttered a word of destruction on Moab.

Now I know this raises difficult issues of interpretation, but just let’s stay with the power of a blessing or a curse for a moment. There’s always a blessing given during a service of worship. For me, it is always a key moment in a service. A blessing is important, be it on an individual or a group. But what about a curse? Have we ever been cursed by someone? I imagine it could be very unnerving, and – of course – in some ‘primitive’ cultures a curse on ‘an evil eye’ is a death sentence.

Well, though this may be very interesting, you are probably getting impatient. You want to know about the talking donkey!

We have to see that incident as part of the whole narrative and what the writer is wanting to tell us. This is about peoples’ ability to recognise God’s will and to accept it. Both Balak and Balaam had something to learn - and neither of them liked the lesson. So, the Word of God for you and me may not be what we want to hear. After all, when we come to church it is not to have our prejudices challenged. We look for our ideas to be confirmed. It’s other people who need to change! So, I wonder if we ever ask ourselves ‘Is it possible I’m wrong and others are right?’

Balak, understandably, did not wish to know that God had different ideas to himself. Of course, it suited Israel to know God was blessing her in her travels, but there are two things about the blessing. First of all, though Balaam was not a Jew God used him. This had far-reaching implications. Israel was being taught that God’s work could be done by people outside her own nation. This, of course, was to be repeated at other times in her history. Also, even at this very early stage of her existence, the idea was there that she too had to be a blessing to others.

But you don’t want to hear about that. You want to know about the talking donkey!

Well, first of all, the bit about the donkey doesn’t fit properly with the rest of the story. In chap. 22:20 God says ‘Go’, while two verses later we are told that God was angry because Balaam was going. That clearly suggests another, earlier, source, and in that one Balaam doesn’t come out so well.

It is obviously a fable – and there are many fables, some of them in the Bible – in which animals talk. That’s fine. This is a super little story that has been described as ‘a masterpiece of ancient narrative art’. (For a different view of it look at the illustrations in the Good News version.)

By tradition, of course, donkeys are notoriously stubborn beasts. Here, though, it represents an unprejudiced animal. It sees things to which, in their wilfulness, people are blind. Here, even a prophet can be obtuse, but God used the donkey to teach Balaam a lesson. He discovered that his donkey saw things he couldn’t and didn’t deserve a beating. Neither do people with insight, though they often get one.

The story says angels are visible to those with eyes to see. Sometimes it is not the leaders or the consecrated who see things clearly. It may not be the learned or the wealthy or the influential or the recognised leaders. It can be the unfashionable, the overlooked, a child. So, can we believe others see truths that we can’t?

Have you ever seen an angel? I know one phoned me up one day. I was in a quandary about my future and someone gave me a call that cleared my mind. He was an angel to me because the word also means messenger. Sometimes there is an obstacle in our path which we ignore or cannot see, but it is telling us something we should know.

Of course we always hope God will say what we want to hear. Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel. Instead, Israel was blessed.

The main lesson in this story is that God can use what Paul said the world regarded as foolish, unimportant, even weak. The messenger may be unlikely.

The question is, whoever the messenger is, will we hear the message?

© Rev. Alasdair Pratt, 2006

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