Toward the ancient land of Mesopotamia, by the upper Euphrates valley, lived a prophet named Balaam. This man was known in many areas as one who had such a special gift of prophecy that he could pronounce wonderful blessings and great curses on people – pronouncements that seemed to be amazingly inspired and honored by God in whose name Balaam uttered them.
Balak, the heathen king of Moab, had heard that Balaam had the power, through God, to bless people, and to curse them. Such a power, he thought, might be much greater than that of any wizard or enchanter who worked through spells and magic and strange mixtures.
“If this man Balaam could be hired to pronounce a curse on this upstart nation of Israel,” Balak told his officers, “those trespassing people might be so crippled that we could drive them out or even destroy them. We must try every possible means to keep those Israelites away, and therefore I want Balaam to be brought here” (Num. 22:1-6).
The king immediately sent several of his princes eastward into Midian, where they were joined by Midianite princes. The caravan then moved on northward to the city of Pethor where Balaam lived.
When Balaam was told by these men of high rank why they had come to him, he felt a bit honored but quite uneasy.
“I am a prophet of the Most High God,” he explained to them. “If it pleases my God to inspire me to pronounce curses and blessings, so be it. But I cannot curse whom He would bless.”
“Perhaps you should make certain what you are allowed to do before you give us a final answer,” one of the Moabite officers said. “We haven’t come to ask you to do something without a proper reward.”
The officer clapped his hands, and in came two servants almost staggering under the weight of a metal-strapped box. The lid was lifted, disclosing a huge amount of pieces of silver and gold. Balaam’s eyes widened at sight of this unexpected display of wealth. Nothing more was said, but Balaam knew that his fortune would be his if he would accompany the princes back to Moab and pronounce a curse on Israel. He began to hope that God would allow him to reap those riches. In his heart be began to covet the reward more than righteousness.
“I certainly must consult my God about this matter,” Balaam finally spoke up after an awkward silence. “I should like to talk to you more about it tomorrow if you would be pleased to lodge here overnight in the spacious inn just down the street.”
The Moabite and Midianite officers took this to mean that the sight of such a rich reward had speedily caused Balaam to give in to their wishes, and they departed with satisfaction for the inn which was one of Pethor’s best (vs. 7-8).
That night God spoke to Balaam, asking him the identity of the men who had come to visit him. God already knew, but He wanted to know if Balaam feared Him enough to tell the truth, Balaam told the truth.
“You must not go with these men to curse the Israelites, for they are blessed,” God told him.
Next morning Balaam met with the princes, whose faces fell when they heard what he had to say.
“My God has refused to let me go with you to do what you ask,” Balaam announced. “There is nothing more to be said or done about the matter except for you to return to your countries.”
As Balaam later watched the caravan depart from Pethor, he couldn’t help but regret that a fortune in precious metals was slipping through his fingers. He wasn’t exactly certain that he had been wise in turning down this opportunity to become wealthy overnight, and he hoped Balak would send more messengers and persuade him so forcefully that he would have to go with them.
After the caravan departed, Balaam’s mind often dwelled on that chest of gleaming gold and silver. Balaam felt that if only his fear of God wasn’t so great, he could have become possessor of the chest. Instead of desiring a king’s ransom, Balaam should have gladly rejected riches in order to serve God, as Moses and Paul did (Heb. 11:24-26, Acts 20:33).
A few weeks passed. Then another caravan suddenly showed up at Pethor. It was made up of Moabite and Midianite princes of even higher rank than those who had come before (Num. 22:15). There were more servants and more animals. The people of Pethor were excited and honored to welcome another assemblage of men of high rank, and were proud that a resident of their city was famous enough to attract such a group of officers from other nations. Balaam’s sudden increase in popularity made him even more desirous of the offered wealth.
He was quite impressed with the visitors, especially when some in the caravan turned out to be musicians and dancing girls who performed in the street in front of the prophets’ home. He began to realize that if Balak made him rich, he could afford to have his own private musicians and dancing girls. Balaam’s love of money was leading him into all sorts of evil desires (I Tim. 6:10).
Following the street performance, the head princes met with Balaam to inform him that the king of Moab had been greatly disappointed because his offer had been turned down, but that he was so needful of Balaam’s services that he would give him great rank besides anything he asked if only he would come to Moab and call down a curse on Israel.
This was a severe temptation to Balaam. All that he had to do to be wealthy the rest of his life was to go to Moab and utter a few words against Israel in the name of God. What bothered him was the question of just how long his life would continue if he should go contrary to God’s will. He hoped circumstances would work out so that he could please Balak without directly disobeying God.
“I can’t do anything my God tells me not to do,” Balaam told the princes. “Even if your king were to give me a whole house full of gold and silver, I cannot do any more or less than God allows. However, I must contact my God tonight to see just what His will is. If it pleases you to stay overnight in our city, there is good lodging in the adjoining place down the street. I shall be in touch with you tomorrow to report what I am allowed to do” (Num. 22:16-19).
It was plain to see by the expression of the princes, as they filed out, that they were gravely disappointed in the answer they received.
Balaam wondered later if they would ever return. Then God again spoke to Balaam. “If these men from Moab and Midian come to you in the morning, I won’t stop you from leaving with them,” God said. “If it turns out that you do go with them, remember that I am warning you not to say anything to them except what I tell you to say” (v. 20).
Balaam got up very early next morning to prepare for the possible return of the princes. When a little time dragged on, and no one showed up, it seemed like hours. Balaam was worried. He desperately wanted to go to Moab because of the rich reward that could be his, but he feared to displease God. Finally he reasoned around God’s command by saying to himself, “God said if they come for me I should go with them, and they came for me yesterday.” So he decided to go with the princes without waiting longer for them to come for him. After all, the princes may have given up the idea of hearing from him, and started preparing to return to their native lands. Balaam’s decision was direct disobedience, because he was commanded originally not to go unless the princes came for him that next morning.
“Go quickly to the lodging place of the princes,” Balaam instructed a servant. “If they are yet there, tell them that they need wait no longer for word from me. If they have already gone, overtake them and tell them that I shall join them.”
A little while later the servant returned to report that the caravan was about to leave Pethor, and that the princes were surprised, but looking forward eagerly to Balaam joining them on the trail.
Balaam instructed his servants to prepare a burro for him and provisions for a long journey for three people – himself and two servants (v. 21). A short time later Balaam’s group joined the caravan on its way to Moab and Midian.
Suddenly Balaam’s burro lunged off the trail and into a field, almost throwing its rider. Angered by the animal’s unusual action, Balaam lifted the rod he was carrying, and violently struck the burro on one of its flanks to force it back onto the trail. The animal, however, kept on heading out into the field. Balaam was furious.
His fury would have swiftly melted away if he could have been aware of what had startled the burro. An angel bearing a sharp sword was standing in the road! He had made himself visible only to the burro, which finally, because of Balaam’s angry shouts and gouging heels, started back toward the road. The angel swiftly moved and stationed himself before the donkey between two vineyard walls bordering a pathway leading back to the road (vs. 22-24).
To bypass the angel, the burro lunged to the side, this time painfully jamming her master’s foot and crushing it against the wall. Balaam vengefully struck the burro on the neck with his staff, as the animal staggered fearfully forward. The angel again stationed himself further down the narrowing path. When the burro saw it could not get by the angel, it collapsed with fright and nervousness at being so close to the ominous figure of an angel of God. What little patience Balaam had left came to an abrupt end. He leaped up and brought the staff down on the animal’s back with all his strength.
With God all thing are possible (Mark 10:27). The burro opened her mouth and spoke her thoughts as though with a human voice!
“What harm have I done to you to cause you to strike me so violently these three times?” the animal asked Balaam.
Balaam stepped back, his mouth falling open in astonishment. It was too much for him to believe that this animal had actually spoken, yet he somehow felt obliged to reply.
“ I, I struck you because – because you have made me look ridiculous by tossing me around and shoving me against that wall. Besides, you are delaying me in an important trip,” Balaam nervously but angrily answered. “If this staff of mine were a sword, I would jab it through you” (Num. 22:25-29)!
Balaam started at the burro, wondering if he had been wrong in thinking that she had spoken in the first place. Then the animal’s mouth quivered again, and Balaam was unhappily certain that it was actually the burro that was talking.
“Years ago you chose me as your favorite animal for riding,” the burro said. “I have served you faithfully all this time. Have I ever treated you so badly as you have treated me just now?”
Balaam was still a little stunned because of the human voice that came from the mouth of his burro. “ Uh – no!” he finally managed to mutter” (v. 30).
God gave Balaam the ability to suddenly see the angel. The prophet staggered back, his eyes popping in amazement. In dreams and visions he had heard and seen angels, but this was the first time he had ever seen one while awake. Because of his feeling of guilt, he fell forward to prostrate himself before the powerful being from God.
“What good did it do to beat your donkey?” the angel asked Balaam. “I was standing in your path, and when the animal saw me there, she tried three times to dodge around me. Were it not so, I would have used this sword to kill you, though not your donkey – because of your disobeying God by joining the caravan returning to Moab” (vs. 31-33).
Groveling with his face in the soil, Balaam realized how wrong he had been in coveting the fortune offered him to curse Israel. How unwise he had been in not fearing God enough to refuse to disobey. He realized he should have stayed at home, since the princes did not come for him in the morning after God instructed him.
“I have sinned!” he cried out. “I didn’t know that God would go so far as to send one of His angels to slay me. Please spare me! If you don’t want me to continue, allow me to return to my home!”
“I shall spare you,” the angel told Balaam, “but not to return to your home. Now that you have begun this journey, God wants you to rejoin Balak’s caravan. However, when you arrive in Moab, you are to declare only the things I tell you to speak.”
God was giving Balaam another opportunity to refuse wealth and choose to obey Him. If God had sent him back home, Balaam would not have had another such test of his loyalty. Balaam was greatly relieved not to be punished. He gladly agreed to God’s terms, remembering the wealth of Balak. Accompanied by his two servants, who had excitedly watched and heard his strange experience from only a short distance, he hastily rejoined the caravan of princes headed back toward Moab (vs. 34-35).
After the caravan was well under way, a messenger using the swiftest beast in the caravan was sent ahead to inform king Balak that Balaam was already on the way with the caravan.
When the messenger reached the Moabite capital, the king was satisfied to learn that the prophet was coming. Balak ordered a caravan to be organized to take him to meet Balaam and the princes. The caravan set out at once, and stopped at a town in the northeast corner of Moab – about as close as Balak could get to the caravan coming from Pethor without going into another nation. This town was on the well-used trail to Pethor and the Euphrates river region, and it was there that the two caravans met (v. 36).
“Why didn’t you come to Moab the first time I sent for you?” king Balak asked Balaam a little impatiently. “Didn’t you realize that I am able to give you a high and honorable position in my government, as well as the treasure my men offered you?” Balaam was happy to hear the treasure mentioned again. He had again begun to think more about it and less about the warning God gave through His angel.
“It was difficult for me to leave Pethor when your first caravan arrived,” Balaam replied. “Here I am at last, but I want you to know that I have no power to curse or to bless any nation unless my God gives me that power. I can speak only what I am told to speak” (vs. 37-38). Balaam was careful to speak in such a way that king Balak would not give up, but would keep trying harder to buy his services. He had become greedy for the reward Balak promised (II Peter 2:15-16; Jude 11).
As Balaam hoped, his statement didn’t discourage Balak. The king was convinced that the prophet somehow could manage to bring down his God’s wrath on Israel. He correctly believed that Balaam’s statement perhaps meant that the price would be higher than anything Balak had already offered. Whatever the price, the king was willing to pay and was pleased to take Balaam with him farther into Moab, to the town of Kirjath-buzoth, which means “a city of streets.” Its many fine streets made it a good place for a festive occasion to celebrate Balaam’s arrival.
Because the king and princes of Moab were present, there was a great celebration that night in the town where rugged men who dealt in sheep and cattle often came for business and entertainment. Kirjath-buzoth was something like an ancient Middle East version of an American cattle town of a century ago. Streets were ablaze with torches. Carefree, pleasure-seeking sheepherders and cattle drivers whooped and yelled as they moved in and out of the various establishments of the town.
The festive feeling was further promoted when the king ordered his musicians, entertainers and dancing girls to perform their best and loudest in the streets and market place. Although Balaam realized that this festivity was at least partly in his honor, he was uncomfortable because it was coming from boisterous idol worshippers. He was even less at ease when he noticed a huge fire being built at a street intersection, and was told that the Moabites were about to sacrifice oxen and sheep to their gods, and that generous portions were being brought to him and the Midianite princes with him (v. 40).
“We seek protection from our enemies by pleasing our gods with sacrifices,” Balak explained to Balaam. “If you wish to sacrifice to your God at the same time on this altar, I shall see that you are supplied with any kinds of carcasses you need. Of course I hope that you will at the same time implore your God to join our gods in protecting my nation.”
“I am sorry to disappoint you,” Balaam answered uneasily, “but I can’t join you in this ceremony. My God is a jealous God who has nothing to do with other gods. Tomorrow would be a better time to sacrifice to Him.” Balaam could see he was not like these idol worshippers, but was blind to the fact he had begun to serve silver and gold in place of God, which is idolatry.
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.