Balaam’s Ass – part two

Today is part two of our look at the story of Balaam’s ass – read yesterday’s post first, as we’re drawing lessons from the three stories today.

Explaining the satire

As I said yesterday, these three stories interpret each other. The comedic interlude of the talking donkey – it’s there to explain the next scene. It’s a satire – to provide commentary in advance on what’s about to take place between Balak and Balaam. Have a look at the parallels between the two stories:

  • In both stories, there’s a superior character and an inferior character. In the first story, the superior is Balaam, and the inferior is the donkey. In the second story, king Balak is the superior, and Balaam becomes the inferior character. In some respects, he’s turned into his own ass.
  • In both stories, it’s the superior character who doesn’t see the whole picture; who doesn’t get it. Balaam can’t understand why his donkey won’t go where he tells her. Why? Because he can’t see the angel blocking the way. Similarly, Balak can’t understand why Balaam won’t do what he wants him to do. Why? Because he can’t see that God is blocking him. Balak doesn’t realise that a prophet of God can only do and say what God tells him to do and say. Although pagan sorcerers claimed to exert some kind of control over their gods, that’s not how it is with the one true God. No-one can control him.
  • In both stories, the fact that the superior character doesn’t ‘get it’ makes them get increasingly frustrated; frustrated that the inferior character won’t obey them. The donkey won’t move. Balaam won’t utter a curse.
  • And in both stories, there’s a twist that reverses the status of the characters:

In the first story, God has enabled the donkey to see. By contrast, Balaam – the prophet, the one whose job is to ‘see’ – he can’t see what’s going on! Only at the end does God allow him to see what his donkey’s been seeing all along. Further, God enables the donkey to speak. And Balaam – the professional speaker, the one who claims to speak for God – is lost for words. He loses the argument. With his donkey.

In the second story, near the end, God opens Balaam’s eyes to see things the way God sees them. Instead of trying to find God’s will through omens & sorcery like the first two times, the Spirit of God comes upon him. This is the usual way God communicates with an OT prophet. And the Spirit of God enables Balaam to ‘see’ God’s will. And God’s will is to bless his special people Israel. Balak, the superior, still can’t see. He’s left fuming in anger, but powerless against Balaam. Powerless against God. A pathetic, almost comic figure, enraged at his own impotence. Like he’s just lost an argument… with a donkey.

Do you see how the two stories explain each other? How the comical scene of a talking donkey actually makes some very serious points – points about God’s sovereignty?

You can’t control God; nor can you oppose his will.

Firstly, it tells us that you can’t control God. You can’t oppose his will, no matter how hard you try. Balaam found that out when he tried to beat his donkey into moving forward, but ended up losing the argument. Balak found it out when he tried to persuade Balaam to curse Israel, and discovered that even a prophet of God is powerless to oppose God. For all Balaam’s supposed power as a prophet, he’s completely dependent on God to do anything.

23:8 “How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?”
23:12 “Must I not speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?”

Even Balaam, amidst all his sorcery and half-hearted obedience and weakness to temptation – even Balaam ultimately point us in some small way to a greater prophet. He points to one who doesn’t try to use his power for his own gain, but submits himself to the Father’s will. One who perfectly aligns himself with the Father in will and purpose. As Jesus says in John’s gospel:

John 5:30 “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”
John 6:38 “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”

In this way, Jesus should be a model for us. But how often do we try to control God? How often do we use prayer as a Christianised form of sorcery – say the magic words, and we get what we want? Rub the lamp and out comes God, the genie who is bound to grant us our wishes? (Remember James 5 earlier this week.)

By contrast, the Bible’s view of prayer is more about aligning ourselves with the will of God. It’s about your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s about us being given our daily bread – our needs being met – as we seek to do the work of the kingdom. And it’s more about God helping us see the world from his point of view, rather than us persuading God of ours. Beware of trying to control God through prayer. It’s futile.

God can use anyone and anything to achieve his will.

Secondly, these stories tell us that God can use anyone and anything to achieve his will. He can use a humble donkey, and make it speak. He can use a flaky, non-Israelite prophet with suspect allegiances and occult practices, and speak through him. More than that, he can enable him to see the world through God’s eyes. And he can use him to bless others. If God can use a donkey, he can use anyone. He’s not limited by the abilities of his messengers.

Even in the birth of Jesus, God goes to great lengths to remind us of this fact. Conceived by an unwed teenage mother. Hometown Nazareth – the Adelaide of ancient Israel. (UK: Blackpool? US: North Dakota? Help me out here with suggestions…) Born in a shed out the back, in an animal feeding trough, with yet more donkeys hanging around. An unlikely Messiah.

Similarly, the earliest church was run by ordinary people: Galilean fishermen; a former tax-collector. The equivalent of donkeys, really – who were given the supernatural ability to speak God’s words. In every language, with great power and eloquence – and the ability to see the new thing that God was doing, while the religious establishment was completely blind to what was going on.

If God’s in the business of using donkeys – and giving them supernatural power to carry out his will – don’t you think he can use you and me?

God’s will is to bless his people.

Thirdly, we see that God’s will is to bless his chosen people. This is where the story of Balaam’s talking donkey fits into the bigger story of Israel. The story of God blessing his people – giving them the land he promised; making them numerous; protecting them from harm. Blessing them in order for them to be a blessing to all.

But Balak was an obstacle to their very survival. And he stood in the way of their entering the land. So in this story we see God overcoming those who are opposed to his will. He blesses his people in spite of the opposition; in the face of danger. As Balaam prophesies:

23:21-22 “No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel. The LORD their God is with them; the shout of the King is among them. 22 God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox. 23 There is no divination against Jacob, no evil omens against Israel. It will now be said of Jacob and of Israel, ‘See what God has done!’

Again, we see this in the life of Jesus. The one who was blessed by God in order that he might be a blessing to all. The one who was protected by God from those who opposed him – from Herod, who wanted to kill him. But God brought the infant Jesus out of danger, ‘out of Egypt’, because God was with him.

And God is with us, too. As Paul says in Romans 8:

8:31b If God is for us, who can be against us?

God’s will is to bless us. To protect us from harm – that’s what the cross was all about. To bring us ‘out of Egypt’. Out of slavery to sin, and out from under the sentence of death. To defeat the forces of darkness which oppose us, and to bring us into his presence for all eternity. And nothing can thwart that will.

A right response is to yield to God’s will.

Which means a right response – the smart response – is to yield to God’s will. No matter what. Even though it may mean forgoing riches & other rewards in this life. Like were offered to Balaam:

24:10-13 Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times. 11 Now leave at once and go home! I said I would reward you handsomely, but the LORD has kept you from being rewarded.” 12 Balaam answered Balak, “Did I not tell the messengers you sent me, 13 ‘Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the LORD—and I must say only what the LORD says’? 

Balaam resisted – just. Reluctantly. Throughout the story we get little glimpses of how tempted he was at each point to give in and curse Israel. In fact, later tradition has that he ended up succumbing. That a little later on, he led Israel into sexual immorality and pagan idolatry. But in this story, he holds on and in the end does the right thing.

In this way, he’s a kind of prototype of the one who resisted the ultimate temptation. Jesus’ temptation in the desert by the devil to take the shortcut to power and wealth, by bowing down to him; by going against the will of the Father. Jesus’ temptation to go along with the crowds who tried to make him into their own kind of king. His temptation to shirk from the cross:

Mt 26:39 “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.

This is the example laid down for us. To resist the temptation for gain in this world, in order to be faithful to God. To yield to his will. And ultimately, to gain something far better!

To think about

What are you being offered to go against God’s will? To align yourself instead with the opposition? Maybe not great riches and power, like Balaam. Maybe just acceptance by your friends. Maybe just an easier time at work, without the hassle of being known as one of those Jesus-people. Maybe it’s more free time rather than doing the will of God, working for his kingdom. Maybe it’s more money to spend on yourself, rather than supporting mission, giving to those in need.

Whatever it is, you know it. You probably don’t need me or anyone else to say it. Certainly not any donkeys. The question is, what will you do? Will you take the short-term gain? Or will you say, along with Balaam, “I must do whatever the LORD says.”

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