Our story tonight comes from the book of Numbers, which isn’t a book that we read very often. Probably because we assume it is about…well…a bunch of numbers. But the Hebrew Scripture have a different name for this book – “In the Wilderness.” This book is about the Israelites time in the wilderness after escaping Egypt.
Some background is important here to help understand this story of the talking donkey. The Israelites are trying to get to the land of Canaan, the promised land. But they are trying to get there by going through the land of Moab. Balak, who wasn’t in our reading but still plays an important role in the story, is King of Moab. Balak does not want the Israelites to come into Moab, because they are such a large group of people they might be a threat to him and his people. So Balak hires a biblical hitman – Balaam.
Balaam is a “seer”, which means he was known for seeing the future and having supernatural powers. Balak wants Balaam to curse the Israelites so that they will not come into Moab. Another important thing about Balaam is that he is a non-Israelite. The reason this is significant is because the God of Israel, Yahweh, has a relationship with Balaam. In fact, Balaam calls the God of Israel by the name Yahweh, which is the name that the Lord gave to the Israelites. That would be like if Lauren’s nickname for me was “Sweet Honey Lips” and then, one day, all of you start calling me “Sweet Honey Lips”. Lauren might think, “Hey now, why are they calling you by that name?” So Balaam, a non-Israelite, calls the God of Israel by the same name. The God of Israel is in relationship with people outside of Israel!
So Balak wants Balaam to curse Israel. Balak sends his henchmen out to Balaam and offers him money to do this. Balaam says, “Let me sleep on it.” That night, Balaam speaks with the Lord and the Lord says, “You cannot curse the Israelites for they are a blessed people.” The next morning, Balaam gives the men the bad news – he can’t do it. So what does Balak do? He offers more money. Because everything can be bought at a price, right? Balaam says that he needs to sleep on it again. That night, the Lord tells Balaam, “Okay, why don’t you go with them. But do only what I tell you.”
This is where our reading for tonight picks up. Balaam packs up his donkey and heads out with these men. Now, it can be confusing to hear that God’s anger is stirred because Balaam went with these men. Why would God be angry? God just gave him permission to go, as long as he did only what God said. This is confusing, but basically, tonight’s story is a re-iterating the fact that God hates the idea of Balaam going and cursing Israel.
So off Balaam goes with his donkey toward King Balak and Moab, when suddenly an angel of the Lord stands in their way holding a sword. The things is….only the donkey sees the angel of the Lord. Do you catch the irony here? Balaam the “seer” doesn’t see the angel of the Lord – only the donkey does. So the donkey swerves out of the way and into a field; Balaam’s immediate reaction is to hit the donkey. Why aren’t you going in the right direction, he thinks. So the donkey gets back on track, but then a little further up the road, the angel of the Lord blocks their path again, standing their with a sword! Only this time, it is a much narrower path, with a fence on each side. So the donkey tries to squeeze as close to the fence as possible to avoid the angel of the Lord. This causes Balaam’s foot to scrap against the fence and, once again, he hits the donkey for getting off track. Finally, further down the road, the angel of the Lord blocks their path yet again, this time giving no way to get around. At this point, all Balaam’s loyal donkey can do is simply stop and lay down. Unsure of what is going on, Balaam proceeds to hit the donkey again, trying to get it to get up and keep moving.
And then the donkey speaks. Besides the serpent in the garden of Eden, this is the only other animal in the Old Testament to speak. The donkey says to Balaam, “Why have you hit me these three times? What have I done to you?” Balaam spits back, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword I would kill you right now.” Again, do you catch the irony here? Balaam wishes he had a sword, but who is the only one in the story with a sword? The angel of the Lord. Next, the donkey asks Balaam, “Don’t you trust me? Haven’t I been your donkey all your life? Have I ever behaved this way?” To which Balaam can only reply, “No.”
And then Balaam begins to see. The seer sees! He sees the angel of the Lord standing in the middle of the road with a sword and immediately, he is moved to worship the Lord. Then Balaam virtually has the same conversation with the angel of the Lord as he did with his donkey. The angel says that if the donkey had not moved out of its way those three times, the angel of the Lord would have killed Balaam by now! The donkey was saving Balaam’s life by moving out of the way and what does Balaam do? He hits his donkey over and over again.
Balaam then confesses his sin in front of the angel of the Lord and says that if he needs to turn back and not go to King Balak, then he will. Then angel of the Lord repeats what was said earlier by telling Balaam that he can go to King Balak, as long as he does only what God tells him to do.
That is where our story ends, but in the rest of the story, Balaam meets with Balak but instead of cursing Israel, like Balak wants, Balaam ends up blessing them as the Lord instructs him to do so.
In light of this whole story of the talking donkey, I want us to consider two questions. First, what truths do we learn about ourselves in this text? Here are some of my thoughts:
- We learn that, like Balak, we often feel threatened by foreigners and wish they would simply go away.
- We learn that there could be a hidden blessing when things don’t go our way. The donkey didn’t go where Balaam wanted him to and, as a result, saved Balaam’s life.
- We learn that the donkey of the group (the lowly, the one considered stupid), might be the only who actually sees what is really going on or may actually be the mouthpiece of God in a situation
Second, what do we learn about God from this text? Here are some of my thoughts:
- God can use people outside of one’s own religious tradition to give blessing and protection. Remember, Balaam is a non-Israelite and ends up blessing the Israelites.
- God stands with the outsiders; God wants us to bless those that society wants to curse
- God can speak to us through creation, through the animals
- Could God have been speaking to us through these animals? What might God be saying?
May our eyes and ears be opened to the unexpected ways that God speaks to us. AMEN