A Talking Donkey: That’s Weird!
January 14, 2018
A talking donkey, that’s weird. Even Shrek thought it was a little weird and he is an Ogre.
And I know that maybe some of you are thinking “but my pet speaks to me.” Sure they do. They may communicate with you on some level, but they don’t speak to you. Sorry to burst your bubble.
This is week 2 of our “That’s Weird” series, and through January and February, we are going to take a look at some of the weird stories that you come across in the Bible. And maybe you are thinking that it’s just wrong to say that some of the stories that we find in the bible are weird. Makes me think you haven’t read very much of the bible.
Last week we looked at a floating axe head, that was weird but we learned some lessons. This week is a story about talking livestock and again there are lessons to be learned.
So let’s start with The Story: A man named Balaam is making a journey with his donkey, who remains unnamed, much like the donkey in Shrek.
And as they rode along they came upon an angel of the Lord who is standing with a sword to prevent them from going any further. The inference being that the angel will use violence to stop them from continuing on their journey.
For whatever reason Balaam doesn’t see the angel and the only thing that prevents things from turning nasty is the donkey refuses to carry on.
The first time the donkey rushes off the road to avoid the angel. He is then forced back onto the road and at that point, he tries evasive manoeuvres and ends up crushing his master’s foot against a rock wall.
Well, Balaam flies into a rage and again tries to force the donkey on his way at that point the donkey just quits and lies down under Balaam. And Balaam responds each time by beating the poor donkey.
Well, after the third time the Donkey turns around and says “Hey, stop it.” Well actually we read in Numbers 22:28 Then the LORD gave the donkey the ability to speak. “What have I done to you that deserves your beating me three times?” it asked Balaam.
I think the weird thing here is that Balaam doesn’t seem all that surprised that the donkey talked. If we keep reading we discover Numbers 22:29-30 “You have made me look like a fool!” Balaam shouted. “If I had a sword with me, I would kill you!” “But I am the same donkey you have ridden all your life,” the donkey answered. “Have I ever done anything like this before?” “No,” Balaam admitted.
At that point, God opens Balaam eyes and he sees the Angel with the Sword who’s standing in front of him and as far as we know the donkey never talks again.
But the story doesn’t really tell us a lot. Sure, who doesn’t like stories with talking animals? But what’s the lesson in the story?
So here’s the Back Story The story is set in the period of time between when the Israelites had escaped from their slavery in Egypt and when they had entered into the promised land, the forty years they spent in the wilderness.
During the time they are wandering in the wilderness, the king of a small country called Moab hears about the Israelites and is afraid about what these undocumented aliens might do to his kingdom.
The King’s name is Balak, and he decides to be proactive and we pick up the story in Numbers 22:5-6 (Balak) sent messengers to call Balaam son of Beor, who was living in his native land of Pethor near the Euphrates River. His message said: “Look, a vast horde of people has arrived from Egypt. They cover the face of the earth and are threatening me. Please come and curse these people for me because they are too powerful for me. Then perhaps I will be able to conquer them and drive them from the land. I know that blessings fall on any people you bless, and curses fall on people you curse.”
Now we don’t know what qualifications Balaam had for blessing and cursing people, but apparently, that was his reputation. And while this is the first time he is mentioned in the bible his name comes up in four other Old Testament books as well as three times in the New Testament. And he isn’t spoken highly of in any of them.
I know it was P.T. Barnum who said “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” There are a lot of people who would disagree with that today.
And I’m kind of thinking that it would be better to not be mentioned at all rather than getting brought up in scriptures like 2 Peter 2:14-16 They commit adultery with their eyes, and their desire for sin is never satisfied. They lure unstable people into sin, and they are well trained in greed. They live under God’s curse. They have wandered off the right road and followed the footsteps of Balaam son of Beor, who loved to earn money by doing wrong. But Balaam was stopped from his mad course when his donkey rebuked him with a human voice.
And then when Jesus was addressing the church in Pergamum he says, Revelation 2:14 “But I have a few complaints against you. You tolerate some among you whose teaching is like that of Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin.” Ouch.
Just saying, not how I want to be remembered at my funeral.
That’s who Balaam was, so back to the story. Well, Balak’s messengers come to Balaam offering him all kinds of money to put a curse on the Israelites and God basically tells Balaam, “Don’t you dare.” Again that is a rough paraphrase, What God actually said was Numbers 22:12 But God told Balaam, “Do not go with them. You are not to curse these people, for they have been blessed!”
Well, the messengers return to Balak with Balaam’s refusal but the King sends them back with a better offer. Balaam again refuses by saying, Numbers 22:18 But Balaam responded to Balak’s messengers, “Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the LORD my God. Which was pretty impressive, until he adds Numbers 22:19 But stay here one more night, and I will see if the LORD has anything else to say to me.”
Basically, he was saying, “Wait here while I see if I can get God to change his mind.”
Now we don’t know what Balaam said in his conversation with God but eventually, God says, “Fine, go ahead but only do what I tell you to do.”
But the story still isn’t complete with just the story and the back story. We really need to keep reading to find out what happens.
The After Story After the donkey has his say the angel of God reiterates to Balaam that he may go to Moab, but that he is only to say what God tells him to say. Presumably, that means no cursing Israel.
And if we follow the story we discover that when the King demands that Balaam curse Israel he doesn’t and instead he pronounces blessings on them, not once but four different times.
I’m assuming that he didn’t get paid. And maybe you are thinking “So what’s the problem? Balaam didn’t curse Israel all’s well that ends well.”
And this part of the story ends with Numbers 24:25 Then Balaam and Balak returned to their homes.
But that doesn’t really explain the bad press that Balaam gets later on in the bible, there appears to be The Untold Story
The next time we hear about Balaam we read in Numbers 31:8 All five of the Midianite kings—Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba—died in the battle. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. And then if we keep reading we come to this in Numbers 31:16 “These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD’s people.”
Huh, seriously did not see that coming, but it does explain the 2 Peter and Revelation statements about Balaam.
At some point, between the time that Balaam blessed the people of Israel and his death he had an incredibly bad influence on the very people he had blessed. How does that happen? Good question, and that leads us to. . . Lessons from the Story
The first thing we discover is God’s “No” means “No”
You see what happens here, right? Balaam basically approaches God to ask if it’s alright for him to curse the Israelites, and he’s told: “no, in no uncertain terms are you to curse the Israelites.” So, he does the right thing and sends Balak’s servants away telling them to let their boss know that he won’t take the gig. Good for Balaam.
Then they come back with a better offer, and he says “nope, still not going to do it.” He’s still doing good but then he adds “But let me check with God maybe he’s changed his mind.”
And again, we don’t know what that conversation was, maybe Balaam told God how much he would be able to offer up as a sacrifice if he could only curse the people of Israel and get paid for it.
Maybe he even suggested that he would only pretend to curse the Israelites so he could get paid, but God and him would know that he really didn’t mean it.
I don’t know how the conversation went, but in the end, God lets him go with the proviso that he only do what God tells him to do. And we don’t know why God then seeks to stop him unless God knew that he was planning on cursing the people. Maybe Balaam was thinking that it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission.
But he obviously didn’t understand what David understood when he wrote in Psalm 139:1-2 O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
Have you ever started down a path that you knew was wrong, but you keep hoping that God’s view of what you are going to do will change, or that you’ll be able to convince him to let you go ahead with whatever it is you want to do?
And then we try to justify or rationalize our behaviour. Or we figure, “sure it’s wrong, but in the end I’ll just play the grace card and ask for forgiveness.”
And in most of those situations, we know what God wants or doesn’t want us to do. And if we aren’t sure, that’s why we have the bible.
Paul reminds us of that in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. Sounds pretty useful to me, but of course that assumes that we are reading our bibles.
And regardless of what society might be trying to tell us in 2018, the bible and it’s teaching are still relevant today. And God put those guidelines and regulations in place for a reason.
It doesn’t matter if they are dealing with social mores like “Thou shalt not kill, or thou shalt not steal” or relational mores like “Thou shalt not commit adultery or Thou shalt not lie.” Or things like “sex is reserved for marriage and forgive others”. God put those regulations in place for our protection and to keep society preserved.
And just because the way society views those things changes, that doesn’t change how God views them, and what he expects out of us as believers.
Jesus’ brother James reminds us in James 1:17 Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He (God) never changes or casts a shifting shadow.
And do you really want to change God’s mind? I mean, seriously, he is God. The master of the universe, creator of all things. When he says something is wrong and we have a different opinion, do we really think we are smarter than he is? Obviously, but that doesn’t mean that we are smarter then God, it just shows how dumb we are.
The prophet Hosea made a great statement 2500 years ago that is still relevant today. He was talking about the people rejecting God and his regulations and he says Hosea 8:7 They have planted the wind and will harvest the whirlwind. . .
When we ignore what God requires, we are planting the wind. Society planted the wind with the so-called sexual revolution of the sixties, and today we are reaping the whirlwind.
But even in our disobedience, God doesn’t give up on us. 2 Peter 3:9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.
God Goes Out of His Way to Save Us from Ourselves
We know that God had permitted Balaam to make the trip, so why did he put the angel and talking donkey in his path?
Well, Balaam was allowed to go with the caveat that he only say what God told him to say and that he not curse the Israelites. And that seems to have changed, or God would have let him go on his way.
And so, God puts an angel in Balaam’s way, and when Balaam couldn’t or wouldn’t see the barrier that God put in his path then God gives donkey a voice. And that was kind of hard for Balaam to ignore.
The other option was that God could have allowed Balaam to do what he planned on doing and then punished him for it.
God wants us to do the right thing. He doesn’t want us to be disobedient. A scripture that I keep coming back to over and over again is 1 Corinthians 10:13 The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.
Which brings us to, In the End It’s Up to Us
At some point, after Balaam had chosen to do what was right and obeying God. He chose to do what was wrong and walked in a different direction. He forgot about the angel with the sword and the talking donkey and somehow convinced himself that it would be all right to do wrong.
And God could have stopped him, just as God can stop anyone of us from doing wrong. All God has to do to make sure we obey is to take away our free will, that’s it.
And that’s the one thing that he refuses to do. That’s not why he created us, he created us so that we could choose to worship him not be forced to worship him.
G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book, Orthodoxy, “According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free. God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.”
Kind of like the man who asked God, “How did you let the world get so messed up?” and God replies by saying, “Funny, I was going to ask you the same thing.”
In “The Great Divorce” C.S. Lewis writes “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”
There is a scary verse in the book of Romans that tells us Romans 1:24-25 So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself . . .
How horrifying must it be to be abandoned by God.
It would seem that eventually either the donkey stopped talking or Balaam stopped listening to the donkey, because the path he chose led away from God. Solomon reminds us in Proverbs 14:12 There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death.
God wants the very best for you, he wants you to do what is right, he wants you to resist what is wrong. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you.
Author Jim Butcher reminds us “God isn’t about making good things happen to you, or bad things happen to you. He’s all about you making choices–exercising the gift of free will. God wants you to have good things and a good life, but He won’t gift wrap them for you. You have to choose the actions that lead you to that life.”
So what actions will you choose today and tomorrow? Because right or wrong you will be the one who decides.
And here is a final thought, If the Donkey had spoken without divine help that would have been impossible, the fact that God allowed the donkey to talk is just a miracle. A weird miracle but a miracle never the less.