Numbers 22-24
(The Incorruptible Sorcerer)
February 16th

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Updated 2021

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Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verses

God who brings him out of Egypt,
   is like the horns of a wild ox for him;
he shall devour the nations that are his foes
   and break their bones.
   He shall strike with his arrows.

- Numbers 24:8 (NRSV)

Summary of Chapters

After escaping from Egypt, the Israelites had been living in the desert nearly 40 years, during which they had been receiving God's instructions and sometimes rebelled against him, as described in Exodus, Leviticus, and the chapters we have read to date in the book of Numbers. During this period of time the Israelites had dreamed of the day when they would reach the land of Milk and Honey promised by God. Today's set of chapters begins the final section of Numbers, which describes the second approach to the Promised Land. We will be studying this section for five days. Today we review chapters 22-24, which tell the story of Balaam the sorcerer - a man who refused to curse Israel even when bribed with great riches.

In chapter 22, we learn that the Israelites have camped on the plains of Moab, near the Jordan river, across from the town of Jericho. The presence of this large group of people was disturbing to the current occupants of the land, most notably Balak, who was king of Moab, and whose name sounds a lot like one of the other main characters. Here is a way to remember who’s who:

    Balak – king of Moab (the one with the “k” in his name is the king)
    Balaam – a sorcerer from a Pethor (the one with the “m” in his name is the magician)
    Baal - a popular false god mentioned in subsequent chapters and books

Balak, the king, sent a group of representatives to Balaam to ask him to put a curse on the Israelites, but Balaam refused because God told him not to do it. They came back with a lot of money, but Balaam was steadfast:

    Balaam answered Balak's servants: "Even if Balak gave me his house stuffed with silver and gold, I wouldn't be able to defy the orders of my God to do anything, whether big or little. But come along and stay with me tonight as the others did; I'll see what God will say to me this time."

    - Numbers 22:18-19 (MSG)

The night after the second visit, God told Balaam to go accept the invitation to see Balak, but to only do what God told him to do. Chapter 23-24 records that Balaam followed God’s command diligently, even when pressured by Balak. The king and the sorcerer ascended to several high places to observe the Israelites and offer sacrifices, but each time Balaam blessed the people instead of cursing them. Then, Balaam prophesied about the future victories of Israel over Balak’s land and the neighboring countries such as, Sheth, Edom, Seir, and others.

There may have been one point at which Balaam was wavering in his obedience. The latter part of chapter 22 records an unusual encounter with his donkey. The LORD had put an angel in their path, but only the donkey saw it and took detours to avoid it. Eventually, Balaam saw the angel who reminded him to speak only what he was told to say when he meets with Balak:

    Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”

    Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.” The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.

    Numbers 22:28-35 (NRSV)

Reflection and Application

God can work through imperfect people like Balaam and can work through imperfect people like us. Balaam's vocation of divination and sorcery was forbidden by God, as we read in Leviticus 19:26. The reason it was forbidden was because the practitioners of these skills believed in receiving messages from false gods or evil forces. It is wrong to believe in using false gods or to lead others to believe in it, but it’s not wrong for God to use those who practice these deceptions. Therefore, he made use of Balaam to protect his people.

If we think we are unworthy of being used by God, just remember Balaam from these chapters. We will see his name mentioned again later in Numbers, but not in a good way. He eventually succumbed to some type of pressure, became an example of what not to do, and is mentioned many times throughout the remainder of the Bible, including the last book, Revelations in which he is mentioned in the letter to the church of Pergamum:

    Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.

    - Revelation 2:15 (NIV)

However, before he lost his way, Balaam was a good example of standing pat in his faith, even when pressured by power and wealth. His quote from the heights of faithfulness is a good one for us to remember: " 'Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the LORD my God' (Numbers 22:18 - NIV)."

There will be times when we are tempted to go beyond the command of our God in order to gain wealth or pleasure, but we need to be resolute, as Balaam was and have faith that there is an ultimate reward greater than any of the riches of Balak or any other king.

There are two observations in these passages that may leave some of us puzzled:

    1. If God is all-knowing, why did he ask Balaam "Who are these men?(Num 22:9)"
    2. Did a donkey really talk to Balaam?

The first one might be the easier question. God is all knowing, but perhaps he worded the question in this manner to see if Balaam would tell him the whole truth. The art of acting uninformed is a common investigative technique - for example, you might see this method employed by police detectives on TV shows, such as the classic Columbo series, or more current series from Hollywood and the BBC.

As for the donkey: Did God really make this animal talk? It certainly appeared that way to Balaam. Maybe God filled in the voice and thoughts so it seemed to Balaam that the donkey talked, or maybe God did enable the donkey to express himself in a human way. It’s an unusual miracle, but not beyond the long arm of God. If you believe he created the world and raised his son from the dead, then why not believe the much simpler task of giving speech to a donkey? One of our weaknesses as humans is that we often try to put limits on what we believe God can do. We know that we have human limitations, so sometimes we forget that although we are made in God’s image, we are not exactly like him. He is limitless.

What else can we learn from Balaam’s experience with the donkey? We should be patient with people who cause us to take detours – they may actually be protecting us from things we don’t see, as was the case of Balaam and his trustworthy beast of burden.

The story of Balaam and Balak might have intrigued the Renaissance artist Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606 – 1669), who created a dynamic interpretive oil painting of the scene with Balaam's donkey talking back to him. You can see the original of this painting in the Musée Cognacq-Jay in Paris, or click the link below to see an online representation from the artBible website:

"Balaam and the Ass"

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. What experiences have you had riding on animals?
    2. When was the last time you were frustrated with a detour but later found a silver lining?
    3. How do we summon up the strength to resist money and power in order to obey God?
    Recommended Prayer
    Father, please help us to learn how to keep our hearts and minds focused on your word and resist the world's lure of money and power.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    Animal trainers

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: Numbers 25-26 (The Enemy Within)

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