Have you ever wished your animals could talk? In today's passage Balaam's donkey is given a voice by the Lord to rebuke the prophet's greed. The donkey displays more spiritual discernment than its master.
Previously in our chapter the king of Moab sent messengers and money for payment to entice the prophet to pronounce a curse against Israel. The prophet was sorely tempted but said no after the Lord commanded him not to go to Moab or speak against Israel. King Balak of Moab, upon hearing Balaam's refusal, simply sent more impressive messengers back to the prophet and basically told him to name his price. Money and honors will be heaped upon him if he fulfills the king's request. Still motivated by greed and still wanting to go to Moab quite badly, Balaam puts off telling the messengers no but instead has them spend the night at his home. We don't know what Balaam said to the Lord or to himself during the night, but as we learned in our last study the Lord said something like, "Fine, go then. But you'll only be able to say what I tell you to say."
The Lord is displeased with Balaam's attitude and today He'll rebuke him through an animal that's generally known for its stubbornness. This is because Balaam is being more stubborn than a donkey. Balaam has agreed to go to Moab and say only what the Lord tells him to say but I think he intends to say whatever King Balak tells him to say. The reason I think that is because the Lord has to create a very memorable encounter in order to put the prophet in a repentant and obedient frame of mind.
"Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field." (Numbers 22:21-23a) The Moabite caravan must be some distance ahead of Balaam, for they are not mentioned here. They likely set out for Moab at first light, with Balaam and his servants needing to pack up what they'll need for the journey before saddling and loading their donkeys. Or perhaps Balaam only owns one donkey and his servants are walking, which would slow down the journey to Moab and cause Balaam and his two servants to fall behind the Moabites who I am sure were all riding animals or being pulled in carriages by animals.
I've seen our passage above used to question or criticize the Lord. Some have asked, "If the Lord told Balaam to go, why is He angry with him?" But as we said a couple of days ago, Balaam wanted to go all along, even when the Lord said no. His respect for the Lord is not strong enough to keep him from being tempted to accept money and fame in exchange for doing wrong. His concern for Israel is not enough to keep him from cursing her for profit. But he said no to the first group of messengers and I think that's because they didn't quite make him a high enough offer to override his fear of the Lord. After they left he probably thought and thought about it. I think he wished he had said yes. Or it could be he suspected a higher offer would come his way after he refused the first one, and if that's the case then he was awaiting a second group of messengers with a bigger and better offer. While waiting he probably daydreamed about how much money he might receive and how many public honors the king might award him.
A lot of the time the reason we give in to temptation is because we've spent time thinking about whatever sin we're being tempted with. We don't immediately dismiss the idea from our minds and refuse to consider it. Instead we daydream about it. We imagine what it might be like if we said yes. We commit the sin in our minds before we commit it for real. Balaam has been committing this sin in his mind ever since the first group of messengers came to him and, as we said the other day, he's like a child who keeps begging their parent to change their mind until the parent finally says, "Fine, go ahead then!", knowing the experience isn't going to be pleasurable and that it will teach the child a lesson. The Lord is about to teach Balaam a lesson which will, in turn, allow the Lord to teach King Balak and the Moabites a lesson.
Balaam does something terrible in his greed and in his impatience to get to Moab. When his donkey turns off the road, he becomes angry with it and treats it cruelly. "Balaam beat it to get it back on the road." (Numbers 22:23b) Animal cruelty is something that makes me sick. It makes the Lord sick too, for He says in His holy word, "The righteous care for the needs of their animals." (Proverbs 12:10a) This means that it's unrighteous not to care for animals and not to treat them with kindness. Balaam is behaving like an unrighteous man. Not only has he been blinded with greed to the point of not being able to see the angel of the Lord in the roadway (something a true prophet should be able to discern) but he's mistreating his animal. This is something he's never done before. We'll find out in a few moments that this is a new kind of behavior from him.
The donkey gets back on the road but the angel stands in the pathway again. "Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam's foot against it. So he beat the donkey again." (Numbers 22:24-25) Being an animal lover, I'd like to take the rod out of Balaam's hand and beat him with it for treating an innocent animal this way. His donkey has always done whatever he said but now a higher authority than Balaam is in the donkey's path and the donkey---unlike the man---fears and obeys the Lord. Balaam ought to be ashamed, both by his behavior toward an innocent animal and by his unfaithfulness toward God. Balaam's relationship with the Lord is suffering due to his greed. If Balaam hadn't fallen far enough from the Lord to fall into such strong temptation then he'd have been able to see the angel in the roadway.
The donkey has little choice but to get going again because its master's mind is still focused on fortune and fame. Balaam is determined to get to Moab to do the king's bidding. Balaam is still in the wrong spirit and soon the Lord allows him to be trapped in a tight place. I don't know about you, but the Lord has allowed me to paint myself into a corner several times in my life so that I was stuck in a tight place with nowhere to turn but to Him. "Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey's mouth, and it said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?'" (Numbers 22:26-28)
The donkey has never been beaten before. It has never seen its master in this kind of mood before. We know this because the donkey makes reference to being beaten "these three times". It doesn't say, "Why have you always been mean to me? Why do you beat me all the time?" Balaam is behaving in an uncharacteristic manner because he's drifted away from a close relationship with his God who created the donkey. He's got nothing on his mind but what lies ahead of him in Moab: money and recognition. This is how we know he intends to say whatever the king asks him to say; surely he doesn't expect riches and honors if he doesn't do what pleases the king. Due to his greed he's completely unconcerned with pleasing the King of kings. He's treating the favor and blessings of the Lord with contempt, placing worldly wealth and human praise above the God who supplies all his needs and who has called him to the honorable office of prophet of the living God.
Balaam ought to be so ashamed of himself that he falls to his knees in the dust and cries out to the Lord for forgiveness. His donkey recognizes the Lord when Balaam does not. The donkey has an obedient spirit toward the Lord but the prophet does not. The donkey fears and honors the Lord but its owner has thrown aside his fear and respect of the Lord. The prophet---a man who has spoken for the Lord in the past---is not in a spiritual condition to speak for the Lord right now. But his donkey is. The words of the Lord are coming from an animal's lips, not from the prophet's lips.
Have you ever had an unbeliever show you the error of your ways? Have you ever had someone who isn't close to the Lord point out that you're living in a wrong attitude toward the Lord? I have, and believe me, it really stings. There have been times when I've been operating in the wrong attitude or going down a wrong path and someone who doesn't even live for the Lord has rebuked me. Now that is truly embarrassing and humbling! It's one thing for a fellow believer to gently come to us in love and say, "I'm concerned about you. I think you may have gotten off on the wrong path and I'm afraid you're going to cause harm to yourself." But it's a far different thing when someone who doesn't serve the Lord says, "You're not behaving like Jesus." Ouch! Those words really pierce our hearts, don't they? If an unbeliever can clearly see we're in the wrong, how did we not see it? In our passage today the prophet doesn't recognize his sinful attitude. But his donkey does and his donkey says, "You're not behaving like a man of God. A man who knows and serves the Lord wouldn't be willing to sin against the Lord and against the Lord's people Israel. You don't look much like a prophet to me right now. You're not acting like a believer. You're not even acting like an unbeliever with good morals."
As much as it hurts to have someone rightfully point out our faults to us, we've never had a donkey rebuke us. Join us tomorrow as the Lord continues to give a voice to an animal He created. The Lord has more to say to Balaam through the donkey.