Scripture: And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” Numbers 22:29 ESV
Observation: King Balak, gripped with fear of the encroaching Israelites, receives word from his elders that Balaam refused to come and curse these foreigners. But Balak, desperate for divine intervention, persists by sending even more emissaries of greater nobility to Balaam with the offer to do whatever Balaam might ask of him. Balaam tells these princes, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more” (v.18 ESV). And he respectfully asks these dignitaries to stay the night while he consults with the Lord. Yahweh responds by telling Balaam to go with them but only according to his instructions. So the following day, Balaam saddles his donkey and sets out with Balak’s princes.
In the next scene, the author tells us God’s anger kindled against Balaam. So the angel of the Lord took his stand against the soothsayer (v.22). It’s hard to know how the original audience would have heard this part of the story. Still, for us in the twenty-first century, this seems contradictory. Why would the Lord suddenly become angry with Balaam when he previously gave Balaam permission to go? Theologian Ronald Allen rightfully contends, “Balaam’s real intentions, however, were known to the Lord, and hence by his severe displeasure he confronted the pagan mantic on the road” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Numbers).
The drama escalates when Balaam’s donkey could see the angel unbeknownst to his master. The donkey wisely detours into a field from this warrior of the Lord with a drawn sword. So Balaam strikes the donkey to redirect her to the road. But the angel relocates between the vineyards and a stone wall, causing the donkey to press against the wall and graze Balaam’s foot. So he strikes her again. Finally, the angel stood in a narrow place where the donkey could not maneuver. Hence, she lays down and invokes her master’s fury, who beats her with his staff. So the Lord opens the donkey’s mouth, and she responds with a fair question: Why have you struck me? Balaam impetuously retorts the donkey made him look foolish and that he would have killed her if he had a sword (above verse). But the donkey reasonably responds, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” (v.30 ESV).
We will continue from here in tomorrow’s Daily Focus.
Takeaway: This is the best example of ironic humor in all of Scripture—albeit unintentional. That Balaam would discourse with a talking donkey and accuse the donkey of making him look like a fool is brilliant. Balaam needed no help; he acted foolishly on his own accord: beating a beast of burden with uncontrolled anger. And it reveals a more profound issue about his character and intent—fully known by his Creator, as Dr. Allen states above. Still, is it fair that God set up Balaam to provoke his anger? In reality, God graciously uncovered the pride of Balaam’s sin-marred heart. While his reputation proceeded him, Balaam’s insatiable appetite for others’ respect spurred him to act dishonorably. And God juxtaposed his juvenile behavior with that of a donkey more righteous than him.
Here we see the nature of sin. At the core of Balaam’s pride that invoked shame (of feeling foolish) is a legitimate desire to “belong” and “be valued.” If only he had genuinely sought the one true God of Israel with his whole heart, mind, strength, and soul, he would have joined Israel’s other God-fearing converts and discovered his place and worth as a child of the Lord. And the energy he expended in raging against an innocent donkey (who had his best interests in mind) would have instead drawn him into worship rather than conflict. And the same is true for us. By seeking our place and value as a child of our Creator, his Spirit will transform our pride into humility, anger into love, foolishness into wisdom, and conflicts into worship.
Prayer: Father God, thank you that your wisdom manifested in your incarnate Son is now accessible to us through your Holy Spirit. Would you please help us deepen our understanding of our place and value as your adopted children and exercise wisdom and humility to worship you in spirit and truth over foolhardy conflicts? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling