Scripture: Then Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” And the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak. Numbers 22:34-35 ESV
Observation: The dialogue between Balaam and his talking donkey ends with Balaam acknowledging that she is a faithful beast of burden. The author then tells us that upon this confession, the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in his way with his sword drawn. The angel then questions why Balaam struck his donkey. Without waiting for a response, the angel adds that he is here to oppose Balaam because his way has been perverse before the angel. Indeed, if not for the donkey’s prudence, the angel would have killed Balaam and spared the donkey. At this point, Balaam wisely confesses that he had unknowingly sinned and offers to turn back. But the angel reiterates previous instructions to go but speak only the words he will give him (above verses). So Balaam proceeds with the princes—end of the scene.
Of note, here, the author provides a detail that would indicate the angel of the Lord is likely a prefigure of Christ, for he is not merely announcing on behalf of Yahweh but is speaking on his own accord. The prose also highlights contrasts between Balaam and his donkey:
- Balaam is blind to the greater reality while the donkey sees it.
- The donkey first kneels in submission to avoid certain death, while Balaam later falls prostrate in fear of death.
- The donkey questions Balaam for striking him, and Balaam responds with murderous threats. The angel questions why Balaam struck his donkey and conveys that he would have killed Balaam if not for the donkey turning aside.
- The donkey declares her fidelity to Balaam, and Balaam confesses his sin to the angel.
The implied question to the original audience is: Who’s the wiser?
Takeaway: So how is Balaam perverse before the angel of the Lord? First, while the donkey glorified God by conducting herself as God intended for a beast of burden, Balaam, who sought his glory, failed to act according to how the Lord created him to function. But that will soon change. Indeed, Balaam takes the first step by falling face first to the ground and submitting to the angel’s will. And to his credit, he makes no excuses other than explaining he could not see the angel. Nevertheless, as the story progresses, we will see that Balaam is a scrapper who relies on his resources and oratory finesse to manage situations. Still, he will soon discover who’s in control and who is not.
Secondly, Balaam’s confession would prove to be a survival technique—not a change of heart. Similar to foxhole prayers, this soothsayer is bargaining in a sense for the angel to spare his life, for Balaam merely confesses his sins without genuine repentance. And as Paul contends with the Corinthian church, this type of worldly regret leads to death. In contrast, godly grief (expressed by sincere repentance) leads to salvation without regret (2 Corinthians 7:10).
So who’s the wiser? Indeed, the sooner we wisely accept that we are not in control but, thankfully, our gracious and loving Father is in charge, the sooner we find relief from the messes we make of our lives. Our external circumstances may not change, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will surrender our failing coping mechanisms for his grace and mercy and upgrade our spiritual and emotional wellbeing.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for sending us your Son, who embodied wisdom and provided the means to confess our sins, repent, and receive your forgiveness and restoration. Would you please help us to act the wiser and live by grace through faith in the finished work of your Son, relying not on our resources to mature in our faith but the sanctifying work of your Holy Spirit? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling