Scripture: And Balaam said to Balak, “Build for me here seven altars, and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.” Balak did as Balaam had said. And Balak and Balaam offered on each altar a bull and a ram. And Balaam said to Balak, “Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go. Perhaps the LORD will come to meet me, and whatever he shows me I will tell you.” Numbers 23:1-3 ESV
Observation: Under the angel of the Lord’s direction, Balaam sets out with the princes of Moab to meet Balak. As cool, calm, and collected as Balak tries to present himself, he could not wait for Balaam to arrive and instead charges toward the border city of Moab to greet Balaam. Anxious about the looming threat of the Israelites (as he saw it), Balak interrogates Balaam about why he did not come sooner and inquires if Balaam supposed that Balak could not honor him sufficiently. Balaam does not respond to either charge but replies, “Behold, I have come to you! Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak” (v38 ESV). While this sounds self-effacing and perhaps demonstrates a newfound faith, we will see that this is nothing more than a transactional exchange.
They then travel to Kiriath-huzoth, where Balak peels off and sacrifices oxen and sheep to his pagan god. In the morning, Balak takes Balaam to the summit of Bamoth-baal where they can see a “fraction” of the Israelites (the use of the Hebrew word translated “fraction” intends to remind the original audience of their nation’s vastness and strength). Here, Balaam instructs Balak to build for him seven altars and prepare seven bulls and rams (asserting his authority as Balak’s only hope). And the two of them conjoined in ceremonially offering the bulls and rams. Balaam then orders Balak to stay put by his altar while Balaam goes and seeks the Lord’s presence and instruction (above verses). Indeed, Yahweh meets Balaam (in a form not specified) and tells him to return to Balak and the princes and pronounce the first of four oracles (the last comprising three subparts).
We will explore these four oracles over the next four days.
Takeaway: Theologian Ronald Allen contends that Balaam and Balak did not offer these animal sacrifices to Yahweh but to the pagan god of this region: “The pieces given to Balaam presumably would have included the livers; for as a bārû diviner, Balaam was a specialist in liver divination.” Numbers 24:1 reports that Balaam subsequently gave up on his acts of sorcery as the power of the word of the Lord came on him. But at the beginning, he starts his procedures as he always has” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Numbers). Nevertheless, the Lord will speak through Balaam and bless his chosen people.
So what can we take away from this introduction to the oracles? Two come to my mind. First, just as God will open the mouth of a donkey to speak the truth, he will use unbelievers to pronounce his purposes. There is no more poignant example of this than in John’s Gospel when the religious leaders are panicking over Jesus’ growing number of disciples who witnessed Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. As they debate how to stop this supposed threat to national security, Caiaphas (whose heart was far from God) unwittingly prophesies that “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50 ESV).
Secondly, this is a cautionary tale of the danger of syncretistic religious practices (blending multiple religious traditions and rites). God will not bless this compromised practice of faith that violates the first commandment. Israel would later learn this hard lesson after repeatedly blending the worship of Yahweh with pagan rituals of their neighboring nations, which led to exile. We see this practice today in the blatant blending of voodooism and Christianity (mainly in the Caribbean). But all of us are guilty to a certain extent when we shape our worship of God with our cultural traditions and morés. It may seem harmless, but consider where several mainline denominations are going in compromising the sanctity of life and marriage. Appeasing popular opinion puts us at risk of no longer being salt and light.
So how do we stay on course? First, tune into God without limitations of whom he may speak through. Secondly, be alert to the subtle compromises that seem right in our eyes but fail to align with the Lord’s truth and grace. And if we do, the path to our Promised Land will become straightforward.
Prayer: Father God, thank you for your Son, who is the way, the truth, and the life. Would you please help us to attune to the direction of the Holy Spirit without our preconceived limitations of “how” he speaks into our lives while discerning competing voices that falsely present themselves as truth? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling