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The Curious Case of Balaam – Part 1

I don’t know about you, but I love a good story. When we were pastoring in Mirror, we had a group of old retired rail roaders in our church who were all in their 80s by this time.  And they were the masters of telling a good story. 

During our time at Mirror, the church began constructing a new church building – and for about a year, every day these guys would come to the work site and bring us coffee and snacks – and as we took our coffee breaks, they would regale us all kinds of captivating railroad stories. They’d tell us of train wrecks or unimaginable snow storms or being part of some old western movies. It was always fascinating to hear bits and pieces of their life stories.

Unfortunately, I’m not quite a master story teller like they were, but I’d sure like to give it a try. Today, and probably for the next several weeks, I want to tell you some stories.

You see, the Bible is an amazing storybook. It has got some of the most fascinating and unbelievable tales imaginable. And what makes it all the more fascinating, is that it’s all true! Although some of the stories are certainly hard to believe – the Bible is not a fantastic work of fiction. It is the true story of the Almighty, everlasting God interacting with the people that He created. It’s quite an incredible book!

And in the Bible we find a huge variety of different kinds of stories. There is a genre for everyone. 

  • If you like adventure, read the story of Joseph or King David or Esther – I always thought the book of Esther would make a fantastic movie!
  • If you’re into history – read through the books of Kings and Chronicles.
  • You want war – read through Joshua & the Judges – there’s some crazy stuff in there!
  • If you like romance – read through the Song of Solomon (that’s got all kinds of that mushy stuff)
  • If you like Poetry? Read the Psalms or even Job!

There is so much variety in the Bible. It’s like that opening scene from the Princess Bride where the Grandfather is about to read a book to his sick grandson. The Grandson, not convinced that books are very exciting, asks his grandfather, “Has it got any sports in it?”

And the Grandfather says, “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles!”

And actually, that’s a pretty accurate description of the Bible! You can find all of those things in the stories of the Bible too! And of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg! But the big difference between the Princess Bride and the Bible, as I’ve mentioned, is that the Bible is all true.

So I want to spend some time just reading through some of the amazing, true stories of the Bible – not just because they are great stories, but because there’s much that we can learn from them.

Remember, the Bible is really the story of God. It’s almost like his autobiography – it tells us how God has interacted with individuals and mankind as a whole throughout history. It shows us what God is like and how we are to interact with Him.

And so hopefully as we go through a few of these stories, we’ll get to know God in some new ways – we’ll have a better understand of who He is and how He works in the world – and perhaps most importantly, we’ll see how God still wants to have an personal relationship with each one of us even today.

The story that I want to share with you today is recorded in the book of Numbers – chapter 22 to be specific. And before we get started, let me give you a little bit of the background so you know what’s going on.

At this point in history, the nation of Israel has been wandering around in the wilderness for nearly 40 years. You’ll recall that shortly after the exodus from Egypt, after crossing the Red Sea and receiving the ten commandments, the Israelites were supposed to go in and conquer the Promised Land. However, because they refused to trust in God, God told them that they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years – until every adult male had died. Because of their disbelief, they would never enter God’s promised land, but it would be their children who would go in and conquer & settle in the Promised Land!

So at this point, those 40 years of wandering were almost over! But it hadn’t been easy! They had face a lot of opposition along the way. In fact, they had just been attacked by King Shihon of the Amorites and King Og of Bashan. They were just trying to pass through the territories of these kings – in fact, they had even sent messages asking for permission to pass through peacefully, but these kings decided to attack them instead! However, God was with them and the Israelites completely wipe out the armies of King Shihon and King Og. In fact, Numbers chapter 21 concludes with these verses:

[The Isrealites] turned and marched up the road to Bashan, but King Og of Bashan and all his people attacked them at Edrei. 34 The Lord said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have handed him over to you, along with all his people and his land. Do the same to him as you did to King Sihon of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon.” 35 And Israel killed King Og, his sons, and all his subjects; not a single survivor remained. Then Israel occupied their land.

Numbers 21:31-35

So this the background to Numbers chapter 22. Israel has just completely wiped out these two kings and the word is getting around that you don’t want to mess with the Isrealites. They weren’t just a rag-tag group of run-away slaves from Egypt – they were a serious threat to anyone who might go up against them.

And so it’s with all that in mind that we read the first three verses of Numbers 22.

Then the people of Israel traveled to the plains of Moab and camped east of the Jordan River, across from Jericho. 2 Balak son of Zippor, the Moabite king, had seen everything the Israelites did to the Amorites. 3 And when the people of Moab saw how many Israelites there were, they were terrified. The king of Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This mob will devour everything in sight, like an ox devours grass in the field!” Numbers 22:1-4

Obviously these guys are pretty concerned about the Israelites! Verse 3 says they were terrified! And who wouldn’t be! I mean, they had just completely wiped out two other kings and all their people – and they were now approaching Moab! And this was no small raiding party!

I would estimate that there could have been well over 1,000,000 fighting men in the Isrealite army at this point. The Bible says there were 600,000 men when they left Egypt 40 years prior, and a typical Isrealite family would have had between 4-8 children, so it would be easy to assume there would be an average of at least two boys per family – and so that would give us 1.2 million men camped outside the nation of Moab.

So I think it’s pretty easy to understand their concern. We can see why King Balak would say “This mob will devour everything in sight, like an ox devours grass in a field!”

And it’s at this point that King Balak hatches a plan. He knows he stands a very small chance of defeating the Israelites if they were to attack, but perhaps he can change the odds in his favor. Continuing verse 4, it says…

So Balak, king of Moab, 5 sent messengers to call Balaam son of Beor, who was living in his native land of Pethor near the Euphrates River. His message said:

“Look, a vast horde of people has arrived from Egypt. They cover the face of the earth and are threatening me. 6 Please come and curse these people for me because they are too powerful for me. Then perhaps I will be able to conquer them and drive them from the land. I know that blessings fall on any people you bless, and curses fall on people you curse.”

Numbers 22:4b-6

Now this is very interesting. Apparently this Balaam fellow had a track record of being able to bless or curse people and Balak figured that a curse on Israel might just be enough to turn the tide in his favor if it came to a war. So he calls for Balaam to come and curse the Israelites so that He might stand a chance against them. Verse 7 continues…

7 Balak’s messengers, who were elders of Moab and Midian, set out with money to pay Balaam to place a curse upon Israel. They went to Balaam and delivered Balak’s message to him. 8 “Stay here overnight,” Balaam said. “In the morning I will tell you whatever the Lord directs me to say.” So the officials from Moab stayed there with Balaam.

Numbers 22:7-8

Now this is what makes Balaam such an interesting character. At first glance, it appears that he’s more or less some kind of witchdoctor for hire – he gets paid to bless or curse people. But yet, we see here that He’s going to inquire of the Lord as to what the Lord wants him to say.

The word “Lord” here isn’t just a generic term for a god – like any one of the many gods that were worshipped back then. But the word ‘LORD’ that Balaam uses, is actually the personal name for God that was given to Moses back at the burning bush. Balaam is going to ask Yahweh, or Jehovah, the God of Israel, if he can curse these people or not.

So perhaps Balaam is actually a prophet of God. He appears to know the true God and seems to go to God for guidance and says he will speak whatever the Lord says. But yet, I really can’t see how a prophet of God would be a ‘prophet for hire’ who would go around cursing and blessing people for money.

So I wonder, is he perhaps a bit like Jonah – a true prophet but one who’s not exactly doing what God expects him to do? Or is he a false prophet who just used the name of the Lord because it’s good for business? 

Well, I think perhaps we’ll get a bit more insight as we go along in the story. So hold onto those thoughts and we’ll see if we get some more clarity as we go along. Verse 9 continues…

9 That night God came to Balaam and asked him, “Who are these men visiting you?”

10 Balaam said to God, “Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent me this message: 11 ‘Look, a vast horde of people has arrived from Egypt, and they cover the face of the earth. Come and curse these people for me. Then perhaps I will be able to stand up to them and drive them from the land.’”

12 But God told Balaam, “Do not go with them. You are not to curse these people, for they have been blessed!” 

13 The next morning Balaam got up and told Balak’s officials, “Go on home! The Lord will not let me go with you.”Numbers 22:9-13

Now I would think that if Balaam knew anything about the God of the Isrealites, He should have known from the beginning that God would not allow him to curse his people!

God had made an everlasting covenant with Abraham several hundred years before this emphatically stating that God would bless the Israelites – not curse them. It says in Genesis 12:1-3…

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:1-3

God had clearly determined to bless Abraham’s family – not curse them. This was the cornerstone of God’s plan of Salvation for the world. It was through Abraham’s family that Jesus would be born – and Jesus would make it possible, by his death and resurrection, for every family on earth to receive salvation by trusting in him.

So how could any true prophet of God think that God would allow them to curse His people?! I really have to wonder how well Balaam knew the God of the Israelites…

None the less, upon receiving God’s instructions, Balaam informs the Moabite messengers that God would not allow him to go with them and so they returned home. Verse 14 continues.

14 So the Moabite officials returned to King Balak and reported, “Balaam refused to come with us.” 15 Then Balak tried again. This time he sent a larger number of even more distinguished officials than those he had sent the first time. 16 They went to Balaam and delivered this message to him:

“This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Please don’t let anything stop you from coming to help me. 17 I will pay you very well and do whatever you tell me. Just come and curse these people for me!”

Numbers 22:14-17

Balak is not about to give up! As far as he’s concerned, Balaam’s curse on the Israelites is the only thing that will save him from defeat and so he sends a larger and more distinguished group of officials to beg Balaam to reconsider. He’s willing to pay any price for Balaam to come and curse these people for him. So let’s see how Balaam replies this time:

18 But Balaam responded to Balak’s messengers, “Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord my God. 19 But stay here one more night, and I will see if the Lord has anything else to say to me.”

Numbers 22:18-19

Now again, we kinda see the two sides of Balaam’s character in his response. He starts off sounding very much like a true prophet of God. He says “Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord my God.” There is no amount of gold that could cause him to act in opposition to God. It sounds very noble and prophet-like, doesn’t it. 

But then there’s that second statement: “But stay here one more night, and I will see if the Lord has anything else to say to me.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it kind sounds like he’s hoping that maybe God has changed his mind. I imagine that Balaam would certainly like to cash in on Balak’s generous offer…. And there has probably been weeks or even months of time between the Balak’s first offer and now this second one, so perhaps things have changed during that time? Maybe God would allow him to go and curse the Israelites after all?

So he invites the delegation to stay just one more night in hopes that God will have something new to say. And then we read in verse 20.

20 That night God came to Balaam and told him, “Since these men have come for you, get up and go with them. But do only what I tell you to do.”

21 So the next morning Balaam got up, saddled his donkey, and started off with the Moabite officials. 22 But God was angry that Balaam was going, so he sent the angel of the Lord to stand in the road to block his way.

Numbers 22:20-22

Now this is a challenging set of verses. It appears, in verse 20, as if God gives Balaam permission to go with the Moabites. He says ““Since these men have come for you, get up and go with them. But do only what I tell you to do.”

But then in verse 22 it says God was angry that Balaam was going!

Why would God be angry with Balaam for going with the men after he just gave him permission to go with them? Or a further question, why would God change his mind in the first place?

He had said the first time the men came, back in verse 12 – “Do not go with them.” Why would he appear to change his mind in verse 20 and say “Since these men have come for you, get up and go with them”?

Did God change his mind? Did Balaam misunderstand God – or what’s going on here?

Well, there are a couple explanations that might help us understand that apparent contradiction.

One explanation could be that God’s permission in verse 20 was exactly that – It was only God’s permission – not his will. There is a big difference between what God permits and what God wills.

Now you might ask, “Well, doesn’t everything that happens, happen according to God’s will?”

Well, yes, and no. The Bible speaks of God’s will in several different ways. Let me just briefly touch on four of those ways.

The first way that the Bible speaks of God’s will is God’s decreed will. This is God’s eternal, fore-ordained plan and purpose – which cannot be changed or thwarted. God’s decreed will includes things like His covenants with different people, or his plan of Salvation for the world or his eternal promises for you and I! For example, when we read earlier in Genesis 12 about how God was going to bless Abraham – that was an example of God’s decreed will. God had decided before time that that was going to happen! God decreed his will.

The second way the Bible speak of God’s will is His ‘preceptive will’. That’s God’s will given to us in the form of precepts or principles. These are found in God’s instructions and commands to us. For example, we know it is God’s will for us not to murder or to steal. God has made that very clear through His direct commands. We don’t have to pray and ask God if it’s his will for us rob our neighbour – we know the answer to that already through God’s ‘preceptive will’ revealed to us in the Bible.

The third way the Bible speaks of God’s will is his ‘directive will’. This is God’s personal guidance in our lives. There are times when God would have certain people do certain things at certain times. We don’t find these instructions directly in the Bible, but God speaks to us –  in the Old Testament times often through angels, visions, or dreams, and in the New Testament times primarily through the Holy Spirit living in us and guiding us day-by-day.

And then the fourth way the Bible talks about the will of God is his ‘permissive will’. These are the things that God allows – even though they are go against what God wants. God has given mankind free-will and man very often chooses to do things that go against God’s ‘preceptive will’ or his ‘directive will’. God permits us to disobey or ignore Him – even though that’s not what God desires.

And this is perhaps what God is doing when He gives permission to Balaam to go with those Moabite men.

God had already clearly stated his decreed will that the people of Israel were going to be blessed. God had already clearly stated his directive will that Balaam was not to go with them.

So it could be that God was now stating his permissive will – that if Balaam insisted on going with those men, chasing after the gold and silver they offered, he was free to make that choice – but that choice would come with consequences!

So that’s one way to understand what might be going on in these verses.

The other explanation could be that God was allowing Balaam to go with men – not to curse the Israelites – but to bless them, as we will later see. If that was the case, then perhaps the reason that God was angry with Balaam as he left with the men, was not simply in the fact that he was going, but rather God was angry with Balaam because of Balaam’s motives. 

Now this particular passage doesn’t tell us about Balaam’s motives in all this, but in the New Testament, Peter mentions the story of Balaam when talking about false teachers who greedily earn money by doing wrong. It says in 2 Peter 2:15….

They have wandered off the right road and followed the footsteps of Balaam son of Beor, who loved to earn money by doing wrong. 2 Peter 2:15

So it could be that God did give Balaam permission to go, but was angry at his underlying motives in going. It seems that Balaam’s underlying motivation wasn’t to honour and obey God, but rather it was more to earn a big financial reward from King Balak.

So that’s the second explanation for what might be going on here. But you know, which ever explanation is correct, either way – it’s important to note that God’s decreed will was going to come to pass no matter what.

Regardless of what decisions Balaam made, regardless of his motivations, God was going to bless the Israelites no matter what – and through them, all the nations on earth would be blessed – just as God said. 

As a matter of fact, you and I can experience salvation and the hope of eternal life today because God’s good plan and purpose was not thwarted by Balaam or Balak or any other person or nation.

And I think that should be a great encouragement to us. Regardless of what is going on in the world, regardless of what foolish decisions we (or others) make, regardless of what evil motivations we have in our heart from time to time… God can always use any of that to carry out His good will. His promises will always come to pass.

I think of Jospeh and his brothers. God certainly had plan for Joseph and while it wasn’t God’s desire that Joseph suffer like he did, God still permitted his brothers to sell him into slavery, he allowed Potiphar’s wife to falsely accuse him, he allowed Pharaoh’s cup-bearer to forget all about him in prison – but God used all of that to accomplish his decreed will – and that was to make a great nation out of the Israelites and bring salvation to us all!

One of my favourite passages is Romans 8:28…

28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. Romans 8:28

God’s good plan and purposes for his children will always come to pass. If we trust and love Jesus, every tragedy, every disappointment, every hardship, even our sinful choices (as damaging as they are) can be turned around and used for good.

And I realize that I won’t have enough time to finish up the story today – you’ll have to come back next week for part 2. We’ve kinda left Balaam heading down the road – about to be confronted by the angel of the Lord – so you’ll want to find out what happens next. And by the way, part 2 in my opinion is the best part of this story, so you don’t want to miss that.

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