What is the God of Jesus Christ doing in the world? Is he true to his promises?
The hardest thing about these questions is, I think, when you realise that the chosen instruments of God’s blessing of the world are so unimpressive in many ways. God isn’t so hard to believe in, perhaps; it is the church that is the trouble. Is it not bitterly divided? Is it not prone to greed? Is it not weak and insignificant, always appearing to be fighting a rearguard action against change? Is it not faithless to its own Scriptures and to its own traditions? Is it not tainted by scandal and corruption? Are our numbers not few?
How can we believe that God is on the march when the church is persecuted, squabbling and faithless?
Why then should we have confidence in the promises of God since his choice of methods is so plainly ill-advised? The church is a collection of people who act in a very human way – that may be your bitter personal experience, indeed. How can we believe that God is on the march when the church is persecuted, squabbling and faithless?
The strange episode of Balaam the pagan prophet and his talking donkey will help us to see better what God is doing and indeed that God is the one doing it. Though it is one of the weirdest passages of the Bible, and it seems to come from a world very different to ours, it actually has a message for us in our world.
But we need to put this apparently bewildering narrative in its context in the Book of Numbers.
Numbers opens in triumph and optimism – the slave nation has been led out of Egypt, and is finding its identity as a people. They were the children of the great father Abraham, to whom God made the promise that he would have many descendants living in their own land. He also promised that he would cover Abraham’s back: he would bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. He made another set of promises to the nation of Israel in the desert at Mt Sinai as if to seal the deal, spelling out what life would be like for a people who would be known as God’s special people, his treasured possession.
But that’s not how the story runs, of course. Despite all they have seen, the people of Israel are a divided people, a grumbling people, a fearful people and a faithless people. Eventually they are even an out-and-out rebellious people.
The scale of the disaster is enormous, and it has totally tragic consequences. The old generation are to be shut out of the land. The travel plans are now in utter chaos. Even Moses suffers the judgment of God.
There are glimmers of hope though; all is not lost. The Lord still provides for his people, and he still brings them through military challenges. He still gives them guidance and protection. Where we pick up the story today, they lie encamped on the plains of Moab, just outside the land they could not yet access. They could see it, but they couldn’t yet have it.
But the story does an amazing shift of perspective – because we now have the point of view of one of the enemies of Israel, Balak the Moabite king. The local nations, it seems, are terrified by what they say. “Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites” (v. 3) as we read.
He is supposed to be the manipulator of divine things and yet, he is merely the mouthpiece of the Lord.
And so Balak does the only thing he can think of and calls for help in the form of a local prophet and diviner named Balaam. What an intriguing figure this Balaam is … for it turns out that he has an inkling of who the true God is – it is the God of Israel. And his famous advertising slogan “those I bless stay blessed/those I curse stay cursed” is not strictly true, even though it has a great ring to it. It reminds us of God’s promise to Abraham, doesn’t it? And, it turns out, Balaam himself is nothing more than a conduit for the will of God. He will only curse who the Lord has told him to curse – he knows full well that you can’t simply treat the true God like a vending machine.
And this then is the problem for him: Balak his client wants a curse put on Israel. But God makes it clear to Balaam (22:12) “You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.” He’s in a bind, isn’t he?
That’s the clincher for Balaam – despite the entreaties of Balak, Balaam insists that there’s nothing he can do here. Money’s not the issue (v. 18) – it is the command of the Lord God that is the bottom line.
It is interesting how this pagan diviner and sorcerer seems to be a more devoted follower of the Lord in his way than the people of Israel – he is insistent that God’s word is God’s word. Don’t get me wrong: divining of the kind he does is pretty strongly condemned in the law of Israel. But there’s something that he has got right. He is supposed to be the manipulator of divine things and yet, he is merely the mouthpiece of the Lord.
The Lord relents and allows Balaam to go to at least see Balak … which brings us to the curious episode of the donkey. It all starts because God was angry with Balaam (22:21) – but why? Balaam seems to have complied with all that God would wish for up until this point. He seems to be the very model of an obedient prophet. And yet something is concealed from us here – some motive in his heart, some taint in his business. In the New Testament we get a bit of clue from a couple of references to Balaam in 2 Peter and Jude that seem to suggest that he was more interested in money than in anything else.
Whatever the case, the angel of the Lord stands in the way to oppose Balaam as he heads off to do Balak’s bidding – and his donkey doesn’t like it at all. The funny thing is that at this point the great seer and man of visions can’t see anything at all. It is the donkey that sees the angel, and not him – he doesn’t recognise God’s hand when it is right before him. Only the donkey sees, and three times causes the embarrassment for Balaam of turning off the path, or crushing his foot, or lying down in the road.
It is not a very dignified spectacle and Balaam is certainly left feeling humiliated by it. So, he takes the stick to the donkey. And his abusive treatment of the animal leads to one of the strangest conversations in recorded history, when the donkey opens its mouth and protests, “what have I ever done wrong that you are now beating me?”
Thing is, the donkey is right.
What are we to make of this Dr Dolittle-esque chat between man and beast?
The miracle of the donkey speaking the words of God is no less incredible than the miracle of a human being speaking them.
In this story, the talking donkey illustrates the fact that the spiritual insight that Balaam is paid for is a gift from God utterly and entirely. The miracle of the donkey speaking is, I think, supposed to make us laugh at how silly it makes Balaam, and by extension Balak, look as they seek to oppose the plan of the mighty God. And the miracle of the donkey speaking the words of God is no less incredible than the miracle of a human being speaking them. It’s certainly rather humbling for Balaam. The donkey, poor thing, is caught between what Balak wanted and what God had prohibited. Balaam – who discovers that he is perhaps in this matter a bit like the donkey – is caught between Balak’s will and God’s in the same way. He’s the meat, or rather the donkey, in the sandwich.
To his credit, Balaam does keep insisting that he “must only speak what God puts in my mouth.” But isn’t that only what a donkey does after all?
And that’s what Balak discovers to his horror: his strategy to thwart the plans of the God of Israel fails at every turn. Balaam will not curse Israel – he will only bless them. Each time Balaam is set up to curse Israel, he blesses them instead and he complains to Balak: “look, I am only doing my job, I just work here, don’t blame me!”
The frustration of Balak simply increases as the story goes on. He even cooperates with Balaam in producing a lovely sacrifice of burnt offerings for God – the Rolls Royce of sacrifices. But it doesn’t work. You just can’t twist God’s arm like that.
Well, this part of Scripture seems so strange in many ways, and yet it is addressing precisely the world in which we now live. The people of God, you might think, are more “people” than “God.” There is nothing spectacular about them. Indeed there are many who wish to curse them – in a modern way at least. Curses rain down on them – on us – daily. People wish for us to disappear.
But here’s the thing: God will bless his people. Nothing will get between God and his people. They can’t be cursed, and it is a bit funny when people try to do it. The blessing of God is in constant flow upon them. It is their constant shield.
We know this especially because of the cross of Jesus Christ. As always, the cross of Jesus sheds light on the Old Testament for us – for here we see just how singular God’s commitment to his people is. What does it mean when he promises that “those who bless you I will bless, those who curse you I will curse”? It means that even the worst of hostility aimed against us he bears upon the cross. He himself becomes a curse for us that we might receive blessing upon blessing. He will heal the wounds of his people and pay for their sins by his blood. Even their sins are not an obstacle to him.
This means however unimpressive and fractured the people of God looks today, you can have great confidence, because your confidence lies, or ought to, in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Are you in despair? Have hope. Are you disappointed? Have an expectation that God will not fail. Even the donkey can see that.
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.