Balaam's Donkey


The following is an excerpt from Law and Gospel in Action written by Mark Mattes (1517 Publishing, 2019).

Numbers 22:21-39

God is used to working with colorful figures. One of the most colorful in the Bible is Balaam. Hailing from Mesopotamia, Balaam was what we might call a shaman or a soothsayer. He was not a Hebrew. But he knew the God of the Hebrews, in addition to other purported deities he believed he could summon or charm. It would be well and good that Balaam knew the Hebrew God, but God did not approve of Balaam’s methods: divination, witchcraft as a way of figuring out God’s will. God doesn’t like us resorting to witchcraft because when we do so, we use spiritual power in order to secure our own statuses, empower ourselves, even act as gods. We seek a security other than in Jesus Christ. Instead, what God wants for us is to be people of faith. That means that we can’t always expect to be in control. We need to trust that God will work everything for good, even when it does not always seem so.

In contemporary terms, Balaam is akin to a television preacher, someone who is out to use faith matters to make big bucks. Now, like Balaam, many television preachers are successful. They have wide followings—especially of people down on their luck and seeking prosperity. Like Balaam, they speak and whole worlds listen. There is power to their words, and on occasion, powerful politicians have sought advice from them.

Balak, king of Moab, was one such politician seeking help from Balaam. Israel was about to repossess the promised land, having traveled in the wilderness for forty years. Balak, and his people, the Moabites, were terrified of Israel, since Israel had become a mighty people, strong and powerful and hungry. Balak was alarmed that Israel would invade Moab and steal her crops and wealth. What to do? Balak wanted to enlist Balaam’s help—to curse Israel! That would weaken Israel and make her unable to threaten Moab—sounds like a good plan. After all, Balaam was a mighty magician. Surely his hexes could do the trick. Except, what Balak didn’t realize was that God Almighty was behind Israel. Any curse brought against Israel would simply boomerang back on the curser.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a teen begging to go to a weekend party: “Will adults be present?” asks the parent. “Of course!” promises the teen. “Will there be drinking? Drugs?” the parent follows up. The teen replies, “Of course not!” But you, the parent, are being fed lies: no adults will be at this party, and drinks galore will be present. No wonder God’s wrath was turned against Balaam. Balaam knew that big money was wrapped up in his curses. He stood to profit big time if he cursed Israel on behalf of Moab. So just like the teen eager to run to an inappropriate party, so Balaam ran hog-wild to Balak in order to make mincemeat of Israel with his curses. Just like a television preacher salivating over just how much money he can make, Balaam pushed his donkey to get to Moab.

Now, Balaam’s donkey wasn’t like Shrek’s. Balaam’s donkey really couldn’t talk, at least not naturally. But she was a wise donkey, and when she saw the angel with the flaming sword—just like the angel who guarded Eden after the fall or St. Michael the Archangel in the Book of Revelation—she knew that the angel was no one to mess with. She knew that Balaam’s life was at stake. So three times she halted, even to the point of injuring Balaam, her master. Better that her master suffer some bruises than lose his life—and the donkey’s own life as well!

That God freed the tongue of a donkey to speak is not nearly as awesome as opening Balaam’s eyes to see the angel of the Lord. Much like ourselves at different times in life, Balaam was thick-headed. C. S. Lewis once pointed out just how differently angels were presented in the Bible compared to their representations in art. In art, angels all too often come across as harmless and nonthreatening, delicate creatures. But in Scripture, angels often have to say, “Fear not,” because their appearances are so terrifying that those who see them are thoroughly startled. In the case of Balaam, the fright was increased because the angel was wielding a sword. Silly Balaam: he now saw that the donkey was protecting her own life as well as her master’s. More to the point, he saw that his own life was at stake! God will have nothing to do with the nonsense of seeking profit at His own peoples’ expense. And finally, Balaam saw that his own dumb ass was a far better preacher than he would ever be. His donkey spoke the truth—indeed, spoke the truth in love, just as St. Paul, much later in the New Testament, asks of each one of us.

God might be everywhere present in nature, but it is not clear that He is there for our well-being. The hard truth is that God is not indebted to us, but we are indebted to Him.
— Mark Mattes

Preachers, even asses, are far more important than we make them out to be. True, God is everywhere. And if that is the case, why would you even need a preacher? Many people feel that they encounter God on the golf course. And no doubt they do. But nature, even at the country club, is seldom a clear indicator of what God’s will is for each one of us. Nature is just as apt to take life as give it. It’s not often that a golfer gets hit by lightning, but it has been known to happen. God might be everywhere present in nature, but it is not clear that He is there for our well-being. The hard truth is that God is not indebted to us, but we are indebted to Him.

This is why preachers are so important. Sure, they do preach judgment, which most of the time, we don’t like to hear. And that judgment is a true word of God to sinners. God sets boundaries or limits to human behavior. God told Adam and Eve that on the day they eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they will die. Paul hit this truth home when he told us that the wages of sin is death. But Paul also hit it out of the park when he wrote that the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. No matter how beautiful a sunset or a rainbow is, no matter how beautiful these mountains surrounding Birmingham are, no matter how gorgeous the lakes and streams near here are, nature provides no absolutely secure word that God is for us. But the job of preachers, those who preach both God’s law and God’s grace, is to impart words that both uproot sinners and plant saints—and those in one and the same individual. God is all about making you a new person—and that through trust in His love, revealed in Jesus Christ.

No matter how gorgeous the lakes and streams near here are, nature provides no absolutely secure word that God is for us.
— Mark Mattes

Preaching should never be about caving in to the powers that be, whether they are found in the politics on either side of the aisle. Instead, preaching is accountable to God’s own Word, which has the power to raise the dead, impart new life, forgive sins, and heal the brokenhearted. Preaching is accountable to God’s love. Balaam and Balak are both right to understand that words do things. After all, when the justice of the peace says, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” then you are married. When a preacher says, “You are forgiven,” then you are forgiven. Words not only describe the world or provide directives for how we should live. But words also change the world. The gospel is such a word because it is a word of promise.

We are surrounded by well-intentioned Christians who tell us to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior and that then we will be saved. But is this true? Is it our decision that puts us into heaven? Or is it not, instead, God’s decision for us that does that? And if in fact we have ever decided about Jesus, is it not the decision that shouts “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”? God’s decision is the only one that counts when it comes to matters of salvation. And God specifically makes a decision about you. God takes you, me, and every other sinner who has put Jesus on the cross and says, “For my Son’s sake, I forgive you.” And we can count on the words of Jesus: if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

We can count on the words of Jesus: if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
— Mark Mattes

As bad as Balaam was, he functioned as a mouthpiece for God. Later in the narrative, three times he was asked by Balak to curse Israel. But the only thing that could come out of his mouth was a blessing. Finally, during the fourth attempt to curse Israel, Balaam actually prophesied that a “star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall raise out of Israel.” Christians have ever seen this to be a genuine prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ, who is both our star and the scepter.

Surely, we hear in this passage the truth that God’s people will ever be opposed. Sometimes that opposition is in your face and literally takes out millions of lives. Other times it is more subtle, implying that those of us who believe in Christ and confess Him as Lord just aren’t very bright or are too old-fashioned or are less than adequate. Jesus tells us to “be of good cheer” because He has overcome the world. Our identity does not come for these naysayers. It comes from Christ Himself. In Jesus Christ, God validates you and me as sons and daughters. Unlike the paranoid ancient Chinese king who built an army of terracotta warriors to defend him in the afterlife, we don’t need such militia. We have instead the power of the word, which can bless and curse. But as Christians, loved by God, we need no longer curse our enemies. We are not, even for a minute, like Balak and Moab, even though they were descendants of righteous Lot. No. Instead, we are increasingly like our Master who prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

May God continue to empower us in word—so that we speak God’s message honestly and not with guile as Balaam sought to do—and in deed so that we welcome our neighbors generously and not seek to oppress them as Balak sought to do with Israel.

This is an excerpt from Law and Gospel in Action written by Mark Mattes (1517 Publishing, 2019). Used by Permission, pgs. 281-286.

Mark Mattes is associate professor of religion and philosophy at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa. He is the author of Martin Luther’s Theology of BeautyThe Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology, and Imaging the Journey