Here is one of the best known biblical tales- the story of Balaam’s talking ass.
We start with Balak, son of the the king of Moab, seeing the Children of Israel on his doorstep having just annihilated both King Og and King Sichon, and taken their lands. Being afraid for his own kingdom, Balak sends envoys to Mesopotamia to find Balaam, a known prophet who’s reputation is that whomever he blesses is blessed, and whomever he curses is cursed.
Balaam is an enigma in the bible- he is obviously a true prophet of Adonai because when asked to come curse a people (at this point he doesn’t know who the “people” are) he sacrifices and asks the guidance of Adonai. Adonai tells him that these people are blessed (indicating God has blessed them), so Balaam cannot curse them. Balaam tells the envoys he cannot go with them, and sends them away (it is important to note that he doesn’t tell them what God told him, just that he cannot go with them.)
Balak figures Balaam is holding out for more money, so sends more important men with a better offer. Once again Balaam asks God, who this time relents to say go if you are called, but say what I tell you. Balaam saddles up his ass and rides with them the very next morning. However, God places an angel in the way where Balaam has to pass a narrow gap, and although Balaam is blind to the angel, the ass is not and steps to the side to avoid the angel. Balaam is peeved at this and strikes the ass. This happens again, and this time Balaam’s foot is crushed against a wall by the ass while trying to avoid the angel. Again, the ass gets a beating. Finally, the angel with sword drawn is directly in the path at a point where there is no way around, so the ass just plops down on the ground. Balaam gets off and beats it, cursing at it. Then two remarkable things happen: first, the ass talks to Balaam asking why he is beating it these three times. The second remarkable thing is that Balaam answers without skipping a beat, as if having your ass talk to you is an everyday event!
Finally, Balaam sees the angel, confesses his sin to God and says he will return home. At this point God tells him to continue to go, but he must say only what God tells him to say.
Balak is overjoyed to see Balaam, and takes him to a high point where he can see the tribes encamped. Balak says to curse them, but after Balaam sacrifices and gets a word from God, he blesses them as God directs. Balak is upset, and Balaam tells him that he warned Balak’s envoys and Balak that he could only say what Adonai told him to say. Balak is unrelenting, takes Balaam to two other locations to see (stupidly enough) if that would change God’s mind, but each time Balaam blesses even more. Now Balak is so peeved that he sends Balaam away without pay, but before going God gives Balaam a prophetic word for Balak, as well as the kings of the Midian tribes that were with them regarding their future.
The parashah ends relating how the women of Midian lure the men of Israel into worshiping their gods, and how this sin results in a plague from God. One prince of Israel, from the tribe of Simeon, goes as far as to rebelliously display his Midianite woman right in front of Moses. This so angers Phinehas (Pinchas), Aaron’s, son, that Phinehas grabs a spear and runs it through both of them, pinning them together.
It is interesting to note that even after Balaam is told don’t curse the Israelites, when urged a second time to do so, he again asks God if he can go. God relents to let him go but warns he must say only what God tells him to say; the Talmud explains this apparent change of mind by God as God, having warned him not to go, allows that if he is absolutely determined to go to his destruction, so be it. The Rabbi’s tell us the angel that was placed in Balaam’s path was not a destroying angel, as the story may imply, but an angel of mercy to try to turn him back before it was too late. Later in the Torah we learn that Balaam was the one who gave the idea to the kings of Midian to have their women seduce the men of Israel to sin, and Balaam (finally) got his reward when Israel fought against Midian and he was slain with the sword.
I have to ask myself: What is it with this guy, Balaam? He is clearly a prophet of Adonai because not only does he ask of Adonai, but he is answered by Adonai! And he should know that when God said these people are blessed by Him, that no curse he may give would have any effect, anyway. Also, as I mentioned above, Balaam doesn’t tell the first envoys that God has blessed this people, only that God said Balaam cannot go with them. This didn’t slam the door shut in Balak’s face, as it should have, but left it open a bit, so to speak, so that Balak could send a better offer. It is clear that Balaam, although a prophet of Adonai, from the very beginning wanted to have the rewards offered by Balak.
God knew that Balaam’s intent was to curse the people, and he put the fear of God (literally) into him by sending the angel. God then allowed Balaam to continue to go because God used this human desire to sin and turned it into a way to glorify Himself.
He’s good at things like that.
The lesson Balaam teaches us today is this: anyone can be turned from service to God by the allure of worldly rewards. Anyone. That means you, that means me, that means anyone. It also shows us that God is going to warn us, and try to stop us from hurting ourselves, but if we stubbornly refuse to listen, even if our family donkey is telling us we are doing something stupid, then God will move out of the way as we rush towards destruction.
During our lives God will give us more than enough rope to pull ourselves up, or to hang ourselves. It’s our choice. We need to listen to God, whether He speaks to us directly or through another medium. Often events in our life proclaim God’s will for us, other times it may be events in someone else’s life that we see happen, that warn us of what will happen to us if we do the same things. And then we may just get a direct word from God through the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) that is designed to keep us on the right path.
Shaul warns us against this, as well. In 2 Peter 2, Shaul talks about false prophets and wicked people who sin, and entice others to sin. When we see sin and work with our brother or sister to help them overcome it, we must be careful not to get too close to it, or we, ourselves, may be enticed into it. Just as the men of Israel were enticed by the Midianite women, as Balaam was enticed by the riches offered, and even as Judas was enticed by the offer of silver, we all, every one of us, must be careful not to allow the innate sinfulness within us to be given any leeway.
The best guide we have is the Ruach HaKodesh. We must discipline ourselves to listen to it. Next, we need to make sure we are surrounded by godly people who can encourage and help us. Finally, we must never judge sinners or backsliders harshly, but instead treat them with love and encourage them to do T’Shuvah (repentance) that they may be saved. Again, though, be warned- work with sinners but do not allow yourself to get too close. Even if you never touch a fish, hang around the fish market all day you will stink like old haddock! Sin comes slowly and stealthily, so stay alert. Read your bible, know the signs, and listen to those who are godly and knowledgeable.
Remember: you can learn a lot when you are open to hearing what others say, even if the one talking is an ass.