Here we have one of the more celebrated stories of the Bible. I expect most readers know the story: Balak, the king of the Moabites, calls upon Balaam, who is a well-known sorcerer and diviner, to curse the Israelites so as to protect Balak’s kingdom. Balaam, however, is also a prophet of the true God, Adonai, and at first he properly requests of Adonai what he should do. God tells Balaam that the people are His people and blessed, and that he (Balaam) is not to curse them or go with the king’s envoy. This is the first word that God gives to Balaam, but Balak is insistent and sends another envoy to Balaam, promising him even more riches than at first. This time Balaam asks God again, which he really shouldn’t have done since God is the same today, yesterday and tomorrow. If these are God’s people, which God said they were, then they will always be God’s people until God, Himself, says they aren’t (do you hear that, Replacement Theologists?)
So Balaam is told that if he is summoned to the king he can go. Balaam goes, but in his heart he intends to do as the king asks. On the way God sends an angel to keep Balaam from getting to his destination and Balaam is blind to the angel’s intervention. His ass, however, is not and purposefully leaves the road to avoid the angel standing in the way. Balaam, not understanding what is happening, is angry at the beast and beats her. This happens two more times: the second time to move out of the way the ass crushes Balaam’s leg against a stone wall and gets beaten, and the third time because the angel is in such a narrow place there is no way to go around, the ass just drops to the ground and refuses to move. This time as Balaam starts to beat the animal with his staff, she looks up at him and speaks to him, asking why he was treating her so badly.
Remarkably, Balaam seems to take this miraculous event in stride and, maybe because he was so angry he doesn’t even realize he is talking with his ass, he simply answers the ass back. The ass is quite well spoken, and points out to Balaam that she has been his ride for many years and never before was so obstinate, and he cools down enough to realize she is right. Just as this happens God allows Balaam to see what the ass has been seeing- an angel with drawn sword standing just out of reach, ready to kill him. The angel told Balaam that he knew Balaam was going to do what he had been told not to do, and if it hadn’t been for the animal moving out of the way these three times, Balaam would already be dead and the ass would be alive.
Balaam confesses his sin and is ready to return, when the angel tells him to continue but say only what God tells him to say, resulting in some of the most beautiful blessings and poetry of the entire Bible. In fact, one of the blessings is sung every Shabbat when we sing the Mah Tovu.
After blessing Israel three times, in accordance with what God tells Balaam to say, Balak is understandably upset with Balaam, doesn’t pay him a red penny ( or silver shekel, as the case may be) and sends him back to his own home. Before he goes, however, Balaam has a prophecy of destruction for each of the different kings gathered there with Balak.
Balaam was a very important man, revered, feared and sought after. He was a bit of a conundrum, too, in that although he is generally renown within the Rabbinical circles as an evil man, he knew God, was able to talk with God, and was used by God. He was not totally a pagan, yet he worked with pagans and performed pagan rituals.
I liken him to many people today who think they can pick and choose what they want, and think God will just go along with them. Buffet Believers, I call them; they are willing to enthusiastically worship God by obeying those laws and regulations that please them, but if there is something they don’t like, well, that particular requirement isn’t needed. It is only for men, or for women, or for Jews, or is outdated and no longer valid, or maybe it isn’t really a sin, at least it shouldn’t be, yadda-yadda-yadda. In other words, they love what they love and what they don’t want to do, isn’t required. Buffet Believers- take what you like, leave what you don’t.
Sorry to bust your bubble, but everything on God’s table is good for you: you don’t need to worry about there being any gluten-free foods, there ain’t no substitute sugar or decaf coffee; it is all real, it is all good for you, and it is all required.
Balaam though he could fool God, and he almost lost his life trying to. There are many like this throughout the Bible. In Jeremiah and Ezekiel God, in visions, shows these prophets important men in secret rooms doing sinful things and thinking that God doesn’t know about it. God knows: believe me, He knows. So when Balaam’s ass saw the angel and turned aside, did Balaam think this strange? After all, the ass was correct when she said she had never done anything like this before, so why didn’t Balaam stop and think about what is happening? How often do each of us, in the midst of doing something we are (pardon the expression) hell-bent on getting done, stubbornly refuse to see what is happening around and to us while we are rushing forward to our goal? Balaam was thinking only of the riches he was to receive, and as such was blind to not just the angel of God, but even to the actions of his trusted and life-long friend who was actually saving his life!
Have you an experience that is similar? Have you ever found yourself to be so stubbornly obsessed by something you want, even though in your heart you know it may not be right, that you rush headlong into a brick wall, all the time cursing and hurting those who love you and are trying to stop you from hurting yourself?
I have. If you think you haven’t, well, if you haven’t that is great. But I think you are fooling yourself; it is almost a basic aspect of human nature that we sometimes (oftentimes?) do that which is bad for us, and I’ll bet that most everyone reading this right now can say they have done something like what Balaam did.
I believe that God is in charge of everything and in control of everything, but that doesn’t mean He does control everything. Sometimes He lets us do our own thing, and sometimes He intervenes. If you are finding that your friends, family, workmates, anyone is “in your way” and trying to stop you from doing something you really want to, maybe, just maybe, you should stop for a second and think about it. Maybe you are rushing headlong into something that is not good for you but you can’t see the angel in the road ahead of you. Maybe you should take a short break: smoking lamp is lit so light ’em if you got ’em, and rethink what you want to accomplish. You may be on the right path; but, if there are people that you have known and trusted and these people are leading you off the path you are on, you need to stop dead in your tracks and listen to them.
You should always be willing to listen to others because you never know who God will use to help you.
Even if the one you are listening to is an ass.