Numbers Bible Study (In the Wilderness)

Numbers 21-24, When A Donkey Talks


Numbers 21 pictures the continuing victories God is giving Israel. Nations are coming out to battle Israel as they make their way to the eastern side of the Jordan River but are being soundly defeated by the power of the Lord. It is important to notice that Israel is not in the promised land, but God is giving victory to the people of Israel in these places. This brings us into Numbers 22. These victories over the nations makes the people of Moab nervous. Moab resides to the east of the Jordan River and now the people of Israel are camping in the plains of Moab. The king of Moab is named Balak and he is very concerned about the strength of Israel. Balak has seen what has happened when nations attacked Israel. Those kings were destroyed. So what is Balak, the king of Moab, going to do?

Calling Balaam (22:1-21)

There was a diviner of international fame named Balaam. Balaam is not an Israelite but is from Mesopotamia near the Euphrates River (22:5). Balak sends messengers to Balaam because he heard that “Whoever Balaam blesses are blessed, and whoever he curses is cursed” (22:6). So Balak sends important people to Balaam with fees to pay for his divination. Balaam tells these men to wait for him to get a message from the Lord about this. God comes to Balaam and tells him, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:12).

God’s answer could not be any clearer. Do not go with them and do not curse them because the people are blessed. Balaam tells the princes of Balak that the Lord has refused for him to go with them. This answer is not satisfactory to Balak. Balak sends even more princes with greater honor to Balaam, and entices Balaam to come with them. The message is that they will richly reward Balaam and the king will do whatever Balaam asks. Basically they tell Balaam to name his price. Verse 18 sounds like a wonderful answer from Balaam. He says that it does not matter if the king were to give his house full of silver and gold, he cannot go beyond the command of the Lord. It sounds like everything is solves. God said no so I am not going with you.

But that is not what Balaam does. Balaam asks the Lord once again if he can go with these princes. Up to this point Balaam seems to be a man of God with great spiritual stature. But now Balaam is doing whatever he can to try to go with these princes and be handsomely paid. So God tells Balaam to go ahead and go but only do what I tell you (22:20). Balaam gets up in the morning and saddles his donkey to go with the princes of Moab. Please notice verse 22. God’s anger was kindled because Balaam went. This gives everyone great difficulty. Didn’t God just tell Balaam to go ahead and go and now God is angry that he went? How can God be angry at Balaam?

If we think about this for a moment I think we can see the resolution to this seeming conflict. Have you ever dealt with a person who is going to follow his own will regardless of what you say? It sounds like they are asking for your permission but they are really not? Imagine this scene: husbands, the guys are planning an evening at the ball game but it is on a night that you have ready schedule to go somewhere with your wife. You go to your wife and ask if you can cancel your night and go to the game and she says no. You go back to your friends and tell them you can’t go. Your friends do not accept this answer but tell you that you have to go. It is going to be amazing. It will be the best game ever and we are going to have so much fun. So you go back to your wife and ask if you can please go with your friends. She says to you if your friends are demanding you go, then go ahead and go with them. Now, is your wife pleased? Is she happy? Did she really give you permission? No, she gave you over to your own will. She let you do what you were bound and determined to do. This is what is happening with Balaam and the Lord. Balaam is determined to go with these princes even though the Lord had plainly said to not go with them nor to curse them. All that Balaam wants is the wealth that Balak is offering. We can validate this conclusion by how the rest of the scriptures describe Balaam as a wicked person.

No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. But the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam (Deuteronomy 23:3–5 ESV)

Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. (Jude 11 ESV)

Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. (2 Peter 2:15–16 ESV)

Balaam and the Donkey (22:22-35)

So Balaam is riding his donkey to go see Balak because he wants this wealth and honor that is being offered. The donkey sees the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand (22:23). The donkey turns and starts walking into the field but Balaam struck the donkey and turned her back into the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between two walls which walled off vineyards. So the donkey saw the angel of the Lord and pushed against the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. So Balaam struck the donkey again. Finally, the angel of the Lord stands in a narrow place where there was no room to turn so the donkey just laid down underneath Balaam. Balaam in furious and beats the donkey again. Now God opens the donkey’s mouth so that Balaam and the donkey have a discussion.

“What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.” (Numbers 22:28–30 ESV)

Then God opens Balaam’s eyes to see the angel in the road. The angel tells Balaam that he has come out to oppose him because “your way is perverse before me” (22:32). This is the definition of the reckless life: going against the will of the Lord. If you need the Lord to open a donkey’s mouth to make a point, then you are terribly stubborn. But not much has changed for Balaam. He confesses his sin but then says, “If it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” (22:34). Clearly it is evil because the angel of the Lord was about to kill him for this except that a donkey saved him. But God is going to overrule the wicked heart of Balaam in a fantastic way.

Balaam’s Curses (22:36-24:25)

The angel of the Lord sends Balaam on to Balak with the instruction to speak only the words God tells him to speak. In Numbers 22:41 Balak takes Balaam to a location where they could see a fraction of the people of Israel. Now Balak has paid for Balaam to curse this fraction of Israel. But rather than curse, Balaam utters a blessing which angers Balak. The primary message of the blessing is in 23:8, “How can I curse whom God has not cursed?” If God has not cursed Israel, then no one can curse Israel.

Balak tries again, taking Balaam to another place where they can see a fraction of the people. But the same thing happens again where a blessing rather than a curse comes out of Balaam’s mouth, enraging Balak. The message of the blessing is that God keeps his promises (23:19) and God’s command is to bless Israel (23:20). Israel will rise up like a lion and devour its prey (23:24). So Balak tries a third time in a location overlooking the wilderness (23:28). Yet another blessing comes from Balaam’s mouth declaring that blessings will flow over Israel like waters (24:7) and those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed (24:9). Balak continues to be angry and tells Balaam that he is missing out on receiving this honor and fortune by proclaiming these blessings. But Balaam says that he cannot help it and cannot say what he desires but only God’s words (24:11-13). Balaam proceeds to bless Israel one more time, declaring that a scepter will arise and smash Moab (24:17) and Israel will be triumphant (24:18). After offering this blessing, Balak returns to Moab and Balaam returns home. So why is this account given in the midst of the narrative of Israel’s approach to the promised land?

Messages From Balaam’s Oracles

There are two big ideas that are being taught about God and Balaam from this text. First, we see in Balaam a driving desire that goes against God to his own destruction while not seeing it. Balaam is not truly seeking the will of God but seeking God to validate what he wants to do. But this is what is interesting. God does not stop Balaam against his will. God tells what his will is and then gives Balaam over to his own desires. But following your own desires will let to your own destruction. This is the message we are seeing. This is a representation of Israel. Israel is foolishly defying God’s will. God has revealed his will but does not force obedience. But understand this: Israel following their own desires and defying God’s will is going to lead to their own destruction. We have already witnessed this truth with the first generation of Israel dying in the wilderness for going against God’s will. Just because you are allowed to go your own way does not mean that you are acting with God’s favor. Just because you have talked to God does not mean you are doing God’s will. Just because an opportunity stands in front of you does not mean you are doing God’s will. What a warning is given to keep us from stubbornly doing our will while at the same saying that we are doing the will of the Lord!

The second message is very valuable and a key idea in the book of Numbers. God keeps his word and promises and those promises will not change even if others try to overthrow those promises. God had made a promise in Genesis 12:2-3 to bless the nations through Abraham’s offspring and bring them into Canaan (Genesis 17:1-8). God cannot lie and cannot break his word. In all of Israel’s sinning and rebellion, the promises of God were not going to fail. Israel was going to be blessed because he promised he would bless the nation. Israel was not going to be blessed because of the people’s righteousness. We are already seeing the failure of not only the first generation but also the second generation of Israelites. But God will bless Israel in his own sovereign will and nothing more.

Friends, we must understand why this is so great for us. Our salvation is not dependent on our own righteousness but on God’s sovereign will. This is the message of Ephesians 2:1-10. God does not break his word and he says that we are saved by committing our lives into his hands by faith, not by our own goodness. We trust in God and God promises to save on the basis of our faith through the blood of Jesus. Listen to how the writer of Hebrews expresses this hope.

And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. (Hebrews 6:11–18 ESV)

We have a great hope before us that has been promised by God and that promise cannot be changed. Our hope is built on these two points: the unchangeable nature of God’s character and the oath in which he cannot lie. Therefore, “We who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” Do not become sluggish but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. Seek the will of the Lord and our own. Do not validate our will. Know the will of the Lord and have faith in the promises of God to bring you into his eternal home.

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