The Bible story of Balaam and his talking donkey recorded in the book of Numbers has always mystified me, and it seems like the more I think about it, the more I find mystifying.
My initial problem comes in what appears to be God changing His mind. Here’s the background. The king of Moab wants Balaam, evidently a prophet of God, to come and curse Israel, the people of God, as they are making their way to the Promised Land.
OK, we can overlook the king’s ignorance, I guess, assuming instead that he hadn’t put two and two together—that the God who was protecting and blessing these people was the same one Balaam consulted for his prophetic words.
But on to the story. When the envoy from the king arrived, Balaam said, Let me see what God has to say about this. He came back to them and faithfully reported God’s word—No, I’m not to go with you, I’m not to curse them.
Perhaps the king had been spoiled as a child because he didn’t take no for an answer. He sent his representatives to Balaam a second time. The prophet said he’d check with God to see what else He had to say. And this time God told Balaam to go with the men but to speak only that which He told him to.
Off they go, accompanied by two of Balaam’s servants. And Balaam’s faithful donkey which he’d ridden all his life.
Along the way, an angel of the Lord lies in wait for Balaam with drawn sword in hand. The donkey sees the angel and avoids him. Three times.
Balaam, apparently frustrated by his wayward donkey, beats the animal. And then the second miracle—the donkey asks Balaam what he did to deserve the beatings. Balaam says he would have killed the donkey if he’d had a sword because the animal was mocking him.
The donkey asks if Balaam has ever known him to act this way before, and when the prophet admits he has not, his eyes are opened and he sees the angel.
The angel says to Balaam, why did you beat your donkey seeing as he saved your life?
Balaam then repents, says he sinned, and that he’ll return home if that’s what the Lord wants. The answer? No, go ahead and go, but speak only what God tells you.
Besides the God-changing-His-mind issue, I saw for the first time the God-versus-God aspect of the story. The angel of God stood with a sword to kill the prophet of God, but a miraculous talking donkey saved him. Who but God opened the eyes and the mouth of the donkey? So God saved His prophet from His angel.
Now I have to admit, I decided to post these questions because often times in writing things down, I see more clearly. And I think that might be true here.
Apparently there is something Scripture doesn’t give us in these verses—Balaam’s decision to say something he wasn’t supposed to say.
Consequently, in the same way he viewed his donkey as wayward and beat the animal and would have killed it, God stood against Balaam with sword in hand as the prophet went, apparently wayward in his heart, to meet with the king.
Except God had mercy on Balaam and gave him a second chance—well, actually three chances, as it turns out, because that’s how many times the king took Balaam to a place where he could overlook Israel and where he offered sacrifices as a way of seeking God’s curse.
Three times. The same number of times the donkey saved Balaam’s life. Coincidence?
Now, about that God-changing-His-mind issue … 🙄
This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in September 2009.