Why Did Jesus Warn Us About Balaam? (part 1)
What would it be like for Jesus to suddenly appear to us in an open vision? That’s what happened to John in the book of Revelation. Jesus appeared to him with a message for the seven churches and a warning for us about the doctrine of Balaam. (Rev 2:14)
Out of all the Old Testament characters, why would Jesus mention Balaam?
Read through the rest of the New Testament and you find that Jude also warns us about the error of Balaam. (Jude 1:11)
And Peter warns about the way of Balaam. (2 Peter 2:15)
That’s THREE direct New Testament warnings so this must be pretty important. Plus, there’s another reference where the Apostle Paul mentions this story without specifically naming Balaam. (1 Corinthians 10:1-14)
We, Avid Reader and MarkQ, have jointly written this post to help us consider what Balaam’s error was. (In a subsequent post we will be looking at the doctrine of Balaam.)
The story of Balaam
Balaam, a man from Mesopotamia (Deut 23:4), first appears in Numbers 22 when the Israelites are passing through the land of Moab on their way to the Promised Land. Is Israel planning to attack Moab and take their land? No. God had told Moses —
Don’t harass Moab or provoke them to war because I won’t give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as their property. Deuteronomy 2:9 (ISV)
The nation of Moab and Balak their king (= tribal chieftain) felt afraid when the Israelites camped in the plains of Moab. And they hated the children of Jacob / Israel. Chief Balak decides that striking first is his only option. He commissions some leaders of Moab as envoys to Balaam, to bribe him to curse the Israelites.
Then the Israelites moved and set up camp across from Jericho, on the plains of Moab east of the Jordan River.
Balak, son of Zippor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. The Moabites were very afraid because there were so many Israelites. Besides, the Moabites couldn’t stand these people.
So the Moabites said to the leaders of Midian, “All those people will eventually eat up everything around us the same way an ox eats up the grass in a field.”
At that time Balak, son of Zippor, was king of Moab. He sent messengers to summon Balaam, son of Beor, who was at Pethor, on the Euphrates River, in the land where his people lived.
Balak’s message was, “A nation has just come here from Egypt. They’ve spread out all over the countryside and are setting up their camp here in front of me. Please come and curse these people for me, because they are too strong for me. Maybe then I’ll be able to defeat them and force them out of the country. I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.”
The leaders of Moab and Midian left, taking money with them to pay for Balaam’s services. They came to Balaam and told him what Balak had said.
(Numbers 22:1-7, GW)
Balaam seeks God for guidance. God responds, “Don’t go with them. You MUST NOT curse these people. They are my people.” (Numbers 22:12b ERV)
Balaam obeys God and sends the messengers home.
King Balak isn’t happy. He sends even more money and more messengers to Balaam that are “higher in rank than the others.” Numbers 22:15b (HSCB)
This time Balaam gets the king’s message loud and clear. King Balak is offering him anything he wants if he just curses the Israelites. Balaam tells the messengers that he’ll pray about it.
Why does he want to pray about it? Hasn’t God already told him what to do? Why won’t Balaam take No as an answer from God? Is Balaam hoping to change God’s mind? God always wants the best for us; but Balaam seems to be thinking about how he can line his own pockets by throwing everyone else under the bus. This is the first hint that Balaam is venal — that he’s showing or motivated by susceptibility to bribery.
However, God still has the last word and He can turn every circumstance round for His overarching plan. That night God tells Balaam to go with the messengers “but do only what I tell you to do.” Numbers 22:20 (ERV)
We can suspect that God is displeased with Balaam for caring more about money than God’s people. Balaam seems to be mouthing obedience to God even “while his heart is far from Me.” (Matt 15:8)
The next morning Balaam leaves with the messengers. We can surmise that God is not happy about Balaam’s heart- and mind-set, because He sends His angel to stand in the road to block the way:
As Balaam and two servants were riding along, Balaam’s donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand. The donkey bolted off the road into a field, but Balaam beat it and turned it back onto the road.
Then the angel of the Lord stood at a place where the road narrowed between two vineyard walls. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it tried to squeeze by and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So Balaam beat the donkey again.
Then the angel of the Lord moved farther down the road and stood in a place too narrow for the donkey to get by at all. This time when the donkey saw the angel, it lay down under Balaam. In a fit of rage Balaam beat the animal again with his staff. Then the Lord gave the donkey the ability to speak.
“What have I done to you that deserves your beating me three times?” it asked Balaam.
“You have made me look like a fool!” Balaam shouted. “If I had a sword with me, I would kill you!”
“But I am the same donkey you have ridden all your life,” the donkey answered. “Have I ever done anything like this before?”
“No,” Balaam admitted.
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the roadway with a drawn sword in his hand. Balaam bowed his head and fell face down on the ground before him.
“Why did you beat your donkey those three times?” the angel of the Lord demanded. “Look, I have come to block your way because you are STUBBORNLY RESISTING ME. Three times the donkey saw me and shied away; otherwise, I would certainly have killed you by now and spared the donkey.”
Then Balaam confessed to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned. I didn’t realize you were standing in the road to block my way. I will return home if you are against my going.”
But the angel of the Lord told Balaam, “Go with these men, but say only what I tell you to say.” So Balaam went on with Balak’s officials.
(Numbers 22:22-35 NLT)
Think about what’s happening here. Who seems to be taking orders from Balaam? The donkey, the two servants, the messengers…even King Balak.
But who’s going astray here? Who is blind to what’s standing right in front of him? Who shouts in rage when his way is stopped? Who tries to punish those that question him? Balaam! His heart is revealed by how he treats the donkey. He explodes in a fit of rage when he thinks the donkey is “making him look like a fool.” Then he uses both emotional and physical abuse to overpower the donkey’s will. Sound familiar? How many pastors would have applauded Balaam for “breaking the will” of the donkey?
There’s a pervasive thought in the church that only those brought down to nothing reach out to God, thus we need to break the wills of our children (and wives) so that they can be useful to God. The will is assumed to be depraved so people in authority assume that willfulness is the wrong choice and the right choice must be forced. Yet in reality, this is a stumbling block. People who work from that assumption are ignoring that God is able to work inside of us “both to will and to do His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13) And they are assuming that because the ones in authority have authority, their wills must not be depraved and it is only the ones under authority whose wills are depraved.
(Game. Set. Match. No arguing with the umpire. )
There’s also a belief that training children and congregants to obey by strong and strict discipline for any supposed rebellion (i.e. saying no to any request) is the key to helping people obey God. Yet that is actually the key to driving children and congregants away from God. This is calling evil, good … and good, evil … by teaching that children’s willfulness must be punished without regard to whether it’s good or bad willfulness. That opens the door to the church siding with the
abuser “the man in authority” by assuming that he was just breaking the will of the abused “the disobedient.”
Another belief is that outward obedience can produce inward fruits. For example, if parents force their children to go to youth group, to attend worship, and to obey them with a smile, the children will somehow develop the heart for God that goes along with it.
These three things intersect to produce Pharisees: people who hate God (who they’ve been taught God is), who maintain an external veneer of good works. And who then — when they are in power — try to force others to maintain the similar veneer. Talk about a millstone.
Yet here — in the most clear example of this in the Bible — the donkey’s rebellion was to save Balaam’s life; but it was rewarded with cruel beatings. Did God then tell the donkey to be more submissive and obedient to protect Balaam’s image? Did God condemn the donkey for being too willful? NO! Once again we see that God NEVER condones abuse.
If even the humble donkey had the right to have its own opinion valued and to live free of abuse, how much more do we who are made in God’s image? Remember when Jesus talked about how much God cared for the sparrows, He said,
Do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matt 10:31 BSB)
If even the lowly donkey at the bottom of the totem pole has the right to speak up for itself, ask questions, and RESIST abuse, then how much more do we who are made in God’s image? There’s a deep principle revealed in how the angel of the Lord confirmed that the donkey was the righteous one and Balaam was the sinful one.
How many of us have felt like that donkey? We can see the leader heading in the wrong direction, but we’re scared to speak up after all the sermons warning us that only sinful Absalom types question the leadership. (Remember Pastor Mark Driscoll called it sinning by questioning? link) So we remain quiet until finally we work up enough courage to speak up — only to feel the wrath of the leadership descend on us for making them look bad.
But Balaam didn’t get away with anything. The judgment was still coming even if it was delayed for a while. God had come came to Balaam at night in verse 20 and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but do only what I tell you to do.” And when Balaam raged against the donkey, God resisted Balaam’s entitlement by re-issuing his order: “Go with these men, but say only what I tell you to say.”
God knows that abusers, and hard-hearted men in particular, need stern admonishment— correction that minces no words. And with men like that, the instructions may need to be repeated.
For what error did the donkey correct Balaam?
As we saw earlier, the references in Peter and Jude refer to the way / error of Balaam. But Jesus referred to the doctrine of Balaam. What’s the difference?
The typical approach in evangelical circles is to lump the two things together — some say that the error was sinfully accommodating the world and the teaching was that Christians should accommodate the world by sacrificing the essence of the Gospel to become more appealing to outsiders. That’s one way of looking at it, but let’s dig a little deeper here.
We know that Balaam was specifically hired to curse Israel. In Young’s translation of Deuteronomy 23:4 its says Balaam was hired to revile Israel. Pastor Jeff explained how reviling works in a really powerful post called, An Abuser is Called a “Reviler” in Scripture, And the Reviler is no Christian:
To revile someone is to mock them, to condemn them, to curse them, to falsely accuse them. And of course we all know that this is precisely what the abuser does with his mouth. He reviles his victim.
In the sermon Wise as Serpents: Calling Evil Good, and Good Evil (part 18), Pastor Jeff goes deeper on this, describing how the true nature of evil is revealed:
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)
Evil actively works to deceive you. To convince you that what is the light of God’s word is really darkness and falsehood. And what is darkness and falsehood is really lightness and truth. Evil wants you to doubt your ability to perceive, to make judgments. If you are not wise in this regard you will find yourself falsely guilted, shamed and wearing a load of self-condemnation that is unjust.
Then continuing in his Wise as Serpents series, in the sermon Cain is Still Among Us Today, Pastor Jeff says:
Today many Christians are surprised when they are hated. They are told that it is their fault and they believe it — they are told they are too judgmental, too harsh, too narrow, they are blamed for dividing the family. But who is the real culprit? Cain! Cain killed Abel for one reason only — Cain was evil. Abel was righteous.
Abel was the very first victim of domestic violence in the history of the human race — killed simply because Cain was evil and hated Abel for his own righteousness — Cain exemplifies typical denial, blame-shifting and self-pity.
Doesn’t that sound like what Balaam was doing to the donkey? The spirit of Cain appears in the story of Balaam as the sinful one (Balaam) persecutes the righteous one (the donkey). Interestingly, Jude actually mentions both Cain and Balaam in the same verse. Listen to this.
Woe to them! They have traveled the path of Cain; they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam; they have perished in Korah’s rebellion. Jude 1:11 (BSB)
Keeping that in mind, think about how some pastors have bitterly opposed victims of abuse that came to them for help. Why? Were the pastors more concerned about keeping the peace in their church even if it meant reviling / slandering the victims? Did they fear that acknowledging sin in their midst would cause people to think less of their ministry and walk out the door? Were they more concerned about the finances of the church and their own pay-check, than the people? Is that a type of Balaam?
Balaam rebuked the donkey — the lowly donkey who was more obedient to God that he was. So the donkey rebuked Balaam!
The error of Balaam — willingness to do wrong for financial gain, especially willingness to revile God’s people for payment
Balaam was willing to go along with a wicked man’s plan to revile God’s people … for profit. The carrot of wealth was held out to Balaam, and he liked it. “He was willing to use his God-given talents for illicit purposes.” (link)
This is the part of the story that Peter references while writing in the New Testament under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Peter is warning us to be on our guard for wolves in the church.
These false teachers left the right way and went the wrong way. They followed the same way that the prophet Balaam went. . .who loved being paid for doing wrong. But a donkey told him that he was doing wrong. A donkey cannot talk, of course, but that donkey spoke with a man’s voice and stopped the prophet from acting so crazy.
These false teachers are like springs that have no water. They are like clouds that are blown by a storm. A place in the deepest darkness has been kept for them. They boast with words that mean nothing. They lead people into the trap of sin. They find people who have just escaped from a wrong way of life and lead them back into sin. They do this by using the evil things people want to do in their human weakness. These false teachers promise those people freedom, but they themselves are not free. They are slaves to a mind that has been ruined by sin. Yes, people are slaves to anything that controls them. People can be made free from the evil in the world. They can be made free by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But if they go back into those evil things and are controlled by them, then it is worse for them than it was before.” 2 Peter 2:15-20 (ERV)
And Jude confirms this when he talks about the error of Balaam:
But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. 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 1:10-11 ESV)
These false teachers are willing to do wrong if they get paid for it.
A person following the doctrine of Balaam is willing to compromise his beliefs for the sake of economics. He acts to enable sinful behaviors for personal gain or even participate in them.
They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. (Romans 1:32 NLT)
How many leaders in the church today are guilty of that? So many teachers gloss over the the error of Balaam or make it sound like an arcane Old Testament pagan-idolatry thing that is scarcely relevant to the church today — but they are committing it themselves.
These false teachers have hurt many of us and done it in the name of God. But once we identify them for what they are, we realize that God was not the one hurting His people. God’s heart for us is revealed in Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV):
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
This post was drafted by Avid Reader and MarkQ — many thanks to them. Barb Roberts then edited it and added some material.
Posts in this series
Part 1: Is this post.