Why Did Jesus Warn Us About Balaam? (part 2)
In part 1, we looked at the error of Balaam — which appears to be willingness to do wrong for financial gain. Now let’s look at the doctrine of Balaam.
As you remember from part 1, King Balak of Moab sends messengers to Balaam offering money if he will just come and curse Israel. God tells Balaam not to do it, so Balaam says No to the messengers. Then King Balak send higher rank guys with a bigger bribe. Balaam is tempted, so he asks God for a second opinion. God tells him to go with the messengers “but do only what I tell you to do.”
And while Balaam is making the journey, God sends his angel to bar the way so that Balaam will realise that God isn’t pleased with his attitude and is ‘on his case.’ The angel reiterates God’s instructions: “Go with these men, but say only what I tell you to say.”
So now we go on with the story. When Balaam arrives, there’s a bit of jockeying for position. King Balak reprimands Balaam for not coming sooner and reminds him of the wealth and power he can bestow on the prophet. Balaam pushes back by replying that he can only speak the words that God gives him to speak.
When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the Moabite town on the Arnon border, at the edge of his territory. Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send you an urgent summons? Why didn’t you come to me? Am I really not able to reward you?”
“Well, I have come to you now,” Balaam replied. “But I can’t say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.” (Numbers 22:36-38 NIV)
Is Balaam obeying God at this point? It would seem so. But remember that he has already been rebuked by the lowly donkey; and God has felt it necessary to double-drill His instructions into Balaam’s entitled head, rather like a surgeon trepans a skull.
At Balaam’s initiative, he and the king build seven altars and sacrifice a bull and a ram on each altar. Balaam then goes off to a private place to see if God will give him a word of prophecy. God does, and it is word of blessing for Israel, not a curse.
King Balak is furious. And like a movie director ordering Take Two, he asks Balaam to come with him to another place to try again. Balaam agrees; he is arrogant enough to try for a second opinion from God in whom there is no shadow of turning (James 1:17).
At Balaam’s instigation, they repeat the ritual of altar building and sacrificing. How important Balaam makes himself look by commanding Balak to build all these altars and sacrifice all these animals! He likes to perform. He likes to make a big impression. But would God be impressed? Not likely. (“I want your loyalty, not your sacrifices. I want you to know me, not to give me burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6, GW)
Balaam then goes off privately to seek a word from God. God gives a second prophesy of blessing upon Israel. Here is part of Balaam’s second oracle:
God is not a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind. Does He speak and not act, or promise and not fulfill?
I have indeed received a command to bless; since He has blessed, I cannot change it. He considers no disaster for Jacob; He sees no trouble for Israel. The Lord their God is with them, and there is rejoicing over the King among them. God brought them out of Egypt; He is like the horns of a wild ox for them. There is no magic curse against Jacob and no divination against Israel.
It will now be said about Jacob and Israel, “What great things God has done!” (Numbers 23:19-23 HCSB)
Here is verse 21 in another translation:
God saw no wrong in Jacob’s people. He saw no sin in the Israelites. The Lord is their God, and he is with them. The Great King is with them! (ERV).
God’s heart for his people is not like all those sermons we’ve heard that accuse, slam, and blame us. How many times have we been told that we’re good for nothing? How many ‘c’hristian books have slammed us left and right, accusing and blaming us for everything? But when God looks at you, dear Christian — if you are someone whom God has regenerated unto saving faith— if you are in Christ and Christ dwells in you— God says you are the “the righteousness of God in Christ.” (2 Cor 5:21)
King Balak is not happy! He pretty much tells Balaam to shut up: “Do not curse them at all, and do not bless them at all.” Balaam reminds him, “Did I not tell you, ‘All that the LORD says, that I must do’?” (23:25-26)
But the king had spoken impulsively, he doesn’t really want Balaam to stop. We know this because he orders Take Three (v 27). And Balaam complies. They do the whole altar and sacrifice thing again. But this time Balaam doesn’t go off privately to seek an omen.
Balaam saw that the Lord wanted to bless Israel so he did not try to change that by using any kind of magic. (24:1a ERV)
When Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness. [facing where the Israelites were camped] (24:1 ESV)
Balaam’s third prophecy blesses and praises Israel … and it announces destruction on Israel’s enemies.
God brings him [Israel] out of Egypt and is for him like the horns of the wild ox; he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces and pierce them through with his arrows. (24:8 ESV)
King Balak is furious and he refuses to pay Balaam anything.
But God hasn’t finished using Balaam as his spokesperson. He inspires him to prophesy the coming of Israel’s Messiah and the destruction of Moab, Edom and Amalek.
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly. And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!” (24:17-19 ESV)
No matter how much King Balak tried to engineer a curse on God’s people, and no matter how Balaam in his greed toyed with the offer of financial gain and cooperated with Balak’s scheme, God kept insisting on blessing His people. We find a summary of this in Deuteronomy 23:5 —
… the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. (NIV)
Balaam may have spoken God’s word, but in his heart he was on the side of the evil
Balaam, for all his ‘obedience’ in prophesying only the words that God gave him, is not happy about having missed out on his speaking fee. So he figures out how to get the money. He couldn’t get it by being a prophet. But he can get it by being a consultant, an advisor, a counselor, a mentor to Balak. The advisors behind the scenes can often pull more strings than the men who hold the microphones.
He tells Balak the secret to destroying Israel — seduce them into sin and then God will have to destroy them for you.
So Balak gets attractive women to tempt the Israelites. The porn stars and spin doctors of Moab do their thing. “Come to the feast we’re having! It’s gonna be a great party!” … And the Israelites fall into sin.
While Israel was staying in the Acacia Grove, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. The women invited them to the sacrifices for their gods, and the people ate and bowed in worship to their gods. So Israel aligned itself with Baal of Peor, and the Lord’s anger burned against Israel. The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the Lord so that His burning anger may turn away from Israel.”
So Moses told Israel’s judges, “Kill each of the men who aligned themselves with Baal of Peor.”
An Israelite man came bringing a Midianite woman to his relatives in the sight of Moses and the whole Israelite community while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he got up from the assembly, took a spear in his hand, followed the Israelite man into the tent, and drove it through both the Israelite man and the woman—through her belly. Then the plague on the Israelites was stopped, but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000. (Numbers 25:1-9 HCSB)
God’s heart is broken. Sin has consequences. He has to hurt the people that He wanted to protect. Twenty-four thousand people die from a plague. The plague only stops when Phinehas takes the initiative to purge sin out of the camp.
This is the part of the story that Jesus references in Revelation 2:14 when he tells the church at Pergamos —
But I have a few things against you, because you have some there who follow Balaam’s teaching. Balaam had taught Balak to trip up the Israelites so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality. In the same way, you have some who follow the Nicolaitans’ teaching. Rev 2:14-15 (CEB)
Jesus seems to be telling us that the essence of the doctrine of Balaam involves laying a stumbling block in front of others. Tripping up believers so they go off the path.
In practical terms, the teaching or doctrine of Balaam is the view that Christians can—or even should—compromise their convictions for the sake of popularity, money, sexual gratification, or personal gain. It’s the attitude that treats sin as “no big deal.” (link)
Yet even when there is a stumbling block, everyone is still responsible for their own choices. This is what the Apostle Paul emphasizes when he references this story —
These things show us something. They teach us not to want things that are bad for us like those people did.
So anyone who thinks they are standing strong should be careful that they don’t fall.
God is faithful. He will not allow you to be tempted more than you can take. But when you are tempted, He will make a way for you to keep from falling into sin. (1 Cor 10:6,12,13b ERV)
This is pretty heavy stuff. Balaam’s advice led to the destruction of thousands of lives. And Judgment day came to Balaam when Israel killed him in battle — Num 31:8; Josh 13:22.
And there was a consequence for the Moabites too. God banned Moabites from attending worship services with the Israelites for ten generations! Not because they were from a different tribe but because they had hired Balaam to revile the Israelites and they had enticed the Israelites into sexual and spiritual sin. That’s how seriously God takes this stuff!
God didn’t want the Moabites to have any chance of closely socialising with the Israelites, for if Moabites were going to church with Israelites, the Moabites might have been able to recruit a covetous Israelite to help them draw the people of Israel into sin.
So what do we learn from this story?
My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.
(Micah 6:5 NIV)
Shittim is Acacia Grove — the place where the Israelites sinned with the Moabites (Num 25:1). Gilgal is where they camped after crossing the Jordan, where they renewed the covenant with God through circumcision symbolizing dying to the fleshly nature. (Josh 5)
Looking back on this story we can see how God cares for us — that He will turn a curse into a blessing because He loves us. We also see the warning that even after God delivered Israel out of Egyptian bondage, they were seduced in the wilderness and there were consequences for those sins they committed.
We must watch out for the error and doctrine of Balaam in our churches
As believers we are called to recognize, resist and oppose the way, error and doctrine of Balaam—
- the willingness to do wrong for financial gain, especially willingness to revile God’s people for payment
- teaching that causes God’s people to be tripped up, any teaching that entices God’s people into sin
- willingness to cooperate with the plots of God’s enemies
God exhorts us to RESIST – not submit – to sin.
Since we are surrounded by so many examples, we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially sin that distracts us. We must run the race that lies ahead of us and never give up. Hebrews 12:1 (GW)
Some of what we lay aside might be the burden of false guilt for someone else’s sin against us.
And some of what we get rid of (or remove ourselves from) will be the influencers in the church who are dedicated to the kind of covetousness and compliance with God’s enemies that Balaam displayed.
This post was drafted by Avid Reader and MarkQ. Barb Roberts then edited it and added some material. Because Barb added so much, the byline shows Barb as the author. But Barb is immensely grateful to these two for starting the ball rolling — she has learned a lot from working on this series.
Posts in this series
Part 2: Is this post.