13 May 2016

Numbers 22:15-35

“Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face.” (v. 31)

Psalm: Psalm 91


These verses are the heart of a much longer story - if you have time, read from Numbers 22:1 - 24:13 which, whilst being serious in its content, is surely intentionally comic in its presentation; enjoy it!

There are four central characters:

  • Balak, King of Moab, a land which has long been an enemy of Israel
  • Balaam, apparently a diviner from Syria, who prophesies for money and is known for his accuracy but is not of the Hebrew people
  • Balaam's donkey, the hero
  • the angel of the Lord, representing Yahweh, the God of the Israelites

Balak is afraid of attack from Israel, so sends messengers and money to Balaam asking him to prophecy against Israel, to curse the threatening armies. Despite repeated invitations and escalating bribes, Balaam refuses to do so. That Balaam's reason for this is rooted in apparent conversations with Yahweh is absolutely remarkable for, as noted above, Balaam is not a Hebrew, not one of the people of Israel, but a foreigner. Possibly his refusals are expressed in this way because it is the conviction of the story-teller that Yahweh must be the God consulted by Balaam. However Balaam's words in verse 18 have come about they are significant. (Old Testament figures as great as Moses (Numbers 20:11) and Saul (1 Samuel 15:19) should take note.)

Having refused even an unlimited reward (verse 18), Balaam is visited by God in the night and told to return with the messengers after all. This he does, riding on his donkey. Immediately God's mind does a reverse, and suddenly the angel of the Lord is sent to oppose Balaam's progress. Three times he does so, blocking the path of Balaam. Each time the donkey, but not Balaam, sees the angel and takes measures to avoid him, detouring into a field, squeezing round by a wall (hurting Balaam's' foot) and, finally when there is no alternative route, lying down in the road. On each occasion the perception of the beast is unjustly rewarded with a beating from its master. Righteously indignant the donkey now addresses Balaam questioning the beatings. Surely Balaam's response to this should be amazement that his donkey can speak but there is no hint of that, rather he answers him rationally, justifying his harsh treatment! An exchange of logic follows in which Balaam agrees that the donkey's apparently recalcitrant behaviour is out of character.

One wonders where this all might end, but thankfully the Lord now opens Balaam's eyes, so the angel of the Lord becomes visible to him as well, and, like the animal, his response is to fall on his face. The angel addresses Balaam in words which echo his own rebuke to the donkey ("I would have killed you" (v. 33)), Balaam confesses his sin (not recognising the presence of God?) and offers to return home. In a bizarre ending to a bizarre tale, however, he is bidden to continue - the final result being unaltered from the outset. Reading into the subsequent chapters reveals that these experiences of the donkey are further paralleled in Balak's experience with Balaam.

To Ponder

  • This story forms one link in a distinguished chain in Scripture where God is revealed in unlikely people (cf Isaiah 45:1, Matthew 2:1 for just two examples). How can we be better prepared for the unexpected?!
  • Can you think of times when, for some reason, you have not recognised the presence of God? What happened?

Bible notes author

Jill Baker

Jill Baker lives in Glasgow and is glad to be part of the small but distinctive Methodist Church in Scotland. She is a local preacher and local preachers’ tutor in the Strathclyde Circuit, where her husband Andrew is superintendent minister. For Jill, the past 20 years have included all sorts of roles within Methodism – further afield (as a mission partner in the South Caribbean) and closer to home (with WFMUCW, MWiB, leading pilgrimages and as part of various committees and groups) and is currently the Vice-President of the Conference 2017/2018. When not engaged in these ways, Jill enjoys walking in the beautiful mountains of Scotland, gardening and writing; she blogs at and "Thanks, Peter God", her book about the life of her son, Peter, who died in 2012, was published in 2016.