What is the story of Balaam and the talking donkey?


By BibleAsk Team

Balaam and Balak

The story of Balaam, son of Beor, and the talking donkey is found in Numbers 22-23 in the Bible. The son of Beor was at one point a good prophet of God, but he had a strong love for money. And this weakness led to his fall.

The people of Israel were close to finally entering the promised land, and they were near the borders of a country whose king was Balak. When Balak saw the host of Israel, he was afraid and sent for Balaam, a known prophet at the time, to come and curse the Israelites. In exchange, the king promised the “prophet” gifts.

Balak had heard of the effectiveness of this “prophet’s” powers. But the “prophet” knew that the Israelites were God’s people, and that he could not curse them. Instead of saying no to King Balak’s offer, he hesitated because of the rich gifts and promises of wealth that the king of Moab offered him.

In verse 12 and 13, God revealed His will to the “prophet” saying, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed. So, Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Moab, “Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to give me permission to go with you.”

But the “prophet” wanted in his heart to go and obtain the gifts. Had he desired to do God’s will, the words recorded in verse 12 would have ended the matter. But when a man is insistent on his own way, the Lord allows him to do what he wants and reap the consequences (Psalms 81:11, 12 also Hosea 4:17). God’s government is a government of free moral choice; He does not force the human will. He instructs man that disobedience brings destruction but does not stop man’s wrong choices.

So, in numbers 22:20, the Lord permitted the “prophet” to do what he really wanted to do. And the Lord said, “If the men come to call you, rise and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you—that you shall do.” This was merely a permissive command. It was not based on God’s will but on man’s will.

The Talking Donkey

Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. But God was very angry with him. And the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. So, the “prophet” beat it to get it back on the road.

Then, the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing the “prophet’s” foot against it. So, the “prophet” beat the donkey one more time.

Again, the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under the “prophet,” who became angry, and beat it with his staff. At this point, the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to the man, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (Numbers 22:28).

Then, God opened Balaam’s eyes and showed him the angel standing in the way with His sword drawn in His hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way and went into the field. The donkey was trying to avoid death (Numbers 22:31). Greed blinded the eyes of Balaam that he could not see what the donkey was seeing. The truth is that the “prophet” owed his life to the ass he had severely beaten. The spirit that controlled him was reflected in his behavior.

The story continues when the Lord permitted Balaam to do what he wants and go to Balak. But He commanded him saying, only the word that I speak to you, that you shall speak. So Balaam went to Balak. There, he prophesied, “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how shall I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?“Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number one-fourth of Israel?” (Numbers 23:8-10). Balak got angry and rebuked Balaam for instead of cursing Israel he blessed it. Balaam responded that he could not speak except what the Lord has put in his mouth (Numbers 23:11,12). 

New Testament Warning

Balaam is an example of a prophet who apostatized from his mission, seeking to make financial profit out of his divine calling. Accordingly, we read about God’s warning to His people against accepting his course of action in the New Testament:

  1. John warns against Balaam’s “doctrine” of betrayal and corruption (Revelation 2:14).  The analogy with Balaam suggests that there were some at Pergamum whose goal was to divide and destroy the church by promoting practices that were forbidden to believers. Balaam was working for his own interests, not those of God’s children.
  2. Jude warns against his “error” of compromise (Jude 11). Peter teaches that the false teachers had “gone astray” after Balaam, while they were following the “error” of Balaam.
  3. 3-Peter warns against his “way” of greed (2 Peter 2:15). Instead of adhering to the way of the Lord, the false teachers have followed the steps of Balaam. These false teachers have loved financial profit and have promoted sensuality, even as did the ancient prophet. Balaam and the false teachers had their minds set on the worldly pleasures gained from their wicked practices.

In His service,
BibleAsk team

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