Friday, September 3, 2010

What's weirder than a talking donkey?

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 12

Read: Numbers 21:8-31:19

Verse that stood out:
Balak said to Balaam, "What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but your have done nothing but bless them!" He answered, "Must I not speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?" - Numbers 23:11-12

The story of Balaam and his talking donkey has been one of my favorites for a long time (especially in the KJV version - take a look, you'll understand). In fact, it's been my go-to story on the many occasions where I need to fill ten minutes of time with a bunch of rowdy children waiting for their VBS snack. The story is just absurd, which is what makes it entertaining. Plus there are all sorts of fun (i.e. juvenile) statements that you get to make while recounting it: "This is a story about Balaam's talking a--" (Don't worry, I don't use that one with the kids, just the college students).

I have to admit, though, it had been a long time since I had read the story in context. I'm not sure it's my favorite story anymore. God comes off looking fairly capricious. In the first half of Numbers 22, Balaam seems to be doing what God wants, even going so far as to reject the great riches that Balak, the king of Moab is offering him if he'll put a curse on the Israelites. When God tells Balaam to go with the princes of Moab, Balaam obeys (22:20). But in the very next sentence, God is angry with Balaam for going with the the princes. The LORD is so angry, he puts an angel on the path who would have killed Balaam if not for the heroics of his talking donkey. Taken at face value, God's actions don't make any sense at all.

There's plenty of conjecture among scholars about what's going on. While Balaam uses the correct words in v 18-19, he doesn't send Balak's men away. Instead, he invites them in for the evening. God had already told Balak once not to go with these guys (22:12). Balaam shouldn't need anymore instruction from God, but he keeps the door open anyway (ala James 1:14). Maybe, deep down he wants to go with them. Maybe he's still entertaining thoughts of the gold and silver he's already rejected. Maybe God is simply giving this shady prophet enough rope to hang himself. I don't know. The scriptures don't say. I do know that later, when Balak keeps pressing Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam gets to a point where he stops asking God what to do (24:1). God has spoken, and there's no need to keep asking the LORD the same question over and over again. All Balaam needs to do is obey what he already knows.

If that is what's happening, then Balaam's initial actions are similar to an alcoholic continuing to hang around a bar even though he's professing loudly that he isn't going to take a drink. This, then, isn't a story of God's capriciousness but of his grace. Maybe, but I still think the whole episode is one of the weirdest stories in the Bible. Weirder than even a talking beast.


Alyson Sandlin said...

I think I fell in love with you when you were telling this story once. Remember in Mexico when the donkey was running around behind us????

Kevin Barron said...

I'm a little behind with this question, but I've been away without a computer for almost a week.
In Numbers 23:21 the scripture says," The Lord their God is with them; the shout of the King is among them."
Is this prophetic of Jesus?