Moab feared Israel. Israel “just” had a military victory against major forces around Moab. Israel had marched around Moab and yet hadn’t done anything directly against Moab. Moab was deeply concerned that they were next.
According to Moses (in Deuteronomy 2:9), God had directed him to leave Moab alone. There is no record of “official” interaction between the Moabites and Israel, so it would seem that Moab’s fears were based on assumptions rather than experience. Which leads us to Balaam.
The King of Moab called upon Balaam to curse the Israelites. Accusing the Israelites of being, basically, locusts seems to be a case of hyperbole. Yet, there was unsurety in Moab. It’s safer to wipe out the “other” than to communicate with them.
At first, it seems that Balaam was a righteous God-follower. As we continue the story, it seems that perhaps it was not quite so. There is an implication that God condescends to Balaam going to prophesy on King Balak’s behalf. The “go” seems to be more along the lines of, “You can go. You’re going to anyway. So, I will use your human desires to bring glory to me (God).”
And then we come to the famous part of the story, which recently came up in a conversation. The entirety of the conversation was about a talking animal. Which I get it. None of us have had an animal speak to us in human speech.
While human speech is important, our dog communicates just fine: whines, stares, growls, barks, licks, gnaws, pounces on, and so forth. She generally is successful in communicating her needs without human speech. A human baby communicates. It’s usually the parents who get the subtle differences between, “I’m hungry” cry, and “my stomach hurts” cry.
We could blame children’s Sunday School for the emphasis on a talking beast of burden. The adults are just as nonplussed as the children, though. The talking animal wasn’t the point of the story, not even close.
The talking animal was more along the lines of, “Yes, you (Balaam) said you heard me (God), but you need to understand how important it is that you actually listen to me!”
In the church, preachers/pastors/teachers will often say something along the lines of, “Yes, this hard, but the Scriptures say…” Part of this is the reality that preachers/pastors/teachers don’t want to deliver hard truth. It’s hard, and we all want to be liked. In a community that respects the Word of God, that can work.
Balaam probably doesn’t have that particular protection. Like many people of power, and especially with the gods of that era and place, they thought with the right amount of money or right sacrifice they could “move” gods to do their will. God doesn’t work that way, and Balak would likely have little joy in being thwarted.
However, that talking donkey and then the vision of the sword-bearing angel? That imagery was probably quite strong in Balaam’s eyes and heart. Likely, it was that which gave him the strength to deliver the oracles for Israel despite Barak’s insistence on curses.
A vision/experience like that would give many of us the strength to face the world.
- When you recall the talking donkey, what else do you recall? Do recall the rest of the story?
- Why is important, especially with stories like this, to understand that the Scriptures use imagery?
Lord, may we have the strength of your vision as we navigate the chaotic waters of this world. Amen.