This post last updated on August 21st, 2022
One of the most interesting characters you’ll ever find in the Bible is a guy named Balaam. In all honesty, I’ve had a hard time figuring this guy out. He starts out and you think he’s a man following God. He says and does all the right things when you first encounter him in the book of Numbers. He even looks pious at times.
He’s a guy who dines with a king, is well known among his own people and is a legend in neighboring lands. He’s also the only person I’ve ever read about who actually talks with a donkey.
Balaam’s story is found in the Old Testament, but Peter and Jude mention him by name in the New Testament. In fact, you’ll even find him again in Revelation. There’s more page coverage given to this donkey riding prophet than there is Mary, Jesus’ mother, and than the apostles. He’s got presentation, he has God’s ear, and he clearly hears God’s voice.
So who is this donkey riding guy, was he genuine, and how did his donkey get so smart? More importantly, what can we learn from this prophet with a talking donkey?
Balaam and Balak
The account is recorded in Numbers chapters 22-24. Israel was there, camped out in the plain of Moab near the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert.
Balak was the king of Moab and saw what happened to the other nations in the neighborhood that stood against the Israelites. The king was scared, so he hired a well known prophet. Balak wanted him to issue a curse against Israel so that the Moabites could defeat them and get them out of their back yard.
This is where Balaam looked like a real man of God. He took the time to ask God what to do, and he listened when God instructed him not to go with Balak’s men. The king sent his men back a second time with more money to persuade this seer to come curse Israel, and again he refused. Looks like obedience, right? But look at verse 19.
But stay here one more night, and I will see if the LORD has anything else to say to me.Numbers 22:19
What’s going on here is our prophet wants to do what God has told him not to do. We all do that now and then and it’s never a good thing, but God allows us to do what we want to do. That’s something called the permissive will of God. It means that He will sometimes allow us to do things that we insist on doing, even when what we want directly opposes His will.
I can’t explain it any better than saying sin always carries consequences. So many things have gone wrong in my life when I’ve done that, and I’m sure you can relate. That’s what Balaam is doing here and it’s probably the money that’s enticing him.
The Way of Balaam: Lesson 1
What happens next is God says, “You want to go? So then go.” God sees something in his heart that’s easy to miss. You’ll find that by backing up 2 verses.
Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the LORD my God.Numbers 22:18
His thoughts were on that increased bounty Balak’s men had brought. Peter wrote about that and pointed out that Balaam’s way was greed. Sadly, you could probably name at least one modern celebrity pastor whose measure of success is how many books they sell rather than how many lives are changed by their books.
They have wandered off the right road and followed the footsteps of Balaam son of Beor, who loved to earn money by doing wrong. But Balaam was stopped from his mad course when his donkey rebuked him with a human voice.2 Peter 2:15-16
Balaam and the Talking Donkey
Ok, if the narration of the talking donkey doesn’t suggest God’s sense of humor, then certainly the prophet’s response does. He answered the animal!
In all seriousness, Numbers 22:21-35 gives us a whole lot more to think about than a talking donkey.
First, the donkey makes Balaam mad because it disobeys his lead and wanders off of the road. That’s because God allowed the animal to see the “angel of the LORD standing in the way” (Numbers 22:21-23).
Even a jackass has the discernment to not stand against an angel with a sword in hand! And apparently, the donkey has more spiritual discernment than our prophet here. Balaam’s focus was on that reward, no doubt, and the response was to beat the poor thing.
Second, the “angel of the LORD” is astonishing because all evidence points to this being none other than a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament, in the flesh. We know this because in verse 31, Balaam sees the angel.
He did what we’d all do and fell on his face. If it were not Jesus, the angel would have commanded him to get off of the ground. Angels in scripture do that because they don’t want to be worshiped.
Balaam Schemes and Israel Sins
So in Numbers 23, the prophet for hire finally meets up with the king and gives the first 2 of 4 prophecies. Don’t forget, Balak is offering a reward to curse Israel, but the prophet is only allowed to speak as God leads.
So he blesses Israel. Twice! The first blessing is a prophecy that Israel will be multiplied (Numbers 23:7-10) and in the second, he proclaims that with God on their side, Israel is indestructible and that God will not change His promises (Numbers 23:18-24).
Meanwhile, in Israel’s camp, there is sin. Some of the men had brought prostitutes of the pagan deity Baal into the camp and Balaam not only knew it, but may have instigated it. That could be why the prophet presumes that God will condemn Israel and he in turn would collect the reward from Balak.
Better than a TV drama, right?
But what Balaam didn’t understand was that God had already dealt with Israel’s sin and had forgiven them. He wasn’t going to let anyone bring accusations against His people after He had already dealt with them.
The Error of Balaam: Lesson 2
Don’t miss this. How many times, like Balaam against Israel, does Satan bring accusations against you and I? Just like Israel, God has dealt with your sin if you have received Christ as your savior. Your sin is judged in Christ on the cross when you place your faith in Him. The sin of a Christ follower is between them and God. There’s no third party access.
Who will bring charges against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ is the one who died, and more than that, who was raised, who is also at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.Romans 8:33-34
The error of Balaam is twofold. First, he didn’t understand God’s righteousness and how He imparts that to those who put their faith in Him.
Second, his error was compromising his own morality in order to appease a pagan king.
If you think that sounds familiar, it should. Christians today are full of compromise. We compromise by the kind of words we allow to come out of our mouths. We compromise by what movies and shows we watch, by the books we read, the music we listen to, and by who we hang out with and what we do while we’re hanging out.
Some even compromise by what verses in the Bible they choose to overlook so as not to be socially offensive.
Woe to them! For they have traveled in the way of Cain, and have given themselves up to the error of Balaam for gain, and have perished in the rebellion of Korah.Jude 11
The Doctrine of Balaam: Lesson 3
There’s one more lesson the New Testament writers teach us about this Old Testament character, and that’s his false doctrine.
The hired help couldn’t curse Israel for Balak, so he taught the pagan Moabites to seduce Israel instead. He showed Israel’s enemy their unguarded back door. That happened in Numbers chapter 25. Because Israel fell into that trap, 24,000 Israelites died (Numbers 25:9). Do you remember when I said that your sin was judged in Christ after you put your faith in Him? That doesn’t mean that God won’t discipline His people.
We need to understand that condemnation and discipline are not the same.
But I have a few things against you: that you have there those who hold fast to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality.Revelation 2:14
And Satan still works just like he always has. Just like these characters, Satan cannot directly curse God’s people. So he finds another approach. He looks for the back door we’ve left open and like Israel, his wedge in the church today is more often than not idolatry and sexual immorality.
The Lessons of Balaam
The prophet who rode a talking donkey wasn’t so bad when we first met him. You might even like him in the beginning, but it didn’t take long for him to show his true hand. His heart wasn’t right with God. His way was greed, his error was compromise, and his doctrine was betrayal and corruption.
These are the lessons of Balaam, and they’re still infiltrating the church and individual lives thousands of years later.
And by the way, don’t beat a donkey that decides to talk to you. It may well be God getting your attention.