October 25, 2013

Summer Special: Story

This is the third installment of a series of articles focusing upon the book of Numbers—a must-read for those waiting to enter the Promised Land.1

It was a balmy night. Rebekah listened drowsily to the rhythmic breathing of her husband lying next to her. Her little son, Aviv, was getting ready to exercise his tiny lungs. It was time—and he was hungry.

Quickly, before Aviv began his night serenade, Rebekah had the little bundle in her arms and moved silently and quickly to the entrance of the family tent. She did not want to wake up her hardworking husband and the other members of the large household.

The moon shone brightly and the stars filled the night sky with brilliant little sparkling lights. Rebekah heard the rhythm of the night orchestrated by cicadas and crickets. As she nursed Aviv she looked around the large encampment. There were very few lights in the orderly rows of family tents surrounding the tabernacle. Smoke was slowly trailing heavenward from the big altar located at the inner court of the sanctuary. Rebekah could see some tiny slivers of lights shining through a gap in the curtain. Oh, yes, that must be the light from the candleholder in the holy place. Little Aviv slurped the warm milk greedily; he was happy and content.

Rebekah looked beyond the tabernacle structure and saw the tents of the Levites and priests closely surrounding the sanctuary. She could already hear the sounds of early morning. As she lifted her eyes she could make out the shape of the mountains bordering the plains of Moab. On the other side of the camp she could see the deep gorge of the Jordan River—the Promised Land was right there, waiting for them to enter.

Aviv had finally fallen asleep again. Rebekah turned around once more. A quiet camp surrounded by silent mountains. The Promised Land awaited them on the other side. Peace filled her heart as she put her son on his mat in the family tent. God was watching over him. She did not see the fleeting shadows climbing the mountains overlooking the large camp of Israel.2

The Blessing

Numbers is not only a book of lists, itineraries, murmurings, and rebellions. Numbers—as most other books in Scripture—looks beyond the familiar landscape of God’s people. Pegged in between the description of the first successful military campaigns of Israel in the Negev and on the eastern side of the Jordan (Num. 21) and the second census of the new generation (Num. 26) we find the curious story of Balaam and Balak—prophet and king with dubious links to Israel.

It is a well-known story: a willing, curse-for-hire prophet, eager to stock up his retirement fund; a king frightened by the stories of military victories of Israel’s multitudes; a donkey that sees what people do not see and says what people will not say. Illustrators and cartoonists have found inspiration in this narrative. Children love the visual boldness of an angel barring the passage to a “sightless” (or better, visionless) prophet of the Lord. Adults may react to this story with a bit more reserve. We want to know where this prophet (who apparently talks to the Lord on a regular basis) got his credentials. We wonder about prophets for hire and the significance of blessings and curses. And for those of us reading the entire book, we would like to know why three long chapters have been dedicated to the story of spiritual warfare while Israel is apparently blissfully ignorant in their tent city on the plains of Moab.

Would it be possible that the unique story of Numbers 22-24 is illustrating God’s desire of working with those who are naturally in opposition to Him?

Listen to the Story (Num. 22:1-7)

Balak, the king of Moab, is terrified. He knows what Israel has done to the Amorites (see Num. 21) and so he approaches the elders of neighboring Midian to join forces against this powerful enemy. They are clearly worried about their grass, their fields, and their homes. Just imagine a huge crowd of people with their animals settling on your land.

Balak has also heard what had happened in Egypt a generation ago, and he realizes that he needs the marines—the best, the bravest, the fearless. He sends for Balaam, the son of Beor, who lives close to the river (which, in Old Testament parlance, refers to the Euphrates; probably Balaam lived in northern Mesopotamia, the area to which Abraham’s father had traveled). Balak needs a religious superman, somebody who has a direct line to the gods and whose curses are devastating. He is ready to invest significantly and sends the elders of Moab and Midian with a large amount of cash to Balaam.

Scripture does not explain why Balaam had such a good standing.3 Perhaps he had worked for Balak in the past. Perhaps he kept his Facebook page regularly updated and employed the best agents. Be that as it may, he is the source of Balak’s hope for victory

Did you catch the irony in Balak’s request to Balaam? “I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6). The war that Balak envisions is a war of words. Divination is powerful and Balak is a firm believer.

Cash Back

The messengers present their request—and Balaam calls for a time-out. “Give me one night, and I will give you an answer tomorrow,” says the seer (see Num. 22:8). The next scene is amazing: God “comes” to Balaam during the night and we listen in on a dialogue between God and prophet. Balaam needs an answer and the sovereign Master of the universe steps into our world and listens to His wayward messenger who has dollar bills in his eyes. The next morning Balak communicates grudgingly God’s refusal for a service request to Balak’s messengers. No green light—no deal.

Yet Balak does not give up. He ups the cash offer and sends a bigger and more important delegation. Balak wants this curse—his insistence is surprising. Balaam also wants something. He wants a cushy honorarium and the accompanying recognition. Reputation requires a successful transaction—and Balaam is someone who delivers!

The blind seer does not see what a dumb donkey could see.

On the Way

And God relents. God knows Balaam and his love for cash. I imagine that Balaam smiled broadly as he saddled his donkey and began his journey. He already saw the balance increase sharply in his checking account.

The next section of the story is comical—yet at the same time tragic. The blind seer does not see what a dumb donkey can see. God, who has relented under only one condition (namely, “do only what I tell you” [Num. 22:20]), knows the heart of Balaam—and yet He is trying to reach him by any means (and this includes the angel of the Lord with a sword in hand).

This happens three times, and Balaam becomes abusive. He curses and strikes the poor animal—without looking up. On the third occasion there is no way to squeeze past the angel, and God performs another miracle—the donkey begins to talk (verse 28). 

When Donkeys Talk

The most comical element of this well-known story is that Balaam enters into a discussion with his donkey without even blinking an eye. This is the only recorded time in Scripture that a donkey talks. And yet Balaam keeps arguing with his donkey. He cannot see the angel—something is terribly amiss with his spiritual antenna. “No reception” signs are all over his smartphone—and he doesn’t notice.

I wonder about our spiritual antennas. Do we pay sufficient attention to God’s promptings, or do we stick to our own agendas? How often do we ignore God’s communication (verbal and nonverbal) in our lives? Does the fact that I worship every Sabbath in an Adventist church or even work for this church protect me from losing touch with the Master? I wonder when I read Balaam’s story.

Can You Hear Me?

King Balak has waited anxiously. These journeys must have taken weeks, and he can still see the orderly Israelite camp on the plains. “I can only speak what God tells me,” reminds Balaam (see verse 38). Balak is not interested in hearing divine messages; he wants to get on with it. Time is of the essence—and he needs a curse, not God’s Word.

Balak brings the prophet to the high places where seven altars are installed. Do you get the irony? The prophet of God is at the place of Baal worship, using seven (a very significant number in the Old Testament) altars. Following the sacrifice, God puts a word in Balaam’s mouth. In the midst of idolatry and blatant disobedience God speaks: He speaks of His chosen people that will be as numerous as the dust of the earth—who can curse what God has blessed (cf. Num. 23:7-10)?

That sounds like a blessing, and Balak catches on very quickly. He is furious—and like Balaam earlier—he does not recognize the immensity of what has just happened. God has been close by. A divine message has been given in his presence.

God keeps knocking on callused hearts. Twice more he sends divine messages via Balaam. Balak listens twice more to words that come straight from the heavenly throne room—and yet he pays no attention.

God still knocks on our hearts. The One who included three chapters and 96 verses telling us the story of a wayward prophet, a talking donkey, and a terrified king and his people is still anxious to speak to those who do not yet know Him. God’s mission becomes our mission. God invests in people and places that seem so unlikely to respond.

I wish Numbers had a happy ending. I wish Balaam would have traveled home a changed man. I wish Balak would have realized his foolishness and thrown in his lot with God’s people—after all, they were relatives, and God had not intended Moab to be destroyed by Israel.

But there is no Hollywood ending. Scripture tells us that Balaam was killed during the Midianite war (Num. 31:1-11) after he had counseled Israel’s enemies to use sexual immorality mixed with idolatry to defeat God’s people (Rev. 2:14). And yet, even though there is no “and they lived happily ever after,” I am again amazed at God’s commitment to reach the wayward, the lost, the rebellious that seemingly do not warrant the effort.

The Miracle

We had received her name as part of a list of potential interests. My friend Erhard, a seasoned pastor, and I looked at each other as we rang the doorbell. What would await us on the other side of the door?

We were not prepared for what we saw. The woman who opened the door, holding a young baby, looked worn out. The smells that came out of the flat were indescribable. The baby was crying. As we entered we barely found three chairs in a flat that was dirty and mostly empty.

She had fallen on hard times. Her husband had left her with a baby and no resources. She had a drug problem, and she told us of nightly terrifying encounters—clearly Satan was hard at work in this flat.

As we left the apartment I looked at my friend and said: “This is impossible. She is not ready for Bible studies.” My friend also looked rattled but said: “Gerald, God sent us here on purpose—He can change this mess.”

Over the next four months we visited every week at least once. We opened God’s Word, and we saw tremendous changes. I will never forget the day when she first appeared with her child in the local church—and was warmly embraced and accepted. At the end of the evangelistic series she stood together with many others and requested baptism. I still remember the wonder that I felt when I saw her standing. No, it wasn’t our effective Bible study or the loving church (even though they all played a role)—this was God’s Spirit reaching her heart. He specializes in the impossible. He is passionate about the unlovable and those far away. He even loves a Balaam and a Balak.

While Israel was sleeping God was at work. While we may be sleeping He still speaks tenderly to our hearts and is at work in the people around us that we just don’t like or understand. It’s time to wake up. As you listen to His tender voice—why don’t you join Him in His mission to reach those who need Him most? 

  1. See Gerald A. Klingbeil, “In the Wilderness: Of Tassels, Wanderings, and the Promised Land,” Adventist Review, May 10, 2012, pp. 20-22; and “In the Wilderness: The Epidemic,” Adventist Review, Mar. 21, 2013, pp. 26-28.
  2. This fictional narrative is based on Numbers 22:1-3.
  3. In case you may wonder about this Balaam, son of Beor, who comes out of nowhere: Archaeologists have found a text written in Aramaic in a sixth-century B.C. context in Deir ’Alla (on the eastern side of the Jordan) that makes reference to a certain “Balaam, son of Beor.” Eight centuries after our narrative, Balaam was still a household name in ancient Palestine.