While writing the closing portion of yesterday’s post, I made a reference to Balaam’s donkey. Today’s CTT post will explore the story of Balaam, particularly from the perspective of the New Testament.
In reviewing the first draft of my post, I caught an error that really got me thinking about Balaam and forced me to rewrite that reference. I caught myself saying, “If God can speak through a donkey…” Have you ever heard that before? Clearly I had, and if I’m not mistaken I’ve heard it in the same light as the List we reviewed recently, basically if God can talk through a donkey then He can use anyone for His purposes. Now, we could make this an Old Testament study where we dive into the story of Balaam and where it takes place in Israel’s exodus out of Egypt and into the land of Promise, but for today I want to limit our scope to that of the New Testament. Balaam is referenced 3 times in the New Testament (by Peter, Jude, and in Revelation) and each time he is referenced in relation to false teaching. Let’s begin by seeing how Peter references Balaam. The entire chapter is devoted to this topic so let’s just read the whole thing.
2 Peter 2 (ESV)
False Prophets and Teachers
2 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment,10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.
Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, 11 whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. 12 But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, 13 suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. 14 They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! 15 Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, 16 but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
17 These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. 18 For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. 20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”
So, yeah… Peter wastes no time mincing his words. At the end of his reference to Balaam’s donkey, we see clearly the error in my first (unpublished) draft. God didn’t speak through the donkey, the speechless donkey spoke. So, let’s turn to Numbers chapter 22 to read the account of Balaam and his donkey.
Numbers 22:1-14 (ESV)
22 Then the people of Israel set out and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho. 2 And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. 3 And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. 4 And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” So Balak the son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, 5 sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the people of Amaw, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. 6 Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
7 So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand. And they came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s message. 8 And he said to them, “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me.” So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. 9 And God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” 10 And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, 11 ‘Behold, a people has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Now come, curse them for me. Perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them out.’” 12 God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” 13 So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your own land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” 14 So the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.”
Okay, so we have Moab and Midian conspiring to stop the advance of Israel. Balaam is not among the Israelites. Nevertheless, God went to Balaam to warn him not to curse His people. Balaam refuses to go with the men… but notice that he didn’t tell them all that the Lord had told him, and there is no mention of returning the fees for divination. He kept the money paid to him, and withheld information. Let’s continue on.
Numbers 22:15 Once again Balak sent princes, more in number and more honorable than these. 16 And they came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor: ‘Let nothing hinder you from coming to me, 17 for I will surely do you great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do. Come, curse this people for me.’” 18 But Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God to do less or more. 19 So you, too, please stay here tonight, that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.” 20 And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.” 21 So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab.
22 But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 And the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. 24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25 And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he struck her again. 26 Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. 28 Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” 29 And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” 30 And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.”
Now this transition is admittedly difficult. Something is missing between God allowing Balaam to go and God’s anger being kindled because he went. The text doesn’t say explicitly what it was about his going that angered the Lord God. Peter’s depiction of Balaam gives us our best answer, “who loved gain from wrongdoing”. The God the Holy Spirit gave Peter the reason, it was because Balaam loved gain. Just as he took the fees from the first entourage and only told them half of the message, this time he tells them nothing at all, and saddles up his donkey and follows them. God judges the heart, and was angered by what He saw in Balaam.
The donkey sees the angel of the Lord. Now, many scholars believe that OT references to the “angel of the Lord” are references to Jesus before the virgin birth. This fits how the Gospel of John introduces Jesus and it is also part of our understanding of the Trinity. The donkey sees the Lord and attempts to avoid certain judgement as is punished by Balaam for it twice. Finally, she just lays down and receives a third punishment. The Lord opens her mouth and she pleads her case with Balaam.
Balaam is so angry he doesn’t seem alarmed by the sudden speech from his donkey, and he doesn’t immediately assume the Lord God is involved. Balaam practiced divination for money. Let’s see what happens next.
Numbers 22:31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” 34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” 35 And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak.
The portion in bold and underlined is important for later. For now, we see that this angel of the Lord did not rebuke Balaam for prostrating before Him and spoke to Balaam as his Lord, not a messenger from the Lord. Here, we see Balaam repent, and the Lord tells him to go and only speak what he is told. In the next 2 chapters we see Balaam obey the Word of the Lord and speak only blessings upon the people of God, the Israelites, and then departs from Balak. But is that all of the story? Let’s look at how Balaam is referenced in Revelation.
Revelation 2:12-17 (ESV)
12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’
Wait a second… where did we see sexual immorality and eating of food sacrificed to idols in relation to Balaam? Well, to see how Balaam is involved we need to start in Numbers 31 and then reach back to chapter 25.
Numbers 31:1-4 (ESV) 1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” 3 So Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the Lord’s vengeance on Midian. 4 You shall send a thousand from each of the tribes of Israel to the war.”
Numbers 31:7-12 (ESV) 7 They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. 8 They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword. 9 And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. 10 All their cities in the places where they lived, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, 11 and took all the spoil and all the plunder, both of man and of beast. 12 Then they brought the captives and the plunder and the spoil to Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the people of Israel, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.
Numbers 31:15-16 (ESV) 15 Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? 16 Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord.
Okay, now we see that Balaam was responsible for the incident of Peor. What happened at Peor?
Numbers 25:1-9 (ESV)
1 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. 4 And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” 6 And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand 8 and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. 9 Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.
Remember the test of a Prophet isn’t limited to whether or not the sign or wonder comes to pass; it includes his doctrine, what he preaches/teaches. If the sign comes to pass and he leads Israel to worship false gods, strange gods, gods you do not know, he is to be put to death. Balaam was responsible for this stumbling block placed before Israel, for the sexual immorality and the worshiping of the false god (Baal) of Peor. Throughout the Old Testament, idolatry and sexual immorality are linked. Our God is a jealous God and He will have NO OTHER God before Him (the first and greatest commandment). And as a result of the advice of Balaam, the false prophet, 24,000 died by the plague.
It isn’t enough that at one time the Word of the Lord was faithfully spoken. God remains sovereign. Balaam’s obedience to bless the Children of God required direct intervention by the Lord, and Balaam quickly sinned and lead Israel to sin against God. That is why we see his name invoked in the New Testament as an example of a False Prophet and Teacher.
While we didn’t get to Balaam’s mention in Jude, it is in the same light. In closing, I’d like to once-again share from the doxology of Jude
Jude 1: 24-25 (ESV) Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
May the Lord bless you and keep you,
In Christ Jesus,