In the Church’s readings preceding Christmas, stories are noted which give clarity and connection to the history of who we are as believers. Recently this included citings from the Book of Numbers and how these ancient texts illuminate where we are today, as believers, and how we got here. A recent reading included the story of the prophet Balaam and his place in the story of Christmas. In the Bible, there are no irrelevant texts.
Balaam was an Old Testament prophet of some fame in the transjordanian plateau right around the time when the Israelites were completing their forty years of wandering. During their time in the region the Chosen People had defeated several powerful tribes in the area on their way to making a conquest of their new and Promised Land. If you remember your Old Testament you will recall that they always had the Ark of the Covenant before them (literally) and were virtually unbeatable because of it. One of the final tribes that they needed to conquer was the Moabites. This was no surprise to the King of Moab as he saw the inevitable approach of the Israelites. Recent victories of God’s Chosen were common knowledge in the area and King Balak was basically “in a panic” about the whole thing. Knowing that a military victory over the Israelites was unlikely King Balak decides to take a different tack. He sends for the Prophet Balaam with a request that Balaam come to Moab and put a curse on the Israelites. In short, a prophet for hire! Balaam’s initial response was, of course, to check with God and he receives a clear message not to curse the Israelites. However, Balak is desperate and sweetens the pot with additional promises and riches. After his initial refusal the prophet Balaam becomes persuaded and agrees to go to Moab to assist the King.
Balaam saddles up his donkey and begins his journey to Moab. The Lord is not pleased with His prophet’s behavior. We should note here that the story tells us that this donkey is a long time companion of Balaam, given to him in his youth. As Balaam travels, circumstances become strange; first his donkey veers off the road and takes off across a field, next the same donkey crashes against a vineyard wall smashing Balaam’s foot between herself and the wall, and last, at a narrowing of the path, the donkey simply lays down and refuses to move forward. Balaam has known this mount for a long time, but her behavior simply unnerves him. He beats her unmercifully. Suddenly the Lord bestows the power of speech on the beast and she asks: “Why beat me three times like this?” (Numb 22:28 Jer Bible) Rather than be astonished that his beast is speaking, Balaam is only concerned about his image and tells her: “Because you are playing a fool with me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.” (Ibid, 22:29)
In an interesting turn the donkey asks: “Am I not your donkey? … In all this time, have I ever failed to serve you?” (ibid, 22:30) Balaam is forced to admit the truth and answer no. The beast that has been ever present in his life and always willing to do his bidding has called him to humble himself in her presence. However, the humility brings him vision that he has been lacking and he instantly sees the truth that the donkey recognized, long before he did. Standing directly in front of him and the cause of all three incidents with the faithful donkey is an angel of the Lord with a drawn (some say burning) sword in his hand! This is God’s clear and undisputed messenger. The angel addresses Balaam and wants to know: “Why did you beat your donkey three times like that?” (ibid, 22:32) This is a clear reiteration that Balaam has acted out of self interest. The angel continues the lesson, explains that he was present at all three incidents and he commends the donkey telling Balaam: “The donkey saw me and turned aside from me three times. You are lucky she did turn aside, or I should have killed you by now, though I would have spared her.” (ibid, 22:33) This final jab from the angel sends Balaam into excuses (I didn’t see you), apologies (I have sinned) and finally capitulations: “…if you are angry with me I will go back.” (ibid, 22:35) The angel generously accepts Balaam’s apology and tells him that he may proceed but cautions Balaam that he must speak only “what I tell you to say”. We humans are so naïve when we contemplate our own “powers”. Aquinas teaches; “Don’t bother to deceive man for we cannot deceive God”.
So the prophet for hire proceeds to Moab and King Balak. King Balak reminds Balaam that he has been summoned here to curse his enemies, the Israelites. Balaam quickly agrees to consult God first and returns, in dramatic fashion, three different times to deliver a word about how the Israelites will prosper and eventually rule the land. Balaam even presents himself as; “the man with far-seeing eyes” as he describes a son of David who will become a King greater than Agog, a star from Jacob, who takes leadership and rises from Israel. This prophecy, of course describes events far into the future from where they are and, even at that time, foreshadows the coming of Jesus. This whole affair enrages Balak. He never did get his curse for the Israelites, they eventually defeated and wiped out the peoples of Moab and went on to conquer the area and enter the Promised Land.
What can we take away from the story of Balaam? In many ways Balaam’s behavior and desire for more fame and money is really a parallel of our modern society. In today’s world how much you own and how much fame you have are cardinal virtues! This is the yardstick by which we measure each other. We can see this in front of our very eyes as we watch a family fake a balloon launch after teaching their children to lie about it, and see an athlete with more money, possessions and talent that anyone in the world who lies and cheats in order to get “more pleasure”. Balaam was famous for his talent as a prophet. King Balak’s original invitation to him included cajoling by appealing to his ego; “For I know this: the man you bless is blessed, the man you curse is accursed.” (Numb 22;6 Jer Bible) As a practiced prophet Balaam knew well that his abilities were really not supposed to be used to curse people for the purpose of revenge. The promise of additional wealth and more fame are really what tempted him in spite of the fact that he clearly heard God’s directions to the contrary.
So this penchant to believe that even when we have been extraordinarily gifted by God, we are smarter and need more, is not a new thing. It is simply a flaw in human nature that shows up over and over again in the history of mankind. In some ways this can be a comfort: “We’re all in this together.” In other ways it is a stunning challenge; “If so and so with all their money and influence can’t avoid this, what can I do?” The answer to the challenge really has nothing to do with achievement or the lack of it, but rather where we choose to focus and how aware we are when our vision waivers. When Balaam was looking at more fame and more money he was basically blind to the information that God was placing right under his nose. He needed someone else with better vision, his donkey, to reel him in. When he quit making excuses and humbled himself, suddenly his vision cleared up! It is stunning to note, though, that even after he sees the messenger he still engages in “verbal bargaining” for a short while. Sound familiar?
More extraordinary, however, than Balaam’s talking donkey and an angel with a fiery sword is: “The fatness of God’s grace.” (St. Peter Damian). God goes to lengths to select his prophets. In the Old Testament this title was no honorary simply meant for show. It was, rather, a life commitment and meant to be serious business. It was as high as you could get in “spiritual circles”. So the fact that Balaam had his head turned by fame and money must have been a huge disappointment to the Father. If I were God, I would have been furious. Instead of anger God does amazing things! He sends Balaam a messenger straight from the throne of God. When Balaam is still too dense to see the messenger, God creates a situation that gets his attention and appeals to his intellect, one of his talents as Prophet. Balaam is given the chance to redeem himself by a generous line of questioning rather than just being zapped when he did not respond immediately! The patience and overwhelming generosity of God are ever present even when we have strayed far from the mark that we may have attained in our lives once before. God did not invest talents in any of us for them to be squandered or foolishly thrown away.
A final lesson in the story of Balaam involves the consideration of the humble little beast, the donkey. The donkey had vision that Balaam did not have. She was willing to give him that information even though he was vehement about ignoring her to the point of violence. The scripture clearly reminds the reader that this little donkey had been with the Prophet his whole life from the time of his youth. In the end she was responsible for saving his life. Are there situations, circumstances or people that have been with you so long that they are almost invisible to you? Do some of these circumstances make you mad over and over again? Do your “long term people” make you crazy every time they tell you the same thing? Are there people in your life who are always present but you believe that they are not as "spiritually smart" as you are? What situations surround you that never seem to move forward no matter what you do? Look around and give serious consideration to these people and occurrences that are so familiar. What information are you ignoring that is contained in these relationships? Re-think when you hear the same thing that still makes you mad. Take a closer look when the same situations go awry over and over again. Perhaps there is information here that you are looking straight at and ignoring? There is no situation or circumstance on earth that God cannot choose to use for communication purposes! Change your focus and think about Balaam. If he was really paying attention to the beast, the angel and God he should have learned that sometimes you have to thank the donkey!
Copyright Christmas 2009, All Rights Reserved, Kathryn M. Cunningham
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