This week we are reading at Morning Prayer the story of Balak and Balaam from the Book of Numbers chapters 22-24, which includes the incident of the curious case of Balaam’s ass. Giving it such a title makes it sound a little like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but what in fact it is, is a largely forgotten text that was, as far as I can see, quite well known amongst Victorian preachers, but is rather ignored today. Dr Alexander Whyte, whom I picture in high collar, patriarchal beard and wire rimmed spectacles, in a book published in Edinburgh in 1901, says of this text: “I shall take it for granted that you have all the Balaam chapters in the Book of Numbers by heart. You certainly ought to have these chapters by heart; for taken together, they make up a narrative […] unparalleled in effectiveness and unsurpassable in artistic finish.” (Whyte A., Bible characters Adam to Achan p. 264).
I stand reproved by Dr Alexander Whyte – who I imagine is looking down upon me with pity! Let me skip briefly over the background for you. (If you can turn up one of those lovely colourful maps at the back of an old Bible it will help). At this stage of the Book of Numbers the Israelites have left the area of Sinai and, as you may recall, are travelling a very roundabout route to Canaan by what is now the Kingdom of Jordan and hitting some pretty robust opposition. Feel free to omit the next paragraph!
[They were beginning their campaign to subdue the Promised Land from the east. (If you have a map of the Exodus, open it at this point!). Originally their idea was to enter Edom (where lived the people descended from Esau) and travel up a traditional trade route known as the King’s Highway. Moses, in fact sent a messenger from Kadesh to the King of Edom: “We are here at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king’s highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” (Numbers 20: 16b and 17). Edom refused to let them pass. Moses tried again, Edom refused again and mustered a large army, at which show of strength the Israelites withdrew. They go down towards the Red Sea with the thought of skirting round the Kingdom of Edom. However, after a pretty rebellious period in which they were attacked by snakes, they seemed to have turned further towards Edom. We know that they camped at Punon and then at Oboth travelling through the Zered Valley towards the River Arnon that formed the boundary with the Amorites. They were clearly also threatening the land of Moab and they did conquer two petty kingdoms the Amorite Kingdom at Heshbon, where Sihon was king and Bashan which was north of the Jabbock, another small place where Og was king. The much larger kingdoms of the Ammonites and the Moabites were, quite another thing. Israel was encamped on the plains of Moab opposite Jericho.]
The King of Moab, Balak by name, sought the aid of a pagan prophet, Balaam to curse the people of Israel, in order that his forces may defeat them. Balaam was clearly a seer of some description; someone held in high regard; a searcher after truth; whilst not a follower of Yahweh, he recognises the direction of God. He decides to sleep on the problem and consult God further as to what he should do. Now in the text we are faced with a contradiction. God seems to be saying to Balaam, “Yes go”, adding “but do only what I tell you”, even though in verse 12 God has forbidden him to go and later, on the journey, Yahweh is to show his anger against the prophet for actually travelling to Balak.
Anyway back to Balaam. He spends the night in prayer and gets the message to go. My interpretation of the contradiction in the text is that he has, in fact assured himself of God’s approval, not that he actually had it. I know that it doesn’t indicate that in the text, but it seems to be the only possible explanation.
He feels in his heart that he should obey the summons (and he is probably somewhat flattered by the standing of those who came to request his presence) and so he mounts his ass and makes his way slowly to the place of meeting. It is clearly not the will of God for him to go, however, and at points in the journey, the angel of God with a drawn sword bars the way. For some reason, Balaam cannot see the angel, but his ass can. The intelligent animal on the first occasion heads into the field beside the road to avoid the sword-wielding angel and Balaam beats the poor beast for wandering off; on the second occasion they are travelling between two walls and the ass tries to squeeze past the angel along one of the walls, so, no doubt, grazing Balaam’s leg and crushing his foot and so the ass is hit again; and the third occasion of the meeting of the angel happens in a very confined spot, where there is nowhere to turn, so the ass lies down and receives another beating. At this Balaam’s ass gains the power of speech and asks his master why he has beaten him these three times. At the same moment Balaam’s eyes are opened to see the angel with his drawn sword barring the way and recognises that he has been saved by the actions of his ass.
This wonderful little story illustrates so well the sometimes very difficult process of seeking to do the will of God when a variety of different avenues appear to be open to us, and we may be approaching the issues in our lives with conflicting motives and influences. It is more than possible for us to act perversely and in our own interests, whilst apparently seeking God’s will. Sometimes it is that the way appears to be clear before us, but guidance, gently given from an unexpected source, may in fact be what is required as we travel down that road – though it is unlikely to be just as strange or gentle as a talking ass. It may be a friend or colleague, a member of our family, or a stranger who just seems to have the right word for us to put us back on the right road.
So, maybe, Dr Alexander Whyte has given me a bit of a lesson this morning, and Balaam’s ass still has a message for the Church today; not to be too hasty to press on with what we want to do, or being flattered into thinking we as individuals are important, but, more vitally, we should be ready to hear what we have become deaf to, or, to see that to which we have become blind.