Balaam’s donkey holds the honor of being one of only two animals in the Bible who have a speaking role. The other, perhaps more famous, animal who gets in on the dialogue is the serpent in Genesis 3. In that case, things didn’t work out so well when the humans take the advice of the animal. According to Genesis, we’re still reaping the consequences of that decision. The woman and man listen to the words of the serpent, eat from the fruit of the tree, resulting in a lot of cursing. The serpent is cursed and doomed to crawl on its belly and eat dust. The woman is cursed with painful child birth and being ruled over by the man. The man is cursed with hard labor and even the ground is cursed to produce thorns and thistles.
Lest we think that talking animals always spells bad news for the humans, Balaam’s donkey comes along and offers some words that are enlightening in a positive kind of way. Balaam, the prophet who is supposed to be able to see into the spiritual world, can’t see the angel of God standing in front of him in the middle of the road. But the donkey can. Balaam, hired by his king to carry on the great tradition of cursing one’s enemies, in this case, the people of Israel, is stopped in his tracks by a donkey that refuses to walk any further down that path.
We’re going to be looking at Old Testament stories for much of our summer worship and one of the things about these stories is that parts of them are just plain alien to the world that we experience on an everyday basis. Talking animals aside, Old Testament stories usually contain elements that we have really no idea what to do with. We’ve got elderly women giving birth. We’ve got a sea parting open for people to walk through, followed by those walls of water crashing down and drowning a different group of people. We’ve got a fiery bush where the plant isn’t consumed. We’ve got a fiery furnace that burns everyone who gets close except for three righteous youth who get tossed inside and survive just fine. And it’s not a particularly moral world – there’s plenty of slaying and cursing of enemies, any number of dysfunctional families, intrigue, and betrayal. And sometimes God appears to be the most unpredictable and violent character of the whole story. But there are also these golden threads that run through all of the stories, threads of mercy, forgiveness, justice, and covenant faithfulness. And as strange and cross-cultural as these stories are, they always seem to be about us in some way. They illuminate the human condition in profound ways, even if that isn’t always evident on the first read through. So we’re going to have a summer of living with some of these stories and entering inside their world and letting their world enter inside our own and see what we come up with.
Balaam is summoned by the king of Moab because of his power to curse. The king wants Balaam to curse the Israelites so that he can defeat them in battle. So as we get into this story let’s remember all the way back to those original curses of Genesis. That it’s the understanding of the biblical narrative that things have gone awry from the beginning and that men and women, and nations, and really all of creation is living under some kind of curse – that things are not as they should be. It’s the curse of patriarchy – he shall rule over you, the words to the woman. It’s the curse of unsatisfactory work – by the sweat of your brow. It’s lots of other things. It’s nation’s warring against each other. It’s creation twisted out of shape. And this curse gets passed down from generation to generation in various ways, and one of the ways is through the act of speaking curses, at which Balaam excels.
Now that’s going all the way back. So coming all the way into the present, in case we think that we don’t really do that curse thing anymore, consider these two rather mundane examples, one we could call an unintentional curse and one more intentional and generational.
While I was at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota a couple weeks ago for the writing workshop we were writing short essays and then reading them to each other for input and feedback. One of the essays, written by a pastor from Chicago was about impatience and how she felt she had always struggled with being an impatient person. And one of the things that she mentioned in the essay was that she had an elementary school teacher who told her one time that she was impatient. And she talked about how that short statement that he had made had stuck with her and, in some ways, kept defining her character into adulthood. Those small words holding a power over her, still being something that she is working to overcome. So maybe that’s something like an unintentional curse.
A more intentional curse: When I was living in Elkhart I had the chance to get to know a struggling family where something like this was in effect. The mother in this family had been told by her own mother that she was going to be a terrible mother whenever she had kids. And she had meant it maliciously. This mother had heard those words early in her life and they had stuck over her like a curse and she had, indeed, struggled to be a good mother to her two children. I can’t be for sure on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this mother’s mother had also carried a similar kind of curse passed down to her and she had simply passed it on to the next generation. Knowing the family for three years, as the children were in their early teen years, I had the chance to see how it could once again get passed down to another generation, or, possibly, how it could stop with this mother. Maybe always struggling with it herself, but managing not to pass those words down to her children.
So, curses, and the curse, continue in various ways.
Now let’s take a look at this Balaam story, which happens in between the beginning and now.
You’re welcome to open your Bibles to Numbers 22 if you want to follow.
This story of Balaam and his donkey takes place as the Israelites are coming near the end of their 40 years in the wilderness. They are edging up to the borders of the land of Canaan, looking for a way to enter into this land that has been promised to their ancestors. They can’t find safe passage from the South, through Edom, even though they tell the Edomites that they don’t want to conquer their land, and will repay them for food that they eat on their way through, they just want to pass through. It’s very nonviolent of them, actually. But the Edomites won’t let them pass through. So they arch up to the north and the east, on the far side of the Jordan. They ask the same favor of King Sihon of the Amorites, who gives them the same answer, and comes out against them for battle. The Israelites defeat King Sihon, and then defeat King Og, and are camping in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan river from Jericho. This is soon before they go conquer Jericho. And the king of Moab and all the people of Moab are in great fear of the Israelites. They’ve heard about this powerful and hardy people who came out of Egypt and have come through the desert.
So we’ve got this big tension between Israel and Moab happening here. And rather than try and take them on in battle, which he knows he can’t do successfully, the king of Moab, Balak, goes for the secret weapon. He is going to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites. He sends messengers who will say, “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” So Balaam is obviously good at this thing, well known for his cursing prowess.
The Balaam story gets a little fuzzy on the details after he is asked to be a curser-for-hire. After the request is made by the messengers, who are holding the fee in their hands as they speak, Balaam tells them to wait and spend the night so he can sleep on it and consult with the Lord on what he should say. He hears a clear message that he should not curse Israel, and tells the messengers he won’t do the job. They go away, but others messengers – “more numerous and more distinguished” the text says – are sent with the same request. Balaam says, “Although 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.” This sounds like another strong refusal, but some read this as a form of bargaining, that Balaam is playing hard to get and is upping the ante for his services. But it’s a little fuzzy on his motives here. It gets more confusing when God appears to Balaam in a dream and tells him to go with the messengers, which is immediately followed by the statement in verse 22 about God being angry at Balaam because he has chosen to go to the king. Either Balaam misheard God in thinking he should go, or has devious plans in going to the king, or God has had a change of mind, which wouldn’t be the first time in the Bible, or, in my personal opinion, this is all a strategy in order to get the talking donkey into the story.
…Or not, but that’s what it sets us up for.
So Balaam is on his way to consult with the king, he’s riding his donkey, and an angel of the Lord comes to stand in the road, with a drawn sword, to stop Balaam in his tracks. Balaam the great seer, can’t see this angel. The donkey, on the other hand, sees the angel perfectly well, does not want to have an encounter with a sword, and so we get this rather comical series where the donkey keeps trying to avoid the angel of the Lord who is standing on the road, and Balaam keeps getting more and more angry at his obviously stupid and stubborn animal.
Some commentators note that this series also reflects the way God works when God wants us to stop going down a certain path. At first the angel appears on the open road, and the donkey veers off to the side of the road to avoid it, but keeps going. Then the angel appears on a narrow part of the path, surrounded by a wall on both sides. The donkey can still barely get by, but scrapes Balaam’s leg against the wall, giving him some pain. Finally, the angel finds an even more narrow part of the path where there is simply no getting through and the donkey does the only thing it can do. It sits down in the middle of the road and refuses to go any further. So eventually, God gets Balaam’s attention by giving him no other way around.
Which makes Balaam really angry. So he’s whipping his donkey that has just plopped down in the middle of the road. At which point, of course, the donkey says, “Hey, ouch. Quit it. What have I done to deserve this?” Balaam, apparently unflustered by the fact that his donkey is talking, tells her, and it is the Hebrew word here for a female donkey, for whatever that’s worth, that he wishes he had a sword so he could just kill her on the spot. To which the donkey answers, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” To which Balaam says, “No,” which is the end of that discussion.
So Balaam loses an argument with his donkey, and just so they don’t have to sit in awkward silence for too long, God open’s Balaam’s eyes, and there is the angel of the Lord in the middle of the road, with the sword that Balaam didn’t have. And not there to strike the donkey or Balaam, but to tell Balaam that he must go to Balak the King of Moab who wants him to curse Israel, and he must speak, but only the words that God gives him.
And, as it turns out, the words that God gives him are not words of cursing. But words of blessing. Balaam gives four oracles of blessing in chapters 23 and 24. This whole saga of the journey and the donkey results in a transformation where that impulse, that deeply ingrained human tendency to perpetuate the curse, becomes an opportunity for blessing.
Which, I believe, is really what these golden threads of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the New Testament, the calling of the people of God is all about. God is about the work, Jesus was about the work, we are to be about the work, of transforming cursing into blessing. And through Christ, the curse has been broken, such that we are utterly free to live into that original vision of creation – men and women each equally created in the image of God, creation meant to be enjoyed and tended with care. Nations are not doomed to be in perpetual antagonism and warfare. Women are not doomed to be in perpetual second class status to men. Those children in Elkhart are not doomed to be horrible parents to the next generation.
Balaam might have been a paid professional, but we know that, in many ways, it’s true of all of us, that “whomever we bless is blessed, and whomever we curse is cursed.” And we probably know that power others have had for us – either speaking words of blessing – that we will do well, that we are valuable, that we are a beautiful person – or words of cursing – that we are doomed to failure or mediocrity or that we’re bound to self-destruct somewhere along the way.
When we allow our words or intentions to get off track, when we head down the wrong path, God will use just about any means necessary – just about any means necessary – to let us know that God desires blessing, not cursing.