Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
In this week’s portion, the Torah introduces a non-Hebrew prophet, Bilam or Balaam, as most English bibles spell his name. The children of Israel have prevailed over the Amorites and the people of Moab hear about it. They are therefore fearful so when the Israelites set up camp opposite Moab, Balak, the king of Moab, sends messengers to the prophet, Bilam. He has one request of the prophet: come and curse this nation that is camped opposite us. When they arrive at Bilam’s home, they present their request and the prophet invites them to spend the night so he can hear from God regarding the king’s request.
God’s response is unequivocal. God said to Bilam, ‘Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.’ Num. 22:12 In the morning, Bilam sends the messengers back to the king with the message that God will not allow Bilam to curse Israel.
So far, so good. Unfortunately the story doesn’t end here.
Balak sends another contingent of messengers, more distinguished than the last, promising honor to Bilam if he will agree to curse the Israelite nation. One would think that Bilam would stand on his previous answer and send them back to the king. He does make a ‘religious’ reply: ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything either small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord, my God.’ Num. 22:18 Nevertheless, he invites this group also to spend the night so he can see ‘what else the Lord may speak to me.’ A dangerous move – God had already spoken to him but Bilam is hoping for a different answer the second time around.
Have you ever known someone who goes for counseling but instead of following the advice first given, they go to a second person or even a third, until they hear what they want to hear? In Bilam’s behavior we see a clear example of a very human trait: We see what we want to see and we hear what we want to hear.
God came to Bilam that night and said to him, ‘If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak shall you say.’ Num. 22:20 God essentially says ‘Go ahead. Do what you want to do, but you may not say anything I haven’t said!’ Bilam heard what he wanted to hear, saddled his donkey and went on his way. How many times have we acted like Bilam? Knowing what God wants us to do yet choosing to do what we want to do.
God was not pleased and sent an angel to impede Bilam’s journey. The donkey saw the angel and three times stopped moving ahead. Bilam, not seeing the angel, beat the donkey in anger and frustration at which point, God opened the donkey’s mouth:
‘What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?’ Bilam replied, ‘Because you have embarrassed me. If there was a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.’ The donkey replied, ‘Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all of your life to this day? Have I ever done this to you before?’ Bilam replied, ‘No.’ (vs. 28-30)
Then the Lord opened Bilam’s eyes and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way.
It seems to me that when Bilam’s donkey started talking, the prophet should have seen immediately that it was time to repent! To be fair, he did say, ‘I have sinned,’ but look at the rest of the sentence: ‘I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I’ll turn back.’
Take a good look at those words. He’s still hedging. It’s what he didn’t say that counts.
He didn’t say, ‘Lord, my God I have sinned. Please forgive me. I will turn back immediately.’
It’s one thing to admit, ‘I have sinned’ but that’s not necessarily repentance. Just to acknowledge one’s failure without asking forgiveness and taking steps to correct one’s failure is only third of the process. In addition, he offers something of a rationalization, ‘I didn’t know you were standing there’ he says to the angel, ‘and now if you’re really displeased, then I’ll turn back.’ IF you’re REALLY displeased??? Seriously!
Bilam is STILL not submitting in his heart to what God told him the first time he asked for direction. Do you see that?
Not a one of us can throw stones at the prophet for we have done the same thing. Every failure – no matter what form it takes – is choosing what we want over what God wants. We see what we want to see and we hear what we want to hear. God’s desire is that we see as He sees, hear what He says and embrace His will in ready obedience.
Bilam did go to Balak but he was utterly unable to curse the Hebrew nation. Instead he blessed them, not just once but three times. In the course of his blessing, he uttered words that have resounded through the generations:
God is not a man that He should lie, nor a son of man that He should repent. Has He said and will He not do it? Or has He spoken and will He not make it good? Numbers 23:19
With these words, Bilam – a gentile prophet – declared to the world the integrity of the Lord God, His faithfulness to keep His word and to fulfill every promise He has made.
Our faith is built on nothing less than God’s incomparable faithfulness. We believe Him because He is Who He says He is and His Word will never return to him void, without accomplishing that for which it was spoken. For the revelation of these words, we thank Bilam and we learn as well that God uses even the imperfect to deliver His message.
In Tune with Torah this week = Let us each ask our Father in heaven to grant us grace to see with His eyes and hear with the ears of disciples that we may live a life of loving obedience to whatever He directs us to do. Key Word: ‘whatever’
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