Eyes Wide Open (Balaam)

This is a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Numbers 22-24.

This is a story I often come back to. I pour over it. I angst about it. I just don’t get it. I find preachers and biblical commentators to be widely dismissive of Balaam, but what I read here is the account of someone who had an actual relationship with God. He speaks with God, he hears from God, he believes God, and he obeys God. That’s a lot more than I can say about a lot of Bible characters, and many believers I know.

But most telling of all, I think, is the fact that God honors what he has to say, as Balak testifies, “I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” It sounds a little like what Jesus says about the believers in the New Testament. And God doesn’t actually deny this, though I’m sure he’s not intimidated by it. He seems to be operating under the same assumption.

Balaam's Ass

Conversations With Donkeys

Balaam, however, is actually not very interested in God’s honor, though he is intrigued by the prospect of being honored by Balak, which he rightly interprets to be financial honor. So, he says the second time Balak comes for him, maybe God has something else to add. After all, sometimes “You shall not” means, “Sure, go ahead.”‘

The point here is that no, it doesn’t. Ever. But Balaam’s heart is not actually after God’s heart, and he’s interested in finding out what he can get away with. Perhaps he can find a way to cash in without disobeying. God finds this mindset so perverse, he actually tells Balaam he can go and sends an angel to kill him on the way, but his donkey sees the angel and detours.

Yes, you read that right. Balaam, soothsayer, holy-man, prophet for hire, is saved by the spiritual awareness of a donkey. Whether or not donkeys make for good protagonists (Eeyore?), this one seems to be a pretty stand-up character. His anger somewhat abated, God again allows Balaam to go on, and Balaam is good on his word to both God and Balak, he speaks only what he hears from the Lord.

What God is Not

The next bit is a kind of tedious kingly rigmarole. It’s like a case study in “determining” the will of God when you already know the will of God. Balaam and Balak prance around, building altar after alter, sacrificing bull after ram, testing the theory that God will let them curse just a portion of Israel, or perhaps if they get just the right angle . . . In short, testing God. And there is nowhere in the Bible that’s a safe thing to do.

Balaam hits the nail on the head when he says, “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?”

Balaam isn’t dumb, nor is he inexperienced in holy matters. He understands that God has already made himself clear on this one. He spoke with Him, he spoke with a donkey, he spoke with an angel, and unlike Zechariah, he doesn’t need anymore signs. So, different from his first two prophecies, which start with a psalm about God’s constancy and incontrovertibility, he starts the last two with an ode to his own spiritual prowess:

“This is the message of Balaam son of Beor, the message of the man whose eyes see clearly, the message of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who bows down with eyes wide open.”

No, Balaam is no dupe. He makes it clear he’s not a fool for God, but he knows it’s unprofitable to go against Him. So he worships, but never lets his vision be clouded by love. Or so he thinks. The God he loves, Peter tells us, is money. He’s nearly tripping over himself in his mad pursuit of it.

Seeing Clearly

If your vision is bad, Jesus said, it doesn’t matter if your eyes are open. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Balaam knew what was good for him and he never went against God (though he does “let it slip” to Balak that the Israelites have a few areas of weakness, resulting in the death of 24,000 of them). Balaam never speaks anything but what the Lord tells him, yet he’s held up as a standard of a false prophet by Peter, Jude and even Jesus himself. The truth of his prophecies didn’t seem to matter compared to the falseness of his heart, proving the maxim, “If wrong our hearts, our heads are right in vain.”

Faith vs. Encounter

So what’s the rub with Balaam? Why does his story haunt me? What keeps me coming back to this wayward prophet who spoke rightly and loved wrongly?

My heart breaks for Balaam. His relationship with God is, like I said, more than I can say about a lot of believers, but it’s exactly what I can say about a few. They spoke with God, they heard Him, they believed in Him, and it wasn’t enough . . . 

Knowledge failed. Encounter failed. Why?

This is something I’m writing about not because I understand it, but because I don’t. Far from having the answers, I’m still struggling to ascertain exactly what the question is. How could you know God . . . and not know Him? How could you speak with Him . . . and not love Him? Once you’ve seen . . . what else is there?

Last week I talked about the allure of certainty, and how it can never satisfy. Zechariah sought for certainty, but it wasn’t given to him. Balaam had certainty, but it didn’t help him. But there is a kind of certainty that pleases God. It’s called faith. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.” Faith is being sure. Faith is certainty without sight.

6 thoughts on “Eyes Wide Open (Balaam)

  1. Emily,

    Baalam knew God in his head, not his heart. Yes, he even encountered God. But he chose not to really follow God because he then couldn’t have his own way. Not everyone today who believes commits fully to obey.

    Don’t know if this helps…

    Love, Barb

    1. Thanks, Barb. I so appreciate your engagement with the blog. Yes, I think I do get it with Balaam. I have a harder time understanding it in the lives of dear friends and loved one. But I do feel so many things come back to the willingness to obey. “If you love Me, keep My commands,” “Anyone who loves Me will obey” (John 14:15, 23).

  2. Hi Emily, I am in India sitting in Clare Hivners living room reading your post. I enjoy your posts and this one was very thought-provoking. I’m so sorry that my visit here didn’t happen when you were here. Greg and I had lunch with Abe, Melissa and kids. Hope you are well. God bless you! Kathleen.

  3. Loved this post. So much to chew on here… for me I think about how easy it is to “do” things for God, good things, but to be totally off the mark in our hearts. Strikes me where I am right now. Thank you!

  4. Thanks Emily. I’ve just finished reading Numbers, and your commentary really struck hard: “After all, sometimes “You shall not” means, “Sure, go ahead.”‘ The point here is that no, it doesn’t. Ever. But Balaam’s heart is not actually after God’s heart, and he’s interested in finding out what he can get away with. Perhaps he can find a way to cash in without disobeying.”

    Yep, there are times when I’ve tried to find the loophole that would let me get my own way without actually disobeying the letter of what God says. And I know that’s a spiritually dangerous pastime, so thanks for the reminder.

    I also noticed that Balaam ultimately dies in the very same victory against the Midianites that he predicted for Israel. (Numbers 31:8) The irony is killing.

    It’s actually a fascinating thing to compare Moses to Balaam. Both spoke to God, both hear from God, and both speak on God’s behalf. And Moses is actually the one who disobeys, not Balaam. (And yes, Moses pays for it by not entering Canaan.) Yet Moses is also the one cited for his faith in Hebrews, while as you pointed out, Balaam is slammed by everyone in the New Testament. To me, the key lies in Exodus 33, where Moses basically says he’d rather not get into the Promised Land at all, if God isn’t going with them. And where he pleads to see the face of God. I like the way one preacher put it: Moses’ mission was Canaan, but his passion was God. And I guess that’s the problem with Balaam; he may have technically done all the right things, but where did his passion lie?

    1. Priscilla, yes!! One thing I discovered studying Balaam was that in Jewish tradition him and Moses are often paralleled ( a good one of many examples I found: http://curiousjew.blogspot.com/2007/12/balaam-and-moses-prophets-of-god.html “It is better to be straight and honest with God than to pretend to listen only to await the opportunity to disobey”). Since Moses is one of my favorite bible characters, this really piqued my interest, and I love what you say is the key difference. That’s something none of the Jewish commentaries noted.

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