Numbers 22:21–41: Balak and Balaam—Balaam’s Donkey
In this passage, we come to perhaps the strangest part of the story of Balak and Balaam, in which Balaam’s donkey talks to him. It starts with Balaam saddling up the donkey, to head to Moab with the princes. However, for some reason, God becomes very angry when he goes. It’s not clear why God is angry, since He told Balaam that he could go to Moab with the princes, but there may be a clue later on, that we’ll get to in a minute.
So Balaam and his servants are on their way to Moab, when the angel of the LORD comes and stands in the road, drawn sword in hand, to oppose him. Balaam doesn’t see the angel, but the donkey does, so she turns off the road into a field, to avoid the angel. Not knowing what’s going on, Balaam beats the donkey, to get her back onto the road.
They continue on their way, and the angel comes and blocks Balaam’s way again—this time, standing between two vineyards, with walls on either side, so the donkey can’t go off the road. Instead, she presses as close to the wall as possible, to avoid the angel, crushing Balaam’s foot against the wall in the process, and he beats her again.
They continue on their way again, and the angel comes one more time, blocking Balaam’s way in a narrow place where the donkey has no room to get around on any side. So the donkey simply lies down on the road, with Balaam still on her back, and refuses to go any further. Once again, Balaam becomes angry, and beats her with his staff. And then the really strange part begins:
Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” he said.
Then, at this point, the LORD open’s Balaam’s eyes, so that he can see the angel, and he falls facedown. The angel then tells Balaam that he shouldn’t have beaten his donkey these three times—if the donkey hadn’t avoided the angel, the angel would have killed Balaam, so the donkey saved his life. And the reason the angel has been blocking Balaam’s path? Well, in the NIV translation, it says in verse 32b “I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.” There is a footnote that indicates the meaning of the Hebrew for this clause is uncertain, so I think the translators were having a hard time with this sentence. (In the NASB it’s translated “Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me,” in the KJV it’s translated “behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me,” and in the ASV it’s translated “behold, I am come forth for an adversary, because thy way is perverse before me.”)
In any event, however that Hebrew phrase should have been translated, Balaam knows that he’s made a mistake.
Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”
The angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
I’m wondering if the phrase “but speak only what I tell you” might be the reason that God was angry with Balaam; did he perhaps speak something out of turn, claiming that it was from the LORD? I don’t know, but it’s the only hypothesis I currently have.
Balaam finally gets to Moab, and Balak rushes out to greet him. He asks Balaam why he didn’t come sooner, especially since the reward being offered is so great, but Balaam doesn’t really answer as to why it took so long:
“Well, I have come to you now,” Balaam replied. “But can I say just anything? I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.” (verse 38)
They then proceed to a place called Kiriath Huzoth, where Balaam is able to see part of the Israelites. Balak sacrifices some cattle and some sheep, and gives some to the princes and some to Balaam. At this point, Balaam is able to begin his first “oracle” about the Israelites, which we’ll get to in the next passage.
The obvious question in this passage is why God was angry with Balaam. He had already instructed Balaam to go with the Moabite princes, so it wasn’t the simple act of going with them that would have angered God, but I’m not sure what it was, unless, as I hypothesized earlier, it was that Balaam had said something out of turn, instead of only saying what God put into his mouth.
In the last passage, I had a question as to why Balaam was so adamant that he could only say what the LORD gave him to say. He wasn’t an Israelite, and there’s not really any clear evidence that he followed the LORD. In this passage, however, there’s no reason to question it: After having his life threatened by the angel of the LORD, of course he was only going to say what God told him to say! It may just be me reading too much into it, but he even sounds a bit petulant, when he speaks to Balak in verse 38 (quoted above).
I think the thing I like the most about Balaam’s conversation with the donkey is how natural it sounds. You’d think that Balaam was talking to his donkey every day.