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Grown-Up Bible Stories

The Man Whose Eyes Were Opened

One of my favorite Bible stories involves a very mysterious character, Balaam the son of Beor. But, let’s start at the beginning.

The people of Israel were in the Exodus. Called by God generations earlier when Abraham and Jacob had had their visions, Israel had been going through the growing pains of an infant nation. They’d suffered family dissent and famine. They’d been reunited under Joseph in Egypt, only to be enslaved by jealous Pharaohs. Finally, after 400 years of exile and servitude, God’s involvement had again become clearly visible. Using eighty-year old Moses and his older brother, Aaron, God had sent a series of miraculous judgments crashing down upon Egypt and its gods. Finally, in desperation, the proud monarch of the Nile had given in and let the Israelis leave. It was a nation of about two and a half million people that went marching out into the desert and freedom. Pharaoh, as if bent on destroying himself in a collision with God, changed his mind. He gave chase and wound up drowning with his army in the Red Sea.

But as we join the Exodus for today’s story, Pharaoh is history from forty years past. Israel, conquerors of Pharaoh, of the desert, of multiple enemies, has fallen to their own self-will. They’ve turned against God after learning that giants wait in the Promised Land. As punishment, God has declared they must spend forty years as nomads in the Middle Eastern wilderness. You and I would likely say in the Middle Eastern desert. The point—forty years would be long enough for the adults to die off and for their children to reach majority. Then, those former helpless little kids would be given the Promised Land.

As the forty years drew to a close, Israel moved toward the Promised Land again. The exceptionally tall inhabitants were still there. The chariots of iron, horse-drawn tanks if you will, still threatened. The conquest of Canaan would never be for the timid, but Israel had matured with the new generation. This time, they were going to follow God in and take possession of their new home.

Only, this side of the Promised Land, east of the storied Jordan River, another potential enemy watched them warily. Balak the son of Zippor was the king of Moab. In case you were wondering, the Moabites were descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot. Many years earlier, their ancestor and Abraham, the grandfather of Israel, had parted ways. Lot had chosen for himself the plains of Sodom and Gomorrah. God had promised Canaan to Abraham. The Moabites still lived outside of Canaan. Moses and the Canaan-bound Jews were not interested in their land.

But kings could get strange ideas. A couple of Balak’s royal neighbors had decided not to take Israel’s good will on faith. They’d attacked in a preemptive first strike made tragic by the fact that it was launched without cause against a non-hostile nation. God had come to Israel’s defense, and the peoples governed by Kings Sihon and Og had been destroyed. Balak saw and worried.

Balak was shrewd, however. He was a man who was spiritually attuned. Now, we have a long tradition of looking at ancient people as superstitious and ignorant. They may have lacked the Internet and central air conditioning, but they weren’t stupid. When it came to spiritual matters, they were smarter than many modern leaders. Balak knew about the divine. He was doubtlessly an idolater, a man who thought that gods inhabited carved stones. But, he was also a man who’d seen reality. Behind his imaginary gods were evil spirits, demon rebels against the true God. These demons didn’t mind being worshiped, and they could pull off enough metaphysical show to keep most of the world bowing and sacrificing. The gods Balak knew weren’t unreal--they just weren’t gods.

If you were to travel to the parts of the world where people worship demons today, you would find some very real things happening, things you wouldn’t understand, things you couldn’t explain, things that would scare you stiff. The spirit world is real. It is real, and it can either be glorious or dangerous, depending on whether you connect with the real God or with the wannabes. Balak, perhaps, didn’t care which he connected with, as long as he got what he wanted.

Having heard the histories of his neighbors, having heard the rumors of Israel’s miraculous wilderness adventure, and having heard of the destruction of even the superpower Egypt, Balak wisely concluded that Israel was a key player in the spirit world. He didn’t try to throw his flesh and blood armies with their spears and swords against an invisible God who could wipe out whole nations. He decided to fight fire with fire. He went for a spiritual expert.

Enter Balaam. Balaam is indeed mysterious. He called Jehovah, the God of Israel, his God. Yet, he practiced sorcery, something God had forbidden. The New Testament refers to Balaam as a soothsayer, which isn’t exactly the same thing as one of God’s prophets. We’re left to speculate about Balaam, but it would seem that maybe he was a polytheist, a man who believed in many gods, Jehovah being one of them. Balaam not only believed in the spirits, he influenced. He had a reputation similar to those of the medicine men in less advanced cultures. Balaam was so connected with the unseen world that he could call down its power. For a fee, Balaam would pronounce a blessing. Things would go well for the one he blessed. On the other hand, an angry person might pay Balaam’s fee. He’d pronounce a curse, and the victim had better watch out!

It is probable that Balaam wasn’t quite as great as he let on. It is doubtful if every curse and blessing worked. After all, he wasn’t one of God’s prophets in the best senses of that word. Nonetheless, Balaam had enough spiritual clout that his sorceries made a difference. He was a man to keep on the right side of.

So messengers left Moab for the land where Balaam lived. They were not soldiers, called out for their ability to march fast and deliver a message. These messengers were the elders, the natural and real leaders of Moab. The noblemen who came to Balaam’s door carried what the Bible calls the "rewards of divination." Their approach wasn’t a quiet, "Balaam, Balak the king is requesting prayer." Oh, no! They wanted definite results, and they had money to buy those results.

Balaam was a spiritual man, but he wasn’t a holy man. He lacked complete commitment to God. Such commitment was what a prophet like Moses was made of. Balaam, on the other hand, seems to have been a man who played the system, who only wanted to know God enough to get results. It apparently didn’t occur to him that calling on the God of Israel to curse Israel would be, shall we say, stupid. He saw the gold. He wanted the gold. For whatever reason, God was the spiritual Power he needed to influence in this particular situation.

But, holy or not, Balaam was real. He knew the powers he possessed weren’t his own. He had to have the power of God. He was, in that regard, further along than some of us. Anyhow, he made the Moabite leaders spend the night while he sought out Jehovah.

And, miracle of miracles, that night God came to Balaam. What a privilege, to have God come and actually talk to him and ask a question! God asked who his visitors were. Balaam told the truth. He explained that a people had come up from Egypt, enough people to cover the earth. Balak wanted a curse pronounced against these migrants so his army could drive them out.

God is a Person, not a human person, but a Person all the same. He remains independent of those who talk with him. Balaam got close to the real God, and, as sometimes happens, failed to receive what he wanted. God outright forbade him to go with the Moabite nobles. Furthermore, God stated that He had blessed Israel. There was no curse, no counter, to that blessing. Had Balaam but known, God had promised to bless those who blessed Israel and to curse those who cursed them. Balaam seems not to have known what dangerous ground he tread as he sought a curse for the people of the great blessing.

The next morning, Balaam sent the leading Moabites—and their money--packing. Jehovah had refused to grant permission for him to go with them. Case closed.

Well, almost closed. Balak wasn’t as spiritually perceptive as Balaam. He decided to up the ante. This time, the delegation contained princes more noble than the first set. There were more of them, and they were ready to bargain. In fact, Balak sent word that he would honor Balaam as only a king could. He basically handed the soothsayer a blank check—"I’ll do anything you say." [Quotations are not necessarily exact unless accompanied by a Scripture reference.] Talk about a key to the treasury department!

Balaam was smart, if he wasn’t holy. He warned that for Balak’s whole house of silver and gold, he couldn’t go beyond what God said. Now maybe the case was closed.

Well, almost. Again, he invited the men to spend the night while he talked with God. Did he think that God would change His mind? Did he think that the tithe of Balak’s treasury might be enough to buy off the Owner of Heaven and earth? We aren’t told. We only know that Balaam went back to God. Presumably, he tried to be persuasive. A lot of money was at stake; and, spiritual man though he was, Balaam was human.

This time, God seemed to give in a bit. He said Balaam could go with Balak’s men, but there was a caveat, and it was an important one. In essence God said, "You’re only allowed to do what I tell you." It wasn’t a promise for an anti-Semitic curse; God will never allow an anti-Semitic curse. But it was enough for Balaam. In the morning, he mounted his donkey and headed off in the direction of the royal treasury of Moab. The princes of Moab and two of his own servants went with him.

Now, Balaam’s donkey is an interesting creature. Paul asks, rhetorically, if God cares for oxen. The implied answer is no. Yet, there is a sense in which the God that sees the sparrow fall does care for animals. God allowed Balaam’s donkey to see things in the spirit world that even this man of the spirit world couldn’t see. Namely, the donkey saw an angel standing in the pathway with a drawn sword. The angel didn’t need a swat team to stop a donkey. He carried the sword of the Lord, and even in those many years before gunpowder, the sword of the Lord could do things a machine gun can’t. Talk about roadblocks!

The donkey did what she could. She dodged the angel by leaving the roadway and walking out into a field. The sword of the Lord stayed still. Balaam got by with running the roadblock, and he didn’t even know what had happened, only that his donkey had left the road.

Being a gentle, merciful kind of guy, Balaam hit his donkey to turn her back onto the road. I suppose the reigns would have done the same thing, but then again, donkeys can be stubborn. Maybe Balaam intended to teach her a lesson.

Please keep in mind that we live with different technology than Balaam knew. Not only was the sword the weapon of choice at a roadblock, but the roads were also a far cry from what you drive on in your car. They didn’t have to be thirty-six feet wide with twenty feet of black top and sixteen feet of good-quality gravel. All they had to be was a path wide enough for a horse or two, maybe a wagon. Traffic moved very slowly, and even the highways reflected that fact. Stopping a donkey should prove easy on a narrow road.

The angel took his next position between two vineyards. These things also happened before barbwire and electric fence. The vineyards were surrounded by stone walls. The donkey again veered from the roadway. This time, though, she had to drag alongside one of those walls. Balaam’s foot got smashed in the process. I imagine that the blow the donkey received for her efforts this second time was more heartfelt than the first. After all, Balaam was in pain.

The angel didn’t give up, and he wasn’t limited to foot travel. Soon, he took his stand in a really narrow spot in the road. I suppose it could have been between trees, but let’s just say that this time the donkey was between a rock and hard place. There was no turning aside. She had no chance of raking her severe master’s foot along a wall to save his life. If she went forward, there was that awful sword held by a supernatural being. The donkey laid down in the road rather than die at the hand of the angel.

Balaam was carrying a staff—obviously not for hiking. Maybe there was prestige involved or self-defense. Anyway, he took his staff and got ready to let the donkey have it, when the donkey spoke up.

I can just about hear somebody start to complain. Animals don’t talk, at least not in Christian literature. One of the most noticeable differences between the Bible and other ancient sacred writings is the realism of Scripture. It lacks the magic, "Sorcerer’s Apprentice" character of such works as the Gilgamesh Epic. Very rarely do we find things in Scripture that are too fantastic to believe, that is, once we accept the fact that God is real and interested in the affairs of humans. Still, talking donkeys don’t fit our adult world—even if that is what we loved about this story as kids.

But think again. For one thing, the Bible credits the donkey’s speech to the power of God, and miracles are the province of the living God. Secondly, notice Balaam’s reaction. I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for donkeys since I played with a stuffed donkey as a little boy. I’d rather enjoy owning one, but let me tell you, if my donkey talked to me, I wouldn’t want it any more. If your dog or cat spoke to you, you’d jump out of your skin. But Balaam didn’t panic. He carried on a conversation. Balaam was a spiritual man. He expected spiritual phenomenon, and a talking donkey probably seemed comfortably supernatural to him from the beginning. After all, this was a man who had but recently talked with God.

Anyhow, the donkey spoke in the power of God. "What have I done to deserve getting hit three times?"

Instead of running, Balaam answered. Balaam the donkey beater told his donkey that she had mistreated him. He added that if he had a sword along, he’d kill her.

The donkey, of course pled that she’d been faithful until this day, and Balaam even got so far as admitting that she spoke the truth before God decided to let this supposedly spiritual man see into the spiritual world. Balaam literally got his eyes opened and saw the angel standing with his sword ready. All of a sudden, that poor little donkey made a lot of sense. Balaam fell flat on his face before the heavenly messenger.

The angel said he'd come to oppose him because his actions were perverse. If the donkey hadn’t avoided him, he would have killed Balaam and let her live."

Balaam isn’t around to tell us if his whole life passed in front of his eyes just then, but Balak’s treasure passed from them. He confessed his sin and offered to turn back. The angel, however, told him to proceed, with the repeated warning to only speak what he was told.

In Moab, Balak heard that Balaam was on his way. Quickly, the king headed for the border. They met, and the king criticized Balaam for taking so long. After all, he was able to make something out of Balaam.

But Balaam could do what Balak couldn’t. His reputation for mysterious power gave him the final say. He said little more than that he had come. Then, he added his version of the angel’s warning, saying in effect, "We’re dealing with things bigger than we are. I’ll have to say what God puts in my mouth."

The king and the soothsayer traveled on together. That night, Balak held sort of a religious party. That is, he sacrificed sheep and oxen and sent their cooked meat to Balaam to eat. Tomorrow, Balaam would contact the spirit world to see what he could do against Balak’s imagined enemies.

The day started on the high places of Baal. High places were literally high. They were on hills. But these lofty retreats were also often religious places. Ancient people established shrines on hills and mountains. Perhaps they thought of all gods as coming from Heaven and wanted to climb closer. From this tall vantage point, Balaam turned to sacrifices and enchantments. He ordered up no less than seven altars. On each altar, he required the king to sacrifice a bull and a ram. Balak supplied the animals, and the two men offered them on the altars. Balaam expected to impress and attract God with his sacrifice. At last, he left Balak standing beside his altars, likely still breathing the smell of charred flesh and wood smoke. Balaam himself sought out a lonely high point and told God how he had offered fourteen appropriate animals on the holy number of altars.

God didn’t need the lunch, and God had his own people make but one altar. Still, he answered Balaam. He gave him a message for the king.

Balaam delivered that message with mid-Eastern eloquence. He recounted how Balak had sent for him to curse Israel. He described seeing Israel from his rocky high place. He also said two things of theological significance: "How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?" (Numbers 23:8) and "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!" (Numbers 23:10)

Balak began thinking in terms of breach of contract. Sort of like "I asked you to curse these guys, and you’ve blessed them hugely!"

Balaam could only remind him that he was restricted to saying those words that God gave him.

Lesser men might have given up in despair. Balak, however, was motivated. He took Balaam to another place. Maybe, if the soothsayer could see only a fraction of Israel he could get the God who protected them to curse them. From Mount Pisgah, the place from which God would later allow Moses to look across the border and see the Promised Land before dying, Balaam looked down on the edge of the Jewish encampment.

Another seven altars went up. Another fourteen animals burned on them. Again, Balaam went off alone to meet with God. Again, he came back with words from Heaven, even if they weren’t what Balak wanted to hear. God wasn’t a man to repent and change his mind. Balaam had to say, "Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it." (Numbers 23:20) God hadn’t seen wickedness in Israel, and there was "the shout of a king" among them. Israel was like a devouring lioness. I suppose that Balak maybe should have taken this as a warning.

You might find it interesting to note that the first message sent by telegraph in the 1800’s was taken from the King James Bible’s account of Balaam’s prophecy after this second offering: "What hath God wrought!" (He took the last words of Numbers 23:23 a bit out of context, but Samuel Morse honored God with the invention that later gave birth to the telephone, and ultimately the Internet.)

Balak was getting desperate. It was looking as if it would be better for the prophet to say nothing at all. He wasn’t getting curses, and this kind of blessing was far, far different from what he’d envisioned. Still, he was game for one more try.

Another seven altars went up. Another seven bulls felt the sacrificial knife. Another seven rams burned to ashes. Somehow, in his previous efforts, Balaam had resorted to sorcery in his attempts to get God to curse Israel. This time, he gave in to the fact that God wanted to bless rather than curse. He forgot his sorcery and looked out over the wilderness. He saw the camp of Israel laid out with its twelve tribes camped as units around the tent they used as a temple. This time, we are told, "the spirit of God came upon him." (Numbers 24:2) Without sorcery, speaking directly from God, he started in: "Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said: He hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open. . ." (Numbers 24:3-4) He continued, describing the beauty of Israel, describing Israel’s power, and the greatness of her future king. He said, "Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee." (Numbers 24:9)

Balak got mad. He slapped his hands together and told him where to get off. Well, actually, he told him to flee home. He had planned to honor Balaam, but now he said, ". . .the LORD hath kept thee back from honour." (Numbers 24:11)

Balaam reiterated the fact that he’d warned Balak that God was the One who decided what the prophet would say. He topped it all off with a description of how Moab and other countries would someday be destroyed by One who would descend from Israel. In fact, the end of Balaam’s prophetic work in Moab was to describe the dismal future of Moab and its neighbors.

The Bible records that both Balaam and Balak returned to their homes.

It would be nice if we could say, "and they lived happily ever after," but we can’t. Neither Balak nor Balaam was content to let good enough alone. Balaam was a spiritual man, but he wasn’t holy. He couldn’t talk God into giving Balak what he wanted, but he knew the ropes. God would not curse Israel, but He might forsake and punish them. If Balaam and the Moabites could get Israel to sin, God would act against them. Balak would get what he wanted, and, presumably, Balaam could still collect.

Soon, on Balaam’s advice, Moabite women began making up to Jewish men. They enticed them into impure relationships. Soon, the relationships led to further religious compromise. Enamored with lust, people from the nation that God wouldn’t curse began worshiping the so-called god Baal Peor. Israel became guilty of sin, and the effect was about as devastating as a curse would have been.

Balaam had it figured right. God’s refusal to curse Israel didn’t preclude His judging them. The sentence that God gave was a deadly epidemic in the camp of Israel. Then, He commanded the rulers to kill every man who had worshiped Baal Peor. One of the priests became a hero by killing a particularly rebellious Israelite and his pagan girlfriend with one sword thrust, thereby stopping the epidemic.

By then, Balak already had what he wanted--lots of dead Jews. He had those dead Jews without losing a single soldier.

But his number finally came up. Israel went to war with those who had tried to pervert them before God. As part of a divinely commanded punishment, huge numbers of Balak’s people were destroyed. Balaam lost out also. Among the dead of the evil world was the man who had said: "Let me die the death of the righteous". (Numbers 23:10)

Balaam, famous for his religion, Balaam, famous as a spiritual man, Balaam who talked with God; died prematurely and violently for his sins. Such is the lot of the person who is spiritual without being holy.

* * *

You may think of yourself as a spiritual person. Maybe you go to church. Maybe you are in tune with nature. Maybe you are involved in one of the non-Christian spiritualities. It may all seem very fulfilling. You might even find an element of peace or of power. But the fact is that the final say in matters of the spirit belongs to God. If you aren’t in tune with Him, your spirituality will lead to ruin.

To find out how to become "tuned in" with God, click here:

How to Have a Relationship With God.

This work is in the pubic domain and may be copied and distributed freely.


How to Have a Relationship with God

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