So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand. And they came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s message. And he said to them, “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me.” So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. And God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, ‘Behold, a people has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Now come, curse them for me. Perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them out.’ ” God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your own land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” So the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.” Numbers 22:7-14, ESV.
We really want life to be about the cosmic struggle between the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them). It is always more comfortable to see what is wrong in the world as the result of someone else’s evil; always easier to believe that my suffering is their fault. The problem with this way of thinking is revealed in today’s passage. It ignores the fact that only God is good.
Balak sends cash to buy a favorable prophecy from Balaam—one that will support him in a fight against the Israelites that are infesting his country. Before answering Balak, Balaam seeks a word from Yahweh (the Lord). God tells Balaam not to go with Balak and not to curse the people of Israel whom God has blessed. Balaam listens to God and tells the Moabite delegation, “Go to your own land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.”
The pagan prophet won’t answer the pagan king without talking to the God of Israel first? And when the God of Israel talks the pagan prophet listens? The rest of the story is just as remarkable: Eventually, God allows Balaam to go to Moab (22:20). Balaam is likely hoping in his heart that this includes permission to curse Israel and receive the king’s promised bounty, for God is quickly angered at Balaam (22:22). After being educated on God’s sovereignty through an engaging scene with his donkey and an angel, Balaam goes to Moab and offers up curses that are turned by the Lord into blessings for Israel. He predicts that Israel will grow to an uncountable host, that God will remain on their side, that they will have remarkable success, and that an Israelite king will conquer his neighbors (chapters 23-24).
God is great and God is good. The Israelites do nothing in this story, and we might be left to wonder how they learned of the events at all. Thus far in the story the Israelites have been only ungrateful grumblers. Balak is a pagan idol worshipper who wants to destroy God’s covenant people. Balaam may consult Yahweh, but the motive of his heart is greed (Jude 11). There are no good guys in this story.
What this account reveals to us is not the victory of the good guys over the bad guys, but the sovereignty of a good God at work to protect the people He has made a covenant with. We may be curious about Balaam’s understanding of Yahweh. We may laugh at the donkey story. But we should come away from Numbers 22-24 with hearts given over to the worship of our great and good God.
I pray that you will see the cosmic struggle more clearly today and that, as you do, you will worship the one true God who will win and reign forever in righteousness.