The Donkey Speaks
It dawned on me while getting ready to type this sermon, that of the commentaries I read for sermon prep each week, and despite the scholarly and immensely intelligent nature of those men, they couldn’t really make the pictorial connection to many of the stories that we are reading and analyzing, because they were not alive when the promises of God to Israel had come about.
Only in Israel’s return to the land in 1948, could some of these things properly be grasped. It is true that all of the pictures are revealed elsewhere in the Bible in one way or another, but to actually make these necessary connections to what is revealed would certainly be much harder without seeing this group of people returning and occupying the land.
A couple of the scholars, John Gill and Adam Clarke in particular, openly wrote about the necessity of Israel being returned to the land as a sign of the truth of the Lord in accord with His written word. Rather than saying that the church replaced Israel, these men – even hundreds of years ago – faithfully proclaimed that Israel was still a part of God’s plans in redemptive history.
However, the duration of their exile, the circumstances surrounding their return, the state of the nations in the world today, and a host of other unknowns added to these, meant that they were left without the information we now possess.
Because of this, one can see that it wasn’t until Israel’s return that the pictorial meaning of these many passages could really have come about. And who knows how much more is left unknown to us? I’ve struggled with the Balaam sermons, hoping to make a final connection as to what he is picturing, and as of this sermon, I am still chewing it over.
Text Verse: “Surely the Lord God does nothing,
Unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets.” Amos 3:7
The words there from Amos do not mean that people today receive prophecy from the Lord, and that they then pass on the mysteries of God. Rather, the prophets have spoken, the word is written, and God has recorded His plan in it. It is now our job to search it out and to attempt to discern what it is that He has revealed.
The longer time goes by, the more knowledge that is added to the body of commentaries on Scripture, and the more we read and study what the Lord is telling us, the surer it is that we will understand what those prophets have had conveyed to them from the Lord. This is the beauty of studying the Bible. It is all there if we can work it out.
Today’s passage is another wonderful part of this beautiful treasure we call the Holy Bible. Hopefully today, we will find some more wonderful insights from it, because it is a part of His superior word. And so let’s turn to that precious word once again and… May God speak to us through His word today and may His glorious name ever be praised.
I. Why Have You Struck Your Donkey? (verses 22-33)
22 Then God’s anger was aroused because he went,
v’yikhar aph elohim – “and burned the nostril of God.” It is as if fire shot out of His nose over the events taking place. It is curious that Balaam had been given permission to go, but that now God’s anger is fired up over his going. However, it is apparent, even if not explicitly stated, that the intent by going was to curse Israel. That is why the emissaries had been sent.
Had he told them that he could not curse Israel, they would have said, “Well then, there is no point in you coming back with us.” However, by going, the implication is that he will, in fact, curse Israel. That is the entire purpose of the promised payment. As the Bible later records of Balaam, he ran greedily for profit.
In this verse, rather than “because he went,” the verb more rightly says, “because he was going.” It’s not just that he went on the journey, but he started and continued deliberately and with conviction on it, pressing forward to the intended end. As Keil notes –
“…it is evident, on the one hand, that the anger of God was not excited by the fact that Balaam went with the elders of Moab, but by his behaviour wither on setting out or upon the journey.”
His being given permission to go did not mean he had to go, but that the expectation was that he would do right if he went. The fact that he decided to go, and pressed on as he went, meant that this would not be the case.
22 (con’t) and the Angel of the Lord took His stand in the way as an adversary against him.
v’yityashev malak Yehovah baderek l’satan low – “and took His stand the Angel of Yehovah in the way as an adversary against him.” The word satan, or adversary, is introduced into the Bible here. It is one who opposes or an accuser. When it is prefixed by the definite article, it speaks of Satan, the arch-enemy of God.
Here, it is malak Yehovah, or “the Angel of the Lord,” meaning the eternal Christ, who stands in opposition to Balaam.
22 (con’t) And he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him.
Here, he is said to be riding on his athon, or female donkey along with two na’ar, or young men. These two servants are curiously only mentioned here in what then seems like a superfluous addition of detail. Why mention them at all?
It is an irony of Scripture that the supposed seer and diviner of the gods was wholly incapable of seeing the Angel of the Lord, whereas his brute beast, a donkey, not only saw Him, but turned away in understanding.
One cannot claim that the path was so narrow that it had to take action. If this were so, it would have stopped or tried to squeeze by, as she will later do. Rather, the donkey avoided the path altogether and went into the field.
So, blinded by his now obvious intentions of receiving a king’s reward, his supposedly bright intellect is clouded over. At the same time, the beast on which he sat perceived with perfect clarity that the hand of her Creator was against them.
Here the verb shalaph is introduced. It means to draw out, grow up, or pluck off. The Angel of the Lord stands with His sword drawn, indicating the type of death Balaam would face if he continued down his reckless path. Unfortunately, he did – in fact – continue down it and in Numbers 31:8, it is shown that this is the exact death that he will face.
23 (con’t) So Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back onto the road.
In his ignorance, he strikes the donkey who is, at this time, his only means of not being struck down. The irony is palpable. He, the soothsayer and the one who supposedly communes with the gods cannot see what a mere donkey perfectly realizes. If only those in the church today would trust their own donkeys, we wouldn’t have so many false teachings from so many blinded people swirling about our churches!
The Hebrew uses the term mishol, or a hollow passage, to describe the path. This word is only used here in the Bible, coming from a word which indicates a hollow hand, and thus a handful. One can think of a path running through vineyards, with the vines forming a tunnel to go through.
Thus, this is probably a dividing line between two independent vineyards that people would travel through. On each side would be a gader, or wall. It is another new word signifying a wall or a fence. This was probably of stone which was cleared from fields and used to mark the edge of the property. This would make passage limited.
Here the donkey can’t turn off the path, but it still knows it can’t press forward, and so it lurched to the side which would have smushed Balaam’s foot against the wall. It is a different word for “wall” here, qir. It comes from a root signifying to bore or dig. And so it is something with depth to it. His foot is smashed against the surface of it in the donkey’s attempt to not be struck.
The same word, v’yoseph, which was just used in the previous verse to signify that Balaam had struck his donkey, is used again here. It says, v’yoseph malak Yehovah abor, or “and again the angel of the Lord went.” It isn’t speaking of the distance, meaning further, but of the event, meaning a third time.
This time, however, he appears standing in a place that is so narrow that the donkey can’t even attempt to get away. In such a tight place, she would be distressed, therefore…
Well, she doesn’t want to get struck again, and she cannot turn left or right, and so the perceptive donkey simply lays down on the spot. She may not have wanted a beating, but one comes anyway…
27 (con’t) so Balaam’s anger was aroused, and he struck the donkey with his staff.
v’yikhar aph bil’am – “and burned the nostril of Balaam.” It is the same words used above when speaking about the anger of the Lord. The number three in Scripture signifies that which is substantial, complete and entire. The Lord has taken Balaam through the entire course of events in order to alert him to the severity of the situation.
As is what can normally be expected of sin, he first allows us to divert from the path, but we remain untouched. He next draws judgment nearer and causes discomfort to arise. And finally, if the lesson is not learned, we end in such a tight spot that we have nowhere to turn, but to simply fall before Him, voluntarily or involuntarily.
In this case, Balaam is saved from himself by an unreasoning animal who can discern more than he could imagine…
It is astonishing to read the commentaries of scholars, some of whom find the Bible the literal word of God, and yet who dismiss the words of this verse in a thousand different ways. Whereas their commentaries might normally be a few sentences, they spend paragraphs writing out how this verse doesn’t really mean what it says. However, both Peter, and anyone else who accepts the word as written, must take the verse as it is intended. Peter says –
“They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; 16 but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet.” 2 Peter 2:15, 16
The Hebrew says, v’yiphtakh Yehovah eth pi ha’athon – “And opened Yehovah the mouth of the donkey.” Who made the donkey? The Lord. If the Lord can fashion a donkey, and if He can fashion a man, He can also make the donkey speak with the words of a man.
The narrative is based on the redemptive plans of the Lord, and therefore, they are given to reflect that redemptive plan in a particular manner, and for a particular reason.
If the donkey didn’t speak, and if Balaam only imagined it, this would not have restrained his madness, it would have increased it. In asking why she had been struck three times, she is speaking the word of the Lord, as prompted by the Lord. The donkey knows perfectly well why she was struck three times.
She wasn’t asking this because she didn’t know. She was asking, because this is how the Lord wakes His people up from their spiritual slumber – “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The Lord knew why Elijah was there. But He wanted Elijah to think the situation through with clarity. “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” The Lord already knew the answer, as is obvious from his response –
“Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” John 21:17
Peter said what he said about Balaam because he knew how the Lord worked, and how He accomplished His plans through even the thick-headed like Balaam, and even like he himself.
In the case of Peter’s words in his epistle about Balaam, the Greek actually reads Balaam tou Bosor. Instead of calling him Balaam son of Beor, he is called by Peter Balaam son of Bosor. Why would he do that?
Some translations simply skip over it as an anomaly and translate it as Beor instead of Bosor, as do some manuscripts. However, the curious change is credited to Peter making a play on words.
The Hebrew letter ayin, when pronounced in an especially guttural way, would make the name sound like Bosor, and would then correspond to the Hebrew word for “flesh” which is basar. In other words, he makes a pun by calling him “Balaam, Son of the Flesh,” which speaks of his pursuing the carnal lusts of the flesh in his madness to get rich.
The word Balaam uses, and which is translated as “abused,” signifies “to go over completely.” It is what one does when he gleans. He goes over an area until it is picked clean. Balaam says, in essence, “You have completely derided me.”
And then his next words are in the perfect tense in the Hebrew, “Having a sword in my hand, for now, I had killed you.” It is as if the act were accomplished, but for the lack of a sword. “As I only had my stick, instead I beat you with that.”
Balaam is so furious at this point that he has not come to his senses. His donkey spoke to him, and instead of thinking clearly over that, he responds in words that he might have said to someone irritating him over some petty matter. He needs more donkey talk to pull him back from the edge…
And he said, “No.”
The words are from the Lord, but spoken as if through the donkey. Despite their ultimate Source, there is nothing theologically deep. There is simply the continuance of the questioning that had already begun. The answer to the questions are obvious, and have the sole intent of bringing Balaam to right reason.
He had been told by God not to curse Israel, but then when permitted to go with the emissaries, he had closed his mind to that and opened it up to the riches that lay ahead. With simple questions from a simpler donkey, he is being nurtured into reasoning out the surrounding circumstances.
With that now done, and only with that having been settled, is he enabled to see what was kept from him…
v’gal Yehovah eth ene bil’am – “And uncovered Yehovah Balaam’s eyes.” It wasn’t that his eyes were shut, it is that they were covered over. What he couldn’t see, he now sees. And this was an uncovering not by his own action, but by that of the Lord…
31 (con’t) and he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand;
There is an irony which has occurred in these verses. Balaam was traveling to Moab, or “From Father,” to earn his reward. However, the Angel of the Lord who was sent from Father, has blocked the way. It is a remarkable parallel to Christ’s own words of John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
The reward is through Christ, and only through Him. The way is where the Lord is standing. The truth is that He is, in fact, standing there, and the life is symbolized by the sword which can be sheathed granting it, or swung, thus removing it. Balaam now sees what Jesus literally proclaimed. And the reaction to this knowledge is obvious…
31 (con’t) and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face.
It is the common reaction of any who comes before the Lord with the knowledge of who the Lord is – awestruck wonder. In the case of Balaam, he literally fell prostrate with his face to the ground.
Now the Angel of the Lord speaks directly to Balaam, but first in the form of a question. The donkey asked, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Now the Lord asks, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times?” The word for donkey, athon, comes from the word ethan, meaning perennial, or ever-flowing. It is where the common English name “Ethan” comes from.
If you know an unsaved Ethan, you can now us this to begin your witnessing to him. Knowing the source of Hebrew names is a marvelous way to do this because many of our names are derived from the Hebrew language. As far as the narrative, we can see that the athon, or donkey, is a symbol of constancy, consistency, and even patient endurance.
The donkey patiently endured her beatings, and the Lord patiently endured as the donkey was beaten. But it was for this reason that the Angel of the Lord says anokhi yatsati l’satan – “I have come out to stand as an adversary against you.” Again, it is the word, satan, which when prefixed by an article speaks of Satan, God’s arch-foe. Here, it only speaks of being an adversary.
And He stood in this manner for a purpose. It was to uncover the eyes of Balaam and correct his rash ways. Here, the Angel of the Lord uses a very rare word, yarat. It is only found here and Job 16:11, it signifies that which is rash or perverse as in rushing headlong into destruction. The Lord has personally intervened to stop this disastrous progression.
The Angel of the Lord credits the discernment of a mere donkey for turning because of what she saw. He doesn’t say, “I appeared to the donkey.” He simply notes that the donkey perceived His presence. However…
33 (con’t) If she had not turned aside from Me, surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live.”
The Hebrew here appears broken, as in an aposiopesis. It is as if a challenge to Balaam’s mind. Further, it is in the perfect tense, as an accomplished fact – “Perhaps she turned aside from before Me… for now I have killed you; and she lives.” Balaam must infer what is being said, and to make the right choice about his future path.
A donkey speaks, who would believe?
And from where does she get her word?
Did she just learn, or from God did she receive?
What prompted her? What is it she heard?
And with what words does she speak?
Wondrous oracles about the future of man?
No, just a question to her master about his beating streak
Why did he do it? Just because he can?
But donkeys don’t speak, as we all know
It was the Lord who allowed words to come from her
To restrain the prophet’s madness, and this is so
He was on a wayward path, which the Lord was set to deter
A donkey speaks, who would believe
A message from God for the wise to receive
II. The Word That God Puts in My Mouth (Verses 34-41)
Here Balaam acknowledges his sin, but he doesn’t say how he sinned. Was it because his way was perverse, or is it because he struck a donkey which didn’t deserve it? The Lord standing in the way was because he was acting in a perverse manner. And that is what brought about the beatings. But because the Lord stood in the way, Balaam speaks on…
34 (con’t) Now therefore, if it displeases You, I will turn back.”
The Hebrew reads, “And therefore, if evil in your eyes, I will turn back.” This shows that Balaam is still intent on going. The word “if” shows this.
There is nothing to gain by going, apart from the promised riches, and so it is the promised riches which are still on his mind. But the Lord has blessings planned for Israel, and so Israel will be blessed.
Here, the Angel of the Lord assumes the same authority as God in verse 22:20 by speaking the same words as then. It is a clear indication that the Angel of the Lord, is the Lord. What he says is both a prediction and a command – “The word that I speak to you, that you shall speak.” He has been called to curse, but the Lord has determined otherwise. And so it shall be…
35 (con’t) So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
Where these men have been during the past many verses is not stated. In verse 21, they were called the princes of Moab. Now, they are called the princes of Balak. Together, they depart for their destination, obviously sending messengers ahead…
The king desired to provide a true state visit for Balaam, and so instead of awaiting him to come to his location, he went to the extremity of his territory to meet with him. It shows the importance of the matter to the king. He is anxious to give Balaam great honor in hopes that he will accept it and act in the most favorable manner concerning the situation with Israel.
The Hebrew in this verse says, ir moav, which is probably the same as Ar of Moab in Numbers 21:15. It is located on the Arnon, or “Roaring Stream,” which formed the boundary of Moab.
Balak’s words are superlative, halo shaloakh shlakhti elekha liqro – “Did not sending I send to you for calling?” Because the original message from the Lord was so watered down by Balaam, and then completely missing from the words of the messengers, the denial made no sense at all to Balak.
In the words, “Am I not able to honor you?” there is a certain amount of wondering if Balaam thinks he is good for his word or not, as if he is hurt at the mere suggestion of it. As one can see, and will continue to see, Balak is a highly emotional person who becomes frustrated over his inability to get his own way.
Here, it appears at first as a pious note of faithfulness, but it is a set of words which lack that. First, instead of saying Yehovah, he says God. Twice before, Balaam has said Yehovah, and once he said, Yehovah elohai, or Yehovah my God.
Now, he simply says, elohim. That can be the true God, or any god, or multiple gods. The context decides the meaning, and here, the meaning is questionable as to who he is even speaking of.
Secondly, he never tells him that Yehovah had forbidden him to come, or that he was told to only speak what Yehovah said. And third, Yehovah had said that what was to be uttered was blessing, not cursing. Though Balaam has stated a fact, he has only partially stated it, and he has – once again – withheld more than revealed.
From their meeting place, it says they have traveled to qiryath khutsoth, or City of Streets. The name may imply a trading city, or a city where people sell their wares on the streets, or something like that. The word khuts simply means “outside.” This is the only time it is seen in Scripture.
Here the word “offered” indicates a slaughter for sacrifice. Two kinds of animals are mentioned, the baqar, which comes from a root meaning to inquire or seek, and tson, which comes from a word meaning to migrate. Both indicate animals which move as they forage for food.
The sacrifice is certainly intended as a means of seeking the favor of the gods of Moab, and hopefully appeasing the God of Israel. That it is sent to Balaam and the princes indicates that it is also a type of fellowship offering, where there is a meal between the deity and the people.
*41 (fin) So it was, the next day, that Balak took Balaam and brought him up to the high places of Baal, that from there he might observe the extent of the people.
The chapter ends with Balak going to either a specific place called Bamoth Baal, or it could also be any given place. The meaning of bamoth is “high places,” but it also refers to a specific place at times. It is one of the places where those of Moab would worship their god Chemosh.
In saying, “the extent of the people,” it can mean “from one extent to the other,” or “the outlying extent of them.” The former seems likely based on what will later be done.
Here is where the chapter ends, high with anticipation concerning what will happen when Balaam is asked to speak out his utterance against the people of Israel.
In a cursory reading of the chapter, even many times, I had always looked at the positive side of Balaam. That made the later passages about him, which are spoken in the negative, more difficult to understand. Some of my friends who emailed me about him felt the same.
However, after studying this first chapter in detail, it becomes evident that he was, in fact, an opportunist who held Yehovah as simply one God among many. His sitting down to a meal sacrificed by the king of Moab, knowing that he would have done so to Chemosh, reflects this as much as anything else which has been presented.
He may have desired to only speak what Elohim told him to speak, but Elohim is a very large word which conveys many meanings in Scripture. In Balaam’s case, it was most certainly a collection of gods who were there to help him become wealthy.
Unfortunately, we are all susceptible to following after “the gods,” of this world which are led by the “god” of this world, meaning the devil. Money, addictions to sex, drugs, fame, or whatever else, even lesser gods of chance, luck, and fortune, and so on. The world is filled with “gods,” but we are told to reject them, because they all belong to one ruler, Satan.
Instead, we are to stand opposed to them and to proclaim that there is one, and only one true God, and that God – the Creator – has revealed Himself to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. May we set our hearts and affections on Him, and let us pursue Him and Him alone – to the glory of God the Father.
Next Week: Numbers 23:1-12 His words are not just allegorical (Balaam’s First Oracle) (45th Numbers Sermon)
The Lord has you exactly where He wants you. He has a good plan and purpose for you. It may seem at times as if you are lost in a desert, wandering aimlessly. But the Lord is there, carefully leading you to the Land of Promise. So follow Him and trust Him and He will do marvelous things for you and through you.
The Donkey Speaks
Then God’s anger was aroused because he went
And the Angel of the Lord took His stand
———-in the way as an adversary against him
And he was riding on his donkey
And his two servants were with him
———-as things took a turn that was grim
Now the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord
Standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand
And the donkey turned aside out of the way
And went into the field, something of which he had not planned
So Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back onto the road
Then the Angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path, it wasn’t wide
Between the vineyards
With a wall on this side and a wall on that side
And when the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord
She pushed herself against the wall
And crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall
So he struck her again, not very nice at all!
Then the Angel of the Lord went further
And stood in a narrow place; of leeway it was bereft
Where there was no way to turn
Either to the right hand or to the left
And when the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord
She lay down under Balaam; seemingly an annoying gaffe
So Balaam’s anger was aroused
And he struck the donkey with his staff
Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey
And she said to Balaam, words for our rhymes
“What have I done to you
That you have struck me these three times?”
And Balaam said to the donkey
“Because you have abused me, so you did do
I wish there were a sword in my hand
For now I would kill you!”
So the donkey said to Balaam
“Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden
———-Isn’t it so?
Ever since I became yours, to this day?
Was I ever disposed to do this to you?”
———-And he said, “No.”
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes
And he saw the Angel of the Lord there in that place
Standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand
And he bowed his head and fell flat on his face
And the Angel of the Lord said to him
“Why have you struck your donkey these times three?
Behold, I have come out to stand against you
Because your way is perverse before Me
The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times
If she had not turned aside from Me
Surely I would also have killed you by now
And let her live, that’s the way it was to be
And Balaam said to the Angel of the Lord
“I have sinned, for I did not know; the knowledge I did lack
You stood in the way against me
Now therefore, if it displeases You, I will turn back
Then the Angel of the Lord said to Balaam
“Go with the men, but only the word that I speak to you
———-hear Me now as I talk
That you shall speak
So Balaam went with the princes of Balak
Now when Balak heard that Balaam was coming
He went out to meet him at Moab’s city
Which is on the border at the Arnon
The boundary of the territory
Then Balak said to Balaam
“Did I not earnestly send to you, calling for you?
Why did you not come to me?
Am I not able to honor you? When I speak, so I will do
And Balaam said to Balak, “Look, I have come to you!
Now, have I any power at all to say anything?
The word that God puts in my mouth
That I must speak; to His word alone I must cling
So Balaam went with Balak
And they came to Kirjath Huzoth on a whim
Then Balak offered oxen and sheep
And he sent some to Balaam and to the princes who were with him
So it was, the next day
That Balak took Balaam and brought him up
———-high like atop a steeple
To the high places of Baal
That from there he might observe the extent of the people
Lord God, we are even now in a wilderness
And we are wanting to be led by You
Without You to direct, our lives would be a mess
And so be our guide, O God; You who are faithful and true
We long for the water in this barren land
May it flow forth from the Rock, our souls to satisfy
Give us this refreshing, spiritual hand
And may we take it, and to our lives daily it apply
And we shall be content and satisfied in You alone
We will follow You as we sing our songs of praise
Hallelujah to You; to us Your path You have shown
Hallelujah we shall sing to you for all of our days
Hallelujah and Amen…