04.29.2018 I LOVE THE BIBLE 3
Scripture: Numbers 22:21-38
Next Steps for connect card: Memorize Numbers 22:38; Pray about and journal where God is moving in my life; Join a ministry team ______________ (write in team); Attend May 15 Pub Theology
I LOVE the Bible! I love the Bible in so many different ways for so many different reasons. I love the Bible because of what it says about God. I love the Bible for what it says about me. I love this book. Or rather, I love this collection of books. Because really that’s what the Bible is. The Bible is a collection of books by different authors written at different times in different styles to different communities. There’s history. There’s mythology. There’s poetry. There’s letters. There’s prophetic literature. There’s apocalyptic literature. And there’s this brand new kind of literature called gospel.
And throughout the Bible there are great stories, there are hopeful stories, there are stories of faith being rewarded, there are stories of grace, there are stories of welcome, there are stories of conquest. There are difficult stories and challenging stories. There are stories that stop us short and ask if God is like that, if we are like that, if the world is like that. There are stories that redefine the world we think we live in.
Last week we talked about a particularly difficult story: the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son Isaac. It’s a story that stops us in our tracks. Is that really what God is like? Is that really what God wanted? In reading the story and in looking at what the ancients believed about the gods, I hope we saw that underneath the plain text of the story is this rich reframing about who this God we serve is, what the character of this God is, and how this God is different from all the other gods. In stopping Abraham, God reveals that this God is profoundly different, this God won’t require human sacrifices, this God will provide the sacrifice and will bless and give beyond that.
I love the Bible for its rich tapestry of stories. For the ways in which the stories covers all parts of life. For the ways in which there are stories about people feeling God’s presence and being uplifted. For the ways in which there are stories about people struggling with the reality of brokenness that exists in our world. For the ways in which there are stories that are just so real, so human, that cover so much of life.
And then there are the purely awesomely strange stories that are in the Bible. I love the Bible because it has room for some bizarrely cool stories. And we are going to look at one of those this morning.
There are things in the Bible you’d just never believe. There are things in the Bible you would just be shocked that are there because they’re just so shocking. And yet underneath the purely weird there’s beauty and depth and grace. I hope we will find that this morning.
Our story today comes from the book of Numbers. We are pretty deep into the book of Numbers so if you never knew that there was a book of Numbers that’s ok and if you ever started the book of Numbers but have never heard of this story that’s ok. The book of Numbers begins on Mt Sinai after the Israelites receive the Law from God with their task and their calling to take possession of the Promised Land. The rest of the book is a collection of stories about their failed attempts to take possession of the land. They complain about the hardships of the journey. They send spies into the land and the spies are terrified by the inhabitants and Israel becomes scared. A bunch of things happen and all in all the book ends the with Israelites having not taken the land.
But then in the middle of the book there’s this strange story. And it’s a story we are going to look at and dissect a bit today. Mainly because it’s awesome. Without further adieu, let’s read the story.
Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again. Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it 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 only 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 the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.” 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 Balak’s officials. When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the Moabite town on the Arnon border, at the edge of his territory. Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send you an urgent summons? Why didn’t you come to me? Am I really not able to reward you?” “Well, I have come to you now,” Balaam replied. “But I can’t say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.”
So we have this strange story about a man named Balaam going with Moabite officials we learn later to meet a man named Balak. And we are told God is angry about Balaam going. Then there’s an angel blocking the path but only the donkey can see the angel. This happens a couple times. We have some animal cruelty and then eventually we have a talking donkey. See where Shrek got the idea? And at the end of this bizarre story about angels with swords and donkeys that talk God lets Balaam go to see Balak when at the beginning of the story God didn’t want Balaam to go see Balak. What is going on here? And perhaps more importantly, more pressing for you all, why are we talking about this story this morning?!
Let’s talk about Balaam. Balaam was a diviner. He was a shaman. Balaam was someone who could discern the will of the unseeable forces in the world and harness them. He is not part of the people of Israel. He’s a guy living in the Moabite region of Mesopotamia.
Israel is in the midst of wandering around the Promised Land as their lack of faith and grumbling meant God prohibited them from entering the Promised Land for a generation. Their wandering bring them through territories controlled by other people groups. Which leads to armed conflict. Israel has already defeated two kings and people groups in their wandering and now they come to the Moabite region where Balak is king.
King Balak does not want to suffer the same fate as the other kings that have faced the Israelites. And if you’ve ever played age of Empires you know that if you walk through someone else’s area, their soldiers will attack you. Like they literally can’t not. So Balak can’t just not attack Israel as they wander. According to Age of Empires that just wasn’t a choice available. So if he’s going to have to attack them and if they are dangerous to meet in battle, Balak looks for an advantage. That’s where Balaam comes in.
King Balak summons Balaam so that Balaam can put a curse on Israel. That’s what Balaam could do. Balaam receives the word of King Balak from his messengers and tells the messengers to give him a night so he can see what the Lord tells him to do. Now here’s the interesting part. When you see in your Bibles the word Lord written in small caps, like all capital letters but the ORD slightly smaller, the word that is being translated there is Yahweh, the holy and unspeakable name for the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There are many Hebrew words that all get translated as God for us, but when they put it into English translators ensure we know when God’s proper unspeakable name is invoked through the use of Lord in small caps. Balaam isn’t an Israelite. He’s just a guy living somewhere along the Euphrates. And yet before he will make up his mind as to whether or not to go curse Israel he needs it consult Israel’s God. But here’s what’s even crazier: in order to do this, he has to have already had some sort of contact with Israel’s God.
Who is this guy, this random guy living in Mesopotamia, that God has chosen to reveal Himself to? When? When did God reveal himself to Balaam? How? Did he get a burning bush too? Was he called in a special way? How often? What did God reveal to him? I have so many questions. Apparently the writers of the Bible are unconcerned with any of these follow ups. God has revealed himself to someone outside the people Israel, has an intimate enough relationship with Balaam that Balaam can consult him over whether or not to go to Balak, and we’re just going to ignore all of the origin story.
Balaam consults God and God says no, don’t go with them, don’t curse Israel because they are blessed. Balaam tells Balak’s people that and they return. But Balak will both be put off that easily. He sends more envoys, this time people more distinguished, to ask him again. I wonder if there’s an “or else” vibe to this second group. “Balaam we can do this the easy way or the hard way…”. Balaam consults God again and God says (again God is speaking to Balaam who isn’t an Israelite, are you with me on how weird this is), God says ok go with them, but only speak what I tell you.
And that’s where our story picked up. Balaam is going with the messengers from Balak king of Moab. But somehow God is upset. Does he not trust Balaam to only say the things God says? Does he think Balaam might curse Israel? Does he think Balaam could be swayed by royal pressure or under thread of death? We aren’t told. We’re only told God is a little miffed. So he sends an angel with a sword to block Balaam’s path and kill him if he goes any further. The donkey sees and turns aside. The angel keeps getting in the way and the donkey keeps bailing out Balaam. And for his troubles Balaam beats the donkey. Then the donkey finally says, “Why are you hitting me?! Don’t you know that I’m faithful to you? Don’t you known I’m a good donkey? There is an angel here to kill you if you keep along the path and I’m just over here avoiding the angel and saving your life. Can I get a thank you instead of a punch to the gut?!” Then Balaam is allowed to see the angel. And Balaam feels bad for what he’s done to his donkey.
Balaam says that if God wants him to go back he will go back. I should add that at this point Balaam has only done what God has told him to do. But it’s possible he didn’t intend to keep listening to and following God. And God wanted to make sure Balaam would stay on the team. It can be easy, when surrounded by the trappings of power, when surrounded by armed guards, when given the chance to get on a powerful person’s good graces, to forget how real and powerful and central our God is. God will let Balaam go see the king, but not without giving a demonstration and reminder about who is really powerful.
And sure enough it works. Balaam continues on from this near-death-by-invisible-save-for-smart-reliable-loquacious-donkey experience to his audience with King Balak. And Balaam tells Balak that he can only say the words that God, the small-caps-Lord, gives to him. Balaam puts right out that this exchange probably will not go Balak’s way. Balak reminds Balaam of all that Balak could do for him, the rewards the power the privilege, but Balaam remains true to the small-caps-Lord. And after this story, Balak asks Balaam to curse Israel multiple times and every time Balaam pronounces words of blessing over Israel.
Last week we said when we encounter a tough passage of Scripture we should ask ourselves why is this a story that has been passed down for centuries? Why is this a story someone decided to keep retelling and eventually write down so that we still have it today? I think that strategy can work for a strange story like this one as we ask why is this in the Bible, what does it mean for us, and why would we talk about it on a Sunday morning?
I want to talk about it from two perspectives. First from the perspective of Balaam. I think what we see here is the way that God molds us and shapes us. Oftentimes in the culture writ large we think about Christianity as solely about getting right with God, being saved, and going to heaven. And that is absolutely part of it. But we hear less about what happens next. When in reality the point of the Christian life is about being molded, shaped, sanctified, healed by God. At its root this strange, weird, totally awesome story complete with talking donkey is about how God molds and shapes a person.
Balaam is going to be offered power, wealth, privilege, a future, security, basically the world, if he betrays God and curses Israel. How often are we presented with the same choice? How often are we tempted to betray our morality, our conscience, our God, our discipleship in exchange for something material? Something in this world? Some form of wealth or safety or security? We need God to mold us and shape us so that we can remain faithful. We need God to turn us into people who will remain faithful to his precepts, his calling. Sometimes God does this by creating within us desire to do good. By showing us a vision of what life could be that is so compelling we are willing to turn away from other things in order to live that way. Sometimes God does this through other means.
What I find interesting is that Balaam was not part of the community of faith. Balaam was not part of Israel. We easily think of the ways that God moves and molds those of us who are part of the Church. Those who are disciples. I don’t know how often we think about the ways God molds people outside the community of faith. But that’s what happened here. Is God moving in the life of someone you know? Can you see God working even if they can’t? Maybe you are the donkey seeing the angels, good ones hopefully, not ones with flaming swords, all around someone. How can you help move them forward? How can you help move them closer to God?
This leads me to my next point. And that is to look at this story through the lens of the people Israel. The Old Testament is, after all, primarily a story about the people Israel and their God. How does this story relate to the people Israel? What do the Israelites know about any of these events that have gone on? Presumably nothing. They have been off stage the whole time. They are wandering. They are camping.
God does all these things, reveals himself to Balaam, does this whole story with the angel and the donkey, ensures Balaam pronounces blessing of Israel instead of curses and Israel is completely unaware. God is moving and working behind the scenes, completely outside of the community of Israel, for their good.
Do you think God does the same for you? Do you think God moves and works to bring about your healing and wholeness in ways you can’t see or imagine?
How can God be moving in your life? I think the only way we can discover that is to pray. To meditate. To consider. To think about it. If no one from Israel is involved in this story, how did it get into the Bible? Perhaps it came through someone thinking about how did we make it through the kingdom of Moab without getting killed? And in thinking about that, it was revealed what God did. How God worked. How God saved them.
This week, would you be willing to think about, journal about, pray about how God is moving in your life? That’s our next step for today.
Our story this morning was a strange one. But its also beautiful. It’s a story about a talking donkey. But it’s also a story about how God revealed himself to someone outside the community of Israel and worked in order to bless God’s people all the while they were unawares. The Bible is full of these strange, glorious, wonderful, awesome stories of grace. Our lives are equally full of stories of grace, strange, glorious, wonderful, and awesome all the same. Do we have eyes to see? Do we have a heart to listen? Do we have a spirit centered on God to be receptive? Thanks be to God for his provision, for his love, for his care, even and especially in the places we don’t see. Let us pray.