God is used to working with colorful figures. One of the most colorful in the Bible is Balaam. Hailing from Mesopotamia, Balaam was what we might call a shaman or a soothsayer. He was not a Hebrew. But he knew the God of the Hebrews, in addition to other purported deities he believed he could summon or charm. It would be well and good that Balaam knew the Hebrew God, but God did not approve of Balaam’s methods: divination, witchcraft as a way of figuring out God’s will. God doesn’t like us resorting to witchcraft because when we do so, we use spiritual power in order to secure our own statuses, empower ourselves, even act as gods. We seek a security other than in Jesus Christ. Instead, what God wants for us is to be people of faith. That means that we can’t always expect to be in control. We need to trust that God will work everything for good, even when it does not always seem so.
In contemporary terms, Balaam is akin to a television preacher, someone who is out to use faith matters to make big bucks. Now, like Balaam, many television preachers are successful. They have wide followings—especially of people down on their luck and seeking prosperity. Like Balaam, they speak and whole worlds listen. There is power to their words, and on occasion, powerful politicians have sought advice from them.
Balak, king of Moab, was one such politician seeking help from Balaam. Israel was about to repossess the promised land, having traveled in the wilderness for forty years. Balak, and his people, the Moabites, were terrified of Israel, since Israel had become a mighty people, strong and powerful and hungry. Balak was alarmed that Israel would invade Moab and steal her crops and wealth. What to do? Balak wanted to enlist Balaam’s help—to curse Israel! That would weaken Israel and make her unable to threaten Moab—sounds like a good plan. After all, Balaam was a mighty magician. Surely his hexes could do the trick. Except, what Balak didn’t realize was that God Almighty was behind Israel. Any curse brought against Israel would simply boomerang back on the curser.
Perhaps you’ve heard of a teen begging to go to a weekend party: “Will adults be present?” asks the parent. “Of course!” promises the teen. “Will there be drinking? Drugs?” the parent follows up. The teen replies, “Of course not!” But you, the parent, are being fed lies: no adults will be at this party, and drinks galore will be present. No wonder God’s wrath was turned against Balaam. Balaam knew that big money was wrapped up in his curses. He stood to profit big time if he cursed Israel on behalf of Moab. So just like the teen eager to run to an inappropriate party, so Balaam ran hog-wild to Balak in order to make mincemeat of Israel with his curses. Just like a television preacher salivating over just how much money he can make, Balaam pushed his donkey to get to Moab.
Now, Balaam’s donkey wasn’t like Shrek’s. Balaam’s donkey really couldn’t talk, at least not naturally. But she was a wise donkey, and when she saw the angel with the flaming sword—just like the angel who guarded Eden after the fall or St. Michael the Archangel in the Book of Revelation—she knew that the angel was no one to mess with. She knew that Balaam’s life was at stake. So three times she halted, even to the point of injuring Balaam, her master. Better that her master suffer some bruises than lose his life—and the donkey’s own life as well!
That God freed the tongue of a donkey to speak is not nearly as awesome as opening Balaam’s eyes to see the angel of the Lord. Much like ourselves at different times in life, Balaam was thick-headed. C. S. Lewis once pointed out just how differently angels were presented in the Bible compared to their representations in art. In art, angels all too often come across as harmless and nonthreatening, delicate creatures. But in Scripture, angels often have to say, “Fear not,” because their appearances are so terrifying that those who see them are thoroughly startled. In the case of Balaam, the fright was increased because the angel was wielding a sword. Silly Balaam: he now saw that the donkey was protecting her own life as well as her master’s. More to the point, he saw that his own life was at stake! God will have nothing to do with the nonsense of seeking profit at His own peoples’ expense. And finally, Balaam saw that his own dumb ass was a far better preacher than he would ever be. His donkey spoke the truth—indeed, spoke the truth in love, just as St. Paul, much later in the New Testament, asks of each one of us.