Thursday, December 02, 2010

Gleanings from the Pastor's Perspective: Looking Back on Balaam

The Pastor’s Perspective
“Looking Back on Balaam”
First Publshed: November 6, 2007

[editorial note: all of Dr Duncan’s sermons on the book of Numbers may be found HERE]

I am loving preparing for and delivering the Sunday evening messages on Numbers. We are now in a very exciting section of this amazing (and undeservedly overlooked) book. In fact, the three chapters we are currently in (22-24) some of the most gripping history and powerful theological teaching found in the whole book. The stories concerning Balaam, Balak and the attempt to curse Israel are spellbinding and subtle.

To help us prepare for this coming Sunday night sermon on “Balaam’s Ass” let’s remind ourselves of what we have learned. The whole account is filled with humor (sometimes hilarious satire and irony), and also deadly serious encounters and truth. It has unexpected twists and turns and leaves hanging on the edge of our seat to find out what is going to happen next, and often wondering why what has already happened happened!

The whole story serves to highlight God’s sovereignty and the unshakeable certainty of his gracious blessing on his covenant people. Let’s recount the scenario.

1. Israel is within sight of the promised land now, and news of their victories have spread throughout Moab.
2. Balak, the Moabite king, decides to call on supernatural help in defending himself against Israel.
3. He calls for the region-wide famous Balaam of Mesopotamia. He asks this prophet/sorcerer to curse Israel, offering him an impressive fee to do so.
4. Surprisingly, especially to the first time reader or hearer of this story, this pagan eastern prophet/magician inquires of the Lord (yes, the one true God, the God of Abraham, the God of Israel) as to whether he can do this. God says no - emphatically.
5. Balak is undeterred but a little miffed, so he sends another even more impressive embassy to Balaam, with an offer of more cash.
6. Balaam is again told by God that he can’t curse Israel, but is given permission to go.

One of the big issues that commentators and readers struggle with in this passage is what to make of Balaam. For instance, even though he is approached by Balak to curse Israel, he insists on praying to the Lord, the true God, to ask him what he ought to do. And then later in the passage he serves as an oracle to reveal the message of the true God. So, does Moses want us to view him in a positive light? Do we view him as basically a good prophet gone bad (because of the bribes of Balak)?

Well, last Sunday night we argued no! For two reasons. First, it is the uniform testimony of the rest of Scripture that Balaam was a hireling, socerer and enemy of God’s people. Deuteronomy 23:4-5, for instance, speak of Balaam being “hired” to curse Israel (not a flattering depiction of a religious figure!) And of God thwarting his curse. Joshua 13:22 accuses Balaam of practicing “divination” – which was forbidden by God’s Law. 2 Peter 2:15 speaks of Balaam . . . “who loved gain from wrongdoing” and Jesus condemns members of the church in Pergamum in Revelation 2:14 for holding to “the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” So the Bible does not think kindly of Balaam.

Second, there is evidence within the story itself, for how we are to think of Balaam: (1) Balaam is offered and seems to be interested in receiving money for his skills [22:8, 19]. (2) Balaam resorts to omens [24:1], an abominable practice forbidden in Israel in Deut 18:10. (3) Balaam’s donkey shows more awareness of and sensitivity to the presence of the Lord than does Balaam! [22:23, 25, 27, 33] (4) God declares his will through both the donkey [22:27-30] and Balaam, lest we think the messenger here is holy! So, Balaam doesn’t actually come off looking so good as he may appear to at first.

Join us on Sunday night as the story continues.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan

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