Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Balaam: Old Testament picture of a false prophet who showed false repentance

Balaam was a man of several notable distinctions. I’ll start with the best-known distinction--Balaam was also the only the only human in the biblical record who had a conversation with an animal that spoke with a human voice. Balaam was known among his own people as a diviner or sorcerer. But he also knew and had conversations with God—the one true God, Yahweh—and was used on at least three occasions to bring forth true prophecies. In spite of this, however, he died as an enemy of God, a permanent example of a person ruined by greed and false repentance concerning it.

The story of Balaam, as far as the Bible is concerned, starts with the arrival of distinguished dignitaries from Moab at his home. Balak, King of Moab, thought he had a serious problem. The children of Israel, millions of them, led by Moses, have arrived at his eastern border. They have asked for safe passage through his land, to go to their own land on the other side of the Jordan. Balak has heard the stories of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt years earlier, under the same leader, Moses—the ten plagues, ending with the death of the firstborn, and the parting of the Red Sea—and he is scared. In fact, Balak and his people have no reason to fear Israel at this time. God has commanded them to leave Moab alone, not to take any of their land, and to pay full price for anything they eat and drink as they pass through Moab. But Balak and his people either did not know that God has told Israel this, or did not trust that Israel would obey this command. They refused Israel safe passage, and sent a committee of their nobility to Mesopotamia to seek out Balaam. Balak has heard of Balaam’s reputation as a sorcerer—as Balak’s ambassadors tell Balaam, “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6)—and wanted to pay Balaam any price he named to curse Israel. Once Israel was cursed, Balak wanted to engage them in battle and drive them away.

When Balak’s ambassadors first approached Balaam, he asked them to stay the night while he inquired of the LORD. On that occasion, God said to Balaam without qualification, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people; for they are blessed.” Numbers 22:12. This was a very simple “NO. don’t do it!” instruction. Balaam put the blame squarely on God, and failed to mention the blessing God spoke on Israel, when he repeated God’s message to Balak’s ambassadors: “Go to your land; for Yahweh refuses to permit me to go with you.” Numbers 22:13. Balak’s ambassadors, in turn, understood that the decision was made by Balaam, not by God at all, reporting to Balak that “Balaam refuses to come with us.” Numbers 22:14.

Balak may have thought he was dealing only with the stubbornness of the prophet, rather than with a matter already conclusively determined by God. Whatever his reasoning, he then sent more and higher-ranking ambassadors to Balaam with still more money, and the promise “I will promote you to very great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do. Please come therefore, and curse this people for me.” Balaam is clearly tempted, for his first response to this offer is “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I can’t go beyond the word of Yahweh my God, to do less or more.” Numbers 23:18. Then, instead of immediately sending Balak’s embassy away, he again invites them to spend the night while he inquires of God again. (Recall that God had already said “NO” in very plain terms). This time, however, God’s answer to Balaam—who was obviously determined to go—was “If the men have come to call you, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak to you, that you shall do.” Numbers 23:20. God permitted Balaam to follow the greed in his heart, to his own destruction, as we shall see later. But God also was angry with Balaam’s determination to go with the men, and sternly warned him to say only what God told him.

On the way to Moab, Balaam had his famous conversation with his donkey and a confrontation with the Angel of Yahweh. Both of these events occurred because God was angry with Balaam’s stubborn determination to follow his greed and go with the men to Moab. Balaam was so taken by his own greed that he was no longer aware of God—or of his Angel opposing him—but his donkey was. Three times Balaam’s donkey saw the Angel and turned out of the way, or laid down under Balaam to stop him. Each of these three times, Balaam beat his donkey. The third time Balaam beat his donkey, the donkey talked back to him! Here is the conversation Balaam had with his ass:

28 Yahweh opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” 29 Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have mocked me, I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would have killed you.” 30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long until today? Was I ever in the habit of doing so to you?” He said, “No.”

Numbers 22:28-30.

It was only after this conversation that the Angel of Yahweh made himself visible to Balaam. The Angel explained why he was there, and that he had more mercy for the donkey than for Balaam in his rebellious state:

31 Then Yahweh opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw Yahweh’s angel standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. 32 Yahweh’s angel said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. 33 The donkey saw me, and turned away before me these three times. Unless she had turned away from me, surely now I would have killed you, and saved her alive.” 34 Balaam said to Yahweh’s angel, “I have sinned; for I didn’t know that you stood in the way against me. Now therefore, if it displeases you, I will go back again.” 35 Yahweh’s angel said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak to you, that you shall speak.”

Numbers 22:31-35.

One would think this would be enough to drive anyone to repentance! And, when Balaam arrived in Moab, at first he certainly appeared to have repented. When he first met Balak, he told him, “Behold, I have come to you. Have I now any power at all to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that shall I speak.” (Numbers 22:38). When Balak leads Balaam to the first high place overlooking part of the people of Israel, and offers his offering to God, Balaam meets with God, and brings back a true prophecy from God, blessing Israel. (Numbers 23:1-10). Balak then complained, ““What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them altogether.” To this, Balaam responded, “Must I not take heed to speak that which Yahweh puts in my mouth?” So, in the first test, Balaam’s repentance appears genuine.

Balak then led him to a second high place, offered more offerings, Balaam once again went apart, met with God, and brought back another true prophecy blessing Israel. However, this second prophecy contained the seeds of Balaam’s own undoing:

19 God is not a man, that he should lie,
nor a son of man, that he should repent.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not make it good?
20 Behold, I have received a command to bless.
He has blessed, and I can’t reverse it.
21 He has not seen iniquity in Jacob.
Neither has he seen perverseness in Israel.

Numbers 23:19-21.

Balaam spoke God’s words, but, in his rebellious state, he did not correctly understand them. Balaam apparently thought God was saying that he had chosen and blessed Israel because he had not seen any iniquity or perverseness in them, when, in fact, exactly the converse was true. God had overlooked Israel’s iniquity for 40 years because He had chosen them. But Balaam, like Balak, was apparently only aware of God’s judgments on Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea; he was not aware of God’s workings among Israel during the 40 years since that time. God did not see iniquity in Jacob or perverseness in Israel because He chose not to see it after he dealt with it in chastisement, not because it wasn’t there. Ultimately, though this was far in the future in Balaam’s day, Jesus died for the whole people of Israel, so that the nation would not perish for their sins. (See John 11:49-52, another true prophecy uttered by an enemy of God—Caiaphas, the High Priest responsible for Jesus’ death). Balaam did not understand this. But, had he stopped with his second oracle, his outward behavior would have been in obedience to God’s command, as he had only said the words God gave him. His repentance would still appear genuine.

After some more complaining about Balaam blessing the people he had been hired to curse, Balak led him to a third high place, where he could view a different part of Israel’s camp, and offered more sacrifices. This time, instead of going off to meet with God before speaking, “Balaam saw that it pleased Yahweh to bless Israel” (Numbers 24:1), and, when he looked on the camp of Israel “and the Spirit of God came on him” (Numbers 24:2) and he spoke yet another blessing. (Numbers 24:3-9). Indeed, this blessing echoes the blessing God gave to Abraham, “Everyone who blesses you is blessed, everyone who curses you is cursed.” (Numbers 24:9, compare Genesis 12:3). So, to this point, Balaam’s repentance still looks good.

Balak then has this conversation with Balaam:

10 Balak’s anger burned against Balaam, and he struck his hands together. Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, and, behold, you have altogether blessed them these three times. 11 Therefore, flee to your place, now! I thought to promote you to great honor; but, behold, Yahweh has kept you back from honor.” 12 Balaam said to Balak, “Didn’t I also tell your messengers whom you sent to me, saying, 13 ‘If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I can’t go beyond Yahweh’s word, to do either good or bad from my own mind. I will say what Yahweh says’? 14 Now, behold, I go to my people. Come, I will inform you what this people shall do to your people in the latter days.”

Numbers 24:10-14.

What follows this is Balaam’s fourth oracle, a vision of the coming of the Messiah, the “star” and the “scepter” that would rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17-18), followed by oracles of the judgments God would bring on Israel’s neighbors. After that, Numbers 24:25 records that Balaam went back home. If the story ended here, it would have appeared that Balaam’s repentance was real.

But Balaam’s story doesn’t end in Numbers 24. In Numbers 25, Israel remained camped where it was, next door to Moab in territory also claimed by the Midianites. While there, “began to play the prostitute with the daughters of Moab,” who led many Israelites into the idolatrous worship of Baal Peor, a deity worshiped by both Moab and Midian. The Midianites were also involved in this plan to assimilate Israel by intermarriage and by leading them into idolatry (see Numbers 31:1-16). Indeed, when God brought a plague on Israel because of it, the event that led to the end of the plague was the summary execution by Phinehas the priest of a tribal leader of Israel who had brought the daughter of a Midianite chief into the camp, and into his tent, while Israel was mourning about the plague. (Numbers 25:6 ff.)

Because of Midian’s role in the attempt to lead Israel into immorality and idolatry, Israel was commanded immediately to harass Midian, because Midian had “harassed” Israel with its trickery in the matters of Baal Peor and the daughter of one of its chiefs. (Numbers 25:16-17). Several chapters later, as one of his last acts, Moses is commanded to lead 12,000 men of Israel to “avenge the children of Israel on the Midianites” (Numbers 31:2) by destroying them. It is recorded that, in the attack on Midian, the 12,000 Israelite soldiers killed every male in Midian, and “they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.” (Numbers 31:7-8). So it appears that Balaam, instead of remaining at home in Mesopotamia after he left Moab, returned and was found among the Midianites.

This is made explicit in the next few verses. The Israelite army killed all of the adult males in Midian, but spared the women and children alive as part of their booty. Moses reproved them for this with the words:

Have you saved all the women alive? 16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against Yahweh in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of Yahweh.

Numbers 31:15b-16

Thus, when Balaam took up residence in Midian, he was still seeking a reward. God did not let him utter a curse on Israel. But he tried to teach Midian—and, obviously, Moab as well—to induce Israel to adopt behaviors that he thought would bring God’s curse on them, and thus allow the peoples around them to assimilate them without a fight. Remember that one of Balaam’s true prophecies was that God did not behold iniquity or perverseness in Israel. Balaam taught Midian and Moab how to introduce iniquity into Israel, so that God would see it among them!

New Testament references to Balaam make it abundantly clear this is what happened. For instance, in Revelation 2:14 Christ himself takes issue with the church in Pergamum because they “have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to throw a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.” In this reference, Balaam is used an Old Testament figure of a false teacher who spread immorality and idolatry among God’s people. Similarly, in writing of false teachers within the Church, Jude speaks of Balaam’s greed when he writes that these teachers

[s]peak evil of whatever things they don’t know. They are destroyed in these things that they understand naturally, like the creatures without reason. 11 Woe to them! For they went in the way of Cain, and ran riotously in the error of Balaam for hire, and perished in Korah’s rebellion.

Finally, 2 Peter 3 contains the longest New Testament description of Balaam as a figure of a false teacher, and this discussion also speaks of Balaam’s greed, along with his immorality, his bondage to sin, and God’s choice to interrupt his insanity by speaking through an animal:

12 But these, as unreasoning creatures, born natural animals to be taken and destroyed, speaking evil in matters about which they are ignorant, will in their destroying surely be destroyed, 13 receiving the wages of unrighteousness; people who count it pleasure to revel in the daytime, spots and defects, reveling in their deceit while they feast with you; 14 having eyes full of adultery, and who can’t cease from sin; enticing unsettled souls; having a heart trained in greed; children of cursing; 15 forsaking the right way, they went astray, having followed the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of wrongdoing; 16 but he was rebuked for his own disobedience. A mute donkey spoke with a man’s voice and stopped the madness of the prophet. 17 These are wells without water, clouds driven by a storm; for whom the blackness of darkness has been reserved forever. 18 For, uttering great swelling words of emptiness, they entice in the lusts of the flesh, by licentiousness, those who are indeed escaping from those who live in error; 19 promising them liberty, while they themselves are bondservants of corruption; for a man is brought into bondage by whoever overcomes him.

2 Peter 3:13-17

The conclusion of the matter is also stated by Peter. Balaam is an Old Testament figure, not only of a false teacher, but also of false repentance. After the donkey spoke to him, Balaam outwardly did what God wanted—for awhile. While he was in Moab with Balak, at least on the first trip, he spoke only God’s words; God turned his intended curse into a blessing. (Deuteronomy 23:4-5). But on the second trip to the region, Balaam showed his true colors. He taught Midian, Moab and even Balak to make Israel sin. Thus Peter, still thinking of the example of Balaam, goes on to write of the general effects of false repentance:

20 For if, after they have escaped the defilement of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in it and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 But it has happened to them according to the true proverb, “The dog turns to his own vomit again,”✡ and “the sow that has washed to wallowing in the mire.”

The story of Balaam is a potent warning of this.