What a Wise Man Learned from an Ass
Balaam and King Balak Bible Story
Numbers xxii: 2, to xxv: 18; xxxi: 1 to 9.
When the Israelites had traveled around the land of Edom, and encamped beside the river Jordan, a little north of the Dead Sea, they did not sit down to rest, for Moses knew that a great work was before them, to take the land of Canaan. He had already won a great victory over the Amorites at Jahaz, and slain their king, and won their land. Again Moses sent out an army into the north, a region called Bashan. There they fought with King Og, who was one of the giants, and killed him, and took his country. This made the Israelites masters of all the land on the east of the river Jordan, and north of the brook Arnon.
South of the brook Arnon and east of the Dead Sea were living the Moabites. This people had sprung from Lot, the nephew of Abraham, of whom we read in earlier Stories (6 and 8). In the five hundred years since Lot's time, his family or descendants had become a people who were called Moabites, just as Jacob's descendants were the Israelites. The Moabites were filled with alarm and fear as they saw this mighty host of Israel marching around their land, conquering the country and encamping on their border. The Moabites were ruled by a king whose name was Balak, and he tried to form some plan for driving away the people of Israel from that region.
There was at that time a man living far in the east, near the great river Euphrates, whose name was Balaam. This man was known far and wide as a prophet, that is, a man who talked with God, and heard God's voice, and spoke from God, as did Moses. People believed that whatever Balaam said was sure to come to pass; but they did not know that Balaam could only speak what God gave him to speak.
Balak, the king of the Moabites, sent men to Balaam at his home by the river, with great presents. He said to Balaam:
"There is a people here who have come up out of Egypt, and they cover the whole land. I am afraid of them, for they have made war and beaten all the nations around. Come and curse them for me in the name of your God; for I believe that those whom you bless are blessed and prosper, and those whom you curse are cursed and fail."
The men from Moab brought this message and promised to Balaam a great reward if he would go with them. And Balaam answered them, "Stay here to-night, and I will ask my God what to do."
That night God came to Balaam, and said to him:
"Who are these men at your house, and what do they want from you?"
The Lord knew who they were, and what they wanted, for God knows all things. But he wished Balaam to tell him. And Balaam said:
"They have come from Balak, the king of Moab, and they ask me to go with them, and to curse for them a people that have come out of Egypt."
And God said to Balaam, "You must not go with these men; you shall not curse this people, for this people are to be blessed."
So the next morning Balaam said to the men of Moab, "Go back to your land; for the Lord will not let me go with you."
When these men brought back to their king, Balak, the message of Balaam, the king still thought that Balaam would come, if he should offer him more money. So he sent other messengers, of high rank, the prices of Moab, with larger gifts. And they came to Balaam, and said:
"Our King Balak says that you must come; he will give you great honors, and all the money that you ask. Come now, and curse this people for King Balak."
And Balaam said:
"If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot speak anything except what God gives me to speak. Stay here to-night, and I will ask my God what I may say to you."
Now Balaam knew very well what God wished him to say; but Balaam, though he was a prophet of the Lord, wished to be rich. He wanted to go with the men, and get Balak's money, but he did not dare to go against God's command. And that night God said to Balaam:
"If these men ask you to go with them, you may go; but when you go to Balak's country, you shall speak only the words that I give you to speak."
At this Balaam was very glad, and the next day he went with the princes of Moab, to go to their land, which was far to the southwest. God was not pleased with Balaam's going, for Balaam knew very well that God had forbidden him to curse Israel; but he hoped in some way to get King Balak's money.
And God sent his angel to meet Balaam in the way. In order to teach Balaam a lesson, the angel appeared first to the ass on which Balaam was riding. The ass could see the angel with his fiery sword standing in front of the way, but Balaam could not see him. The ass turned to one side, out of the road, into an open field; and Balaam struck the ass and drove it back into the road, for he could not see the angel, whom the ass saw.
Then the angel appeared again, in a place where the road was narrow, with a stone wall on each side. And when the ass saw the angel it turned to one side, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall. And Balaam struck the ass again.
Again the angel of the Lord appeared to the ass in a place where there was no place to turn aside; and the ass was frightened, and fell down, while Balaam struck it again and again with his staff.
Then the Lord allowed the ass to speak; and the ass said to Balaam, "What have I done that you have struck me these three times?"
And Balaam was so angry that he never thought how strange it was for an animal to talk; and he said: "I struck you because you will not walk as you should. I wish that I had a sword in my hand; then I would kill you."
And the ass spoke again to Balaam, "Am I not your ass, the one that has always carried you? Did I ever disobey you before? Why do you treat me so cruelly?"
And then God opened Balaam's eyes, and let him see the angel standing with a drawn sword in front of him. Then Balaam leaped off from the ass to the ground, and fell down upon his face before the angel. And the angel said to Balaam, "Balaam, you know that you are going in the wrong way. But for the ass, which saw me, I would have killed you. The road that you are taking will lead you to death."
And Balaam said, "I have sinned against the Lord; now let the Lord forgive me, and I will go home again."
But the angel knew that in his heart Balaam wanted to go on to meet King Balak; and the angel said:
"You may go with these men of Moab; but be sure to say only what God gives you to speak."
So Balaam went on, and came to the land of Moab; and King Balak said to him:
"So you have come at last! Why did you wait until I sent the second time? Do you not know that I will pay you all that you want, if you will only do what I wish?"
And Balaam said, "I have come to you as you asked; but I have no power to speak anything except what God gives me."
King Balak thought that all Balaam said about speaking God's word was spoken only to get more money. He did not understand that a true prophet could never say anything except what was the will of God. He took Balaam up to the top of a mountain, from which they could look down upon the camp of the Israelites, as it lay with tents spread on the plain, and the Tabernacle in the middle, overshadowed by the white cloud.
Then Balaam said, "Build for me seven altars, and bring me for an offering seven young oxen and seven rams."
They did so, and while the offering was on the altar God gave a word to Balaam; and then Balaam spoke out God's word:
"The king of Moab has brought me from the east, saying, 'Come, curse Jacob for me; come, speak against Israel.' How shall I curse those whom God has not cursed? How shall I speak against those who are God's own people? From the mountain-top I see this people dwelling alone and not like other nations. Who can count the men of Israel, like the dust of the earth? Let me die the death of the righteous; and let my last end be like his!"
And King Balak was surprised at Balaam's words. He said:
"What have you done? I brought you to curse my enemies, and instead you have blessed them!"
And Balaam answered, "Did I not tell you beforehand, that I could only say the words that God should put into my mouth?"
But King Balak thought that he would try again to obtain from Balaam a curse against Israel. He brought him to another place, where they could look down on the Israelites, and again offered sacrifices. And again God gave a message to Balaam; and Balaam said:
"Rise up, King Balak, and hear. God is not a man, that he should lie, or that he should change his mind. What God has said, that he will do. He has commanded me to bless this people; yea, and blessed shall they be. The Lord God is their king, and he shall lead them, and give them victory."
Then King Balak said to Balaam:
"If you cannot curse this people, do not bless them, but leave them alone!"
And Balaam said again, "Did I not tell you, that what God gives me to speak, that I must speak?"
But King Balak was not yet satisfied. He brought Balaam to still another place, and offered sacrifices as before. And again the Spirit of God came on Balaam. Looking down on the camp of Israel, he said:
"How goodly are your tents, O Israel! And your tabernacles, O Jacob! God has brought him out of Egypt; and God shall give him the land of promise. He shall destroy his enemies; Israel shall be like a lion when he rises up. Blessed be every one who blesses him; and cursed be every one that curses him!"
And Balak, the king of Moab, was very angry with Balaam the prophet.
"I called you," said Balak, "to curse my enemies; and you have blessed them over and over again. Go back to your own home. I meant to give you great honor and riches; but your God has kept you back from your reward!"
And Balaam said to Balak:
"Did I not say to your messengers, 'If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond God's command, to say good or evil? What God speaks, that I must speak.' Now let me tell you what this people shall do to your people in the years to come. A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall be stretched forth from Israel that shall rule over Moab. All these lands, Edom, and Mount Seir, and Moab, and Ammon, shall some time be under the rule of Israel."
And all this came to pass, though it was four hundred years afterward, when David, the king of Israel, made all those countries subject to his rule.
But Balaam soon showed that although for a time God spoke through his lips, in his heart he was no true servant of God. Although he could not speak a curse against the Israelites, he still longed for the money that King Balak was ready to give him if he would only help Balak to weaken the power of Israel. And he tried another plan to do harm to Israel.
Balaam told King Balak that the best plan for him and his people would be to make the Israelites their friends, to marry among them, and not to make war upon them. And this the Moabites did; until many of the Israelites married the daughters of Moab, and then they began to worship the idols of Moab.
This was worse for the Israelites than making war upon them. For if the people of Israel should be friendly with the idol-worshipping people around them, the Moabites east of the Dead Sea, the Ammonites near the wilderness, and the Edomites on the south, they would soon forget the Lord, and begin to worship idols.
There was danger that all the people would be led into sin. And God sent a plague of death upon the people, and many died. Then Moses took the men who were leading Israel into sin, and put them to death. And after this the Israelites made war upon the Moabites, and their neighbors, the Midianites, who were joined with them. They beat them in a great battle, and killed many of them. And among the men of Moab they found Balaam the prophet; and they killed him also, because he had given advice to the Moabites which brought harm to Israel.
It would have been better for Balaam to have stayed at home, and not to have come when King Balak called him; or it would have been well for him to have gone back to his home when the angel met him. He might then have lived in honor; but he knew God's will, and tried to go against it, and died in disgrace among the enemies of God's people.
Balaam and King Balak