22 But they didn’t remain there. The Israelites traveled on to the Moabite plains, where they set up camp, just across the Jordan River, east of Jericho. 2 The Moabite Balak (Zippor’s son) knew about the Israelites’ victory over the Amorites and what they had done there. 3 Actually, everyone in Moab was terrified of the Israelites. And Moab hated the Israelites, because there were so many of them!
Now we overhear this very unusual dialogue between the Moabite leader Balak and the respected prophet Balaam. While Balaam is not an Israelite, he has a healthy respect for the God of the Israelites. No matter how Balak tempts Balaam to curse the people of the Lord, God continues speaking to Balaam and frustrating Balak’s plans. Eventually it comes down to a not-so-dumb donkey instructing the great prophet. Both Balaam and Balak learn that God is not one to be toyed with. He can frustrate the plans of even the greatest kings and prophets.
Interestingly, a discovery was made in Jordan of an inscription containing prophecies of Balaam. He specialized in animal divination, slaughtering animals for his prophetic purposes. So Balaam was used to hearing God “speak” through animals, if not always so directly.
Moabites (to elders in the neighboring Midianite community): 4 This voracious horde, these Israelites, will wipe us out without so much as a second thought. They’ll devour us and move through our land as a herd of hungry cows mows a field.
Balak (Zippor’s son), you’ll remember, was then the king of Moab. 5 In the face of this threat, he sent messengers to the famous prophet Balaam (Beor’s son), who lived in a town that belonged to his country on the Euphrates River called Pethor. Balak wanted the prophet to come to Moab.
Since the victories over Sihon and Og, the Israelites have gained a reputation of taking over. Their size and strength frighten the local inhabitants.
Moab’s Message (to Balaam): There is a group of people who came from Egypt and who have settled right near me. They cover the land with their numbers. 6 Come quickly, and curse them for me. There’s no other hope that I have of defeating so many of them and driving the rest away. They’re too strong. But I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.
7 So the messengers went—elders, actually, from both Moab and Midian—with money in hand, to pay the prophet to come back with them and curse the Israelites. They gave him Balak’s message.
Balaam (to the messengers): 8 It’s been a long trip for you. Spend the night, and I’ll give you the prophecy the Eternal tells me.
So the Moabite and Midianite elders stayed overnight with Balaam. 9 But God came in the night to Balaam and questioned him.
Eternal One (to Balaam): Who are these people staying with you?
Balaam: 10 Messengers. Balak, the king of Moab and Zippor’s son, sent them to ask me for help on their behalf. 11 He says that a certain people, coming from Egypt, seem to be taking over the land. He wants me to curse those people for him so he can fight them and make the survivors leave.
Eternal One: 12 Don’t do it. The people whom Balak wants you to curse are already blessed.
13 So first thing in the morning, Balaam confronted Balak’s elders with the news.
Balaam: You’ll have to go back to your land without me. The Eternal has prohibited me from returning with you.
14 The Moabite contingent returned and told Balak that Balaam wouldn’t come. 15 But Balak wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. He sent another, bigger contingent of even more highly esteemed men to solicit Balaam’s help.
Balak’s Second Message (to Balaam): 16 Don’t let anything stop you from coming to Moab; 17 there’s a lot in it for you—whatever you desire—and I’ll make sure you are treated with the greatest honors. Just, please, come and curse these people for me!
Balaam (to Balak’s messengers): 18 Even if Balak gave me everything he has, riches of silver and gold in his house, I simply couldn’t do it. It is impossible for me to say anything less or greater than what the Eternal One, my God, directs me to say. 19 But, listen, why don’t you spend the night, and I’ll let you know whatever else the Eternal might tell me in the meantime.
20 Again, God came to Balaam in the night and spoke with him.
Eternal One (to Balaam): If these men have indeed come to get you, go ahead. Go with them, but do only what I tell you to do.
21 So when morning came, Balaam got his donkey ready. He set out with the Moabite elders. 22 Nevertheless, God was angry that Balaam was going. He sent His own messenger as an adversary to stand in Balaam’s way, blocking the prophet’s path. Now Balaam was riding on his donkey, and he had two servants too. 23 But it was the donkey who saw the Eternal’s messenger standing in the road with a sword in his hand, drawn and ready. The donkey went off the road and into the field, and Balaam, not seeing the messenger as his donkey had, hit the beast to drive it back onto the road; 24 but then the messenger of the Eternal stood in the narrow walkway separating two vineyards, and there was a wall on either side. 25 Spooked by the Eternal’s messenger, the donkey pressed herself against one of the walls, trapping Balaam’s foot. Balaam hit her again. 26 The Eternal’s messenger got ahead of them again and faced them in a narrow spot where they had no way to avoid him. 27 This time, the donkey, seeing the Eternal’s messenger, just lay down, Balaam still sitting on top. Balaam was furious, and he beat the beast with a rod. 28 But the Eternal One gave the donkey the ability to speak.
Donkey (to Balaam): What have I done to you that you would hit me three times?
Balaam: 29 You’ve made me look stupid! If I’d had a sword, I’d have killed you by now!
Donkey: 30 Aren’t I the very same donkey you’ve always ridden? Have I ever been disloyal or hurt you?
31 At that point, the Eternal opened the eyes of Balaam to see His messenger standing in the road, sword drawn. Balaam bowed low to the ground, lying with his face in the dirt.
Eternal One’s Messenger: 32 Why were you so hard on your donkey, beating her these three times? I came here as an adversary against you because I do not approve of the direction you’re taking, in more ways than one.[a] 33 Your donkey did the right thing. She saw me and turned away all three times. This donkey saved your life. Perhaps I would have killed you on the spot and let her live.
Balaam (to the messenger): 34 I confess I was wrong, but I didn’t know you were there, trying to block my way. Now, please, if you don’t want me to go any farther, then let me go back home.
Eternal One’s Messenger: 35 No, go ahead with this Moabite escort, but only say what I tell you to say.
So Balaam traveled on with Balak’s men.
36 When they neared the very edge of Moabite territory, Balak (who’d heard they were on their way) met Balaam at Moab’s city on the Arnon.
Balak (to Balaam): 37 Didn’t you understand it was I who requested you again and again? Why didn’t you come? Am I not able to give you honor?
Balaam (to Balak): 38 Well, I’m here now. But do you think I can say whatever I please? I can only say what God tells me to say. God puts the words in my mouth.
39 Nevertheless the two went off together. Balak led Balaam to Kiriath-huzoth in Moab. 40 Later on, Balak had some oxen and sheep sacrificed, which he made sure Balaam received (along with the officials who accompanied him).
41 The next day, Balak led Balaam up to a high place of Baal worship, an altar dedicated to pagan lords.[b] Looking down from there, they could see a section of the Israelite camp.