I want to backtrack just a little to Numbers chapter 22, from yesterday’s reading, because the background will help make sense of today’s thoughts.
Most of us probably remember the story of Balaam and his Amazing Talking Donkey from Sunday School… and if you haven’t done a lot of re-reading and studying the Old Testament, the most that probably stuck in your head was that Balaam was heading somewhere God wasn’t too keen on him going, and sent an angel with a great big sword to stand in the middle of the road. Balaam’s donkey was a fair bit smarter than he was, and kept running him off the right of way instead of trying to pass through the angelic roadblock. Balaam engaged in several instances of animal cruelty before God decided to grant the power of speech to the beleaguered beast, and Balaam finally realized that what he took as a misbehaving critter was just trying to save their lives.
What you may not have absorbed in the Sunday School version of the Balaam story (or may have not been listening to because you were snickering about the King James Version’s use of the 3-letter synonym for donkey) was the fact that Balaam was essentially a mercenary: a prophet for hire, a non-Israelite who talked with God and had a reputation for being able to bring powerful blessings or curses on people.
After a major victory by the Israelites against the Amorites, the Midianites and Moabites started getting nervous, and the King of Moab (Balak) decided to hire Balaam to curse Israel. The first group of emissaries arrived with Balaam’s cursing fee in hand, but when Balaam checked in with God, he was told not to take the job. He sent the group back to Balak with a rejection, but Balak was determined, and sent another group of more distinguished personages to beg Balaam to take the job.
This, of course, appealed to his vanity — and his greed. It’d be like a recruiter approaching you to interview for an open position in your field, but you turned it down… and then the president of the company called you back and offered to let you dictate your own salary. Hard to say no under those circumstances, and Balaam had a really hard time accepting God’s original direction to have nothing to do with the Moabite job, so he asked again, and this time God gave him a provisional OK to go back with them, but a strict warning not to say or do anything without permission.
Balaam, in Numbers 23 and 24, was taken to the heights overlooking the Israelite camps, where he offered sacrifices and performed some unspecified sorcery in order to attempt to curse the Israelites, as he had been hired to do… and found that God refused to allow him to curse His chosen and blessed people. Instead, he spoke the words God gave him, and ended up speaking a blessing over the nation instead.
His employer was understandably irked. A second time he was led to the outskirts of the Israelite’s encampment, and a second time he offered sacrifices and worked his sorcery, and again God gave him words of blessing — stating God sees nothing wrong with Israel that they should be cursed.
Balak gave Balaam a bit of a hard time for a second instance of doing the exact opposite of his instructions, but was willing to try a third time. This time, he suggested trying to find “the right place in God’s eyes” where Israel could be cursed. They found another vista overlooking the wilderness where the tribes were camped, and this time after the sacrifices, Balaam decided to skip the sorcery. This time, the Word tells us the Spirit of God came on him, and he not only prophesied blessing for Israel, but blessings for those who bless her, and curses for those who curse her.
Balak, by this time, had given up on getting his money’s worth from the prophet-for-hire, and sent him packing without payment. In return, Balaam prophesied the fate of the Moabites, the Amelekites and the Kenites: destruction and captivity.
Balak and Balaam went their separate ways, but the story doesn’t quite end there.
Perhaps Balaam was still trying to earn his big payday. Perhaps a combination of his second blessing on Israel and Balak’s instructions for his third cursing attempt gave him a devious plan to earn that payday: if God was unwilling to curse Israel because He was pleased with her, perhaps Balaam could find a way to get Israel to curse herself by losing God’s favor.
The account in Numbers skips right to the results, but Numbers 31:16 and Revelation 2:14, as well as rabbinic literature, indicate that Balaam went back to Balak with a plan to tempt the Israelites into idol worship and sexual sin. God’s anger was kindled against the people of Israel, and they were afflicted with a plague that took 24,000 lives before one spear-wielding priest made a bold and bloody statement on God’s behalf, slaughtering a particularly brazen couple in flagrante delicto, and prompted God to stay the planned executions of every person who had participated in the idol worship, and the hanging of every leader of the Israelite people who had allowed it to happen on their watch.
What I take away from this section of the book of Numbers are two things:
First, Balaam gave three prophecies of blessing over the nation of Israel, with some beautiful words, but his original intent, and his final result, was to bring a curse on the people.
Second, while the plague-afflicted Israelites were weeping in penitence at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, facing execution in order to turn away God’s wrath, Phinehas the priest saw an Israelite flaunting his sin and took immediate action. That action was shocking and probably seemed a bit extreme, but it saved the lives of thousands of Israelites who were to be sentenced to die.
Actions do, indeed, speak louder than words.