The Error of Balaam (Cain, Balaam, and Korah – Part 3)

(This post is part of a series—you can find parts one and two here.)

Balaam’s story unfolds while Israel is making its way toward the border of the Promised Land. The nations around them are terrified. This ragtag band of escaped slaves are growing in number and in strength, they’ve just chewed through the armies of the kings of the Amorites and Bashan, and now they’re camping in the plains of Moab.

Balak, king of the Moabites, is terrified. “Sick with dread,” the Bible says. He’s sure that his people are next. So he sends for Balaam the diviner and tells him, “Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:5-6).

That’s our introduction to Balaam. Not only is he known for handing out blessings and cursings, but he’s known for being right about those blessings and cursings.

I have so many questions about Balaam, and most of the answers are, “We don’t know.” Why were those blessings and cursings accurate? We don’t know. Why does he seem to have an existing relationship with God even though he clearly leans heavily on sorcery and divination? We don’t know. How did he even find out about God? We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.

But here he is. Balak sends princes as messengers to Balaam, they’re bringing money to pay for his services, and Balaam says, “Okay, stay here for the night, and Yahweh, the Eternal”—he’s using the actual name of God here—”will tell me what to do next.”

God does show up, and tells Balaam in no uncertain terms, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12).

Case closed. God is blessing them, don’t even think about cursing them, don’t even think about leaving to take a look. It’s off the table.

Balaam’s response to the princes is an interesting one: “Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to give me permission to go with you” (Numbers 22:13).

It’s very begrudging. “I can’t go with you; God won’t let me.” Almost as if he was saying, “I can’t, but I really, really wish I could.”

So Balak sends another group of fancier, more important princes promising even more honor and riches if Balaam will come and curse Israel.

Again, a similar response from Balaam: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the LORD my God, to do less or more” (Numbers 22:18).

Balaam refers to “Yahweh my God.” But in the same breath, he seems to be saying, “Look, my hands are tied, I can’t do anything if God won’t let me do it—but don’t let that stop you from offering a little more, hint hint!”

And so Balaam sends them all away, because God already gave a very clear, very definitive answer with no room for exceptions.

Oh wait.

No he doesn’t.

He tells the second group of princes to spend the night so he can hear what God has to say.

He already knows what God has to say. But by this point, it’s pretty clear that Balaam is very, very interested in the payment Balak is offering. He wants that money.

And this time, God tells him to go with the men—if they come to call him. Instead, we see that Balaam gets up, saddles his donkey, and heads out. There’s no indication he waited for them to call on him.

God, at this point, is ready to kill Balaam. Three times, Balaam’s donkey sees the Angel of the LORD blocking the way with a sword in His hand. Three times, that donkey tries her absolute best to go anywhere else. She leaves the road, she backs into a wall, and finally just lays down, defeated—and three times, Balaam beats her in anger.

Then God lets the donkey talk—and again, I just… so, so many questions about Balaam. If a donkey turns around and talks to me, I’m going to be panicking internally. But Balaam’s donkey talks to him, and no problem, he answers right back.

What did this man’s day-to-day life even look like?

The donkey basically says, “HEY! Why are you hitting me? When have I ever been a difficult donkey? Do you think I’m doing this for fun?”

Around that time, God opens Balaam’s eyes to see the Angel of the LORD, Balaam gives a pretty pathetic apology, and he continues on to see Balak. Balaam reminds Balak, “Have I any power at all to say anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I must speak” (Numbers 22:38).

To summarize the next two chapters, God uses Balaam to bless Israel four times. Balak is furious, and at the end of chapter 24, Balaam and Balak part ways. That seems to be the end of Balaam’s story.

Except… it’s not.

In chapter 25, the men of Israel end up committing harlotry with the women of Moab, sacrificing to the false gods of Moab.

God is angry with Israel and sends a plague to destroy them. It only stops when Phinehas, the son of the high priest, drives a spear through an Israelite man and Moabite woman who are flaunting their illicit relationship in front of the entire congregation. 24,000 Israelites died in that plague.

But what does that have to do with Balaam?

You might already know the answer, but it’s tucked away in the book of Revelation of all places. Jesus tells the church of Pergamos, “You have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14).

The Moabite women in chapter 25 were not a random coincidence. Balaam wanted his money. Even when he saw that God was determined to bless Israel, he taught Balak a trick. God might not curse Israel, but He would punish them if they disobeyed Him. And so Balak put a stumbling block, a temptation, before Israel, hoping that Israel would set itself at odds with God.

And it worked.

And that is the end of Balaam’s story.

Except… it still isn’t.

After chapter 25, we get into laws about offerings and vows and inheritances, and it’s easy to miss one very, very important part of Balaam’s story.

God tells Moses to “take vengeance on the Midianites for the children of Israel” (Numbers 31:1). And so Moses sends 12,000 men into battle—Phinehas, who stopped the plague, is leading the charge—and they decimate the Midianites. And then there’s this little footnote, tucked away in the account: “Balaam the son of Beor they also killed with the sword” (Numbers 31:8).

If Balaam managed to get his hands on any of Balak’s riches, he sure didn’t get to enjoy them for very long. There’s a certain poetic justice that Phinehas, who ended the plague, was leading the troops that put an end to the mastermind behind the plague as well.

So… what exactly was Jude warning us about when it comes to Balaam? What was “the error [or delusion] of Balaam for profit”?

Understanding the error of Balaam

Over and over again, Balaam was focused on what God wouldn’t let him do—and on the riches that God wouldn’t let him have.

Peter wrote that “Balaam the son of Beor … loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15). He was focused on the wealth and honor that Balak was promising. He tried playing both sides—getting as close to the line as God would allow him to get—but ultimately, he poured himself out into the sinful delusion that he could cheat God and get away with it.

With that in mind, I would submit to you that the error of Balaam begins when greed prompts us to search for loopholes to circumvent God’s instructions.

I don’t think any of us will ever have the desire—or the opportunity—to tempt an entire nation into harlotry and idolatry. But we can still be tempted by the delusion of Balaam. We can still be tempted to straddle the line and see just how close God will let us get to the things He’s forbidden. We can still try and find loopholes to do what we want when God has clearly shut the door.

Making better decisions

When we looked at Cain, we saw that Abel gave us a better example to follow. With Balaam, we have a better example as well.

The donkey.

Be the donkey.

(If you’re using the King James Version, and your Bible uses a different words for “donkey,” then… interpret that however you will.)

Think about it. Balaam’s donkey did exactly what Balaam failed to do. The donkey could see God standing in her way—and when that happened, she did the smart thing and turned around. She didn’t see how close she could get to the Angel of the LORD with a sword in His hand. She changed course. She backed up. And when all else failed, she fell to the ground.

Balaam didn’t do any of those things—and not just on the road. From the beginning of the story, Balaam couldn’t see—or more accurately, refused to see—how God was standing against him. He was so fueled by his own desires that he blinded himself to God’s clear instructions.

Parts of 2 Peter are actually extremely similar to Jude’s letter. Peter talks about those who have “eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin, enticing unstable souls. They have a heart trained in covetous practices, and are accursed children. They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet” (2 Peter 2:14-16).

In this case, we all need to be the dumb donkey. We need to be willing to stop and evaluate where God wants us to be—and where He doesn’t want us to be. If we see our plans in conflict with His, we need to be willing to change our direction—not find a way around His roadblocks.

Most of all, we need to trust that anything God blocks off is something we’re better off not having in our lives.

In the final part of this series, we’ll finish up by taking a closer look at the rebellion of Korah—and then tying all three lessons together to see what Jude wanted us to understand through the lives of these men.

Until next time,

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