Numbers | A tale of three donkeys

Listen here.

This is the story of three donkeys, maybe more. Balak, the king, is the first. He believes that, if only he spends enough money and hires the best prophet, he can reverse God’s blessing over Israel and protect his borders from a horde of refugees. Even when the best prophet says this isn’t possible, Balak persists. What a donkey.

Balaam, the prophet, is the second. For he hears God’s voice telling him to stay home; yet, when Balak’s emissaries return and ask him again to come with them, he gets grudging permission from God and heads off. But this annoys God, so God sends a messenger to stand in the road and slow him down. The donkey sees the messenger — an angel with a flaming sword — and turns aside. Balaam doesn’t. Three times, the donkey turns; three times, Balaam beats his trusty old donkey. In exasperation, God speaks through the donkey. At last, Balaam recognises something is up. He sees God’s messenger with the flaming sword, and pauses. And just as Balaam was exasperated with his donkey, so now the messenger is exasperated with Balaam. What a donkey!

The third donkey is, well, the donkey.

* * * * *

This story is hilarious. This story is also shocking: it should offend you. For Balaam the prophet is not Jewish. He is not an Israelite. He is a seer: a pagan sorcerer, a diviner who reads omens. Yet for all that, when Israel’s God speaks, Balaam listens. Balak’s emissaries ask him to come with them, but Balaam hears God tell him to stay home, and he stays home. Balak’s emissaries return, and Balaam hears God sigh and say, “Alright, on your way then — but do nothing without me.” He heads off and, after a few false starts, he sees and obeys God’s messenger in the road. And later, despite the pressure from Balak and all his noblemen to curse Israel, and despite offers of untold wealth to do so, and despite racing around the hilltops making sacrifices and reading omens, in the end Balaam cannot and will not work against God’s will.

For we are told that Balaam is filled with God’s Spirit, and he sees Israel with Abraham’s eyes: like grains of sand or stars in the sky. Balaam understands that God has a purpose for Israel; and so, where Balak would have him curse, instead Balaam will only bless.

And so this prophet of Baal, this foreigner, this pagan diviner of omens, acts as God’s agent. For unlike Balak, Balaam recognises that God cannot be bought or controlled, and he performs God’s main work: the business of blessing.

* * * * *

Balaam is not alone. Often in the Scriptures, the God of Israel speaks and acts through outsiders, and is recognised and worshipped by outsiders, that is, by people who are not Jewish. The foremother of King David is Ruth, a Moabite. According to God, the most blameless and upright person on earth is Job, a Gentile from the land of Uz. In the book of Jonah, Gentile sailors worship God; and it is not Jonah but the Ninevites who place absolute trust in God’s message and God’s compassion. Even the Babylonian army works towards God’s purpose, according to Jeremiah; and there are many other examples in the Hebrew Bible.

It’s the same in the New Testament. Jesus was first acknowledged as king by foreign sorcerers; first named as Messiah by a Samaritan woman; and acclaimed as the Son of God by a Roman centurion stationed at the foot of the cross. The early conversions of Cornelius, the Ethiopian eunuch and many others quickly spread God’s message far and wide, well beyond Jewish circles.

In other words, the God of Israel works through whomever and in whatever manner God chooses. God works through prophets of Yahweh, yes, but God also works through prophets of Baal. God works through Jesus, certainly, but God also works through a donkey.

All too often, we Christians can be donkeys. We stubbornly try to control God. We demand that God speaks and acts in particular places or particular ways, using particular jargon or particular people: in contexts which are familiar, through people just like us. And, like Balak, we want God to work to our benefit: to condemn those whom we fear or with whom we disagree; to silence those who ask difficult questions or reveal uncomfortable truths; to boot out any awkward strangers whom God has led into our midst.

But the story of Balaam the pagan diviner should teach us a few things. One, God will not be limited to one congregation, or one perspective, or one faith movement, or one denomination, or even one religion. God is far, far bigger than this; and we do well to look for God’s activity among all peoples, of every perspective, of every faith, in every corner of the world.

Two, God is not picky. God will speak through loyal prophets and through pagan magicians; God will speak through wise people and through absolute donkeys; God will speak through faithful churchgoers and through thoughtful atheists. We do well to listen for God’s voice whenever people speak, placing our trust not in outward displays of piety and religious-talk, but in evidence of Spirit life as we weigh up people’s words.

Three, this story should remind us that God’s core business is blessing. And as much as we humans long for curses, and will do almost anything to avoid loving, accepting and reconciling with our neighbours and enemies, this work of blessing is our core business, too. As Jesus said, we are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us. The Israelites were invading, yet Balaam blessed them: an extraordinary act of grace. Likewise, God calls us to bless both friend and enemy — and we do well, very well, to get in on this work. May God bless and preserve you all. Amen. Ω

In a deviation from the lectionary, this reflection on Numbers 22-24 was given to Sanctuary on 7 October 2018 © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image shows Reuben the cruciform donkey at our beloved Rundell’s.

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