The Angel of the Lord and a Talking Donkey

The background in the previous post helps us better understand the encounter between Balaam and the angel of the Lord. At the beginning of Numbers 22, the Israelites are camped on the plains of Moab near the Jordan River, across from Jericho. They have just defeated the Amorites, and the Moabite king Balak fears the Israelites plan to overthrow him. So, he sends a diplomatic envoy to Balaam of Pethor in upper Mesopotamia, a distance of some four hundred and twenty miles, which requires roughly twenty-five days of travel in each direction. 

Seers of the gods in ancient times are called upon to place or remove curses, pronounce blessings, and provide counsel. Their techniques include divination, incantation, animal sacrifice, and the reading of omens. They are skilled at manipulating deities to bring about the result for which they are paid handsomely.

Balaam’s reputation is well known. An inscription in a temple at Deir ‘Alla, Jordan, discovered during a 1967 excavation, recalls that Balaam, son of Beor, a “seer of the gods,” has a frightening night vision that foretells a period of drought and darkness, of mourning and death, in which the natural order of the world is reversed. Balaam implores the goddesses Ashtar and Sheger to bring light, rain, and fertility to the land. Evidently, the goddesses deliver, for the structure at Deir ‘Alla and its wall inscriptions may have been built to honor them, and to acknowledge Balaam’s successful mediation. In any case, Balak sees a potential ally in Balaam, to whom the king says, “I know that those you bless are blessed and those you curse are cursed” (Num. 22:6). 

The king is counting on Balaam. Ancient Near Eastern texts record the power of priests and prophets to discern, intervene, and even manipulate the will of the gods through means of augury (the interpretation of omens), special sacrificial rituals, and verbal pronouncements of blessing or cursing. Surely, this renowned prophet, who has called successfully on Ashtar and Sheger, is able to manipulate the will of the Israelite God.

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Article III of The Baptist Faith & Message: Man

Human beings are God’s crowning act of creation. By making us in his image, God sets humanity apart from the rest of creation. Therefore, his work of redemption is directed specifically to men and women whose “imago dei” has been tarnished by sin.

Article III of The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 reads:

“Man is the special creation of God, made in His own image. He created them male and female as the crowning work of His creation. The gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation. In the beginning man was innocent of sin and was endowed by his Creator with freedom of choice. By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God. The sacredness of human personality is evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man; therefore, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.”

God’s crowning act of creation occurred when “the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). 

The Bible is a story about God and human beings: Adam and Eve’s creation in innocence, their rebellion and fall, and God’s work of restoring both sinful mankind and a cursed creation to their Edenic innocence. God’s redemptive role in human history may be summarized in several key biblical truths.

1. God has created every human being in his image. All people possess the imago dei, or image of God. This doesn’t mean we look like God, for God is spirit. It means, however, that all people possess a spiritual capacity that makes us moral creatures who can know God and enjoy intimate fellowship with him. 

Every person, regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, abilities, socioeconomic class, or even behavior retains God-given worth and dignity. The imago dei extends to every human being without exception. Therefore, every person is to be treated with the utmost respect.

By making human beings in his image, God sets humanity apart from the rest of creation. His work of redemption is directed specifically to the salvation of men and women whose imago dei has been tarnished by sin.

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The Error of Balaam

In Numbers 22, the angel of the Lord appears in a most curious scene involving a cursing king, a prophet for hire, a sword-wielding angel, and – strangest of all – a talking donkey. As Old Testament theologian Gordon Wenham notes, “The narrative is at once both very funny and deadly serious.”

The story begins with the Moabite king, Balak, who wishes to curse the Israelites. He approaches Balaam, a smarmy, pagan prophet who, curiously, doesn’t seem so bad at first. Insights from other passages of Scripture clue us in to the prophet’s blackened soul. 

In this scene, the angel of the Lord holds a drawn sword in his hand. This is telling, for there are only two other times in which the phrase “drawn sword in his hand” appears in relation to divine messengers. One is Joshua 5:13-15, where the “commander of the LORD’s army” confronts Joshua. The other is 1 Chronicles 21:16, where King David sees the angel of the LORD standing between heaven and earth, and in his hand is a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. In all three episodes, we see evidence that this “man,” “angel,” and “commander” are the same figure. As we learn in the next chapter, the writer of Joshua 5:13 points us back to the burning bush in Exodus 3, tying the commander of Yahweh’s army to the angel of the Lord.

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A Promised Deliverer

Perhaps more than any other Old Testament passage, Exodus 23:20-23 serves as a backdrop against which we may view the record of the angel of the Lord’s visits to human beings. As Moses meets Yahweh at Mount Sinai, receives the law, and prepares for the journey to the Promised Land, there’s a brief message from God about what lies ahead: 

I am going to send an angel before you to protect you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to him. Do not defy him, because he will not forgive your acts of rebellion, for my name is in him. But if you will carefully obey him and do everything I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. For my angel will go before you and bring you to the land of the Amorites, Hethites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.

Exod. 23:20-23

Something extraordinary happens here. The description God gives Moses is of no ordinary angel. This angel has the authority to forgive sins, an authority that belongs exclusively to God. Even more curious is God’s statement that “my name is in him.” God’s name oftentimes is used in Scripture to depict God’s presence. In this case, the very essence of Yahweh is in the messenger being sent.

Michael Heiser writes:

When God told Moses that his name was in this angel, he was saying that he was in this angel – his very presence or essence. The I AM of the burning bush would accompany Moses and the Israelites to the promised land and fight for them. Only he could defeat the gods of the nations and the descendants of the Nephilim whom Moses and Joshua would find there.

The Unseen Realm, 143

Other Scriptures confirm this angel is Yahweh.

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The Presence in the Pillar

When Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go, Yahweh leads his people on a round-about journey through the wilderness rather than a shortcut through the land of the Philistines. This is because God knows his people will change their minds if they go directly from captivity into warfare. So, the Lord takes them toward the Red Sea, where they camp at Etham on the edge of the wilderness. 

Exodus 13:21-22 picks up the story:

The LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to lead them on their way during the day and in a pillar of fire to give them light at night, so that they could travel day or night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night never left its place in front of the people.

Note several key truths in this passage:

First, the Lord goes ahead of the Israelites. He has vowed to lead them to the Promised Land, and he may be taken at his word. 

Second, the Lord is in the pillar. The pillar of cloud and fire is a real phenomenon the Israelites experience with their senses – a theophany in which Yahweh crosses the threshold between the spirit realm and the physical world. 

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