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.

When the elders of Moab and Midian reach Balaam, they deliver the message, with “fees for divination in hand” (Num. 22:7). Balaam asks them to spend the night so he may inquire of the Lord, who forbids Balaam to accompany the envoy back to Moab. When the messengers return with the bad news, Balak won’t take no for an answer. He sends a second group of officials who are more numerous and higher in rank, and he ups the ante, promising to “greatly honor you and do whatever you ask me” (v. 17). 

Balaam offers a curious response: 

If Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go against the command of the LORD my God to do anything small or great. Please stay here overnight as the others did, so that I may find out what else the LORD has to tell me. 

Num. 22:18-19

Balaam’s reference to “the LORD my God” indicates his claim to be a spokesman for Yahweh, like Moses. Although the text shows Balaam having numerous encounters with the Lord, his words do not indicate he was a true worshiper of Yahweh. And he’s certainly no Moses, although both prophets have encounters with the angel of the Lord. 

The CSB Apologetics Study Bible notes:

As one seeking Israel’s demise at the bidding of the Moabite king Balak, Balaam was the very antithesis of Moses; yet God used him in a way similar to Moses to pronounce the future blessing of the Lord upon his people. Moses is curiously absent from the story because of his sin of rebellion and irreverence at Meribah (Num. 20:2-13). God demonstrated that he can use whatever means necessary to bring blessing to his people. Even the person most adamantly opposed to his will can become an instrument of his purpose.

Page 192

Having met with the second envoy, Balaam again receives a night visit from the Lord, who allows Balaam to go with the men, but with strict instructions to only do what the Lord tells him. The next morning, Balaam saddles his donkey and rides for Moab. But then we see another strange twist in the story. Somewhere along the way, God is “incensed” that Balaam is going (Num. 22:22). Why would God be angry with Balaam for doing something God himself allowed? 

Commentators offer several possible explanations. One plausible reason is that Balaam entertained the secret purpose of acting in opposition to the solemn charge of God – a motive in line with Peter’s explanation that Balaam “loved the wages of wickedness” (2 Pet. 2:15). In other words, the Lord’s resistance is not so much against Balaam’s going but against his unspoken, wicked motives. The rabbinical tradition interpreted this passage as evidence of Balaam’s personal rebelliousness in embracing the idea that he might eventually be successful in cursing Israel and thus gaining his prize.

Another possible reason for the Lord’s anger is his own permissive will. In other words, God allows Balaam to go, knowing the prophet’s evil intent, and then, when Balaam acts out his rebellion, the Lord responds by sending the angel of the Lord to confront him. Matthew Henry writes:

The sin of sinners is not to be thought the less provoking to God because he permits it. We must not think that, because God does not by his providence restrain men from sin, therefore he approves of it, or that it is therefore not hateful to him.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, 221

The CSB Apologetics Study Bible notes yet another possible explanation: 

This story type fits into the category of faith-challenges similar to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel on his return to the promised land (Gen. 32:24-32) or Moses’s encounter with the Lord upon his return to Egypt (Exod. 4:24-26). These accounts are reminders that a holy God demands complete obedience of his servants; on the journey to Moab Balaam’s female donkey was more sensitive to God’s moving than was this renowned prophet.

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Whatever the reason, Balaam is rotten to the core. And he’s about to have his innermost thoughts exposed – thanks to a divine messenger and a talking donkey. In fact, this female donkey, considered the model of stupidity and stubbornness in the prophet’s day, ultimately shows more spiritual sensitivity than the celebrated prophet. 

As Balaam rides toward Moab, accompanied by two servants, the angel of the Lord stands in his path, a drawn sword in hand. The fact that the divine messenger stands implies a visible manifestation, even though Balaam and his servants do not see him. 

Shielding his identity, at least for a time, is not an isolated act in God’s economy. During the Aramean War, an army of horses and chariots surrounds Elisha at Dothan. His terrified servant asks, “Oh, my master, what are we to do?” Elisha asks the Lord to open the servant’s eyes so he may see the mountain covered with horses and chariots of fire all around. The Lord grants the prophet’s request (2 Kings 6:15-17). 

Centuries later, Jesus encounters two disciples on the road to Emmaus and, after spending considerable time with them, opens their eyes to his true identity as the resurrected Messiah (Luke 24:31). And on the road to Damascus, Saul is the only one the risen Jesus allows to understand his words (Acts 9:3-7). In the case of Balaam, the angel’s hiddenness, except to the female donkey, may illustrate that a brute beast sometimes has more spiritual sensitivity than a prophet.

When the donkey sees the angel, she turns off the path and into a field, perhaps out of fear. Blinded to the presence of the angel, Balaam angrily strikes the donkey to drive her back on course. Then, the angel moves ahead of them and blocks their way in a narrow passage between vineyards. Once again, the donkey flinches, pressing herself against one of the stone walls separating the vineyards, and squeezing Balaam’s foot against it. The prophet lashes the donkey a second time. 

At last, the angel moves farther ahead and blocks the way through a path so narrow, there is no turning to the right or left. Seeing the angel, the donkey crouches, as if surrendering. Balaam is furious. He beats the donkey a third time, apparently with greater vigor and more numerous blows (Num. 22:23-27).

At last, the Lord opens the donkey’s mouth. She asks Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (v. 28).

Balaam replies, “You have made me look like a fool. If I had a sword in my hand, I’d kill you now!” (v. 29).

“Am I not the donkey you’ve ridden all your life until today?” the beast asks. “Have I ever treated you this way before?” (v. 30).

“No,” Balaam admits (v. 31). 

At this point, the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes. He sees the angel of the Lord, standing in the path with a drawn sword in hand. The prophet prostrates himself in worship before the angel.

The angel asks him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? Look, I came out to oppose you, because I consider what you are doing to be evil. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away from me, I would have killed you by now and let her live” (Num. 22:32-33).

Balaam confesses, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the path to confront me. And now, if it is evil in your sight, I will go back” (v. 34).

The angel of the Lord tells Balaam, “Go with the men, but you are to say only what I tell you.” So, Balaam continues his journey (v. 35).

Note a few key details in these verses. First, the Lord opens the donkey’s mouth and Balaam’s eyes. While God (Elohim) is active throughout this story – coming to Balaam at night and speaking with him – it is the LORD (Yahweh) at the forefront in these later verses. More to the point, it appears the names the angel of the LORD and the LORD are used interchangeably, implying they are the same divine being. 

Second, the angel speaks and acts as God. He comes out to oppose Balaam, much as God comes out to visit Balaam at night. He judges Balaam’s motives as sinful, just as God is incensed at the prophet’s evil actions. And he directs Balaam to continue his journey, saying only what the angel tells him to say, much as God earlier directs Balaam to go to Balak, doing only what God tells him to do.

Third, while Balaam seems to show little surprise that his donkey is speaking to him, he immediately dismounts the beast, kneels, and, with face to the ground, worships the angel of the LORD. He also confesses his sin to the angel.

Taken together, these elements seem to indicate the angel of the Lord is a manifestation of the Lord himself. If that’s the case, this may be a rare instance in which the preincarnate Christ predicts his own future incarnation. 

Consider: Balaam’s fourth oracle declares, “A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel” (Num. 24:17). While in the short term this vision speaks of a future Israelite king, its ultimate fulfillment is in Christ, who centuries later tells the apostle John, “I am the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16). Some believe Balaam’s prophecy led the magi to seek a newborn king in Bethlehem (cf. Matt. 2:2).

The rest of the story

As Balaam nears Moab, Balak comes out to meet him. The king chides Balaam for his lack of urgency and expresses disbelief that the prophet has declined a promise of great fortune. 

“Look,” Balaam says, “I have come to you, but can I say anything I want? I must speak only the message God puts in my mouth” (Num. 22:38). 

Balaam accompanies Balak to Kiriath-huzoth, where the king sacrifices cattle, sheep, and goats, and invites Balaam and his servants to join them in a feast. This is a telling detail. Balaam willingly participates in a meal connected with a pagan sacrifice. It’s as if he’s willing to play both sides – the idolatrous and the divine – against each other in order to gain his prize. After all, if he’s famous for manipulating pagan goddesses, perhaps he can influence the God of the Israelites. 

From Numbers 22:41 – 24:25, Balak leads Balaam to three separate locations – Bamoth-baal, Lookout Field on the top of Pisgah, and the summit of Peor – where the prophet catches different views of the encamped Israelites. Balaam instructs Balak to prepare seven altars in each of the locations, and to sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams, after which Balaam seeks a word from the Lord. On the surface, this may seem an act of worship. But as one commentator notes: 

Balaam goes off by himself, hoping to be assured that he, having set Balak in a favorable position, will be able to evoke a curse on Israel and a blessing on Moab. After all, should a man offering seven rams and seven bulls on seven altars not receive what he desires? This setting up of a sacrificial rite is part of the divination process; the Lord rejects it completely.

Gerard Van Groningen

At the first two locations, the Lord puts a message in the prophet’s mouth; that is, he gives Balaam a message to repeat. But at Peor, “the Spirit of God” comes upon him, speaking through Balaam (Num. 24:2). In each instance, Balaam returns with an oracle of blessing for the Israelites. The final message ends with these words: “Those who bless you [Israel] will be blessed, and those who curse you will be cursed” (Num. 24:9).

Balak is furious. He angrily claps his hands – a sign of derision or defiance – and sends Balaam packing with these parting words: “I said I would reward you richly, but look, the LORD has denied you a reward” (Num. 24:11). 

Balaam reminds Balak that the prophet is unable to do anything against the Lord’s command. “I will say whatever the LORD says,” Balaam tells the king. “Now I am going back to my people, but first, let me warn you what these people will do to your people in the future” (Num. 24:13-14).

Balaam’s parting shot is a fourth oracle. He foretells the destruction of the Moabites, Amalekites, and Kenites. And then Balaam and Balak part company. 

Lawrence Richards comments:

Some argue that Balaam must have been a pious person, because God did speak through him. The incident with Balaam’s donkey reminds us that God can speak even through an ass! Other passages teach us the same truth. God even spoke through Caiaphas, the high priest who was Christ’s active enemy, when Caiaphas uttered a prophetic statement about the meaning of Jesus’ death (John 11:50-52). Being used by God is not proof of personal holiness.

The Bible Reader’s Companion, 106

Balaam is a conflicted prophet. He is famous for appeals to pagan gods, yet he experiences dramatic encounters with Yahweh. He is a noted seer, yet he cannot see the angel of the Lord until the Lord opens his eyes. God gives him genuine prophetic messages, but he seems to prefer divination (Josh. 13:22), a practice forbidden to God’s people, let alone to God’s spokespersons (Deut. 18:10, 14; see also 2 Pet. 2:15-16; Rev. 2:14). He benefits from personal encounters with the one true God, yet his humiliating experiences on the back of a donkey fail to prompt moral transformation. Finally, he knows the will of God for the Israelites, and even delivers faithful messages to the Moabites about God’s will, yet behind the scenes he seeks to corrupt the very people he has publicly blessed. His wasted life ends tragically at the tip of an Israelite sword. 

Next: Commander of the Lord’s Army

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.