Numbers 22:22-33

We call them dumb animals. Dumb because they cannot read or write, nor can they speak, communicate, think — or so we believe. They are just animals, a part of the lower creation of God. Some animals seem to be more dumb than others. Take the donkey as an example. Stubborn, cantankerous, strong-willed, with minds of their own. They tend to do their own thing and only after adequate prodding to do the will of the master.

The Bible makes reference to donkeys seventy-four times. In Scripture, they are always depicted as work animals or riding animals. That is their lot. They plow fields and carry loads. If you have traveled to the Holy City of Jerusalem, you may have seen these beasts of burden in action. The local merchants use them as cargo carriers. It is not uncommon to see twenty to twenty-five wooden crates precariously balanced on the back of one such beast. They are nicknamed, “Jerusalem Jeeps.”
Even the name donkey speaks of the nature of these animals. The Hebrew word translated “donkey” literally means “animal under the yoke.” It is the image of an animal that has been brought under control and is governed by the will of its master. The yoke of the owner forces the donkey to do his bidding. They may be dumb but at least they are obedient.
I heard of one farmer’s mule that kicked the farmer’s mother-in-law in the head and she died. A large crowd gathered at the funeral, most of them men. Following the service the minister said, “Mrs. Bailey must have been a very popular lady. Just look at all the people who have stopped their chores to come to the funeral.”
“They aren’t here for the funeral, pastor,” commented one old farmer. “They’re here to bid on the mule.”
In the New Testament, donkeys are mentioned a number of times in connection with the ministry of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel, Luke records the Parable of the Good Samaritan as it was told by Jesus. One of the key characters in the story is the donkey which is used to carry the load of the injured man. The donkey’s role parallels that of the would-be servant of Christ. We are to carry the burdens of others.
Then there is another donkey. It is Palm Sunday and Jesus is to make His triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The disciples are told where to go to find an animal, hitched to a post. They were to say “The Master has need of it” and the donkey would be available for their use. It is Jesus himself who then rides the donkey into Jerusalem. There is great symbolism in the event. If a king were to ride into a city on a horse, it was a sign of war. But if a king rode into town on a donkey, it was a sign of peace. Here is the triumphant entry of the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, riding into Zion on a donkey.
Yet of all the stories told about donkeys, perhaps there is none more famous or more intriguing than that of Balaam’s famous talking donkey. It is recorded in Numbers 22. Allow me to set the context of the story and then allow me to retell the story and draw some meaning from it for us today.
The story of Balaam’s donkey actually begins with Balaam himself, who was quite famous in his time. He was a seer and, as such, he could see into the future and make predictions about events that had yet to take place. Some even believed that, because of his prophetic ability, he also had the power to alter events and even change the course of history. Balaam was a foreigner to the land of Israel, yet he was unique in that he freely acknowledged that his power as a seer came from the Lord God Almighty, the Jehovah God of Israel. As a seer, Balaam had great success. His power was known far and wide, his counsel often sought.
During the days of Balaam, Israel was continually challenged by neighboring nations. One such nation was Moab, and Balak was its king. Balak had intentions to overthrow Israel. It was his plan to take his army into his neighbor’s land and totally subdue it. As he sat down with all of his military strategists, every option and plan was discussed in great detail. The Moabites felt secure in their abilities and trusted in the strength of their army. Yet just to insure a successful campaign and certain victory, King Balak sought out the seer Balaam. The king had heard of the seer’s powers and success, and was intrigued by this idea of altering the course of events in the chain of human history. Balak thought, if Balaam would offer curses against Israel, surely Israel would fall in battle.
We pick up the story at Numbers 22. The king sent a special envoy to entreat the good favor of Balaam. His envoys were to go to Balaam with the idea and with plenty of trinkets as inducement for his support. In exchange for Balaam’s curses against Israel, the king would give Balaam money, clothing, property, women. The king made his offer and the ambassadors took it to Balaam, who told them he would sleep on the idea and give his reply in the morning. During the night, God spoke to Balaam in no uncertain terms and told him not to go along with these terms and, whatever he did, he was not to curse the nation of Israel. The next morning, Balaam says, “No deal,” and the ambassadors return to King Balak with his reply.
Obviously, the king did not want to take “no” for an answer. He gathered the envoy members together and told them to return a second time, only this time to sweeten the pot. They return to Balaam. They tell Balaam he can write his own ticket, he can have anything he wants, the sky’s the limit. Again he tells them he will sleep on it and in the morning will give a reply. He struggles with the decision all night. On one hand God had already spoken with clarity, but on the other hand it was a very tempting offer, it made good sense. Through the long night, Balaam hears from God a different message: God will allow him to go, but the command is the same — he is not to curse Israel. As we read the story, we sense that Balaam didn’t tell the ambassadors the whole story. He gets up and says, “Let’s go,” and in so doing he gives them the impression that God will now allow him to utter such curses. So off they go, but a funny thing happens on the way to the palace of the king.
The scene begins in Numbers 22:22. Balaam is riding on his donkey, and two servants are walking alongside. Unknown to Balaam, the Lord God is angry because of his deception and his disobedience. All of a sudden, the donkey goes nuts. The animal is able to see an angel of the Lord standing in the middle of the road with a drawn sword in his hand. Like any smart animal, the donkey flees in terror and runs into a field. Balaam, who could not see the angel, must have thought, “You stupid, stubborn animal. Get your mind back in gear and get back on the road!” He gives her a good whack on the head and the journey continues.
A bit later, the path grows very narrow. It runs between the walls that divide two vineyards. It is a very narrow space with little room to maneuver. The donkey looks up and sees the angry angel again. She bolts and smashes Balaam’s leg against the wall and crushes his foot. Now you can well imagine the colorful words that flow from Balaam’s mouth. Not only does he have a cantankerous animal, he now has a broken foot. He beats the donkey a second time and off they go again.
Soon, in another narrow place, the angel appears again. The donkey must have thought, “Oh no, not again. Open your eyes, you dumb seer, and see what is really going on.” The donkey lays down in the middle of the road and takes her third whipping of the afternoon. And then, all of a sudden, it happens. God opens the mouth of the beast so that it can express out loud the thoughts that have surely been on its inside: “Why have you beaten me these three times?” Balaam says, “Because you have made a fool of me, if I had my sword I’d kill you right here and now!” Then the donkey begins to talk reason to the mad prophet. “Haven’t I been your donkey for a long time? Have I ever done anything like this before? No? Well, then, wake up and see the angel!”
At that moment God opens the eyes of the prophet so that he, too, can see the angel of the Lord. Balaam falls on his face and bows his head. The angel asks, “Why have you beaten your donkey three times? It’s not her fault. I have come to oppose you. You have chosen a reckless path and she was trying to let you know. If not for her actions, I would have killed you by now, but I would have let her live.” Balaam then pleads for mercy and for guidance. The angel replies that God will allow him to continue on to the king of Moab, but instead of curses Balaam is to offer praises for Israel. Rather clearly, the angel makes the point that Israel is the chosen nation of God and Balak is not to oppose her.
It is a unique story to say the least. I have heard many people talk to their pets but never have I heard a pet respond. The Alabama State Fair had a diving mule one year but the fair has yet to feature a talking one. Sometimes wisdom is found in some rather unexpected places. If we are wise, we too might learn something from dumb animals. Allow me to draw four conclusions from this rather unique story with a very special animal.
1. There are times to be stubborn.
Usually stubbornness is a quality to be rejected. We don’t like stubborn, obstinate people. We don’t like closed minds and high-walled attitudes. Yet the Gospel of Jesus demands some degree of stubbornness. Paul writes to the Corinthian church: “My beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord …” (1 Corinthians 15:58). To the church in Ephesus he writes: “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1).
When Christ departed this world to ascend to the Father, He left one command for His followers: they were to go throughout the world preaching and teaching, and by words and deed to proclaim the Good News of Jesus so that new believers might be drawn into fellowship and the Kingdom might come in its fullness. We must be stubborn in our commitment to Christ and His Kingdom. We must stubbornly love those whom we would hate; we must stubbornly forgive those who have hurt us; we must stubbornly share with those who have nothing. Our resolve, our commitment, and our character must never be questioned. We must be stubborn in our walk with Christ.
2. There are rewards in being obedient.
When properly encouraged, animals are obedient to their tasks. We too are called to live lives of obedience unto God. In John 14:15, Jesus said “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” In Mark 3:35, Jesus said that His true brothers and sisters were “Those who do the will of God.” We are called to servanthood. We are called to be obedient to the demands of Christ. We are not buddies with Jesus; we are bondservants.
In his book, Improving Your Serve, pages 170-171, Charles Swindoll writes: “Let’s pretend that you work for me. In fact, you are my executive assistant in a company that is growing rapidly. I’m the owner and I’m interested in expanding overseas. To pull this off, I make plans to travel abroad and stay there until the new branch office gets established. I make all the arrangements to take my family in the move to Europe for six to eight months, and I leave you in charge of the busy stateside organization. I tell you that I will write you regularly and give you direction and instructions. I leave and you stay.
“Months pass. A flow of letters are mailed from Europe and received by you at the national headquarters. I spell out all my expectations. Finally, I return. Soon after my arrival I drive down to the office. I am stunned! Grass and weeds have grown up high. A few windows along the street are broken. I walk into the receptionist’s room and she is doing her nails, chewing gum, and listening to her favorite disco station. I look around and notice the waste baskets are overflowing, the carpet hasn’t been vacuumed for weeks, and nobody seems concerned that the owner has returned. I ask about your whereabout and someone in the crowded lounge area points down the hall and yells, ‘I think he’s down there.’
“Disturbed, I move in that direction and bump into you as you are finishing a chess game with our sales manager. I ask you to step into my office (which has been temporarily turned into a television room for watching afternoon soap operas). ‘What in the world is going on, man?’ ‘What do ya’ mean, Chuck?’ ‘Well, look at this place! Didn’t you get any of my letters?’ ‘Letters? Oh, yeah — sure, got every one of them. As a matter of fact, Chuck, we have had letter study every Friday night since you left. We have even divided all the personnel into small groups and discussed many of the things you wrote. Some of those things were really interesting. You’ll be pleased to know that a few of us have actually committed to memory some of your sentences and paragraphs. One or two memorized an entire letter or two! Great stuff in those letters!’
“‘Okay, okay — you got my letters, you studied them and meditated on them, discussed and even memorized them. But what did you do about them?’
“‘Do? Uh — we didn’t do anything about them.'”
3. There is great challenge in being controlled.
Animals that wear yokes can be controlled, guided, corrected. We, too, must take on our yokes of Christianity. We must be controlled, guided, and corrected by the love of Christ.2 Corinthians 5:14, “For the love of Christ controls us …” Are you being controlled by Christ? We are all controlled and manipulated by people, forces, jobs, problems. We must choose which voice will have the greatest control. Jesus says, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My load is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
4. There is great vision in having a viewpoint.
One of the fascinating elements of the story of Balaam is that the animal could see things that the seer could not. In a mysterious way it could see the big picture, the whole story; the man could not. We call donkeys “beasts of burden” and yet how often we labor under the burdens of worry and doubt all because we cannot see the big picture. We are the real beasts of burden. Sometimes we see only what we expect to see and little more. We lack the vision to sometimes see what is really there.
Have you ever seen an old mare look up from her grazing and let fly with a huge whinny at the empty horizon? Maybe the horizon is not as empty as we might think. Maybe there is a message from God if we only have the eyes to see it. An innocent viewpoint allows the greatest vision.
Be stubborn, be obedient, be controlled, be visionary. God help the dumb animals we call humans to be a little wiser.

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