By Dane Neufeld
A Reading from Numbers 22:21-38
21 So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the officials of Moab.
22 God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand, so the donkey turned off the road and went into the field, and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. 24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it scraped against the wall and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he struck it again. 26 Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. 28 Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” 29 Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” 30 But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”
31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand, and he bowed down, falling on his face. 32 The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary because your way is perverse before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” 34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.” 35 The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.
36 When Balak heard that Balaam had come, he went out to meet him at Ir-moab, on the boundary formed by the Arnon, at the farthest point of the boundary. 37 Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send to summon you? Why did you not come to me? Am I not able to honor you?” 38 Balaam said to Balak, “I have come to you now, but do I have power to say just anything? The word God puts in my mouth, that is what I must say.”
It is a bit unusual that the Lord would oppose Balaam on the road that he asked him to travel. It is possible that the Lord was testing Balaam. Though he had so far heeded God’s warning against pronouncing a curse against Israel, perhaps in the presence of the king Balaam would change his mind from fear or persuasion. We can imagine that Balak invited Balaam to Moab so that he could exert some direct pressure upon him — not an uncommon tactic in the realm of politics.
On the journey, Balaam’s donkey sees the angel of the Lord and is frightened and starts going rogue. Animals are typically more sensitive to their surroundings than we are. Balaam cannot see the angel and so gets frustrated with his donkey. Thus ensues the iconic conversation between Balaam and his beast of burden. It seems Balaam’s greatest grievance is that the donkey has embarrassed him and made him look weak, but as always there is something greater at stake than pride and dignity. As the angel says to Balaam, “If she not had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you.”
Balaam quickly realizes the gravity of the situation and listens to the angel who once again tells him to not pronounce a curse on Israel. We may think it is insulting that Balaam, who had already pledged not to do this, is commanded yet again. But our resolve, however strong at a given time, can flicker and disappear in a moment. The angel of the Lord stands in the center of our paths, against the selfish aspects of our nature. Though we get frustrated with the obstacles that seem to hinder progress in our lives, like Balaam, we are called to open our eyes and our hearts to the presence of the Lord.
The Rev. Dane Neufeld currently serves as the incumbent of St. James, Calgary, after serving 7 years in Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta.
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The Diocese of Northern Malawi – The Church of the Province of Central Africa
St. George’s Church, Dayton, Ohio