Have It Both Ways?

By Dane Neufeld

A Reading from Numbers 23:11-26  

11 Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but now you have done nothing but bless them.” 12 He answered, “Must I not take care to say what the Lord puts into my mouth?”

13 So Balak said to him, “Come with me to another place from which you may see them; you shall see only part of them and shall not see them all; then curse them for me from there.” 14 So he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah. He built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar. 15 Balaam said to Balak, “Stand here beside your burnt offerings, while I meet the Lord over there.” 16 The Lord met Balaam, put a word into his mouth, and said, “Return to Balak, and this is what you shall say.” 17 When he came to him, he was standing beside his burnt offerings with the officials of Moab. Balak said to him, “What has the Lord said?” 18 Then Balaam uttered his oracle, saying,

“Rise, Balak, and hear;
listen to me, O son of Zippor:
19 God is not a human being, that he should lie,
or a mortal, that he should change his mind.
Has he promised, and will he not do it?
Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
20 See, I received a command to bless;
he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it.
21 He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob,
nor has he seen trouble in Israel.
The Lord their God is with them,
acclaimed as a king among them.
22 God, who brings them out of Egypt,
is like the horns of a wild ox for them.
23 Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob,
no divination against Israel;
now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel,
‘See what God has done!’
24 Look, a people rising up like a lioness
and rousing itself like a lion!
It does not lie down until it has eaten the prey
and drunk the blood of the slain.”

25 Then Balak said to Balaam, “Do not curse them at all, and do not bless them at all.” 26 But Balaam answered Balak, “Did I not speak to you, saying, ‘Whatever the Lord says, that is what I must do’?”


Balaam, despite his enduring reputation as a false prophet or diviner, persists in uttering the words of God to Balak. For this reason, it is difficult to discern Balaam’s fault, as one “who loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Pet. 2:15).

The Anglican theologian Joseph Butler placed Balaam’s error in his continual willingness to entertain Balak’s proposal to pay for a curse upon Israel. In a sermon on this passage, Butler wrote: “he wanted to do what he knew to be very wicked, and contrary to the express command of God; he had inward checks and restraints which he could not entirely get over; he therefore casts about for ways to reconcile this wickedness with his duty.”

If this was the case with Balaam, we can perhaps identify with his deliberations. There must be a way, we sometimes tell ourselves, to square our selfish desires with our conscience and what we know to be the path God has called us to. Perhaps every time Balak pressured Balaam to utter the curse against Israel, Balaam found himself hoping for a different result.

Butler writes: “Indulgences before, which was Balaam’s first attempt, though he was not so successful in it as to deceive himself, or atonements afterwards, are all the same.” We employ many devices to navigate around the demands of the gospel, or to glance off their edges so as not to entirely depart from their place in our lives. But at the center of our faith, is the calling to love and serve the Lord with our whole heart, soul and mind.

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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Today we pray for:

The Diocese of West Malaysia – The Church of the Province of South East Asia
St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas


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