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Balaam & Israel

Numbers 23.1-38
21 November 2010 St Mary’s


I’m sure that you will agree that Paul Gascoigne – Gazza – is an
interesting place to start a sermon on the Book of Numbers.

Gazza, if you don’t know, was the most talented English footballer of his

e.g. goal against Scotland in 1996

e.g. performances in Italia ‘90

Sadly, like many others before him, that talent was to a large extent wasted
and his life has become something of a slow moving train crash.

c.f. item in The Times

The papers are full of such stories. Do we like them because they give us
a sense of moral superiority?... Or do we like them because they are full of
such pathos, the tragedy draws us in….
Whichever, and I can probably hazard a guess if you tell me which paper
you read, the bible tells may similar stories because that is the stuff of
which we, humanity, are made.

o Saul
o (David)
o The Kings of Israel and Judah
o Pilate
o Judas
o The seven churches

I therefore won’t, in this sermon, apologise for speaking at some length

about Balaam’s character.

However, I will be speaking about more than Balaam’s character for the
story of Balaam is a story within a story, the story of God’s people.

Set against the background of the Book of Numbers the reason that
Balaam’s story is told at all is because it highlights the Lord’s faithfulness
to Israel.

Consider the point we have reached

o God’s people are, finally, is on the edge of the promised land

o God’s people have started to engage their enemies and prevail over
them (c.f. Chs. 21,22)
o God’s people are on the verge of a fresh start following the deaths of the
last of the wilderness generation none of whom the Lord said would enter
the land

That is why Israel represented such a threat to people such as Balak the
Moabite king and also why his response, that of calling in Balaam the most
famous and powerful spiritual ‘hitman’ of the age, represented such a
threat to them (He was a sort of Derren Brown of the ancient world)
Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, 3 and Moab
was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread
because of the Israelites.
The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, “This horde is going to lick up
everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.”

So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, 5 sent messengers to
summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the Euphrates River, in his
native land. Balak said:

“A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled
next to me. 6 Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too
powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the
land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is
What the ensuing story reveals is that Balaam’s much vaunted powers
count for nothing where the Lord’s promise is concerned. It is those
whom He blesses who are blessed and those whom He curses who are
cursed whatever Balaam or anyone else might say or do.

Though we haven’t time to explore them, Balaam’s four oracles for rather
than against Israel as well as having great comic value, with an enraged
Balak trying everything to get an ‘angle’ on Israel, must surely represent
some of the most magnificent promises in the bible let alone the OT.
Allow me to quote one or two verses…

Similarly, following Gordon Wenham, the drama of Chs. 22-24 falls into
six main acts of two sets of three (22.7-14, 15-20, 21-35, 41-23.12, 13-26,
27-24.25) and in each one it is clear that Balaam was able only to say what
the Lord allowed him to say.

This is the ‘wide angle’ view of the story and it is a view that has much to
say to us to day. We too on a regular basis need to discipline ourselves to
‘pan out’ and recall God’s larger purposes for us, for His people and for
His world.

As we approach the season of advent the church we start to focus on the

area of the bible’s teaching known as eschatology, a funny, but important
word. Eschatology is about the ‘last things’, but it is also about God’s plan
and purpose through the ages. It is one of the things that makes our faith
distinctive, for we unlike Muslims tell a particular story and we therefore
need continually to remind ourselves where in that story we find ourselves

God is working his purpose out

as year succeeds to year:
God is working his purpose out,
and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.
As we approach the season of Christmas, we are reminded that God’s plan
is significantly advanced.

If I can make this a little more personal…

I was running on Friday morning at about 06.30 when the morning star
(Venus) was very powerfully present in the sky

Now we ‘zoom in’ to the story within a story, the story of Balaam and
what a story it is.

As I have already said, Balak decided to approach Balaam with a view to

putting the ‘hex’ on Israel. How does he respond?

At first it is a definite ‘no’ (although there is, perhaps, a mild rebuke in

“Spend the night here,” Balaam said to them, “and I will report back to you with
the answer the LORD gives me.” So the Moabite officials stayed with him.
God came to Balaam and asked, “Who are these men with you?”
Balaam said to God, “Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, sent me this message: 11
‘A people that has come out of Egypt covers the face of the land. Now come and put a
curse on them for me. Perhaps then I will be able to fight them and drive them
But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those
people, because they are blessed.”
The next morning Balaam got up and said to Balak’s officials, “Go back to your
own country, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.”

Then, after a bigger, better and possibly more generously provided for
delegation is put together, it’s a more unconvincing ‘no’
Then Balak sent other officials, more numerous and more distinguished than the
first. 16 They came to Balaam and said:

“This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Do not let anything keep you from coming
to me, 17 because I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and
put a curse on these people for me.”
But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his
palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the
LORD my God. 19 Now spend the night here so that I can find out what else the
LORD will tell me.”
That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon
you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”
The decision to invite the emissaries to stay the night is the first clear sign,
I would suggest, that Balaam is shifting ground. After all, if the Lord’s
will was that Israel were to be blessed, why contemplate any alternative?

For this reason I interpret v.20, then, is as a begrudging permission. Just

as when Rob asked Sarah if it was OK to stand for General Synod again 

Then we have the series of incident’s involving Balaam’s donkey. A gift

or possibly a trap for preachers.

DMLJ story of the preacher who determined to speak on only one verse at
a time and always have three points

Point One – always rise early (even if its to do something your’re not
supposed to be doing)
Point Two – the value of saddlery
Point Three – something from the NT

How this miracle happened who knows? It is recorded also in the NT and
is clearly stated in the text
But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—an animal without speech—
who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
2 Peter 2.16

So what is going on here? The Lord is, firstly, on my understanding what

precedes, making clear what he thinks of Balaam’s course of action and,
secondly, whether I am right about that or not, the Lord is showing Balaam
who is truly in charge! Not only has the He the power to stop Balaam in
his tracks, He is able to expose his lack of spiritual perception – after all
it’s a bad day for a prophet your powers of discernment fall below those of
a donkey let alone when you lose an argument to one – and, in the process,
demonstrate that He is the ultimate author of prophetic speech. That
Balaam should three times be trapped as he was, was advance warning of
what was to come.

You have, by the way, got to feel a little sorry for the donkey

c.f. Max and the burglar

Some lessons, then, from the story within the story

o Lesson One

Don’t dabble with what you know to be wrong

Money, sex and power

c.f. Calvin’s comment on Balaam’s blindness in Mobberley

o Lesson Two

Don’t hide behind a spiritual smokescreen

o Lesson Three

Just because the Lord allows something doesn’t mean that He approves of

c.f. Psalm 106.15

o Lesson Four

Wrongdoing can make us harden our hearts

The law of the ‘angle’ Richard Bewes

o Lesson Five

People can have amazing gifts, but not necessarily any grace. In other
words, they can be spiritually and morally bankrupt.

Whyte p.267

Matthew 7.22,23
o Lesson Six

However far away from the Lord we go, His grace continues to pursue us.
The problem is that our hearts may have become so hardened that we
cannot turn back