Monday afternoon I made a 25-mile bike ride, my furthest ride to-date in the modern era. For some reason, impossible to remember three days later, I thought about the story in the Bible of Balaam and his donkey. I wondered what would happen if an angel tried to block my way as I cruised alongside Highway 191. Would God cause my bike to stop and talk to me? A talking bicycle would be very strange - where is its mouth? However, maybe the flat tire I got four miles from home was a message from God. It certainly slowed me down.
The story of Balaam and his talking donkey comes from Numbers 22. It’s a story I’ve enjoyed even more since seeing the movie Shrek, now that I know how a talking donkey should behave. I used to picture Balaam’s donkey a little like Eeyore, sad and droopy, but now I hear Eddie Murphy’s voice. It significantly brightens the story.
As the story goes, Balaam was some sort of wizard-for-hire who would curse your enemy for a payment. Numbers 22:7 says when the elders of Moab and Midian went to recruit Balaam to put a curse on the Israelite people, they took with them “the fee for divination,” implying it was an understood and standard amount, a set fee.
Balaam may not have been a follower of God in the way we think of it in my church, even though he invoked God’s name. In this story he promised to bring his visitors “the answer the Lord gives me.” At least he didn’t claim to invent his curses all by himself.
We can’t know if Balaam really intended to talk to God about the curse or if his mention of the Lord was merely part of his magician script, but we know that in this particular case, God spoke to Balaam. It’s often a big surprise when he actually speaks to us – more than we expect. Yet, Balaam took it all in stride and accepted the words from God. Who knows, maybe it wasn’t his first time. Maybe God spoke to him all the time.
God told Balaam he must not curse the Israelites. So he was stuck between the obvious word of God and the desires of his employers from Moab and Midian. How could he obey God without alienating his rich and powerful future customer base? Balaam tried to tap dance between the two, making several appeals to God, hoping God would change his mind. Of course, He didn’t.
At one point Balaam was confronted by God while traveling down the road on his donkey. Actually, he was confronted by “the angel of the Lord,” and this is where the donkey enters the story.
The donkey saw the angel standing in the road, sword drawn, but Balaam couldn’t yet see it. Well, the donkey would not pass the angel, and even crushed Balaam’s leg against a stone wall rather than move forward. Balaam beat the donkey, but when the angel again blocked the path, the donkey laid down on the road. Balaam beat the donkey even more.
I remember once when we were at the family ranch, the Tramperos, in Union County New Mexico, I mentioned this story to Cyndi’s grandfather, Forrest Atchley. He started telling me stories about the stubborn donkeys of his life. All the stories ended the same way, with Forrest wailing away on a balking donkey with a 2x4 or a jack handle. I asked him, “Do you think any of those donkeys acted that way because they saw an angel in the road?”
He said, “If they saw any angels, it was after I hit them between the eyes with the jack handle.” Forrest was unwilling to credit any of his donkeys with the spiritual vision of Balaam’s donkey. Forrest did tell me he would consider the presence of angels in the road if one of his donkeys ever started talking to him, but only then.
The most surprising part of Balaam’s story in the Bible is when the donkey started talking. The donkey said, “What have I done to make you beat me three times in a row?”
Balaam answered, “You have made a fool of me.” The best part of the story is that Balaam was NOT surprised to have a talking donkey. He entered into a conversation with his donkey as if this was the sort of thing that happened every day. I would have expected him to jump back and holler, “WOAH, A TALKING DONKEY!”
And not just a run-of-the-mill talking donkey, this was a logical talking donkey. The donkey gave a well-reasoned explanation to Balaam about the situation. Then God opened Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel of the Lord for the first time and he knew he was lucky to have survived this day.
I thought, Balaam should make it a point to keep this donkey beside him for the rest of his life. Any creature who can see messengers from God should be kept close, especially if it saves your life.
Anyway, that’s what I thought about while riding my bike last Monday. You never know what mind games the West Texas wind will stir up.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32
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