In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Our passage today is from a fairly well-known story. The story of Balaam and his talking donkey is one that sticks out because it’s so bizarre and so absurd. Because of its colourful nature, it’s often told in Sunday School and usually with a message of the sort, “God wants to speak with us,” or “God will make Himself heard,” or “the stubbornness of humans vs. the plans of God,” or something like that. Those may all be perfectly reasonable interpretations of this story. However, in what we are doing in going through the Old Testament, we need to ask ourselves, what is the story doing here?
This doesn’t seem to be a minor story. Though we’re only reading twenty verses, the entire story of Balaam actually encompasses three chapters (22-24). The verses listed here, it’s important to note, aren’t meant to be central, thematically, to the story – they are simply chosen because this is the episode most familiar to us. In short, the Israelites have moved into the land of Moab and Balak, the king of Moab, was afraid of them because they were so many. So Balak sent for Balaam, who was a prophet or a seer of some sort, to curse the Israelites. Balak sent messengers to Balaam with a fee – to hire him for the curse – but Balaam receives a message from God and refuses to curse Israel. So Balak tries again, and Balaam refuses again. But God speaks to Balaam again and tells him, this time, to go with the messengers back to Balak.
This is where we get the episode that we read today. There are several things that we could talk about in this particular passage (not the least of which is that it seems incongruous with the rest of the story – did God want him to go or not?), but again we only read these verses as a sampling of the whole story. In the end, God tells Balaam again to go with the messengers and speak to Balak what God gives to speak.
When Balaam finally meets Balak, performs a ritual and gives Balak words from God about the Israelites. But instead of a curse, which is what Balak hired him for, Balaam speaks a word of blessing. (23:7-8)
This happens again several times, with Balaam repeatedly pronouncing blessing over Israel. Balaam says concerning the fate of Israel:
24:17 “I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel.
He will crush the foreheads of Moab,
the skulls of all the people of Sheth.
Edom will be conquered;
Seir, his enemy, will be conquered,
but Israel will grow strong.
A ruler will come out of Jacob
and destroy the survivors of the city.”
And the episode concludes with Balaam announcing Israel’s victory (that is, blessing) over not only Moab, but against other nations as well.
So again, what does all this, the story of Balaam and Balak, have to do with what’s going on in the book of Numbers? What should we make of all of it? In short, I think it has to do with the notion that, despite everything that has happened in Israel’s story, God’s blessing still remains on Israel.
This makes more sense when we consider what has happened in the chapters we have skipped over. The last passage we discussed together was in Numbers 14, and it had to do with the story of Israel’s rebellion after the bad report by the scouts who entered Canaan. And because of the rebellion of the Israelites, God announced that none of that generation (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb – the scouts who wanted Israel to take the land) would live to see the promised land. Instead, Israel would wander the desert until all of that generation – the generation who had come out of Egypt – had passed away.
Now the chapters that we have skipped are not unimportant passages. Some of the stories are quite important.
- 15:32-36 We get a story about punishment of sabbath-breakers
- Chap 16 We get a story about the rebellion of Korah’s family. In short, Korah and his sons (who were of the tribe of Levi) were upset because Moses and Aaron were the ones leading the people (and, presumably, not themselves) .
- 20:1-13, we get the another story of water from a rock, but this story involves Moses’ disobedience to God, resulting in the pronouncement that he too will not enter the promised land.
- There’s also a few other stories (again, not unimportant) like the story of the bronze snake, and the account of Aaron’s death. We also get a couple of accounts of Israel’s encounters with foreign peoples. And interspersed with all of that, we get several chapters of law (offerings, priesthood, holiness).
In short, what we’ve seen over and over again is God showing grace and determination in his desire to redeem Israel, and Israel constantly falling down, failing, and rebelling in spite of God’s faithfulness. We’ve seen this all the way back to Genesis. So, though we’re focusing on the story of Balaam, in a sense we’re considering the entire journey that’s led up to it.
And what we’re seeing in our story today, the story of Balaam and Balak, is that despite Israel’s repeated sinfulness, God is determined to bless and not curse His people.
So, again, the simple point that I would like us to take from this section of the book of Numbers is, with respect to the fact that there’s a lot more that we could learn from it, that despite all of our repeated sinfulness, God’s grace (his plan and purpose and love for us) covers us. God’s grace prevails.
So What Now…?
Now the question that we tend to ask is, then what’s the point of it all? If God’s grace is all that there is, and we cannot escape or demand God’s grace, then what does it matter if we live righteously, or sin constantly, like the Israelites?
Firstly, let me say that this is a complicated theological issue – one that we’ve talked about a lot, and one that can’t be nailed down into a single, easy to grasp, aphorism. What I do think is that if the Christian life is about earning God’s grace – or earning God’s salvation – we can’t ever be holy enough, righteous enough, or good enough to earn God’s favour. All of the biblical stories seem to tell us this.
By the same token, if we have God’s blessing, shouldn’t we be better? Why did the Israelites, not just in these stories but in all the stories, knowing that they are the people of God’s favour, and having witnessed and been the beneficiaries of God’s power and sovereignty, do better?
And shouldn’t we, as the church of God, do better? Shouldn’t we, knowing and having received the complete grace of Jesus Christ, do better? Two thousand years after the resurrection, why aren’t we any better at doing the Christian life? Why do we keep making the same mistakes, asking the same questions, and stumbling and failing over and over again? Shouldn’t we have gotten it figured out by now? Shouldn’t we do better?
Firstly, I think the point of it all is not to do better. I think that the point is to live into the grace that we have been given. I think our calling is to live out the salvation that we have received.
This is a theme that we’ve explored a fair amount in our survey of the Old Testament so I won’t get into it too much here. But I want us to remember that the Israelites weren’t saved because they were good. They were saved because they were chosen – or in other words, it was up to God. They were saved and then they were given the law. They were delivered and then they were introduced into a new way of living that was expressive of and reflective of this new life that they were given. (though sometimes, as we have seen, they decided that they would rather have the old life, or a life of their own design).
Secondly, I like things that resolve. In his book, Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller says that he doesn’t like jazz music because it doesn’t resolve. I don’t agree with that per se (because I like some jazz music) but I know what he means. Most music that westerners are familiar with resolves – that is, it gives you a sense of completion, of finality. When we end on a tone that doesn’t resolve, it feels like you’re left hanging.
By the same token, I like stories that resolve. I like reading all kinds of things, but I prefer reading stories that have a definitive ending. I like knowing what happened to the protagonist and how justice was served (for example) to the antagonist.
When a story doesn’t resolve – like when you’re invested in a television series and it gets cancelled too early – you’re left wondering, “well what happened to that guy?”
Sometimes we feel like ours is a story that doesn’t resolve. It doesn’t feel like there’s a firm conclusion. We understand the notion of God’s grace, and we want to trust in it, but we feel like we should be getting somewhere and doing something. And if we’re not, then what’s the point of it all? We’re just in a story that doesn’t resolve.
The problem is, I think – at least in terms of how we tend to view it – that it’s not our story. Don’t get me wrong, we all have our stories (and they are important), and we’re all part of the great story (and they are important parts), but it’s not our story – it’s God’s. What we are reading, what we are talking about, and what we are participating in, is God’s story of the redemption of creation.
So the resolution (the resolve), the victory, and the final outcome is not ours but it’s Jesus Christ’s. Another way to think about this is that the reason why we seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, the reason why sin keeps rearing its ugly head (even though sin is well and truly defeated on the cross) is because the story, of which we are a part, has not resolved yet.
But the ending is sure. It’s certain. Jesus’ victory, accomplished on the cross, will be fully inaugurated and God’s plan of redemption will be fulfilled. And until then, we keep on living out the grace that we have been given. We continue to strive to be faithful, in spite of our many failings and shortcomings, because God is faithful to us.
So we live in the in-between. We’ve talked about this a lot and there’s a lot to be said about this, but I don’t want to carry on. But we live in the in-between of Jesus’ victory and the fulfillment, the completion, of that victory. And even though the victory is God’s alone and it can’t be changed nor resisted, what we do in the in-between matters.
But it matters not because we contribute to God’s victory – as if God is just waiting for us to finally get our acts together. It’s not as if the outcome of the story depends on us. Rather, it matters because we have the opportunity to live that final outcome into the present. The ending speaks into our in-between.
So, like the Israelites, we are an eschatological people. (And, of course, like the Israelites, we often don’t understand this). And it doesn’t matter how many people, powers, or principalities try to take that away from us, God’s intention is not to curse us, but to bless us. And I don’t doubt that we’ll make many mistakes along the way. But our future is not contingent upon our mistakes (or lack thereof). Rather, because of Christ, we are defined by our future.
I refer us all to Hebrews 12:1-3, which says:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.