Most of today’s passage is taken up with the story of Balaam, the ‘prophet for hire’ who is brought by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites but who finds that God has other ideas.
There’s a wonderful pantomime quality about this whole story. The incident with the donkey who sees more than the seer on his back is a wonderful one, and the fact that even a donkey can speak God’s word does give me a bit of hope for my own preaching! Then there’s Balak’s increasingly desperate attempt to get Balaam to curse Israel by getting him to look at the tribes from different points of view in the hope that God will be fooled into changing his mind. Needless to say, it doesn’t work.
Every now and then, reading the Bible in sequence I spot something I hadn’t noticed before, and this is one of those times. If I’d been asked to place Balaam and Balak in the Bible story, I’d have said it was in the book of Judges, not of Numbers. I’d always assumed that Balaam was a bit of a rogue prophet from one of the Israelite tribes, but it turns out he was an Aramean. As with Jethro, Moses’ father in law, we see the signs that God was known outside Israel, however imperfectly. Balaam has a lot to learn, but he’s in no doubt when God speaks, and it’s clear that he is in touch with the same God who speaks to Moses.
So when it comes to what we can learn from this, then perhaps there’s something about being open to God’s work outside the Christian churches. But I’m sure that it’s worth being reminded of the danger of treating prayer as an attempt to pressure or even trick God into doing what we want. In reality, prayer has more to do with getting our will into line with God’s will so that we are asking for what he already intends to do!