Sermon from October 11: Balaam’s Donkey

Balaam’s Donkey
Pentecost XX (O. T. 28); October 11, 2020
Numbers 22:22-35

When I was learning to read, my favorite stories were the ones about talking animals. Tell a story about a family with a problem child, and that was interesting, but make it a family of hedgehogs and I was hooked. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love this story. There are two talking animals in the Bible: the serpent in the Garden and Balaam’s donkey. Just as the serpent is the villain in its story, the donkey is the hero of this story. I’d like to retell the story and then ponder an implication of it for a few minutes.

As the people of God were slowly making their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, they came to the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan. The King of Moab, Balak son of Zippor, did not want them there. So he sent representatives, with a bunch of money, to a prophet named Balaam, son of Beor. When they got to Balaam, they said, “Our Lord asks you to observe this great and numerous people who have come out of Egypt and to curse them for him. For he knows that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” Balaam said, “Stay the night and tomorrow I will give you my answer.”

That night the Lord God appeared to Balaam and asked, “Who are these men who have come to you?” and Balaam reported all they had said. And God said, “No, you shall not go with them; you shall not curse this people, for they are blessed.” In the morning, the prophet said to the men, “The Lord forbids me to go with you; return to your master” and so they did.

Balak wasn’t taking no for an answer, so he tried again. This time he sent more important officials with the same offer. Balaam said, “You know that I cannot do anything other than what the Lord God commands, even if Balak should give me all the silver and gold he has. But stay the night and we’ll see what God says.” This time the Lord God said, “Alright, go with them. But do only what I tell you to do.” So in the morning Balaam saddled his donkey and went with the men to see King Balak.

Next comes the part of the story we read. As they traveled, the angel of the Lord, a sword in his hand, stood in the road to block their way; the donkey saw him but Balaam did not. So the donkey turned aside into the field and Balaam struck the donkey. When they got to a place with a wall on either side, the angel once again tried to block their way; as the donkey evaded him, it scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall and so the prophet struck the poor beast again. The third time the angel chose to appear in a place where there was nowhere the donkey could go, so it just lay down under its master. Balaam was furious and took his staff and beat the donkey with it.

Then the donkey spoke up. “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times.” Pause for a moment. The strangest thing about this story, I think, is Balaam’s response. He didn’t say, “When did you learn to talk?” or otherwise freak out. Instead he told the donkey that if he had a sword he would have killed it for making a fool of him. Do you know the feeling of embarrassment when your dog chooses just the moment the neighbor is looking to do something disobedient? Balaam wasn’t as worried about his sore foot as he was about his sore ego, having a disobedient donkey before all the important officials of King Balak.

Anyway, the donkey replied, “Haven’t I been your faithful beast your entire life? Have I ever behaved this way before?” And the prophet was forced to concede that it had not. And then he saw the angel.

You heard how the angel scolded Balaam for abusing his donkey and then repeated the message: Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you to speak. And the rest of the story is that was precisely what happened. Balaam went with the men; Balak was irritated that he had taken so long, but built altars and made sacrifices and waited for Balaam to speak his oracle, cursing the Hebrew people. But Balaam said only what the Lord told him to say, and three times, from three different places, Balaam blessed the Hebrew people. Balak was furious and said he would pay Balaam no money at all. Balaam simply replied, “I already said that even if you gave me all the silver and gold in your house I could say nothing other than what the Lord God told me to say.”

Although it doesn’t involve the donkey, I want to add one more thing. After Balak vented his fury on Balaam, the prophet had one more oracle in him. This fourth one is the one that may well have sent a group of magi on the road from Persia to Bethlehem, centuries later, for he said:

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near –
A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17).

The donkey could see what Balaam could not: the angel of the Lord, made out for war, holding a sword in his hand. Because the donkey responded to the angel, rather than to Balaam, it saved Balaam’s life. The angel could have killed Balaam, but the donkey put up with the beatings and saved its master’s life.

What do the donkeys and the frogs and the birds and the Javan rhinoceroses and the leatherback sea turtles and the snow leopards and the polar bears see that we do not see? What is Nature trying to say to us, that might save our lives? Now, let me caution you: it is too easy to look at our severe storms and the pandemic and the social unrest and to ask with panic, “Is the Apocalypse upon us?” It is a misuse of the book of Revelation and a repeat of all the mistakes made by people obsessed with end-times stories. So please don’t go there.

But please go here. Is there a voice we should be listening to that Nature can hear but we are ignoring? Would we, like Balaam, rather beat Nature into submission than listen to its complaint? It appears that the only people who consistently deny the scientific consensus on climate change are those who have a financial stake in things as they are, those who would ignore the voice of the one who sees the angel and the drawn sword out of eagerness for Balak’s money. Well, I have to give Balaam credit: he was faithful to the voice of the Lord and gave up all the money. But climate change deniers continue to beat the donkey, refusing to hear its voice.

What should we learn from the voice of the pandemic? I have asked you that and similar questions from time to time over the last seven months; this isn’t going to end anytime soon. Again, there are those who would rather beat the ones who speak up and tell the truth of what they see than pay attention to the angry angel standing in the road. There is a great deal we can learn about public health and prevention and self-discipline and creativity from this pandemic. I fear that it may, instead, be simply business as usual, that we throw blame and slogans and cheap shots at one another rather than trying to learn better ways of doing things. Susan Page asked a fair question the other evening, one that I wish someone would have answered: What could we as a nation have done different? This is a bigger question than simply COVID-19, since we in the United States do spend more money on health care than any other developed country does and we have the worst outcomes when it comes to health and well-being, so in general we should ask ourselves what we can do different. With the pandemic the question is acute: we have the worst infection rate and death rate in the developed world. What could we do different? Neither Vice-President Pence nor Senator Harris answered that question. Will we as a people try to answer it, or will we simply take our staff and beat the one who speaks up and asks it?

Not only our nation but the entire world waits for the donkey who sees the angel to speak up and for the Lord to open our eyes so we can see the angel, too. Nature is speaking to us all the time; I pray the Lord God to open our ears to hear what she is saying.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska