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Balaam’s Assumption

And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.” So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and went with the leaders of Moab. But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding on his donkey and his two servants were with him.
Numbers 22:20-22, NASB

A friend texted me recently, asking about the story of Balaam (and his famous talking donkey) in Numbers 22. She asked why God appears to contradict Himself in the verses above.

It’s a good question. Why would God get angry at someone being obedient to His commands?

On a quick read, God does seem to contradict Himself. On the one hand, God tells Balaam to go to Moab as the king has requested. Yet, in the very next verse, when Balaam gets ready to go, God gets angry, resulting in a stand-off with an angel on the road (with only the donkey paying attention).

So how do we make sense of the story?

Like a lot of Old Testament stories, there’s usually a lot more going on in the story than we think (and these stories don’t usually tell us whether they see the protagonist as acting morally or not). This much the case here; there’s lot we must not assume about Balaam’s character.

As to God himself: what was He doing? It seems to me that there’s a little condition to what God says to Balaam that brings clarity. “If the men have come to call you…get up and go,” but notice what happens: Balaam doesn’t wait for them to call, he just gets up and goes the next morning. God’s anger is not simply that Balaam headed out, but that he went without having been asked and thus disobeyed God’s instruction. The story shows Balaam as far more stubborn-headed than his long-suffering donkey.

As I write this, I wonder where I am stubbornly headed, telling myself it’s God’s will but truthfully it’s just mine. I wonder where I am quick to listen to the things God says that I like, but then just as speedily forget those smaller yet important things that frame and shape—even condition—His words, the ‘ifs,’ ‘whens’ and ‘not yets.’ For wherever and whenever God calls, it is never, by any means, necessary. It’s always His way. And maybe I confuse my will for His far more frequently than I want to admit.
The Rev. Dr. Suse E. McBay
Associate for Adult Christian Education and Prayer Ministries
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