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Israel has just escaped from Egypt and the whole slavery thing. In the events leading up to Balaam, Israel is in the middle of wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. When you read Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, you will notice that there is a bit of a cycle going on. First, God does something great and wonderful and powerful and awesome and then a few verses later, Israel whines about how they would have been better off in Egypt. Keep in mind, that this whole time, God has a constant presence in the Israel camp with a giant pillar of cloud (by day) or a pillar of fire (by night) so it's not like they don't have a visual reminder that he's there. Sad really.
Case in point is Numbers 21. It begins with Israel totally destroying Arad. Then, they whine so God sends poisonous snakes and to be saved, they have to look at the bronze snake. Finally, the chapter ends with Israel taking out the Amorites.
Which brings us to Numbers 22. Balak, king of Moab, is freaking out because of what Israel does to the Amorites, so he decides to hire Balaam to curse them. The Bible isn't clear on which gods Balaam worships but it's evident that he's some kind of medium and practices spells and divination.
Numbers 22: 4-13: So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the River, in his native land. Balak said:
“A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country. For I know that those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed.”
The elders of Moab and Midian left, taking with them the fee for divination. When they came to Balaam, they told him what Balak had said.
“Spend the night here,” Balaam said to them, “and I will bring you back the answer the Lord gives me.” So the Moabite princes stayed with him.
God came to Balaam and asked, “Who are these men with you?”
Balaam said to God, “Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, sent me this message: ‘A people that has come out of Egypt covers the face of the land. Now come and put a curse on them for me. Perhaps then I will be able to fight them and drive them away.’”
But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.”
The next morning Balaam got up and said to Balak’s princes, “Go back to your own country, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.”
I would like to point out that Balaam doesn't seem at all surprised that God is talking directly to him. He also seems to know that God carries a lot of authority because he refuses to take the job, even when Balak tries to bribe him with more money.
Numbers 22: 16-20: They came to Balaam and said:
“This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Do not let anything keep you from coming to me, because I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and put a curse on these people for me.”
But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God. Now stay here tonight as the others did, and I will find out what else the Lord will tell me.”
That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”
Then comes the part of the account that most people think of when they hear about Balaam: the donkey.
Numbers 22: 21-30: Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab.But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat her to get her back on the road.
Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between two vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat her again.
Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” he said.Why God was angry with Balaam, we're not told. My guess is that Balaam was thinking about rebelling against God. Notice again that Balaam doesn't seem surprised that the donkey is talking to him. Makes you wonder what other kinds of things he'd seen over his career.
Numbers 22: 31-38: Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.
The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.”
Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”
The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the Moabite town on the Arnon border, at the edge of his territory. Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send you an urgent summons? Why didn’t you come to me? Am I really not able to reward you?”
“Well, I have come to you now,” Balaam replied. “But can I say just anything? I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.”
This isn't actually the end of Balaam.
In Numbers 25, Moab decides to sexually seduce Israel. It works and Israel is struck with a plague which is stopped by one of the priests. We find out in Numbers 31:16 that this was Balaam's idea. Balaam meets his end in Numbers 31:8 when Israel routs Midian.