The Lord’s Day Evening

Numbers 22:1-21

“Conspiracy to Curse”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you’ll open your Bibles to Numbers 22, we’ll be looking at verses 1 to 21 together tonight as we continue to make our way through Moses’ great book of the wilderness journey. The next three chapters of Numbers contain some of this book’s finest literary material and theological teaching. The stories here concerning Balaam and Balak and the attempt to curse Israel are gripping and they are subtle. The story is filled with hilarious satire and irony, and deadly serious encounters with God and with truth. The story has unexpected twists and turns, and it leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat trying to figure out what’s going to happen. And then sometimes, even when something’s already happened, you’re wondering “Why did what just happened happen?”

For the third time in the wilderness journey the children of Israel are coming to a rest. They stayed a long time at Sinai; they stayed a long time at Kadesh; now they’ll stay a long time here in the plains of Moab. There are certain resemblances to what happens here as to what happened earlier in those long campsites. The whole story here is going to highlight God’s sovereignty and the unshakable certainty of His gracious blessing on His covenant people. In fact, tonight is really going to be a one-point sermon emphasizing precisely that. This passage celebrates the certain sovereignty of God and the unshakable certainty of His promise of blessing to His covenant people in the face of the attempt of their enemies to bring to bear a supernatural curse on them.

It’s important, I think, that we understand three things before we launch into this narrative. We can’t cover all the things that could be said about the scenario and the structure and the characters, but let’s begin tonight by establishing some sort of a backdrop. You may want to go ahead and read Numbers 22, 23, and 24 before we come back together. Tonight we’re really only looking at the introductory section, where Balaam has his first two encounters with God before he goes on the way to Moab and arrives there. We’re going to look at the third encounter that he has with God next week, and it’s the encounter that Nick reminded the little children about tonight. It’s the famous story of Balaam and his donkey, and their encounter with the angel of the Lord. It is one of the most glorious and funny and serious passages in all of Scripture.

But tonight I want you to understand what’s going on. As you allow your eyes to skim the first verses of Numbers 21, let me set the stage for you. Israel is within sight of the Promised Land now. They’re camping, we’re told, somewhere across from Jericho, in a place which is described as Moab (that looks on my map like it would be in Ammon, but here it’s said that it’s in Moab). They can see the Salt Sea — the Dead Sea. They can look across into the Promised Land. After years and years in the wilderness, they are within sight of their objective. And news of those victories that we heard about last time we were together in this great book…news of those victories had spread like wildfire amongst the Moabite tribes, and they are shaking in their boots!

Balak, the Moabite king, decides that he needs something better than a good army if he’s going to go up against Israel. And so he decides what better plan would there be than to approach a soothsayer…a sorcerer, a prophet…and bring down supernatural help for the Moabites against the children of Israel, so that maybe his armies’ chances would be evened up against this people that he will describe as “covering the land”? And so he asks a region-wide famous soothsayer (or prophet, or sorcerer) named Balaam from Mesopotamia to come and curse Israel, and he offers him a very impressive fee to do it.

Now, my friends, we have tablets dating from after this time in this region that describe this man Balaam. Outside of the Bible, we have tablets that describe his extraordinary fame as a prophet and sorcerer. He was famous region-wide in that part of the world, and so it’s not surprising at all that Balak would think of contacting Balaam.

Well, he sends an embassy to Balaam. Ten days of travel through sticky terrain, and they get there and they say, ‘Balaam, we have been authorized by Balak the king of Moab to offer you a lot of money to give us some help. We would like you to curse these children of Israel that have come out of Egypt and have invaded our land.’ And Balaam does something strange. He says, ‘OK. Wait here. I need to go ask the Lord about this.’

Now it’s fascinating. This is one of the really, really intriguing things about the story. This pagan sorcerer, this unbelieving prophet, says to this embassy from the king of Moab, ‘I need to check with the Lord,’ and he uses the unique covenant name of the God of Israel. ‘I need to check with Him first.’ And of course he goes and he checks with the Lord, and he inquires if he is allowed to curse this people, and God says, ‘No.’ In fact, that is the central verse of the passage that we’re going to study tonight. If you’re sort of allowing your eyes to flip through the passage, it’s verse 12, I think. ‘No,’ God says to him.

Well, the embassy goes back to Balak, and Balak says, ‘What do you mean, he won’t do this? I’m going to send more impressive emissaries, and I’m going to offer him more money.’ And so he sends back again, and he says, ‘Look, I’ll give you a very, very great honor if you’ll do this. In fact, I’ll do whatever you ask. I’ll give you more than I offered you last time.’ And Balaam once again says, ‘Well, I can’t do this. The Lord told me I couldn’t do this. But, hey, wait with me one more night, and let me go ask the Lord again.’ And he goes and he asks the Lord again, and the Lord says, ‘Well, the men came back. Sure, you can go with them. But you still can’t curse My people Israel.’ So Balaam is told again that he can’t curse Israel, but he is given permission to go. That’s the story so far. That’s the story as far as we’ll get into the story tonight. There are all sorts of interesting twists and turns to it. That’s the scenario.

What about the structure? There is amazing symmetry and composition and organization in this whole story in Number 22 and 23, and 24. Let me give you a few examples. You will see three repetitions occurring repeatedly in this passage. Maybe you want to go back home and over the next week just look at some of the literary features of this passage. But let me bring five of them to your attention, so that when you’re reading the passage for yourself you can pick up on them and see them, and appreciate them, and actually notice other things in the passage.

First of all, isn’t it interesting that the donkey — Balaam’s donkey — tries to avoid this encounter with the angel of the Lord three times? We’re going to get to that next week, but if you look at chapter 22 (verses 23, 25, and 27), three times the donkey attempts to avoid encountering the angel of the Lord.

Then, if you look at chapter 23 (verses 1, 14, and 29), Balaam arranges for three sets of sacrifices to be offered before he attempts to curse Israel.

Third, if you look at chapter 22 again, in verses 12, 20 and in verses 22-35, Balaam will have three encounters with God before he gets to Moab.

If you outline the whole story all the way from chapter 22 to chapter 24, you will find that it has six main acts, which are divided into two parts…two sets of three. There’s Act One (in verses 7-14 of this chapter); Act Two (from verses 15-20 of this chapter); Act Three (from verses 21-35). Then we get into the second set of three acts: Act Four (from chapter 22:41 to chapter 23:15); Act Five (from chapter 23:13-26); Act Six (from chapter 23:27 all the way to the end of chapter 24). And in every one of these six main acts, in two sets of three, we are told that Balaam can only do what the Lord permits him to do. Hmmm. Think the Lord wants to emphasize that point to the children of Israel? Oh, yes, indeed! In fact, in the very structure you’re seeing something of the main theological point that God wants to bring home to Israel, and the main point of encouragement that He wants to bring to bear on their hearts.

One other thing to draw to your attention. This whole story is staged to cover three pairs of consecutive days. In verses 2-14 of this chapter you have the events of days three and four in verses 15-35 of this chapter. We will basically get through day three. We’ll split the second pair of days in two tonight, but days three and four cover from 15-35. Then days five and six cover the end of chapter 22 all the way to the end of chapter 24. So you have three pairs of consecutive days with uncertain gaps between each of the days. So there is a very, very definite symmetry and structure and composition and organization to this story. As intriguing as the story is because of its plot, it is just as sophisticated in its organization and in its composition.

One last thing before we come to the passage tonight, and that is the character of Balaam himself. We’ve looked at the scenario that the passage records; we’ve looked at the structure of the passage. What about Balaam? In the passage that we read tonight, on more than one occasion Balaam will tell these Moabites who want him to curse the children of Israel that he must inquire of the Lord…that he’s got to ask the Lord. And on each of those inquiries, he is submissive to the word of the Lord. And so on the first reading that you have on your first introduction to Balaam, you may be tempted to think, ‘You know, this is a good guy. He may be a Mesopotamian necromancer, but he’s a good guy! He’s checking with the Lord. He’s inquiring of the Lord. The Lord is speaking to him. He’s being obedient and submissive to the Lord. He’s telling these Moabites that he can’t disobey what the Lord says, and he can’t curse the children of Israel. Maybe this is a positive character. Maybe we should understand Balaam in a positive light. And maybe it’s only the money that makes a good prophet go bad here.’

Well, I don’t think so. And I don’t think so for two reasons. The first is the testimony of Scripture. You remember the first principle of biblical interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture, and throughout the Bible, Balaam does not get good press. Let me just take you to a few passages. Just a few! There are more, but let me just take you to a few.

First, allow yourself to flip forward to Deuteronomy 23. (Keep your finger in Numbers 22, but flip forward to Deuteronomy 23.) As Moses preaches his last sermon to the people of Israel, he’s talking about the curse of God against the Moabites and he says (Deut. 23:4),

“…Because they hired against you, Balaam, the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. But the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam; instead the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you.”

So there’s the idea of the hiring of Balaam. Now “hiring” a prophet is not something that would evoke a positive assessment of a person in the eyes of the readers of Deuteronomy. But it gets worse. Look at Joshua 13:22. Keep your finger in Numbers 22, but turn to Joshua 13…turn forward to Joshua 13:22. Here’s Joshua talking about Balaam, and he says,

“Balaam also, the son of Beor, the one who practiced divination, was killed with the sword by the people of Israel among the rest of their slain.”

Now in that one verse you have two negative things that are told you about Balaam. First of all, that he practiced divination. Now what would that have evoked as a response on the part of the people of God? The assertion that he practiced divination? Well, the Law of God explicitly and emphatically and dramatically prohibited divination, and so he is one who is breaking the Law of God. And the Law of God required as a penalty for the practice, death. And sure enough, he was slain when Israel slew the other Moabites.

Now turn forward to Joshua 24:9. Here again we’re told that the king of Moab (Joshua 24:9) had “sent and invited Balaam, the son of Beor, to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam.” So again there’s an assessment on God’s part that He refused to harken to what Balaam wanted Him to give him permission to do. And instead, though they had hired Balaam “against you to curse you,” God turned his curse into a blessing:

“I would not listen to Balaam. Indeed, he blessed you, and I delivered you out of his hand.”

We find the same thing in Nehemiah 13:2, but let’s flip to the New Testament real quick, and let me show you two passages in the New Testament, because even in the New Testament people are still thinking about Balaam. So riveting was this story in the consciousness of God’s people, that even in the New Testament, even after Jesus had already died and been raised again from the dead, and ascended into glory, the people of God were still thinking about Balaam. So turn to

II Peter 2:15. (Still got your finger in Numbers 22.) Peter says,

“Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing….”

Now that’s not a flattering assessment of Balaam. He loved gain from wrongdoing. He was a hireling who loved dishonest gain.

And then in Revelation 2:14, the Lord Jesus himself says,

“I have a few things against you….” [Not words you want to hear from the Lord Jesus Christ!] “I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.”

Ah, that’s the end of the story! We’re a while before we get to the end of this story. This supernatural cursing doesn’t work. Balaam gives king Balak a very, very cunning idea to use to destroy Israel, and this is what Jesus is referring to in Revelation 2:14. Nowhere else in Scripture is Balaam viewed as a basically good and faithful prophet.

So might you argue, “Well, there’s a disagreement going on here in Scripture. In Numbers 22, 23, and 24, Balaam is positively assessed, and then elsewhere in the Bible he’s negatively assessed, so there’s a contradiction in Scripture.”

No. Let’s look at Numbers 22, 23, and 24, and this is my second point: Why is it that we should not see Balaam in a positive light as a good prophet gone bad? First, the testimony of Scripture; secondly, evidence within the story itself. And let me point you to at least five things in the story itself that tip you off as to how you are to view Balaam.

First, Balaam is offered…just in our passage alone, twice he is offered money in order to curse Israel, and he seems to be interested in receiving it. I mean, if somebody shows up at your door at night and says, “I’d like you to curse so-and-so,” and you tell them…and then they say, “Look, I’d like you to curse somebody, and I’d like to pay you money for it.” And you say, “Well, let me pray on that. Let me pray about that.” See, you’re obviously interested in his offer! And even after the Lord has said ‘NO, Balaam. NO. You’re not going to curse My people,’ when they come back and offer more money, he says, ‘You know, even if you were to offer me a house full of gold and silver, I mean a house full of gold and silver, I couldn’t do this, because the Lord’s told me I couldn’t do this. But…look, stay here and let me pray about this some more.’ So he seems to be very interested in receiving money for his skills at cursing. This would not have impressed us if we were Hebrews hearing this story for the first time! This would not have given us the warm fuzzies for Balaam!

Two, Balaam, we are told explicitly, resorts to omens. He uses omens. I think it’s in chapter 24. And of course in Deuteronomy 18:10, in the context of all of the various prescriptions against the use of supernatural magic and resorting to soothsayers and necromancy and all manner of false prophesyings and magic, omens are explicitly forbidden to Israel. They are numbered amongst the abominable practices of Deuteronomy 18. Just like in the middle of the sermon when Dr. Duncan says the word “stupid” and your children go, “Mommy! He’s not supposed to say the word “stupid!” And you say, “Shhh. I’ll explain to you when I get home, honey, OK?” so also when the children of Israel hear that Balaam is using omens, all the little children are going, “Mommy! He’s not supposed to use omens!” and “Honey, I’ll explain to you when the story’s over.” It’s indicating to you that he’s doing something which God has marked as abominable. He’s bad!

Thirdly, the whole Balaam and his donkey story — oh, there’s a complex of stuff in the Balaam and his donkey story that lets you know how you’re supposed to think of Balaam! For instance, Balaam is supposed to be a prophet. He is supposed to be one who can see the future, and who consorts with spirits and can speak with the gods. And yet this donkey knows that the angel of the Lord is standing in front of him, and Balaam doesn’t! The point being the donkey’s smarter than Balaam. I love the King James of the exchange between Balaam and the donkey, where the donkey basically says, ‘Look, don’t you see the angel of the Lord standing in front of us?’ and in the King James, Balaam answers, “Nay!” Moses is making a point.

But even more than that, Balaam keeps driving this donkey. This donkey knows that the angel of the Lord is standing there with a sword, waiting to wipe them out. And Balaam keeps driving him, and driving him where? Right up against the will of the Lord. Just like Balak keeps driving Balaam to do what the Lord told him he couldn’t do. But the donkey at least has enough sense to resist Balaam’s driving of him. Balaam, however, keeps being enticed by the offers that Balak has made to him. And so Moses is telling you something about his character. It’s very subtle, but he’s telling you.

Fourth, God in this passage declares His will both through the donkey and through Balaam. The donkey prophecies in this passage. It’s the only example of a prophesying animal in the Bible. This donkey prophesies. What’s the message? The message is don’t think that there is something special about Balaam when I use him to prophesy here, because very frankly I could use his donkey to prophesy just as well as I used him.

And, fifth, the Bible recognizes that there are such things as false prophets and sorcerers and necromancers who have real powers, and they can consort with familiar spirits. And they can cast curses. But their supernatural powers do not mean that they are true prophets of the Lord. So Balaam actually doesn’t come off here looking as good as he might appear to at first when you hear some of the things that he says in the passage tonight.

Now, with that as my introduction, let’s pray and hear God’s word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this Your word. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Numbers 22, beginning in verse 1:

“Then the people of Israel set out and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho. And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.’ So Balak the son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the people of Amaw, to call him, saying, ‘Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.’

[Now you can already tell right there the contest between the power of blessing and cursing — between Balaam the sorcerer and the God of Israel — has just been established.]

“So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with fees for divination in their hand. And they came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s message. And he said to them, ‘Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me.’ So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. And God came to Balaam and said, ‘Who are these men with you?’ And Balaam said to God, ‘Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, ‘Behold, a people has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Now come, curse them for me. Perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them out.’

[A central verse of this passage — verse 12:]

“God said to said to Balaam, ‘You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.’ So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, ‘Go to your own land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.’ So the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak and said, ‘Balaam refuses to come with us.’

“Once again Balak sent princes, more in number and more honorable than these. And they came to Balaam and said to him, ‘Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, ‘Let nothing hinder you from coming to me., for I will surely do you great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do. Come, curse this people for me.’’ But Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God to do less or more. So you, too, please stay here tonight, that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.’ And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, ‘If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.’ So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

One point, very briefly: When God sets His blessing on you, nothing in this world can thwart it…When God sets His blessing on you, nothing in this world can thwart it.

Balak knows of Balaam’s reputation as a man who, if he blesses, those whom he blesses are blessed indeed; and if he curses, those who are cursed are cursed indeed. But Balak has never come up against a people like the people of God, because God has set His blessing on them and no one can thwart that blessing, and no one can touch them.

Understand that in this passage God is going to use a pagan false prophet to reinforce to the children of Israel the truth of the promises that He made to Abraham. What did He say to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3? Turn with me there.

In Genesis 12:1-3, God said,

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Every Hebrew child knew that. And so as this story is being told in the camps of Israel of what Balak had hired Balaam to do, you can hear the little Hebrew child when he hears in the story that Balak’s going to hire Balaam to curse Israel… you can hear,

“Mommy, mommy! He can’t do that, can he? God said we were blessed, and that He would bless those who bless us, and that He would curse those who curse us. He can’t do that, can he, Mommy?”

“No, son, he can’t. But watch how the Lord is going to use a pagan false prophet to prove the truth of His word.”

And then the encounter comes, and Balaam goes to the Lord, the God of Israel, and he says, ‘Can I go and curse Your people?’ And God’s answer (Numbers 22:12), “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” And again you can see,

“Mommy, is the false prophet asking permission of our God to be able to curse us?”

“Yes, son, that’s what he’s asking to do.”

“Mommy, even false prophets have to ask our God to do the things that they want to do, because our God rules.”

“That’s right, honey. No one can lay a finger on you when God has set His blessing on you.”

What is the message of this passage? When God has set His blessing upon you, nothing can thwart it; no power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck you from His hand. “Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ; not tribulation nor distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness or danger, or sword. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. And we are sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ.” Why? Because “the promises of God to us are ‘yea’ and ‘amen’ in Christ.” No spiritual force in this world can match Him, can challenge Him, can thwart Him.

Is that not the story of the book of Job? Even Satan himself must ask the sovereign God for permission to do his strategies. The great message in this passage is that God is sovereign, and that when He has set His hand of blessing on you, nothing can thwart it. What a comforting truth to hear and to believe in a fallen, hard, heartbreaking world. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, we have no strength. There is no goodness in us. But because we rest and trust in the name of Jesus Christ alone, we find Him to be our strong tower of refuge, because there is no power like Your power. Just as You protected the children of Israel in the wilderness of old from the evil powers of a crafty, greedy sorcerer, so also You will protect us even from the powers of hell as we rest and trust in Christ alone. Thank You. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would you stand for God’s blessing. Take your bulletins out and let’s be ready to sing the fourth stanza of Though Troubles Assail Us. Hear God’s blessing:

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away.

[Congregation sings]