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The prophet Balaam is best known for his talking donkey. But the true legacy of Balaam the prophet is revealed in four chapters of the book of Numbers. You could easily miss it. But Balaam’s story is a cautionary tale for our own times.

The story begins as Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land. Their imminent invasion was unwelcome, to say the least, to various people groups who tried desperately to sabotage them. Moab, under King Balak, was one of the nations who hated and feared Israel. To stop Israel, Balak decided to hire a prophet to curse the nation. If the prophet could call down a curse from God, Israel would be stopped. So, King Balak sent a delegation to offer Balaam the job.

Balaam was reluctant, but willing to try. He warned the king’s emissaries that he could only pronounce what God gave him to say. The very fact that he was willing to cooperate with the enemies of Israel is enough to assess what kind of prophet he was.

At first God would not even give Balaam permission to talk with Moab, but after a second visit by Balak’s delegation, the Lord allowed Balaam to travel there. But it’s clear God was not pleased. He sent an angel to block Balaam’s path and to kill the prophet if he proceeded. Were it not for Balaam’s donkey, the angel would have ended Balaam’s prophetic career there and then. (Read the humorous story of the talking donkey in Numbers 22:22-35).

So, Balaam ended up blessing, nor cursing, Israel three times. And by the end of chapter 24, Balaam seemed to have left the biblical stage as an honorable prophet, never to appear again. But that's not the whole story.

What happened next for Israel was a major fall into sin. Chapter 25 recounts how Moabite women targeted Jewish men with sexual temptation. The sins of the flesh led Israel to worship Baal, and to kindle the wrath of God against them. The Lord doesn't reveal Balaam's involvement until chapter 31.

In that chapter God poured out His wrath upon Midian, and also upon Balaam: “They killed the kings of Midian…And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword” (31:8). The explanation comes a few verses later: “Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD” (31:16). Thousands perished under God’s judgment.

Though it appeared Balaam was no longer part of the story, the rest of Scripture makes clear that Balaam, forbidden to curse Israel directly, instigated a subtler and far more effective strategy to compromise God’s people.

Scripture does not look kindly upon Balaam. Peter, referring to false teachers, 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” (2 Peter 2:15). And when the Lord speaks to the church in Pergamum, He warns them: “But 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” (Revelation 2:14).

The story of Balaam certainly applies to our own times. Four lessons come to mind:

  1. Those who curse God’s people will never succeed. Balaam was executed for his role in enticing Israel to sin. He was revealed to be a money-grubbing opportunist, and not a man of God. Those who are even now cursing both Israel and evangelical Christians are in grave, eternal danger.

  2. Seeking a way to be right with God while circumventing His revealed will is doomed to fail. Balaam tried hard to get God to let him put a curse on Israel. God never wavered in His love and support for His people. Today some Christians are looking for a way to “embrace Moab” while still being in God’s good graces. They are in trouble.

  3. “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10).Balaam put his desire for cash ahead of loyalty and love for God and paid the penalty. No matter what the pressure, for us it must be Jesus first!

  4. The enemy always has another temptation up his sleeve. When bringing a curse on Israel didn’t work, the temptation to sexual sin did. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).

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