From Slaves to Soldiers

Chapter 22

That great assembly of Israelites camped in the plains of Moab at Jordan-Jericho put a king of Moab called Balak (the devastator) in a panic. He and his people knew about Israel’s defeat of the Amorites and were afraid to attack them but were troubled they would drain all the resources of the land with their large numbers.

The Moabites deliberated with their Midianite allies in order to block Israelite settlement, and Balak, the son of Zippor, sent representatives to Balaam, son of Beor. According to the basic text of the Kabalah, “The Son of Zippor” (ציפור) means “bird” and referred to a magical metal bird of which Balak made use. It had a gold head, a silver mouth, and copper wings mixed with silver. Its body was made of gold. The bird started talking and telling the future after it was put through the proper ritual. Only the most skilled wizard was able to construct such a bird and Balak was the greatest wizard of his age. The bird was always sitting on Balak’s shoulder and whispering in his ear, and therefore he was nicknamed “Son of the Bird”.[1]

However, the narrator wrote that Balak sent for Balaam and if Balak was a great wizard he wouldn’t have had to send for Balaam who lived on the banks of the Euphrates River. Biblical historians believe that Balaam descended from a line of diviners whose reputation for cursing had spread over the whole region. Balak’s delegation to Balaam had to travel about 400 miles to petition the mystic at his home. Scholars deduce Balaam’s “family business” was jinxing from his wide reputation as well as the meaning of his and his father’s names. Balaam means “devourer of the people” because his livelihood depended on cursing various people(s). His father’s name, Beor, “burning” identified him as destructive. Balaam had a reputation for being the strongest magician of the time so Balak sent his emissaries, with money, to explain that a great number of people who came out of Egypt were pressing hard on Balak’s lands and were too much for him to handle. He needed Balaam to return with his ambassadors so he could curse Israel.[2]

According to Jacob Isaacs “Thinking of the surprising victories of the outnumbered troops of the Jewish people Balak came to the conclusion that these victories could only be attributed to some form of magic. He believed that the only way to destroy the victorious Jews was to outdo them in magic by a spell stronger than theirs.”[3]

Balaam knew he couldn’t take the money to curse Israel unless Yahweh gave him permission, so he told the emissaries to wait till morning. His reputation indicates that he was sensitive to influences or forces of a nonphysical or supernatural nature. He had probably been in the habit of using sympathetic magic to convince the people that he cursed that they were doomed.[4] However he was also aware of the care that Yahweh had given to his chosen people through the years. The ancients were aware that there was more to life than the physical world. They couldn’t see their thoughts or emotions and didn’t try to deny them. They realized that they were spiritual as well as physical beings.[5] They had a sense of connection to something bigger than themselves and a greater meaning in life than just what is physical.[6] Balaam probably capitalized on that and used intellectual tricks that are sometimes called magic to manipulate physical events. However, he knew better than to try to go against the creator and sustainer of the universe so he waited for Yahweh[7]’s permission before he consented to the Moabites request. He probably thought that his great powers of persuasion would make it possible for him to convince Yahweh to submit to his wishes.

However Yahweh went to Balaam that night and asked him what those men were doing there. Balaam explained who they were, where they came from, and what they wanted. Yahweh told Balaam not to go with them and not to curse his chosen people so Balaam got up the next morning and sent the Moabites away.

Balak didn’t give up. He sent a more impressive group of representatives with the promise of great reward and honor for his services. The trouble was that Balaam had decided that Yahweh was his God and he knew that Yahweh was too powerful to ignore. He told the delegates that even Balak’s house stuffed with silver and gold wouldn’t be enough to give him the power to defy Yahweh. However, the temptation was great so he told the Moabites to stay the night and he would see if Yahweh could be persuaded. Yahweh can’t be manipulated but Balaam was like most people and thought he would try. He was thinking of using Yahweh to get prosperity, good fortune, wealth, health and happiness. Peter said that he was actually a prophet who turned profiteer.[8] Yahweh gave him over to his lusts[9]. He knew Balaam’s heart and told him to go with the Moabite representatives but not to curse Israel.

Balaam got up in the morning and saddled his donkey so he could accompany the noblemen from Moab, giving both his self and the Moabite men that the hope that Yahweh might be persuaded to let him curse his chosen people. He was stepping out in faith but it was misplaced faith. Faith in Yahweh would have told him to send the Moabites home the first day and not give the seed of doubt in the righteousness of Yahweh to take root.

An angel of mercy stood with a sword in the road to block his way as he traveled with two of his servants. The donkey saw the angel and turned off the road into a ditch; however, Balaam’s spiritual eyes were blinded[10] by the mental images of the riches he was hoping to acquire and he didn’t see the angel. He beat his animal and got it back on the road, but as they were going through a vineyard with a stone fence on either side the donkey saw the angel again and turned into a fence. Balaam’s foot was crushed against the fence and he lost his temper and hit the donkey again. The next time the angel of mercy blocked the way they were on a very narrow passage with nowhere to turn off so the donkey sat down under Balaam who lost his temper and beat the animal with a stick.

Yahweh gave the donkey speech and she asked Balaam why he beat her. Balaam was so angry that he answered her – he told her that if he had a sword he would have killed her. The donkey reminded Balaam that she was his trustworthy animal – predictable for years. She asked him if she had ever done anything unpredictable before and of course he said, “No” admitting that the donkey was right and he was wrong.

The scales of greed fell off his eyes and he saw what the Angel of Yahweh with the sword blocking the way. He fell on his face and the angel asked him why he had beaten his poor donkey three times. The angel told Balaam that he had been there to block his way because he was going the wrong way in a rash manner. The Angel of Yahweh told Balaam that if the donkey hadn’t turned aside those three times he would have killed him – Balaam – but the donkey would have lived.

Balaam admitted that he had sinned but was hesitant about turning around and going back – away from his sin – truly repenting. Than the Angel of Yahweh warned him, Balaam, not to say anything but what he, Yahweh, put in his mouth but let him go on his way with Balak’s men.[11]

When Balak heard that Balaam was on his way he rushed to the border of his land to meet him. He chided him for not running to his assistance immediately when he sent an urgent message for help.

Balaam told Balak that although he had come he could only say the words that Yahweh put in his mouth.[12]

They went to a town called Kiriath Huzoth where Balak slaughtered sheep and cattle for sacrifices and presented them to Balaam and the nobles who were with him. Then as the sun was coming up he took Balaam up to the Heights of Baal to give him a good view of the people.


Summary of chapter 22

The Israelites pitched their tents in the plains of Moab – land that had formerly belonged to the Moab people, but had been taken from them by Sihon, king of the Amorites. Balak, king of Moab, was greatly terrified; and sent to Balaam, a diviner, to come and curse them. The elders of Moab took a reward and carried it to Balaam. He told them to spend the night so he could ask Yahweh, who positively ordered him not to go with them. Balaam communicated this to the elders of Moab who returned to Balak with the information. Balak sent some of his princes to Balaam with promises of great honor and Balaam again consulted Yahweh. He was permitted to go under certain conditions. Balaam set off, and was opposed by the Angel of Yahweh, who miraculously opened the mouth of his ass to reprove him. Balaam saw the angel, and was reproved by him. He humbled himself, and reluctantly offered to go back, but was ordered to proceed, on the same conditions as before. The king of Moab hurried out to meet him and reproofed him for not coming to his aid sooner. Balaam told him that he was there but couldn’t say anything that Yahweh didn’t put in his mouth to say. Balak sacrificed to his god, and Balaam participated in the meal. Balak took Balaam to the high places of Baal, so that he could see the whole of the Israelite camp.[13]


Prayer: Lord, it is always so easy for human beings to make plans and tell you to bless them or decide what is best and explain the way it should be worked out. Help me to remember in everything that I do that you are my God and I am your dependent and subordinate. I am walking under your yoke with you carrying the load and directing the way we walk. You are wisdom and I need you to show me the way. When I walk by your side and step in time with your steps I don’t have to know how to get through the waters and fire or over the mountains to the still waters because you know the way. You are my blessing forever and the joy of my life.



Things to think about

  1. To the ancients Balak’s decision to fight magic with magic was wise. Paul told the Corinthians that if they thought they were wise in that age they should become fools so they could become wise.[14] What do you think he meant and how do you think what Paul said relates to Balak?
  2. Did Balak and the Midianites have a reason to be afraid of the Israelites? Of what were they afraid? Did they acknowledge the power behind Israel’s victories?
  3. Do you think the people of that country knew that Yahweh had told Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph that he would bless those who blessed Israel and curse those who cursed Israel?
  4. Do you think that Balaam knew Yahweh? He said Yahweh was his God so he couldn’t curse Israel if Yahweh told him not to. Does that mean that he was a servant of Yahweh’s? Was he a faithful servant?
  5. Balaam wanted to convince Yahweh to change his mind and bless him financially. He desired money and power. Would money and power have been a blessing for Balaam? Are they always a blessing for you and me today?
  6. Why did Balaam beat his faithful animal? What made him loose his temper? Do you and I today sometimes lose our perspective and temper in our desire to “get ahead” financially?
  7. Do you think Yahweh was using Balaams greed and ego to accomplish his will for Israel?



[1] Quoted by Rabbi Moshe Yazdi of Ahavat Yisrael Yeshiva, Jerusalem, in (Hebrew) commentaries on the Balak Weekly Torah Portion.




[5] Christina Puchalski, MD, Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, contends that “spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.


[7] I AM was here before the world and is ultimately here forever

[8] II Peter 2:15

[9]Psalm 81:12; Romans 1:24; II Thessalonians 2:10, 11

[10] The supposedly “spiritual” person is often blind to what the simple see plainly.

[11] The “angel of Yahweh” is the physical manifestation of Yahweh.

[12] Yahweh’s purpose through Israel could not be hindered.


[14] I Corinthians 3:10, 11, 16-23


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