In Numbers 22 and 23, the protagonist is not Moses but Balaam, a man residing near the path Israel was slowly taking toward the Promised Land. Although he was not an Israelite, he was a priest or prophet of the Lord. The king of Moab recognized God’s power in Balaam’s words, saying, “I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” Fearing the strength of the Israelites, the king of Moab sent emissaries asking Balaam to come to Moab and curse the Israelites to rid him of the perceived threat (Num. 22:1-6).
God informs Balaam that he has chosen Israel as a blessed nation and commands Balaam neither to go to Moab nor to curse Israel (Num. 22:12). However, after multiple embassies from the king of Moab, Balaam agrees to go to Moab. His hosts try to bribe him to curse Israel, but Balaam warns them that he will do only what the Lord commands (Num. 22:18). God seems to agree with this plan, but as Balaam rides his donkey toward Moab, an angel of the Lord blocks his way three times. The angel is invisible to Balaam, but the donkey sees the angel and turns aside each time. Balaam becomes infuriated at the donkey and begins to beat the animal with his staff. “Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’ ” (Num. 22:28). Balaam converses with the donkey and comes to realize that the animal has perceived the Lord’s guidance far more clearly than Balaam has. Balaam’s eyes are opened; he sees the angel and receives God’s further instructions about dealing with the king of Moab. “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you,” the Lord reminds him (Num. 22:35). Over the course of chapters 23 and 24, the king of Moab continues to entreat Balaam to curse Israel, but each time Balaam replies that the Lord declares Israel blessed. Eventually he succeeds in dissuading the king from attacking Israel (Num. 24:12-25), thus sparing Moab from immediate destruction by the hand of the Lord.
Balaam is similar to Moses because he manages to follow the Lord’s guidance despite personal failings at times. Like Moses he plays a significant role in fulfilling God’s plan to bring Israel to the Promised Land. But Balaam is also very unlike Moses and most of the other heroes of the Hebrew Bible. He is not an Israelite himself. And his primary accomplishment is to save Moab, not Israel, from destruction. For both of these reasons, the Israelites would be quite surprised to read that God spoke to Balaam as clearly and directly as to Israel’s own prophets and priests. Even more surprising—both to Israel and to Balaam himself—is that God’s guidance at the crucial moment came to him through the mouth of an animal, a lowly donkey. In two surprising ways, we see that God’s guidance comes not from the sources most favored by people, but from the sources God chooses himself. If God chooses to speak through the words of a potential enemy or even a beast of the field, we should pay attention.
The passage does not tell us that the best source of God’s guidance is necessarily foreign prophets or donkeys, but it does give us some insight about listening for God’s voice. It is easy for us to listen for God’s voice only from sources we know. This often means listening only to those people who think like we do, belong to our social circles, or speak and act like us. This may mean we never pay attention to others who would take a different position from us. It becomes easy to believe that God is telling us exactly what we already thought. Leaders often reinforce this by surrounding themselves with a narrow band of like-minded deputies and advisors. Perhaps we are more like Balaam than we would like to believe. But by God’s grace, could we somehow learn to listen to what God might be saying to us, even through people we don’t trust or sources we don’t agree with?