Economic Guidance from the Donkey’s Mouth

Balaam and his Ass, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606, Leiden – 1669, Amsterdam)I’ve written numerous times on the important role of obedience in our economic decision-making (e.g. here, here, and here), a feature that transcends our typical earthbound considerations—“rational,” emotional, or otherwise.

Recently, in reading the story of Balaam, I was reminded not only of the importance of such obedience, but of our persistent human tendency to reject the divine for the material, even when we have heard the voice of God and his direction has been made abundantly clear.

The context:

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…So Balak…sent messengers to Balaam…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.” So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand…

…God 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.”

Balaam obeyed, yet it did not end here, as Balak proceeded to further emphasize the economic gains at stake:

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.

Once again, Balaam refused to participate, although he then agreed to meet Balak in person, a move that God endorsed as long as Balaam held his ground.

If the story ended here, we might assume that good old God-fearing Balaam would once again obey the Lord with ease. Yet what happened on his journey illuminates that he was enduring an intense inner struggle between the natural and the spiritual. He had verbally rejected Balak’s calls to curse the people of God, but something deep inside was not so firmly grounded.

But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now [Balaam] was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. And the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he struck her again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way 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 Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.”

Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak.

Why did Balaam—a guy who specialized in “divination”—not see the angel, particularly when its presence was abundantly clear to his donkey? What was going on in his heart? What was going on in his mind? Clearly, he was distracted—reconsidering, weighing, and re-weighing the costs and benefits of the earthly incentives against the prospect of obeying God. Yes, he had heard from the Lord and had voiced his intents to Balak’s princes. But something made God angry enough to use both an angel and a talking donkey to get Balaam’s attention.

Fortunately, he ended up holding his ground:

When Balak heard that Balaam had come, he went out to meet him at the city of Moab, on the border formed by the Arnon, at the extremity of the border. And Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me? Am I not able to honor you?” Balaam said to Balak, “Behold, I have come to you! Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak.

Few of us are seeking “divination fees” in our day-to-day economic decisions, and likewise, the products, careers, and charities we choose are not likely to come with stickers that say “Curse(/Bless) Israel!” Yet I am convinced that God has something to say about such decisions and is yearning for our attention in a world filled with materialistic considerations.

The first step is hearing his voice; the next step is sticking to the plan and staying on course, which, as Balaam made clear, is no less difficult.

Are we looking for honor and riches from kings and princes, or are we actively listening to the Holy Spirit and obeying his commands? Something tells me that the angel is standing in the “narrow place” more often than we think. Let’s open our eyes before our donkeys beat us to it.

  • Remnant Culture

    Balaam was distracted by material gain—until his donkey started to talk.

  • Chris Robertson

    Balaam was distracted by material gain—until his donkey started to talk.

  • Joseph Sunde

    What can Balaam's talking donkey teach us about economic decision making? New blog post:

  • Remnant Culture

    Economic Guidance from the Donkey’s Mouth:

  • Joseph Sunde

    Pursuing honor & riches from kings & princes? Don't make that donkey talk! #BalaamBash #BalakFail

  • Values & Capitalism

    RT @josephsunde: Pursuing honor & riches from kings & princes? Don't make that donkey talk! #BalaamBash #BalakFail

  • Joseph Sunde

    @Travis_E_Thomas One of my fave stories. Just wrote on Balaam & economic decisionmaking last week:

  • Travis T.

    @Travis_E_Thomas One of my fave stories. Just wrote on Balaam & economic decisionmaking last week:

  • Travis T.

    Just asked the question as to why God grew angry while Balaam was on the road to meet Balak (Numbers 22,23) in my…