When reading the Bible there are often sections or entire books that we skip over. For whatever reason we don’t read them or pay much attention to them. I think this is true for a lot of us with Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We know the stories of Genesis and the Exodus. Often, from here, we skip right to Joshua. It makes sense a little bit because we’ve convinced ourselves that those three books in between are just old laws and lists of people. However, there are some stories in those books, one in particular that I wanted to write about today.
The story is about a man named Balaam, and it happens in Numbers chapter 22. To give you a little context, this happens during the Israelites' forty years of wandering after leaving Egypt. They were constantly at war with different enemies because they were reclaiming the land that God had promised them.
They had just defeated the Amorites and were marching towards Moab. The king of Moab is terrified because he does not believe he can win a war against the Israelites. So what do you do if you’re the king of Moab and you’re about to fight a war you don’t think you can win? Well, the obvious answer is to summon a sorcerer to put a curse on your enemy. You may think I’m joking but that’s what the king does, he summons Balaam (who is a sorcerer, diviner, magician) to put a curse on the Israelites.
Balaam is no ordinary sorcerer. He is internationally known and famous. He is the best of the best when it comes to sorcery. He also doesn’t live in Moab so the King sends messengers to Balaam to have him curse the Israelites. After the messengers explain the situation to Balaam he tells them to spend the night and he will give them an answer in the morning. That night God comes to Balaam and tells him not to go with these men and curse Israel, which then Balaam tells the messengers in the morning.
You can imagine the King of Moab is not happy about this. So he sends more distinguished messengers (and probably more money) back to Balaam. This time God tells him to go but do only do what God tells him, meaning that he can go to Moab but don’t curse the Israelites.
The next morning Balaam gets on his donkey and begins the trip to Moab. God now becomes angry because Balaam has it in his mind that he now WILL curse the Israelites. He sends an angel to stand in the road to oppose him. At this point only the donkey can see the angel and it turns off the road into a field. Balaam beats the donkey to get it back on the road.
Then the angel stood in a narrow path of a vineyard with walls on both sides. The donkey again sees this and presses up against the wall which crushes Balaam’s foot. So naturally he beats it again to get it moving.
The angel finally moves ahead and stands in a narrow place where there is no room to turn. The donkey sees the angel again and lies down in the path because there is nowhere to go. Balaam is furious now and starts to beat the donkey.
Here’s where to fun starts. Numbers chapter 22:28 says “Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I don’t to you to make you beat me three time?’” That’s right everyone, there’s a talking donkey in the Bible. It’s at this point that Balaam’s eyes are open and he too see the Angel. He realizes that God knows what he is thinking and that he is wrong. He falls down and apologizes and promises to now only say what God tells him to say.
That is the story of Balaam. A fun story that often gets overlooked in the Bible, but what does it have to do with us? Is there anything we can learn from a story about a magician and a talking donkey? I would argue that there is. Plain and simple God is trying to tell Balaam ‘No’. He sends his angel three times and even opens the mouth of a donkey for Balaam to ‘get it’.
We often think in terms of ‘what is God trying to tell me here’, or ‘what does God want me to do’. Have you ever thought in these terms, ‘is God trying to tell me no about something?’ Maybe it’s 'no' to a temptation. Maybe it’s 'no' to an unhealthy relationship. Maybe it’s 'no' to something else.
We are all spending more time at home and in isolation these past few weeks. Chances are your ‘screen’ time is going up as well. Are you developing any unhealthy habits that God might be saying ‘no’ to? We all need phones, computers, and other devices to stay in touch and do school work right now and there’s nothing inherently wrong with technology. However, I wonder if during our new temporary reality, we develop new habits that God might be saying ‘no’ to.
Questions for discussion/contemplation:
What am I doing here? It's probably a question you're asking yourself lately. Why am I at home? Why can't I see my friends? You may even get to the point to ask 'When can I go back to school?'.
Reality and life seem to be ever changing right now, but your questions (although unique for our time) are not new over the course of history. You probably know the name and book Ezekiel from the Bible. He ministry and message was to people who were asking similar questions.
To give you an idea of when and where Ezekiel was written, here's a little backstory:
After the time of David and Solomon the kingdom of Israel split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. In 722 BC the Assyrian empire conquered and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. So now there is only the southern kingdom of Judah left of David's old kingdom.
In 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar (from Babylon) has overtaken the Assyrians and Egypt for control of the Middle East. He lays seize to Jerusalem (in the southern kingdom) in 597 BC and exiles about 10,000 Jews (including Ezekiel) to Babylon. After eleven more years of fighting, the city of Jerusalem was breached and plundered. On August 14, 586 BC, the city and the temple were burned.
As mentioned, Ezekiel is one of the 10,000 Jews that was taken from his home and exiled to Babylon. He was a member of a priestly family (so if he wasn’t exiled, and if there wasn’t a war) he probably would have been a priest in the Temple of Jerusalem. This is someone whose plans and future were drastically changed through no choice of his own. What he thought his future would be and what actually came to pass were two very different things. Sound familiar?
Just like your life right now. You didn't plan on being home from school in mid-March, you didn't plan on being isolated to your house, you didn't plan on being 'here' right now; but you are. Through no choice of your own, this is your reality right now.
Ezekiel is God's messenger to the Jews in exile in Babylon. His book has three main sections:
Chapters 1 - 24: Recall that Ezekiel was taken from his home in 597 BC but Jerusalem was not destroyed until 586 BC. So we have this eleven year period that the Jews in exile still have hope that Judah would win the war against Babylon, meaning they could return home. Ezekiel however has another message for them. Their only hope is that God is with them and that they should live at peace with themselves and God during their exile. Sound familiar? Exile and isolation are not the same thing but they can feel similar. My guess is a lot of Jews were asking those same questions; 'what am I doing here?', 'when can I go back?', that we all are right now. Ezekiel's message to them is to be at peace with God where you are right now.
Chapters 25 - 32: Jerusalem has now fallen and the Jews are in mourning. They no longer have a home to go back to. God tells Ezekiel that he must be an example for others not to mourn for Jerusalem. Just because their home was now gone did not mean their hope in God needed to be gone too. They wanted to return home, to 'normal'. That was not going to happen now. We don't know what kind of lives we will be returning to when this is all said and done. What Ezekiel is telling us is that even when our lives change, our hope in God does not need to too.
Chapters 33-48: Once news was received that Jerusalem had fallen, Ezekiel's message turns to the Lord's consoling word of hope for his people. They would experience revival, restoration, and a glorious future as the redeemed and perfect kingdom of God. We don't know what the future holds for us, but we do know that we are redeemed in God and that he does have a future for us.
The book of Ezekiel can seem kind of rough, but remember what Carly said in the video. She hoped that none of her students ever have to identify with the book. It is God’s promise and commitment to his people during times of trauma, upheaval, and disorder. Ezekiel was literally taken from his home; his future plans crushed, and had no future hope. In that space God comes in and offers hope. He reassures Ezekiel and the exiled Jews that he is still their God and will not abandon them.
I think this is the main message we can take from Ezekiel and apply to our lives. We all will experience times of trauma, upheaval, and disorder in our lives. During those times it is often hard to see God at work. We will probably not be ripped from our homes as Ezekiel was, in fact the opposite has come to pass. Most of us are stuck in our homes.
Whatever it is, the book of Ezekiel is there to remind us that in the midst of all of that, God continues to love us and offer us hope. It’s hard to see sometimes, in fact, that’s why God called Ezekiel in the first place.
Questions to discuss or contemplate: