While Israel was living at Shittim, the people degraded themselves by having illicit relations with the Moabite women. These then invited the people to the sacrifices of their god, and the people ate of the sacrifices and worshiped their god. When Israel thus submitted to the rites of Baal of Peor, the LORD’S anger flared up against Israel (Numbers 25:1-2, NKJV)
Have you ever tried to sleep in a bed with more than one person? With four children born in five years, it was quite common to awake with a child under each arm, and realize why my sleep had been so restless.
In this passage in Numbers, Israel was more than restless.
Israel, the same nation that had forsaken God’s plan to enter Caanan for fear of the giants, the fortified cities and the armed nations, now endured God’s judgement of forty long years in the wilderness. In their rebellion and distress, the men chose fornication with Moabite women, pagan priestesses commissioned by the king of Moab to destroy Israel from the inside out. Israel was sleeping with the enemy, and there certainly wasn’t room in their bed for both God and Baal. Lured by Balaam to worship a more “satisfying” principality, the Israelite men worshiped Baal, ate of their pagan feasts and slept with the Moabite women as part of the worship.
Demonic worship devoured the hearts of Israel and a plague broke out. A faithful remnant ran to weep and repent at the Tent of Meeting before Moses, Joshua and Phineas and then, while they were crying out in intercession, one man defiantly lay with a Moabite princess before all the congregation at the Tent of Meeting.
Judgement came swiftly.
Phineas, grandson of Aaron, grabbed a javelin and killed the leader and Moabitess with one fell swoop. The plague which had broken out as Israel worshiped the demonic idol of Baal stopped. Grimly Israel started digging graves in the desert. Twenty-four thousand people died before the witchcraft was abated, then thankfully, at Phineas’ righteous stand, peace was restored to God’s people.
Who was behind this destruction? The disaster began when Balaam, chief prophet of Mesopotamia, lured the discontented Israeli people to tune out God. Frustrated that he couldn’t prophesy curses over the nation of Israel, he then tempted the dissatisfied Israelites to worship a predictable god of stone with fringe benefits of feasting and lusting: all they had to do was come to the party in the Acacia Grove. When Israel entered into fellowship with the Moabites, in their sin, they forsook the God of Israel.
Balaam was no ordinary man. Kings and princes paid him to prophesy. Nations took his counsel seriously. In soliciting his help against the invading nation of Israel, Balaak, the terrified king of the Moab had begged:
Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed(22:6).
If you have read the story, you know God forbid Balaam to curse the nation of Israel. In a series of comic events involving a talking donkey, the Angel of the Lord, and repeated warnings, God got Balaam’s attention; this renowned diviner was shut up and shut down by the Almighty. Moses, in judging Israel, summed up the holy drama:
..they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam, but the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you (Deut 23:4-5).
No one would ever forget what happened at Peor. Moses decreed God’s law that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever come into the assembly of God. This law was still standing hundreds of years later when the Babylonian exiles resettled in Israel. Ezra reminded the nation:
On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people, and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever come into the assembly of God, because they had not met the children of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing.
In fear of God, the Israelite settlers separated all the mixed multitude from Israel and maintained the boundaries outlined by Moses. It cost families deeply, but the people knew from Peor’s grim disaster, that mixing God with Baal worship was deadly.
In the New Testament, Balaam is illustrated as the ultimate example of a false believer, a false prophet and a profane man. Jude described Balaam as “a brute beast who acted in error for profit”(11). In 2 Peter 2:15, Peter rebukes false teachers and states “they have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet.” Lord Jesus rebuked the church of Pergamos in Revelations 2:14, saying: “But I have a few things against you, because you have there, those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.”
What exactly is the doctrine of Balaam?
Is it to prophesy for profit or curse for pay? Is it to lure the good into destruction by identifying their greatest weaknesses and then use it against them? Could the doctrine be to use any means to crush or delay the destiny of God’s people? How about to know the power of your words and still use your mouth for evil? Or perhaps the doctrine of Balaam meant to fear God only when your back is up against the wall, when obedience or death are the only options and to use God as a commodity for selfish purpose.
Baalam practiced all these sins and more.
His life is a grim reminder of the deadly corruption of power, how a gifted anointed man who heard God Almighty for himself, could be co-opted for the right price or right temptation. Balaam used his gifting and his authority for evil. Twenty-four thousand Israelites died because of his schemes.
In our self-focused culture of ‘what about me?’, the doctrine of Balaam still bites. Many gifted men and women of God have been caught up seeking personal gain, fame and power instead of embracing the cross of Christ. Balaam’s doctrine has crushed many, leaving a path of destruction of broken churches and people, a heart-wrenching display of the cost when anointed people use their gifting and influence for personal gain, forsaking Christ.
Balaam’s folly provokes deep questions about our motives and practices:
• Do we use our mouth to bless or curse family, friends or enemies?
• Are we obedient to the voice of God or does it take wall-crushing experiences to get our attention?
• Are we willing to obey God or does our demand for recognition, satisfaction and acceptance drive us into choices that deny His Lordship and bring death to those around us?
• Do we crave personal power more than submitted relationship with God Almighty?
• Do we fear God enough to submit all of our gifting for His purposes?
• Do we recognize the impact of our influence?
• Do we trust the Holy Spirit to bring us into holiness?
• Do we trust His grace to abound in our lives?
Here’s the pain of Balaam’s story: the man was truly gifted. There is a misconception that only holy people are gifted by God. Not true. God gives good gifts to all his children, to everyone who has breath whether pagan or profoundly Christian. We all carry gifts, given by God at conception; whether we use them for good or for evil is absolutely our human choice. Baalam choose to use his gifts for personal gain and destruction of God’s people.
Jesus Christ used His gifts to set people free. Jesus died a brutal death to purchase our adoption as children of Almighty God, despite our sin. His sinless sacrifice was payment in full for the sin of the whole world. Not once did Christ ever use His anointing for personal gain, despite the enemy’s temptations (see Luke 4). Paul recognized that death to sin and life to Christ dismantles the discontented heart, when our fleshly desires or disappointments try to lure us away from God:
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin– because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.( Romans 6:5-11,NIV)
Thankfully, life in the Spirit empowers us to walk away from sin and keep choosing God. We are not powerless, like those Israelites at Peor; we are champions over sin through Christ. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit keeps us from Balaam’s folly:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace (Romans 8: 1-6,NIV)
Let’s Pray: O Father God, help us to live in holy fear before You this day. Keep us far from the poison of Balaam doctrine, the venom of selfish rule, when You call us to serve as Your priests and kings. Lord Jesus, Your grace abounds to us. We repent for the times when we have used our anointing for selfish gain. Keep us far from the doctrine of Balaam, from vain manipulation and gain, selfish prophecy and blind arrogance. O Lord Jesus, we trust You will lead us into the destiny You have intentionally created for each of our lives. Holy Spirit, lead us in wisdom and revelation; may we bless those whom You call us to bless and may we keep step with You! Father God, by Your Grace, may we listen and obey You for the pure joy and satisfaction of being Your beloved children. Amen.
1. How did Balaam start out right? What changed his direction? What is your temptation to disobey what God has said?
2. Do you crave attention and power like Balaam? What is the antidote that God has given through Christ?
3. How does life in the Spirit keep us from falling into Balaam’s folly? How has this worked in your life?
4. Why did Israel give into temptation? What did Joshua and Moses do to avoid this temptation? What can we do?
5. Grace abounds where sin abounds. Can you receive God’s grace for the times when you have fallen into the folly of Balaam? What does the cross mean in light of this sin for you? For others?
Next Week’s Reading: Numbers 30 – Deuteronomy 2