Why was God angry at Balaam?

Much of Apologetics work is really about making sure people who are critical of the Bible understand that the Bible is internally coherent. One biblical account that I have seen pointed out as showing God not to be consistent is the story of Balaam and his donkey as recounted in Numbers 22.

Of course, the main problem that some people have with the passages is that God opens the mouth of the donkey to have it speak to Balaam. But the idea that God -- the one who created and animates all life -- could allow a donkey to speak what was on its mind is surprising but not logically impossible. Usually the person who rejects the Biblical narrative on that basis is merely stating his or her pre-existing worldview as an unbreakable barrier to belief in a Biblical worldview. So, as a practical matter of Apologetics, I would never try to counter their objection to the talking donkey as the first step in speaking to such a person. They need to first come into an appreciation that if God exists, He would have the power to make donkeys (or any other animal for that matter) speak.

A more subtle objection to God's consistency can be found in the immediately preceding passages where Balaam is seeking permission from God to leave to go to meet with Balek in Numbers 22:20-22. In those verses, Balek has sent a set of emissaries from Moab and Midian to offer Balaam a lot of money and honor to come curse the Israelites so that Moab and Midian could defeat them in battle. Balaam is interested, but says that he will go see what God has to say. Verses 20-22 then read:
[20] That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” [21] Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. [22] But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him.
So, how does that work? Why is it that in verse 20, God tells Balaam that he can go with the emissaries of Balek, but when he goes, verse 22 reports that God gets very angry? Is he some sort of arbitrary and capricious God? Well, no. But it isn’t easy to understand and I think several commentaries get this wrong or get muddled into some type of “permissive will” discussion. The way I like to explain the passage is by sharing the following story. It brings in most of the elements of the Balaam account into a modern setting where the person can draw their own conclusions about whether there is a reasonable explanation for God's anger. I encourage you to read the story and see whether it makes the account more understandable to you. If so, feel free to share it.

Once upon a time, a family lived in a nice suburban neighborhood in a mid-sized Midwestern city. The family was Christian, and the family worked very hard to have their child raised up with a Christian worldview. 

One day, the mother happened to look out the kitchen window and saw her 10-year old son, Liam, across the street talking with the new neighbor who had just moved in: Mr. Balek. Mother had heard that Mr. Balek was opening a new “Gentlemen’s Club” only a few blocks away. When Liam came inside, the mother asked, “Who was that man you were speaking to?” Of course, the mother already knew who he was, but she was asking Liam to see if he would be truthful with her. 

The boy excitedly told her about Mr. Balek. He told her that Mr. Balek’s new club was opening today, and that Mr. Balek wanted to pay Liam a whole $20 to carry a “Grand Opening” sign in front of the club for a couple of hours. His mother knew that $20 was a lot of money to Liam, but she knew that it would be wrong for Liam to advertise for a Gentlemen’s Club. So, she sat with him and said, “Liam, you can’t do that. Clubs like the one Mr. Balek is opening exploit women and entice men into sin. It would be wrong for you to carry a sign advertising such a business.” 

Liam understood, but he was sad because he wanted the money. So, he went back across the street to Mr. Balek’s home and said, “My mother won’t let me.” 

Mr. Balek, who saw nothing wrong with his business, assumed that the problem was that he had not offered enough money. So, he said, “Listen kid, I like you and I want us to become friends as neighbors. So, I tell you what, I am going to pay you $100 to carry my sign for a couple of hours. I’ve got to get over to my club, but I’ll leave the sign right here. When you’re ready, you grab the sign and meet me there.” 

Now Liam had never had $100 before, and he dreamed of all the stuff he could buy with that kind of money. So, he told Mr. Balek, “Gosh Mr. Balek, that’s great. I’ll go ask my mother again; I’m sure she’ll change her mind. But I can’t go without my mom’s okay.” So, Liam runs back across the street and tells his mom that Mr. Balek is offering "a whole $100" and how much he wanted to go! 

Now Liam’s mother still does not want him to carry a sign advertising for the club – that’s wrong – and she isn’t going to change her mind about that. But she has a different plan. "Liam,” she says, “since Mr. Balek wants you to go to the club, you can go, but instead of carrying a sign for the club, I want you to use the time to speak to the people about God.” 

"Thanks Mom,” Liam says overjoyed that he can go. He runs out the door, across the street, grabs the sign and runs up the street toward the club. Obviously, Liam only heard the part about “you can go”, but is not at all interested in doing what his mother wants him to do at the club. 

How do you suppose his mother feels?


Anonymous said…
It does feel like something missed out of the story, but I think verse 35 makes clear the issue is the Balaam was not intending to say (only) what God wanted him to say.

I agree about the talking donkey. However, as an atheist, I feel there are far better arguments to be had with (1) the genocide in the previous chapter; (2) the use of a bronze snake to cast magic again in the previous chapter; and (3) and the fact that in this chapter the satan is acting on God's behalf (in Hebrew the angel here is the satan).

BK said…
Thanks, Pix. And as I obviously have not addressed those other issues (and they certainly are both answerable and have been answered by others elsewhere), I will leave it there for the time being.

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