The Biblical Tale of Balaam and the Donkey

Historical photograph of a man and a donkey in a desert landscape
Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

Balaam, a sorcerer, was summoned by King Balak of the Moabites to curse the Israelites as Moses was leading them toward Canaan. Balak promised to pay Balaam handsomely for bringing evil upon the Hebrews, whom he feared. In the night God came to Balaam, telling him not to curse the Israelites. Balaam sent the king's messengers away. Balaam did, however, go with the second set of Balak's messengers after being warned by God to "only do what I tell you."

On the way, Balaam's donkey saw the angel of God standing in their path, brandishing a sword. The donkey turned, drawing a beating from Balaam. The second time the animal saw the angel, she pressed against a wall, crushing Balaam's foot. Again he beat the donkey. The third time the donkey saw the angel, she lay down under Balaam, who beat her severely with his staff. At that, the Lord opened the donkey's mouth and it said to Balaam:

"What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?" (Numbers 22:28, NIV)

After Balaam argued with the beast, the Lord opened the sorcerer's eyes so he too could see the angel. The angel scolded Balaam and ordered him to go to Balak but to speak only what God told him.

The king took Balaam to several mountains, ordering him to curse the Israelites on the plains below, but instead, the sorcerer gave four oracles, repeating God's covenant of blessing on the Hebrew people. Finally, Balaam prophesied the deaths of pagan kings and a "star" that would come out of Jacob.

Balak sent Balaam home, angry that he had blessed rather than cursed the Jews. Later, the Jews warred against Midian, killing their five kings. They put Balaam to death by the sword.

Takeaways From the Story of Balaam and the Donkey

Balaam knew God and carried out his commands, but he was an evil man, driven by money rather than love for God. His inability to see the angel of the Lord revealed his spiritual blindness. Moreover, he saw no significance in the donkey's odd behavior. As a seer, he should have been keenly aware that God was sending him a message.

The angel threatened Balaam because Balaam was obeying God in his actions, but in his heart, he was rebelling, thinking only of the bribe.

The "oracles" of Balaam in Numbers correspond to the blessings God promised to Abraham: Israel will be as numerous as the dust of the earth; the Lord is with Israel; Israel will inherit the promised land; Israel will crush Moab, and from the Jews will come a Messiah.

Numbers 31:16 reveals that Balaam enticed the Israelites to turn from God and worship idols.

The fact that the angel asked Balaam the same question as the donkey indicates that the Lord was speaking through the donkey.

Questions for Reflection

Are my thoughts consistent with my actions? When I obey God am I doing it grudgingly or with impure motives? Does my obedience to God flow from my love for him and nothing else?

Scripture Reference

Numbers 22-24, 31; Jude 1:11; 2 Peter 2:15.

Sources; and The New Bible Commentary, edited by G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, and R.T. France.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Zavada, Jack. "The Biblical Tale of Balaam and the Donkey." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, Zavada, Jack. (2021, December 6). The Biblical Tale of Balaam and the Donkey. Retrieved from Zavada, Jack. "The Biblical Tale of Balaam and the Donkey." Learn Religions. (accessed May 28, 2023).