And Balaam took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains: ‘Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!’ How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? For from the top of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him; behold, a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations! Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” And Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have done nothing but bless them.” And he answered and said, “Must I not take care to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?” Numbers 23.7-12.
The context of this morning’s reading is that, under Moses, the children of Israel have conquered most of the regions of Transjordan, south-east of the Sea of Galilee, and neighbouring Moab, further south, can see that it will be next on the list. Understandably, therefore, “Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel” (Numbers 22.2). The solution dreamed up by Balak, the king of Moab, is to summon Balaam, a well-know baru or diviner, and have him curse Israel. Curses and blessings, in those ancient times, were believed to have within them the power to bring about what the words expressed, so long as they were delivered in the right way by the right person.
God, however, comes to Balaam and tells him he must not go to Balak: “You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22.12). The story that follows is well-known. After Balak refuses to take no for an answer, Balaam sets off to go to Barak but angels try to block his way. He cannot see the angels but his donkey can, and the donkey refuses to move forward. Balaam beats the donkey and the Lord speaks to Balaam through the donkey’s mouth. Then the angel tells him he can go to Barak but must only say what the Lord tells him to say (Numbers 22.21-24) … and this morning’s reading is part of the outcome.
The key to it all is the verse I quoted a little earlier: “You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22.12). The blessing of God had been pronounced on the children of Israel because they were “in Abraham’s seed” when God blessed Abraham himself (Genesis 12.1-3); but I need to remember this morning that the blessing on Abraham went further than just Israel: “In you,” God told Abraham, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Though I am a gentile, the blessing of God on Abraham includes me.
What Balaam had to learn was that the true God is a blessing God not a cursing God. His purposes are all redemptive. God favours Israel only so that he can bring salvation to the whole earth throughIsrael. This throws light on the whole spectrum of hostility and “against-ness” from cursing through judgment and condemnation to damnation. Last night, at our home group, we were looking at John 8.1-11 — the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. The people who had brought her to Jesus wanted to stone her, but are forced to leave without condemning her. “And neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go and sin no more.” God-become-man is seen to be someone who blesses and does not curse, who accepts and does not reject, who saves and does not damn, who ministers grace and mercy rather than condemnation. It is true that one day he will judge the world … “The Father … has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5.22), but, for now, Jesus refuses to exercise it. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3.17).
And the point that came out last night, just as it comes out in this story of Balaam this morning, is that if God is a blessing God who will not curse … if Jesus refuses to condemn but wraps sinners in mercy and forgiveness and grace … then what makes me think I can do otherwise?“How can I curse whom God has not cursed?” asks Balaam.
But the sad fact is that I do so often sit in judgment on others and inwardly condemn them … see specks of sawdust in other people’s eyes and remain blissfully unaware of the plank in my own. Though I may not curse, I find it all too easy not to bless. I want mercy for myself, yes, but I mentally measure out cold, hard justice to others. What was it my Lord and Master told me: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6.36-37)?
Teach me, Lord, how to move in mercy and grace this day — seeing everyone I meet through your eyes and blessing them in your name. Amen.