Numbers: With God in the Wilderness (30) Conspiracy to Curse

Sermon by on November 4, 2007

Numbers 22:1-21

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The Lord’s Day

November 4, 2007

Numbers 22:1-21

“Conspiracy to Curse”

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

If you’ll open your Bibles to Numbers 22, we’ll be looking
at verses 1 to 21 together tonight as we continue to make our way through Moses’
great book of the wilderness journey. The next three chapters of Numbers contain
some of this book’s finest literary material and theological teaching. The
stories here concerning Balaam and Balak and the attempt to curse Israel are
gripping and they are subtle. The story is filled with hilarious satire and
irony, and deadly serious encounters with God and with truth. The story has
unexpected twists and turns, and it leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat
trying to figure out what’s going to happen. And then sometimes, even when
something’s already happened, you’re wondering “Why did what just happened

For the third time in the wilderness journey the
children of Israel are coming to a rest. They stayed a long time at Sinai; they
stayed a long time at Kadesh; now they’ll stay a long time here in the plains of
Moab. There are certain resemblances to what happens here as to what happened
earlier in those long campsites. The whole story here is going to highlight
God’s sovereignty and the unshakable certainty of His gracious blessing on His
covenant people. In fact, tonight is really going to be a one-point sermon
emphasizing precisely that. This passage celebrates the certain sovereignty of
God and the unshakable certainty of His promise of blessing to His covenant
people in the face of the attempt of their enemies to bring to bear a
supernatural curse on them.

It’s important, I think, that we understand three
things before we launch into this narrative.
We can’t cover all the things
that could be said about the scenario and the structure and the characters, but
let’s begin tonight by establishing some sort of a backdrop. You may want to go
ahead and read Numbers 22, 23, and 24 before we come back together. Tonight
we’re really only looking at the introductory section, where Balaam has his
first two encounters with God before he goes on the way to Moab and arrives
there. We’re going to look at the third encounter that he has with God next
week, and it’s the encounter that Nick reminded the little children about
tonight. It’s the famous story of Balaam and his donkey, and their encounter
with the angel of the Lord. It is one of the most glorious and funny and serious
passages in all of Scripture.

But tonight I want you to understand what’s going
on. As you allow your eyes to skim the first verses of Numbers 21, let me set
the stage for you.
Israel is within sight of the Promised Land now. They’re
camping, we’re told, somewhere across from Jericho, in a place which is
described as Moab (that looks on my map like it would be in Ammon, but here it’s
said that it’s in Moab). They can see the Salt Sea — the Dead Sea. They can look
across into the Promised Land. After years and years in the wilderness, they are
within sight of their objective. And news of those victories that we heard about
last time we were together in this great book…news of those victories had spread
like wildfire amongst the Moabite tribes, and they are shaking in their boots!

Balak, the Moabite king, decides that he needs
something better than a good army if he’s going to go up against Israel. And so
he decides what better plan would there be than to approach a soothsayer…a
sorcerer, a prophet…and bring down supernatural help for the Moabites against
the children of Israel, so that maybe his armies’ chances would be evened up
against this people that he will describe as “covering the land”? And so he asks
a region-wide famous soothsayer (or prophet, or sorcerer) named Balaam from
Mesopotamia to come and curse Israel, and he offers him a very impressive fee to
do it.

Now, my friends, we have tablets dating from after
this time in this region that describe this man Balaam. Outside of the Bible, we
have tablets that describe his extraordinary fame as a prophet and sorcerer. He
was famous region-wide in that part of the world, and so it’s not surprising at
all that Balak would think of contacting Balaam.

Well, he sends an embassy to Balaam. Ten days of
travel through sticky terrain, and they get there and they say, ‘Balaam, we have
been authorized by Balak the king of Moab to offer you a lot of money to give us
some help. We would like you to curse these children of Israel that have come
out of Egypt and have invaded our land.’ And Balaam does something strange. He
says, ‘OK. Wait here. I need to go ask the Lord about this.’

Now it’s fascinating. This is one of the really,
really intriguing things about the story. This pagan sorcerer, this unbelieving
prophet, says to this embassy from the king of Moab, ‘I need to check with the
Lord,’ and he uses the unique covenant name of the God of Israel. ‘I need to
check with Him first.’ And of course he goes and he checks with the Lord, and he
inquires if he is allowed to curse this people, and God says, ‘No.’ In fact,
that is the central verse of the passage that we’re going to study tonight. If
you’re sort of allowing your eyes to flip through the passage, it’s verse 12, I
think. ‘No,’ God says to him.

Well, the embassy goes back to Balak, and Balak says,
‘What do you mean, he won’t do this? I’m going to send more impressive
emissaries, and I’m going to offer him more money.’ And so he sends back again,
and he says, ‘Look, I’ll give you a very, very great honor if you’ll do this. In
fact, I’ll do whatever you ask. I’ll give you more than I offered you last
time.’ And Balaam once again says, ‘Well, I can’t do this. The Lord told me I
couldn’t do this. But, hey, wait with me one more night, and let me go ask the
Lord again.’ And he goes and he asks the Lord again, and the Lord says, ‘Well,
the men came back. Sure, you can go with them. But you still can’t curse My
people Israel.’ So Balaam is told again that he can’t curse Israel, but he is
given permission to go. That’s the story so far. That’s the story as far as
we’ll get into the story tonight. There are all sorts of interesting twists and
turns to it. That’s the scenario.

What about the structure? There is amazing
symmetry and composition and organization in this whole story in Number 22 and
23, and 24. Let me give you a few examples. You will see three repetitions
occurring repeatedly in this passage. Maybe you want to go back home and over
the next week just look at some of the literary features of this passage. But
let me bring five of them to your attention, so that when you’re reading the
passage for yourself you can pick up on them and see them, and appreciate them,
and actually notice other things in the passage.

First of all, isn’t it interesting that the donkey
— Balaam’s donkey — tries to avoid this encounter with the angel of the Lord
three times?
We’re going to get to that next week, but if you look at
chapter 22 (verses 23, 25, and 27), three times the donkey attempts to avoid
encountering the angel of the Lord.

Then, if you look at chapter 23 (verses 1, 14, and
29), Balaam arranges for three sets of sacrifices to be offered before he
attempts to curse Israel.

Third, if you look at chapter 22 again, in verses 12,
20 and in verses 22-35, Balaam will have three encounters with God before
he gets to Moab.

If you outline the whole story all the way from
chapter 22 to chapter 24, you will find that it has six main acts, which are
divided into two parts…two sets of three. There’s Act One (in verses 7-14 of
this chapter); Act Two (from verses 15-20 of this chapter); Act Three (from
verses 21-35). Then we get into the second set of three acts: Act Four (from
chapter 22:41 to chapter 23:15); Act Five (from chapter 23:13-26); Act Six (from
chapter 23:27 all the way to the end of chapter 24). And in every one of
these six main acts, in two sets of three, we are told that Balaam can only do
what the Lord permits him to do.
Hmmm. Think the Lord wants to emphasize
that point to the children of Israel? Oh, yes, indeed! In fact, in the very
structure you’re seeing something of the main theological point that God wants
to bring home to Israel, and the main point of encouragement that He wants to
bring to bear on their hearts.

One other thing to draw to your attention. This
whole story is staged to cover three pairs of consecutive days.
In verses
2-14 of this chapter you have the events of days three and four in verses 15-35
of this chapter. We will basically get through day three. We’ll split the second
pair of days in two tonight, but days three and four cover from 15-35. Then days
five and six cover the end of chapter 22 all the way to the end of chapter 24.
So you have three pairs of consecutive days with uncertain gaps between each of
the days. So there is a very, very definite symmetry and structure and
composition and organization to this story. As intriguing as the story is
because of its plot, it is just as sophisticated in its organization and in its

One last thing before we come to the passage
tonight, and that is the character of Balaam himself.
We’ve looked at the
scenario that the passage records; we’ve looked at the structure of the passage.
What about Balaam? In the passage that we read tonight, on more than one
occasion Balaam will tell these Moabites who want him to curse the children of
Israel that he must inquire of the Lord…that he’s got to ask the Lord. And on
each of those inquiries, he is submissive to the word of the Lord. And so on the
first reading that you have on your first introduction to Balaam, you may be
tempted to think, ‘You know, this is a good guy. He may be a Mesopotamian
necromancer, but he’s a good guy! He’s checking with the Lord. He’s inquiring of
the Lord. The Lord is speaking to him. He’s being obedient and submissive to the
Lord. He’s telling these Moabites that he can’t disobey what the Lord says, and
he can’t curse the children of Israel. Maybe this is a positive character. Maybe
we should understand Balaam in a positive light. And maybe it’s only the money
that makes a good prophet go bad here.’

Well, I don’t think so. And I don’t think so for
two reasons. The first is the testimony of Scripture.
You remember the first
principle of biblical interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture, and
throughout the Bible, Balaam does not get good press. Let me just take you to a
few passages. Just a few! There are more, but let me just take you to a few.

First, allow yourself to flip forward to Deuteronomy
23. (Keep your finger in Numbers 22, but flip forward to Deuteronomy 23.) As
Moses preaches his last sermon to the people of Israel, he’s talking about the
curse of God against the Moabites and he says (Deut. 23:4),

“…Because they hired against you, Balaam, the son of Beor from Pethor of
Mesopotamia, to curse you. But the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam;
instead the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the
Lord your God loved you.”

So there’s the idea of the hiring of Balaam. Now “hiring” a
prophet is not something that would evoke a positive assessment of a person in
the eyes of the readers of Deuteronomy. But it gets worse. Look at Joshua 13:22.
Keep your finger in Numbers 22, but turn to Joshua 13…turn forward to Joshua
13:22. Here’s Joshua talking about Balaam, and he says,

“Balaam also, the son of Beor, the one who practiced divination, was killed with
the sword by the people of Israel among the rest of their slain.”

Now in that one verse you have two negative things that are
told you about Balaam. First of all, that he practiced divination. Now what
would that have evoked as a response on the part of the people of God? The
assertion that he practiced divination? Well, the Law of God explicitly and
emphatically and dramatically prohibited divination, and so he is one who is
breaking the Law of God. And the Law of God required as a penalty for the
practice, death. And sure enough, he was slain when Israel slew the other

Now turn forward to Joshua 24:9. Here again we’re
told that the king of Moab (Joshua 24:9) had “sent and invited Balaam, the son
of Beor, to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam.” So again there’s an
assessment on God’s part that He refused to harken to what Balaam wanted Him to
give him permission to do. And instead, though they had hired Balaam “against
you to curse you,” God turned his curse into a blessing:

“I would not listen to Balaam. Indeed, he blessed you, and I delivered you out
of his hand.”

We find the same thing in Nehemiah 13:2, but let’s
flip to the New Testament real quick, and let me show you two passages in the
New Testament, because even in the New Testament people are still thinking about
Balaam. So riveting was this story in the consciousness of God’s people, that
even in the New Testament, even after Jesus had already died and been raised
again from the dead, and ascended into glory, the people of God were still
thinking about Balaam. So turn to

II Peter 2:15. (Still got your finger in Numbers 22.) Peter

“Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of
Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing….”

Now that’s not a flattering assessment of Balaam. He loved
gain from wrongdoing. He was a hireling who loved dishonest gain.

And then in Revelation 2:14, the Lord Jesus himself

“I have a few things against you….” [Not words you want to hear from the Lord
Jesus Christ!] “I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold
the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the
sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice
sexual immorality.”

Ah, that’s the end of the story! We’re a while before we
get to the end of this story. This supernatural cursing doesn’t work. Balaam
gives king Balak a very, very cunning idea to use to destroy Israel, and this is
what Jesus is referring to in Revelation 2:14. Nowhere else in Scripture is
Balaam viewed as a basically good and faithful prophet.

So might you argue, “Well, there’s a disagreement
going on here in Scripture. In Numbers 22, 23, and 24, Balaam is positively
assessed, and then elsewhere in the Bible he’s negatively assessed, so there’s a
contradiction in Scripture.”

No. Let’s look at Numbers 22, 23, and 24, and this
is my second point: Why is it that we should not see Balaam in a positive light
as a good prophet gone bad?
First, the testimony of Scripture; secondly,
evidence within the story itself. And let me point you to at least five things
in the story itself that tip you off as to how you are to view Balaam.

First, Balaam is offered…just in our passage alone,
twice he is offered money in order to curse Israel, and he seems to be
interested in receiving it. I mean, if somebody shows up at your door at night
and says, “I’d like you to curse so-and-so,” and you tell them…and then they
say, “Look, I’d like you to curse somebody, and I’d like to pay you money for
it.” And you say, “Well, let me pray on that. Let me pray about that.” See,
you’re obviously interested in his offer! And even after the Lord has said ‘NO,
Balaam. NO. You’re not going to curse My people,’ when they come back and offer
more money, he says, ‘You know, even if you were to offer me a house full of
gold and silver, I mean a house full of gold and silver, I couldn’t do this,
because the Lord’s told me I couldn’t do this. But…look, stay here and let me
pray about this some more.’ So he seems to be very interested in receiving money
for his skills at cursing. This would not have impressed us if we were Hebrews
hearing this story for the first time! This would not have given us the warm
fuzzies for Balaam!

Two, Balaam, we are told explicitly, resorts to
omens. He uses omens. I think it’s in chapter 24. And of course in Deuteronomy
18:10, in the context of all of the various prescriptions against the use of
supernatural magic and resorting to soothsayers and necromancy and all manner of
false prophesyings and magic, omens are explicitly forbidden to Israel. They are
numbered amongst the abominable practices of Deuteronomy 18. Just like in the
middle of the sermon when Dr. Duncan says the word “stupid” and your children
go, “Mommy! He’s not supposed to say the word “stupid!” And you say, “Shhh. I’ll
explain to you when I get home, honey, OK?” so also when the children of Israel
hear that Balaam is using omens, all the little children are going, “Mommy! He’s
not supposed to use omens!” and “Honey, I’ll explain to you when the story’s
over.” It’s indicating to you that he’s doing something which God has marked as
abominable. He’s bad!

Thirdly, the whole Balaam and his donkey story — oh,
there’s a complex of stuff in the Balaam and his donkey story that lets you know
how you’re supposed to think of Balaam! For instance, Balaam is supposed to be a
prophet. He is supposed to be one who can see the future, and who consorts with
spirits and can speak with the gods. And yet this donkey knows that the angel of
the Lord is standing in front of him, and Balaam doesn’t! The point being the
donkey’s smarter than Balaam. I love the King James of the exchange between
Balaam and the donkey, where the donkey basically says, ‘Look, don’t you see the
angel of the Lord standing in front of us?’ and in the King James, Balaam
answers, “Nay!” Moses is making a point.

But even more than that, Balaam keeps driving this
donkey. This donkey knows that the angel of the Lord is standing there with a
sword, waiting to wipe them out. And Balaam keeps driving him, and driving him
where? Right up against the will of the Lord. Just like Balak keeps driving
Balaam to do what the Lord told him he couldn’t do. But the donkey at least has
enough sense to resist Balaam’s driving of him. Balaam, however, keeps being
enticed by the offers that Balak has made to him. And so Moses is telling you
something about his character. It’s very subtle, but he’s telling you.

Fourth, God in this passage declares His will both
through the donkey and through Balaam. The donkey prophecies in this passage.
It’s the only example of a prophesying animal in the Bible. This donkey
prophesies. What’s the message? The message is don’t think that there is
something special about Balaam when I use him to prophesy here, because very
frankly I could use his donkey to prophesy just as well as I used him.

And, fifth, the Bible recognizes that there are such
things as false prophets and sorcerers and necromancers who have real powers,
and they can consort with familiar spirits. And they can cast curses. But their
supernatural powers do not mean that they are true prophets of the Lord. So
Balaam actually doesn’t come off here looking as good as he might appear to at
first when you hear some of the things that he says in the passage tonight.

Now, with that as my introduction, let’s pray and
hear God’s word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this Your word.
Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Numbers 22, beginning in verse 1:

“Then the people of Israel set out and camped in the plains of Moab
beyond the Jordan at Jericho. And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel
had done to the Amorites. And Moab was in great dread of the people, because
they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. And Moab
said to the elders of Midian, ‘This horde will now lick up all that is around
us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.’ So Balak the son of Zippor, who
was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at
Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the people of Amaw, to call him,
saying, ‘Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the
earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me,
since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and
drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he
whom you curse is cursed.’

[Now you can already tell right there the contest between
the power of blessing and cursing — between Balaam the sorcerer and the God of
Israel — has just been established.]

“So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with fees
for divination in their hand. And they came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s
message. And he said to them, ‘Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to
you, as the Lord speaks to me.’ So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. And
God came to Balaam and said, ‘Who are these men with you?’ And Balaam said to
God, ‘Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, ‘Behold, a
people has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Now come,
curse them for me. Perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them

[A central verse of this passage — verse 12:]

“God said to said to Balaam, ‘You shall not go with them. You shall not curse
the people, for they are blessed.’ So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the
princes of Balak, ‘Go to your own land, for the Lord has refused to let me go
with you.’ So the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak and said, ‘Balaam
refuses to come with us.’

“Once again Balak sent princes, more in number and more honorable
than these. And they came to Balaam and said to him, ‘Thus says Balak the son of
Zippor, ‘Let nothing hinder you from coming to me., for I will surely do you
great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do. Come, curse this people for
me.’’ But Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, ‘Though Balak were
to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command
of the Lord my God to do less or more. So you, too, please stay here tonight,
that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.’ And God came to Balaam at
night and said to him, ‘If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them;
but only do what I tell you.’ So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his
donkey and went with the princes of Moab.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

One point, very briefly: When God sets His
blessing on you, nothing in this world can thwart it…When God sets His blessing
on you, nothing in this world can thwart it.

Balak knows of Balaam’s reputation as a man who, if
he blesses, those whom he blesses are blessed indeed; and if he curses, those
who are cursed are cursed indeed. But Balak has never come up against a people
like the people of God, because God has set His blessing on them and no one can
thwart that blessing, and no one can touch them.

Understand that in this passage God is going to use a
pagan false prophet to reinforce to the children of Israel the truth of the
promises that He made to Abraham. What did He say to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3?
Turn with me there.

In Genesis 12:1-3, God said,

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that
I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and
make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. And I will bless those who
bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families
of the earth will be blessed.”

Every Hebrew child knew that. And so as this story is being
told in the camps of Israel of what Balak had hired Balaam to do, you can hear
the little Hebrew child when he hears in the story that Balak’s going to hire
Balaam to curse Israel… you can hear,

“Mommy, mommy! He can’t do that, can he? God said we were
blessed, and that He would bless those who bless us, and that He would curse
those who curse us. He can’t do that, can he, Mommy?”

“No, son, he can’t. But watch how the Lord is going to use
a pagan false prophet to prove the truth of His word.”

And then the encounter comes, and Balaam goes to the
Lord, the God of Israel, and he says, ‘Can I go and curse Your people?’ And
God’s answer (Numbers 22:12), “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse
the people, for they are blessed.” And again you can see,

“Mommy, is the false prophet asking permission of our God
to be able to curse us?”

“Yes, son, that’s what he’s asking to do.”

“Mommy, even false prophets have to ask our God to do the
things that they want to do, because our God rules.”

“That’s right, honey. No one can lay a finger on you when
God has set His blessing on you.”

What is the message of this passage? When God has set
His blessing upon you, nothing can thwart it; no power of hell, no scheme of man
can ever pluck you from His hand. “Nothing can separate you from the love of God
in Christ; not tribulation nor distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness
or danger, or sword. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through
Him who loved us. And we are sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor
rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor
depths, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love
of God in Christ.” Why? Because “the promises of God to us are ‘yea’ and ‘amen’
in Christ.” No spiritual force in this world can match Him, can challenge Him,
can thwart Him.

Is that not the story of the book of Job? Even Satan
himself must ask the sovereign God for permission to do his strategies. The
great message in this passage is that God is sovereign, and that when He has set
His hand of blessing on you, nothing can thwart it. What a comforting truth to
hear and to believe in a fallen, hard, heartbreaking world. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, we have no strength. There
is no goodness in us. But because we rest and trust in the name of Jesus Christ
alone, we find Him to be our strong tower of refuge, because there is no power
like Your power. Just as You protected the children of Israel in the wilderness
of old from the evil powers of a crafty, greedy sorcerer, so also You will
protect us even from the powers of hell as we rest and trust in Christ alone.
Thank You. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would you stand for God’s blessing. Take your
bulletins out and let’s be ready to sing the fourth stanza of Though Troubles
Assail Us.
Hear God’s blessing:

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith,
through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away.


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