So this next portion is titled Balaq (Numbers 22:2-25:9). And the thing that stood out to me to write about, was the insight which people like Balaam and Balak give us into how a pagan thinks.

It’s a subject that interests me a lot because I used to be one, myself. Reading about Balaam and Balak reminds me of what it’s like to look at God through a non-believer’s lens, and even though I don’t believe in plumbing the depths of how such people think, I do think it’s instructive, at the same time, to consider the outlines of it in comparison with the actual truth. Learning the difference between Biblical and pagan thinking has served to help me develop my discernment, and a much fuller sense of the big picture when it comes to spiritual truth over the years, and this is something that Scripture actually allows and enables us to do.

For example: Balaam’s strangely misleading and perverse relationship with God. The Torah portion records him addressing God as “the Lord my God,” and saying things like, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more,” and “Have I any power at all to say anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I must speak,” and then to the Angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know You stood in the way against me. Now therefore, if it displeases You, I will turn back.”

It seems, from these things, that Balaam knew God, and believed in obeying Him. It even sounds, on occasion, like he was anxious to please God and quick to respond when he knew how He felt. But on the other hand, one also reads in the text that God was aroused in anger against him, and the Angel of the Lord stood in the way to kill him. Moreover, from the overall witness of Scripture, we’re given these details about who Balaam was and what he was like:

  1. He was a sorcerer (Joshua 13:22)
  2. He loved the wages of unrighteousness (2 Peter 2:15)
  3. He had a tendency to greed and profit (Jude 1:11)
  4. He communicated with God to curse Israel (but God didn’t listen to him) (Numbers 22:10-12, Deuteronomy 23:5, Joshua 24:10)
  5. He advised Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality (Numbers 31:16, Revelation 2:14)

When you put all these things together, a telling picture emerges. It helps make sense of why, on the second night of His visitation, God told Balaam that he could go to Balak (Numbers 22:20). God wasn’t saying that it was all right for him to go, after all; He’d already made His wishes clear the night before, when He said, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” Rather, God was giving Balaam the opportunity to choose what was uppermost in his heart… and he chose to go against the Lord’s express command, hence God’s anger when Balaam went with the princes of Moab.

Moreover, on the way, Balaam couldn’t see the Angel of the Lord standing before him even though He blocked his path 3 times. He was oblivious – blind, literally, to the will of God. And when his eyes were finally opened, he had the audacity to say to the Angel that if his going displeased Him, then he would turn back – whereas the truth was if he’d been listening, he would already have known that God was displeased. … Instead, he took God’s injunction to speak only what he was told IF he went to Balak, as permission that he could go; and he understood it as such because that’s what he secretly wanted to hear, despite his professed desire to obey God… which is probably why the Angel said Balaam’s way was perverse before Him.

This perversity is further highlighted by the fact that this man, supposedly well versed in divination and sorcery, and famed for his power to bless and curse, had less spiritual perception than a mere donkey. Furthermore, his talking animal could’ve been taken as a sign that the power of speech came from God, and so he was only going to be able to speak what God wanted him to say – but he was oblivious to this as well, and repeatedly tried to curse Israel at Balak’s behest. According to Numbers 24:1, he only accepted that it pleased God to bless Israel, in fact, after 2 thwarted attempts; then he stopped trying to use sorcery, and the Spirit of God came upon him. And then he called himself “the man whose eyes are opened … him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down with eyes wide open” during his prophecy.

But the irony is that Balaam’s eyes weren’t really open at all… for his experiences of God did nothing to affect or alter his character. In fact, when he realised that he couldn’t curse Israel, he did the next best thing: he got Israel to curse themselves, as it were, by tempting them to sin so they would incur God’s wrath and judgement. … It’s as if he knew God just well enough to exploit the just nature of His character so he could accomplish his wicked mission, but not enough that he might develop a holy fear of God, and repent. In this, we can see that he harboured malice, pride, irreverence and callousness in his character, and in the end, he was killed by the children of Israel alongside the Midianites (Numbers 31:8, Joshua 13:22).

All this tells us that Balaam was not a real worshipper of God. In fact, I think he had no proper idea of who God was at all. He knew about God, and this impersonal knowledge gave him enough confidence to think that he knew Him, but it made him look at, speak of and relate to God in ways that were ultimately contradictory, insincere, and completely inappropriate. … In a sense, Balaam thought he could use/manipulate God, and the sad tragedy is that regardless of what he could’ve learned from the things God tried to show him, he didn’t.

The New Testament records a similar character in the form of Simon the sorcerer. In Acts 8:9-24, he wielded the same kind of power and reputation among the Samaritans as Balaam did among the nations in his day; and when he heard Philip’s preaching, he believed and was baptised, but turned out to be unregenerate, still, when he tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit. This betrayed a proud, power-hungry character liable to miss the point, and Peter rebuked him, saying, “You thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God.” 

This was the kind of base attitude that Balaam had in approaching God, as well, and the similarity between the 2 is further highlighted by Peter’s description of Simon as being poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity. In Deuteronomy 29:18-19, bitterness is associated with those who practise idolatry – the person who “blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall have peace, even though I follow the dictates of my heart’—as though the drunkard could be included with the sober.” Likewise, Balaam thought he could do what he wanted as long as he toed an imaginary line of token subservience to God, just as Simon probably thought he was saved because he’d been baptised; but the truth is, both men were bound by iniquity and only purported to obey God because they were afraid of His judgement. This is why Balaam tried to backpedal with the Angel of the Lord, and Simon asked Peter to pray for him – theirs was a fear borne of self-preservation rather than the awe of God, and it was not a saving fear. Both men were still blinded… ignorant of their condition because they were “drunk”, as it were, on disobedience.

This sort of blindness characterised Balak, as well, and the Syrians of 1 Kings 20, who believed that “the Lord is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys.” Balak thought God might change His mind about cursing Israel if he appealed to Him from different locations, just as the Syrians thought they could defeat Israel if they just fought at a different battlefield; they believed that YHWH was a God who could be switched around/manipulated by superficial changes in natural circumstances – that He was a God who can go back on what He says and not mean it, even when He’s said it emphatically. … Essentially, they thought He was like their other gods – capricious, appeasable, and beholden to the dictates of superstitious actions.

This kind of attitude, in turn, is not unlike that of other non-believing individuals like Nebuchadnezzar (please see the discussion in the comments section below for more), Cyrus, and Belshazzar’s wife etc. In the Bible, they were recorded as calling God, “the God of gods, the Lord of kings,” “the Most High God,” and “the Holy God.” They also confessed things like, “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation,” “There is no other God who can deliver like this,” and “the Lord God of Israel, He is God.” And yet despite all this, these same people remained, as far as can be determined from both history and Scripture, polytheists.

So this, in my view, is what it means to be pagan: it’s confessing with the mouth, even assenting with the mind, to the greatness, holiness, power and supremacy of God, but having the heart remain untouched, and unrenewed, by that knowledge. It is, basically, a state of spiritual lip service, where God may be acknowledged as the ultimate ruler of many forces, but also seen as one whose will can, at the same time, be supposedly challenged by other forces (or someone who knows how to wield them).

… On a personal note, this is precisely the sort of thinking that underpins my own father’s religious beliefs, and the great tragedy of such religion is that it’s typically characterised by blindness, self-contradiction and hypocrisy – because it allows the non-believer to “believe” in God while still worshipping other gods, and to fully indulge in the trappings of spirituality without the necessary, redeeming grace of repentance. … It is not the cold, dead, utter unbelief of atheism, but the lukewarm, non-committal, partial belief of spiritual promiscuity – so distasteful to God because it knows neither truth nor fidelity, yet claims to do precisely that.

The pagan personality, therefore, serves as a caution against a certain kind of folly… that is, the folly of thinking you can carry on exactly as you wish and in service to other things apart from God, so long as you pay some kind of (superficial) tribute to Him. It is a lie. … Perhaps the greatest lie.

And the troubling thing is, there’re many Christians today who live and act in just this way. They profess belief, yet behave as Balaam did: selfishly, greedily, carnally. … Such elements have always existed in the body, as attested by the Lord’s message to the church in Pergamos in Revelation 2 – the church is described as dwelling where Satan’s throne is, and even though I believe there’s a historical context to this, I think it’s also indicative, at the same time, of the fact that those who live double-minded and compromised are like Balaam, and that they are, essentially, sitting at the feet of the enemy – they continue to commit idolatry in its various forms (materialism being a major one of the modern age) and, like the Nicolaitans, pursue sexual immorality (for more on this, please see the end of this post). And the numbers of such people in the body have grown at an exponential rate in recent times.

To my mind, it’s no wonder that Jesus addressed Himself to the people of the Pergamon church as “He who has the sharp two-edged sword,” and that the stated judgement for them would be His coming to “fight against them with the sword of My mouth.” The Angel of the Lord stood against Balaam with a sword in His hand, and this seems to be the only thing that has any effect on the pagan character – fear of God’s retribution, rather than reasoning or love, because the carnal and idolatrous mind, due to its all-consuming focus on its own interests and desires, doesn’t respond to anything less.

… Of course, the sword of His mouth is ultimately a metaphor for the word of God, and it is by the word of God that we will all be judged; so it also seems to be the most direct remedy for the compromised believer to start studying the Scriptures, so that godly fear, wisdom, and truth might begin to infect them with a realisation of their own condition, and, over time, bring about repentance and change. And there will lie the crucial difference between believers and non-believers: they know and believe the opposite to what pagans do, in that, “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent.” If He says He will do something, He will do it; if He speaks, He will make it good – and a God who is beholden to nothing but the dictums of His own character and word is to be respected and feared.

To non-believers, this is a dismay, but for believers, it is an encouragement. Because if we go back now to the story of Balaam, we’ll see that when he prophesied according to God’s will, he said:

He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, Nor has He seen wickedness in Israel.

… How lovely are your tents, O Jacob! Your dwellings, O Israel! Like valleys that stretch out, Like gardens by the riverside, Like aloes planted by the Lord, Like cedars beside the waters.

If you think about it, this is actually astounding. Because up to this point, Scripture has been telling us that Israel was extremely stiff-necked and disobedient. They tested God 10 times, incurred His wrath to the point that He almost destroyed them twice, had just gone through 40 years’ wandering in the desert for their faithlessness – and yet when an outsider tried to curse them, He stood up for them and averred that He saw no iniquity or wickedness in them. … This tells us that in our relationship with God, our wrongs are between us and Him: once our sins are forgiven, they are also forgotten, and He will justify His own to non-believers in the clearest and most unequivocal terms, brooking no accusation or harmful intent against them.

… He rejects and condemns the perverse, but fully embraces the penitent. And that is such a comfort.

Next week, we look at more of the law.