Balaam and the Donkey

Balaam and the Donkey is an Old Testament story in which it appears that God wanted to kill Balaam. Balaam was a prophet at the time Israel was just about to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land after their 40 years in the desert. Surrounding nations were very concerned over the threat Israel posed to them. Balak, the king of Moab, had essentially bribed the prophet Balaam to come and curse Israel because he was afraid their great numbers would endanger his kingdom. God warned Balaam not to go with them:

“And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.” (Num 22:12)

Balaam sent Balak’s representatives back with his refusal at which the king sent another request with a greater offer. Finally, in contravention of God’s command, Balaam set out to go to the king leading to an interesting confrontation:

“And God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his  ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass  turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote  the ass, to turn her into the way. But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again. And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.” (Num 22:22-27)

See for a correct understanding of the use of “anger.” Obviously, God’s intent was to dissuade Balaam from continuing.

“And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?   And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.” (Num 22:28-29)

The angel did not smite anyone but, rather, Balaam smote the donkey after it stopped for fear of the angel.

“And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay. Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face. And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me: And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.” (Num 22:30-33)

Balaam Should Have Known Better

Balaam knew (verse 12) he should not have gone to curse the Israelites as God had first warned him. He was not turning back as he should have, despite repeated warnings. Balaam responded:

“And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.” (Num 22:34)

Balaam already knew that what he had set out to do was displeasing to God but it was in his covetous heart to go ahead. He expressed repentance, doubtless because of the danger he perceived himself to be in. But the “if it displease thee” reveals that he did not really want to change course.

Divine Accommodation

There is a sense in which God wants to give us what we want:

“Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” (Psa 37:4)

While many are covetous for their own desires and not for the Lord, God honors everyone’s free will. He allowed Balaam to proceed even though that was not His original intent (v12):

“And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.” (Num 22:35)

The permissive “Go with the men” is another case of accommodation. This is similar to how God allowed Israel to have a king despite it not being His will and despite the warnings of the results that would follow. See more examples of accommodation.

Balaam was allowed to go on; there was nothing like force used to get him to change course. This suggests that the angel never intended to kill Balaam but, rather, was confronting him to show him his sinful way.

The Mirror Principle

The perception of the character of Divine appearances often depends on the state of the person witnessing the appearance.  To one living in contravention of the law, it functions as a mirror reflecting back to him his own character and sinful actions:

The angel appeared with a sword drawn, thus in an appearance consistent with that of Balaam who had the spirit of killing (his donkey) in his heart. Would the angel have killed Balaam had he continued on? Apparently not, as he allowed Balaam to go forward (but added conditions. The appearance was to warn him and attempt to persuade him to change his downward path to destruction.

Like Balaam, many people are blinded by covetousness and ambition so that they cannot discern God’s calls to repentance. God will do what He can to show the sinner what is in his heart and to turn him to repentance. This can be thought of as applying the letter of the law.

“Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor 3:6)

The letter, “of the law” as some versions have it, brings condemnation by revealing to the sinner what is in his heart. This could be the intended sense of the angel saying to Balaam “surely now also I had slain thee.” This is to awaken the conscience so that grace and truth might be given and abound through Christ.

“Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” (Rom 5:20) (see

Did Balaam repent? Apparently not.

Balaam Makes God an Enemy

God suffered in all the wicked things Balaam was doing and when Balaam rebelled, the angel was turned to be his enemy.

“In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled, and vexed his holy Spirit: therefore he  was turned to be their enemy, and he fought against them.” (Isa 63:9-10)

“Turned” is in the Hebrew niphal (or passive) verb form giving the sense of the angel being turned (by the actions of Balaam) into an enemy rather than actively turning himself into an enemy. The angel appeared as an enemy to Balaam because of Balaam’s actions.

As Balaam was not a doer of the Word of God, he was, in a sense, beholding his natural face in a mirror:

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror.” (James 1:23)

In Balaam’s eyes, the angel appeared as an enemy because Balaam was an enemy to God. If a person hates someone else and regards them as an enemy, they will have that attitude regardless of how the other person feels towards them and will, in fact, project their feelings of hate etc onto their perceived enemy.

See this article on projection in the Bible.

“With the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself unsavoury.” (2 Sam 22:27)

“With the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward.” (Psa 18:26)

“With the pure Thou showest Thyself pure, And with the perverse showest Thyself a wrestler,” (Psa 18:26, YLT)

The Angel of the Lord seemed to Jacob as a wrestler because Jacob projected Him to be an enemy.

“And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.” (Gen 32:24)

A similar case is this:

“And the sight of the glory of the LORD was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.” (Exo 24:17)


While this story can make it seem as though God wanted Balaam dead, that would be inconsistent with the character of God Who wants all to be saved. The story of Balaam and the donkey can be understood according to the principle of the mirror in which God acts at times to show man what is in His own heart to bring him to repentance that he may be saved.

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