A Biblical Refusal to Let Politics Co-opt Religion

Despite promises of great wealth and honors, the prophet Balaam denies a king’s demands

In the Torah’s account of the exodus journey of Israel, an odd story comes in Numbers 22-24. It recounts an incident as the people of Israel near the Jordan River in preparation for entering the Promised Land.

On its way, Israel must pass through the land of Moab. This causes great alarm among the Moabites. They are afraid that this flood of immigrants out of the desert will overwhelm their land. They say to themselves, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Numbers 22:4). (One is reminded of similar alarms in countries around the world today as our planet undergoes some dramatic population migrations.)

The king of Moab Balak enlists the Midianites in an attack he plans on Israel. To give his army an edge in the coming battle, he summons the prophetic seer Balaam, the son of Beor, to come and place a spiritual curse on the Israelites. This was a standard practice in ancient warfare. Archaeologists have dug up many such curses on enemies on pottery shards in the sands of Egypt.

Balaam is not an Israelite prophet. He comes from Mesopotamia. But the text implies he knows the Lord, the God of Israel. And he has a sensitivity to listening for the word of the Lord before he speaks. He turns to God, and the Lord commands him not to curse Israel. So he tells the envoys of Balak that he will not come as the king has requested.

Balak will not, however, give up easily. He sends another delegation with promises of even more gold, silver, and honors. Balaam refuses, but then God tells him to go but to say only what God will tell him to say.

When Balaam finally arrives in Balak’s presence, the king takes him to a hill and shows him the great assembly of Israelites camped in the plain below. He asks Balaam to put a curse on the people. But speaking only the words God gives to him, Balaam instead pronounces a blessing on the Israelites and a curse on Moab and its allies.

Balak is of course upset, probably infuriated. He tries to pressure Balaam to change his pronouncements, but Balaam refuses. He says to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord says, that is what I shall say’?” (Numbers 24:12-13).

As a result, Balak and Balaam part their ways, each returning, the text says, to their own home (and we might say, to their own respective political and spiritual realms).

Missing the Point by Focusing on the Wrong Details

On his journey to Balak, Balaam rides a donkey. The text says that an angel of the Lord blocks the road. The donkey sees the angel and balks. Balaam does not see it. He therefore beats the donkey, trying to get the donkey to move on. After enough beatings the donkey talks back to Balaam.

Then the text says that Balaam’s eyes are opened and he too sees the angel. He now understands the donkey’s action and stops the beating. In fact, he bows down to the angel in reverence.

When Sunday school teachers teach this story, they usually focus their attention on this odd feature of the story. After all, many of us often wish our pets could talk. But I contend that if we zoom in on this feature, we miss the larger and more important point of the story.

What we have in this story is a primitive example of the political realm trying to co-opt the power of religion in support of political policies. Balak wants to harness the power of the spiritual realm behind his plans for attack.

Any reading of history as well as of contemporary affairs shows that this is a perennial demand that politics seeks to place on religion. Balak attempts to do so. So do Israelite king after Israelite king in the Old Testament record.

And so have many Christian leaders. The Roman emperor Constantine, for example, or many political leaders in America today. We see it too in the efforts of Islamism to tie its violent agenda to the religion of Islam.

We see many examples in cultures that do not follow the Abrahamic traditions of religion. Plutarch, for example, heaps praise on Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius, for his initiatives in support of Roman religion. But it is important to note that Numa does so because he wants Roman religion to support the Roman state.

This then is what makes the story of Balaam so striking. He refuses the demand, even though it comes with all kinds of enticements. He refuses because most striking of all he retains a sensitivity to listening for the word of the Lord before he opens his mouth.

An Amazing Example of Spiritual Integrity

The text hints that Balaam might not have been much more than a typical soothsayer of the time. Yet he has spiritual integrity. He will not use his religious authority to manipulate others either for his own advantage or for the advantage of political authorities. I find that just remarkable in this story. It amazes me. Such spiritual maturity!

This is not to say that religion and politics/culture should never blend. There are many examples in the Old Testament when the text seems to legitimately unite religion in support of the state. The prophet Nathan’s oracle on King David in 2 Samuel 7 is a good example. In this oracle God establishes the Davidic dynasty as his chosen royal line. What royal dynasty would not crave such a divine endorsement!

But we need to remember that the same prophet Nathan is also the one who pronounces God’s judgment on David after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah (see 2 Samuel 11-12). God cannot be harnessed in supporting the abuse of power.

What is needed on the part of religious authorities is an acute sensitivity to when the integrity of their office requires them to support the state and culture and when it requires them to stand in judgment on it. That gift of discernment cannot come unless religious authorities are constantly listening for the word of the Lord, as Balaam does, and then speaking that word and only that word.

I would like to suggest then that we elevate the prophet Balaam to a greater position of honor than we traditionally have.