The Israelite nation had been in slavery in Egypt, and God had miraculously brought them out, under the leadership of Moses. The population had grown to well over a million as they wandered rebelliously in the wilderness. The Hebrews had claimed that they wanted to follow the Lord, but they complained about His provisions instead. Their brief march of 11 days stretched to almost 40 years in the desert as God waited for a new and more willing generation to cross over the Jordan River and into the land that God had prepared.

The murmuring malcontents “spake against God, and against Moses” about their bread and water (Numbers 21:5), again and again. You can imagine the frustration of trying to direct the rebellions of such a multitude without cell phones, copy machines or daily newspapers. Maybe Moses used megaphones or at least shouted out from higher ground to the critical congregations.

They had to pass over the territories of numerous Canaanite tribes as they wandered and waited for the time to move into the promised land. Most of the Godless inhabitants were idol worshippers and as such were sex-crazed. Nothing has changed; perversions of faith and perversions of our sexual character go hand in hand.

Many small kingdoms were thus consumed with the transmissible diseases that destroy any society, and in order to preserve life, God had directed the Israelites to avoid them. He has always intended that those who are truly His should remain separate and non-polluted. This distinction is meant to draw others away from the base corruptions of the flesh and into what is far above the natural lusts of carnality. God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). That offer is held open to any person today who desires God more than they cherish their sin.

The prophet Amos foretells the plights of nations gone into idolatry. Philistia, Edom, Tyre and Ammon are listed in his nine chapters, as are the child-sacrificing Moabites.

In order to simply survive while they moved through the wilderness, the Hebrews had to “put to rest” any cultures that threatened them. Numbers 22 presents Israel now camping near Jericho “in the plains of Moab” (verse one). Remember that the societies of both Moab and Ammon were sired by Lot in his incestuous relations with his two daughters. In two nights of drunkenness, these folks from Sodom spawned two God-hating peoples.

Balak is now the Moabite king, here in Numbers 22. He was “sore afraid” (verse three) that the Israelites would “lick up all that are round about us” (verse four) as they lingered nearby, in their passage through the territory. Balak decided to smite the Hebrews, lest it might end up the other way. He somehow hears of a character named Balaam and beseeches that he would curse the nation coming away from Egypt because “behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me” (Numbers 22:5).

Balaam is one who walks in the shadows. His true nature is darkened by various agendas common to the human spirit. We do not know quite where he stands. Like Esau, Samson, Cain or King Saul, Balaam is hard to interpret.

He seems self-absorbed and strange. We find more of Scripture written about him than we can read about any of the apostles, for instance, and yet he remains mysterious and shady.

The Moabite King Balak did not know quite what to do with the Hebrew multitude camping in his neighborhood. The well-known prophet Balaam from Midian had a wide reputation, so maybe he could be hired to curse the Israelite nation whose size and strength seemed overwhelming. Balaam qualifies as a fortune-teller, and maybe he could be paid to get these Hebrews away from Moab. The messengers from Balak offer a handsome price for the services of Balaam.

At first contact with the Moabites, Balaam seems to actually discern the mind of God in this matter. He is told “not to go with” the messengers and that “thou shalt not curse” the Hebrews (Numbers 22:12). How many times has God spoken that plainly to you and me? That should have satisfied Balaam’s heart about this enterprise, except that other longings lingered. He was persistent to see if there might be a loophole through which silver and gold might pass into his lap.

More princes are sent from Balak to sweeten the bid. Balaam answers by suggesting that even if Balak offered “his house full of silver and gold” (22:18), he could do nothing outside of God’s word. His covetous and greedy heart, though, now is overwhelming his stand for God’s word.

The application is clear for us today. Faithfulness to God’s house, His Word and to lives of prayer and fellowship are absolutely necessary. We must set our hearts and minds for God today so that they will not be upset tomorrow.

God has given Balaam His express will, but now He permits this prophet to do what is really in his heart. It is never good for any of us to move out of God’s express will for our lives and down into that which is permissive. We cannot blame God when we make that choice. He may grant our request and yet send leanness to our souls.

Balak takes Balaam to four mountaintops so he could look down on the Hebrew camp and curse them. Not only is Balaam’s way covetous, but now he errs in relying upon his own reasoning instead of God’s. He had heard of the evil down in the camp and how the serpents of chapter 21 had chastened them for their complaints. He figures God would not forgive them, so he might as well cash in on the reward from Balak if God is going to judge Israel anyway. We do not realize how that every good and perfect gift is from God – even our salvation from the penalty and power of sin (Titus 2:11). Balaam is yet not able to curse Israel.

Not only is Balaam’s way covetous and his estimation of God’s grace erroneous, but also his doctrine is hideous. After he has spoken a glorious prophecy about the coming of Jesus Christ, the “Star out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17-19), Balaam then tells Balak how he eventually can win out over the Hebrews. He could not outright curse them, but he suggests that the Moabites infiltrate, integrate, intermarry and then induce the Hebrews into idolatry.

This was a devious plot to turn their hearts away from the Heavenly and into the Hellish (Numbers 25:1-3). This is a doctrine of fornication, and it is an attempt in our day to dilute and dissipate God.

Balaam is slain in Numbers 31:8, but later on in that chapter we see Israel further led into idolatry through his advice. After defeating the Midianites, they bring the Midianite women directly into their camp. God had taken His people out of the worldliness of Egypt in just one dark night, but even after 40 years, the darkness of the world was not gone from them. So it is with our warfare each day.

The great issue for us is not our place in the world, but rather the world’s place in us.

R.D. “Bob” Hottle is a retired schoolteacher, farmer and pastor of the Anchor Baptist Church.