As the Children of Israel moved into the Land of Canaan, winning battles against the current inhabitants, their power and might became known. Among the tribes living in the area were the Moabites, and the Midianites. (See "Teaching the Family to Trust in the Lord" in a previous post for the ancestry of the Moabites; and "Abraham's Wives" in a previous post for the ancestry of the Midianites.) These tribes had both become idolatrous, worshiping the god Baal with extremely wicked acts.
Balak, the king of the Moabites, could see that the Israelites' God, Jehovah, was much more powerful than Baal, as he watched the Israelite army crush the cities in their way, and he became terrified. He sought the help of a prophet of Jehovah (who was not an Israelite) named Balaam.
CHANGING THE LORD'S MIND
First Solicitation (Numbers 22:5-14). Balak asked Balaam to curse the Israelites, sending a healthy bribe to him as a reward. Being idolators, the Moabites did not understand that "the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven and cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness" (D&C 121:36). Balaam asked God, and God said the Israelites were not to be cursed. Balaam told the messengers to return to their own land, "for the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you."
Second Solicitation (Numbers 22:15-21). Balak sent again to Balaam, this time adding to the monetary reward "very great honor." Balaam knew Jehovah, though, and said, "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more." But even though he had received the Lord's answer, he said he would ask again, clearly hoping the answer would change. He already knew the Lord did not give him leave to go with them. (Is this sounding a little bit like Joseph Smith and the lost 116 pages?) Willing to let Balaam learn from his own experience, as he does with us, God said to Balaam, "If the men come to call thee, rise up if thou wilt go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do" (words in italics are JST change). God let Balaam go, but he "sent an angel before [him] to keep [him] in the way" as in Exo. 23:20.
This is where we meet up with the strange story of the talking donkey. Balaam was determined to go to the Moabites and mightily hoped to change the Lord's mind when he got there. The donkey, however, was spooked by the presence of the angel that Balaam could not see. Although the animal was protecting Balaam's life, Balaam was hard set on going that direction and mistreated the beast. At this point, "the Lord opened the mouth of the ass," which may be a way of saying He gave to Balaam a clear insight as to why the donkey was acting the way she was.
Obviously the angel was there to prevent Balaam from going to Moab, yet still he didn't turn back of his own accord, but said to the angel, "If it displease thee, I will get me back again." It was already abundantly clear that it displeased the Lord. (Here the similarity to the story of the lost 116 pages ends; Balaam did not humble himself and submit to the Lord's will as did Joseph Smith.) The Lord, once more giving Balaam his freedom to choose, said through the angel, "Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shal speak" (Num. 22:34-35).
Third Solicitation (Num. 22:36-23:12). Balak added oxen and sheep to his previous bribe. Balaam's desire to change the Lord's mind was heightened, and he came up with a new idea: Perhaps if the Moabites worship God as the Israelites do, He will defend them. So he and Balak set up sacrifices to the Lord, but in the "high places of Baal," a thinly veiled ruse. Of course, obedience is more important than sacrifice to the Lord (1 Sam. 15:22) and the deception did not work.
Fourth Solicitation (Num.23:13-26). Balak reduced his request, taking Balaam to an area where just a part of the Israelites were visible, and asking him to curse just that group. Again they offered sacrifices to the Lord, but Balaam admitted the Lord was not a man and therefore unlikely to "repent," or change his mind. Despite his desire to do otherwise, Balaam did not curse the Israelites, as the Lord "hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord his God is with him."
Fifth Solicitation (Num. 23:27-24:24). Balak clearly was not used to a god that could not be bribed. He took Balaam to another lookout, and asked the Lord to curse that group of Israelites. Instead, Balaam prophecied of Christ and the blessings He will bring to the Israelites. Balak was angry, and he and Balaam parted ways.
This was not the end of their alliance, however. After asking amiss and in vain five times, Balaam devised another scheme to get the Lord to curse the Israelites, which is not mentioned chronologically in this story, but in several other places in scripture: He conspired with the Moabites, and the confederation of the Midianites of which they were apparently a part, to tempt the Israelites to commit whoredoms and worship their idols, therefore hoping to cause them to lose their favored place with Jehovah. As a consequence, the Lord sent a plague upon the Israelites which killed 24,000 of these idolators (Num. 25:1-9).
The result, however, did not improve Balak's case with Jehovah, but incurred His wrath. God commanded the Israelites to smite the Midianites. Although Balak had left Moab, he apparently returned to the alliance, and was killed in the conflict (Num. 31:8).
THE EXAMPLE OF BALAAM
"Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
"Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
Balaam's example of a "prophet," or one who has a testimony of Christ, being outwardly obedient, while inwarding "loving the wages of unrighteousness" (2 Pet. 2:15-16) is confusing to us. Fortunately, the tradition of the Old Testament is to place extreme examples of good and evil back-to-back, making the lessons easy for us to learn. Balak's and Balaam's nemesis, Moses, is our clear and shining example of righteous use of the priesthood.
THE EXAMPLE OF MOSES
"No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death" (D&C 121:41-44).
- Moses exercised persuasion with the people, and as a liaison for the people, with God (Exo. 34:9).
- Moses was longsuffering through all the 40 years in the wilderness.
- He was gentle.
- Moses was the meekest of all men (Num. 12:3), leaving Pharoah's house, obeying and honoring Jethro, wanting all his people to be prophets like himself (Num. 11:29).
- Moses' love was evident in all his actions.
- His kindness was also apparent, particularly in his defense of the slave when he himself was a prince.
- Moses brought pure knowledge to the people in the form of the greater and lesser laws (Exo. 20). He also gave the first five books of the Old Testament to the Israelites, and through them, to all the world.
- He reproved and followed the reproval with love, in the instances of the golden calf, breaking the tablets, calling for a royal army to slay the wicked, attempting to atone for his people 40 days and 40 nights.
BLESSINGS AND CURSINGS
John the Revelator prophesied that we, in the last days, would have the choice to spread wickedness as did Balaam, or to enjoy the blessings of the priesthood, as did Moses:
"I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication...
"Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna [the Bread of Life], and will give him a white stone [revelation as a Urim and Thummim], and in the stone a new name written [temple blessings], which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it" (Rev. 2:13-14, 16-17). (See D&C 130:10-11 for the interpretations noted.)