I am going to include an article written by Elder McConkie here as an introduction. I recommend that you read it along with these materials. It is wonderful. Some of the concepts will be repeated in the lesson I have written, but the “second witness” will be worth the double exposure. It is called, “The Story of a Prophet’s Madness.” It was published in April 1972 in the New Era. The beginning of the article is shared here, but the complete article can be found on lds.org.
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Let me tell you the story of a prophet, in some respects a very great prophet, but one “who loved the wages of unrighteousness,” who “was rebuked for his iniquity” in a most strange and unusual way, and whose actions (which included the uttering of great and true prophecies) were described by another prophet in another day as “madness.”
This is a true story, a dramatic story; one with a great lesson for all members of the Church; one that involves seeing God, receiving revelation, and facing a destroying angel in whose hand was the sword of vengeance. It includes the account of how the Lord delivered a message to the prophet in a way that, as far as we know, has never been duplicated in the entire history of the world.
As we study the events involved, suppose we seek answers to these questions: Why did the Lord permit (or did he direct?) the strange series of events? What are “the wages of unrighteousness”? And how could a prophet who sought such remain in tune with “the spirit of God” and proclaim great truths, including one of our most marvelous Messianic prophecies?
But even more important: What lesson are we expected to learn from the intermixture of both good and bad conduct shown forth by this ancient representative of the Lord?
Now let us turn to the story, with an open mind, seeking the lesson it teaches us. And as we do so, please keep in mind that everything I have so far or shall hereafter put in quote marks is copied from the Bible, except in one instance where help is sought from a passage of latter-day revelation.
Read the full story on lds.org.
1. Balaam Refuses Balak’s Offer of Rewards in Exchange for Cursing Israel
Israel arrived at the plains of Moab after having stomped the stuffing out of Arad and his Canaanites (Numbers 21:1–3), Sihon and his Amorites (Numbers 21:21–24), and Og and the people of Bashan (Numbers 21:33–35). The Moabites were terrified (“sore afraid”), according to the record (Numbers 22:3), and they should have been.
Balak, the king, knew a serious threat when he saw one, and he knew that his armies and gods were no match for the armies and God of the Israelites. He had no doubt heard the stories of the plagues in Egypt and the dividing of the Red Sea and the rivers of water in the desert. In desperation he sent for a man who worshipped the same God as the Israelites but who was not, evidently, a part of the nation of Israel then on the move. He sent for a man whose power and accomplishments had captured even the king's attention. He sent messengers to bring Balaam to him, “for,” he said, “I wot [know] that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed” (Numbers 22:6).
Messengers delivered Balak’s message and offered the “rewards of divination” to this man whom Bruce R. McConkie tells us was a Prophet of Jehovah. Balaam invited them to stay the night while he enquired to know the will of the Lord in this matter. During the night “God came to Balaam” and, after a brief discussion, said, “Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12).
Next morning Balaam told his visitors, “the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian,” to go home. He could do nothing for them. But Balak faced the utter destruction of his nation from the threat at his borders, and he had no other option. He was desperate. He sent again, this time princes, and more of them, and more honorable that the lowly elders sent the first time. And they came with a better offer as well. Balak promised Balaam that he would “promote [him] unto very great honor, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me” (Numbers 22:17).
Balaam’s response was magnificent. “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I can not go beyond the word of the Lord my God to do less or more” (Numbers 22:18). This is where the story ought to end. The messengers of Moab ought to depart and the Prophet Balaam ought to pass into obscurity, probably without a single verse of recognition in the scriptures.
2. The Lord Shows the Danger of Balaam’s Stubborn Insistence on His Own Will
But the account does not end here. Balaam adds a calamitous postscript to his declaration of loyalty to the Lord, and the result is that he gets two or three chapters in Numbers and a mention in several other books in the Bible. This postscript is the first inkling we have that all is not exactly right in his heart. “I pray you, tarry here also this night, that I may know what the Lord will say unto me more” (Numbers 22:19, emphasis added). I have a hard time finding any ambiguity in what the Lord has already said. Balaam’s desire to ask again for permission to make the journey to Moab suggests that he is hoping for a different answer than the one he already received.
It is difficult not to think of Martin Harris and Joseph Smith and the 116 pages at this point. And as might be expected, the Lord gives Balaam permission to make the trip. “Rise up, and go with them, if thou wilt [the JST adds the part in italics]. But the conditions are explicit: “But yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do” (Numbers 22:20).
Balaam departed then for Moab, riding on the back of the most remarkable donkey in history. And something was terribly wrong as he departed. Jude tells us that Balaam “ran greedily after . . . reward” (Jude 1:11). The Lord was evidently concerned by the desire he could see in Balaam’s heart to find a way to curse Israel and get the offered rewards. He sent an angel to block the way. Three times the donkey saw the angel and Balaam did not. This is some indication that Balaam’s concern with his own desires had already eroded his spirituality to a degree. Three times the donkey saw the angel in the roadway with a drawn sword. Three times the donkey took evasive action. Three times Balaam was frustrated and furious. Three times he beat the animal. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth.
There is no comment here about the reaction of Balaam. The story focuses on the content of the message, not its impact. But it would delightful to have even one verse describing what Balaam thought when the donkey said, “What have I ever done unto thee?” (Numbers 22:28) Just imagine your own pet Dalmatian complaining, “How come I never get anything but dry dog food?”
I cannot help feeling that there is a lesson here in the fact that Balaam is on a donkey. Donkeys are renowned for their stubbornness, and Balaam beats his for refusing to go the way his master wants him to go. But this is precisely what Balaam is doing. This is a thing all of us have a tendency to do sometimes. “What are you doing,” we might ask of someone engaged in a behavior we believe to be contrary to the commandments. And the usually unspoken answer might be, “I’m doing what God would want me to do if he knew what I know.” How often do we insist on our own way, our own conclusions, our own desires, even when the word of the Lord has come to us in perfect clarity? It is not that we ride a donkey to do evil, but that we are the donkey!
But to continue: the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes and he sees the angel who says, “I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse” before the Lord (Numbers 22:32). Balaam, now flat on his tummy and humble enough to obey any command (an angel with a sword will have that effect) offers to return home at once. Again comes the instruction: “Go . . . but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went” (Numbers 22:35).
3. Balaam Refuses to Curse Israel
Balaam seems to have gotten the message clearly this time. As he views Israel, three times he offers sacrifices, and three times gives Israel, instead of cursings, blessings. Balak watches all of this. (see Numbers 23:8–24:9).
And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam . . . and he said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou has altogether blessed them these three times. Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honor, but lo, the Lord hath kept thee back from honor. (Numbers 24:10, emphasis added).
“The Lord hath kept thee back from honor.” Would the Lord really do that? Of course he would, and as often and as emphatically as necessary to protect us from our own folly.
I read this phrase and thought of my friend Eli Herring, a math teacher and a part-time coach at a nearby high school. He had a chance for millions. His place in the NFL draft was a certainty. Experts predicted that he would be the first offensive lineman taken in the draft and that he would get a signing bonus worth millions. “But Herring, a devout Mormon, turned down a possible multimillion-dollar deal with the Oakland Raiders” because he would not play on the Sabbath. “He announced to the NFL that if he were drafted, he wouldn’t serve” (Reader’s Digest, April 1996, p. 185). His love for the Lord kept him back from a certain kind of honor.
A second example: In the movie A Man for All Seasons (my all-time favorite movie), Richard Rich asked Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, for a position at the court of England. More, sensing an inherent weakness in Rich’s character, told him no. More said, “A man should go where he won’t be tempted.” Later he offered Rich a position teaching. “Be a teacher, Rich. You could be a good teacher. Perhaps a great one.”
“And if I was, who would know?” asked the young man.
More’s response is one of my favorite lines from all of literature. “Yourself. Your students. God. Not a bad public, really.”
It was More’s intent to keep Rich “back from honor,” because he knew that it would (as it eventually did) destroy him. This was also the intent of the Lord. But Balaam would not be kept back. (Here comes the donkey again, at a gallop) His heart was “set so much upon the things of this world,” and he “aspired to the honors of men” (D&C 121:35), and he would not be denied. For the rest of this story we must look in other chapters and other verses of scripture in the Bible, but taken all together, these passages give a pretty clear picture of what happened. And they deliver a sobering warning.
4. The Israelites Destroy the Midianites and Slay Balaam
"But 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.”
Balaam taught Balak. He must have said something like this: “I am prevented by my Lord and my covenants from cursing Israel. But I can tell you how to get their God to curse them. Involve them in the immoral practices associated with idol worship in your country.” Thus we read in Numbers 25:1 that “the people began to commit whoredoms with the daughters of Moab,” and that they learned to do so “through the counsel of Balaam.” (Numbers 31:16)
We cannot be too careful about this. The desire for honor from the world, the lure of leadership, even in the mission field, is a minefield. I remember Elder a missionary from my mission fretting and grumbling about his lack of opportunities for leadership in the mission. “It is all politics!” he claimed. The desire for riches, the attraction of physical gratification, the need for public recognition—they can all be subtle and pernicious evils. We must remember that the only true evidence of our worth comes from the Lord, and it comes only in one way: by the presence and the gifts of the Spirit in our lives. Everything else is, as John Taylor said, “fried froth.”
So, don’t be a donkey!