Strength for the Journey: “Jackass – the Original Series” – Numbers 22

JackassBetween 2000 and 2002, MTV began a TV series called “Jackass” (followed by a series of movies by the same name). The series and the films featured people performing dangerous, often crude and self-afflicting stunts and pranks. The basic idea began two years before, in 1998, when actor Johnny Knoxville began testing self-defense weapons on his own body for a magazine article. For his writing, Knoxville “tasered” himself, “maced” himself and eventually even shot himself (while wearing a bullet-proof vest). The stunts got worse from there…

The show’s stunts began a significant controversy over use of the airwaves, which helped the show’s rise in viewer numbers. The series creators thought they offered sufficient cautions…During the show and in every episode, “Jackass” featured carefully worded disclaimers warning watchers that these stunts should not be imitated, and specifying that stunts done at home could not be submitted and aired on TV. Their logo: a ‘skull and crutches‘- was posted at the bottom right of the screen to further warn of risk. Nevertheless, copycats began and the show took hits in the public storm:

  • On January 29, 2001, Senator Joseph Lieberman condemned MTV and Jackass after a copycat incident in which a 13-year-old Connecticut teenager was left in critical condition with severe burns. MTV responded to the criticism by canceling all airings of Jackass before 10:00 PM.
  • In another case, Matt-Dillion Shannon, from New Zealand, was sentenced in 2012 to three years in prison for dousing of a 16-year-old with gasoline and setting him alight: an act Shannon’s lawyer claimed was inspired by the Jackass series.

The message of the show, perhaps more than any other was this: “Don’t try this at home. This is dangerous, and can really hurt you or those around you.” Here is an interesting thought… MTV didn’t actually start the series by this name, however… I submit the first REAL episode of Jackass was already famous millennia before in written form. The original episode was a story of a stubborn celebrity and his wise side-kick – his donkey. In the original story, found in Numbers 22, the Jackass was a man named Balaam, and the donkey was a spiritually sensitive, garden variety, God-used donkey. The story offered a window to an important truth…

Key Principle: God knows more than our actions – He knows our intentions. He is a God of the heart, not simply of the hands. There is simply no hiding from Him.

You see, God peers well below our skin. His eye is not limited to the surface, nor is His vision ever inaccurate. He is able to see us at every level – microscopic, elemental and even intentional. He does not merely hear what we say – He hears what we mean. He knows what we ponder and measures our true heart’s desire. He knows us better than we could ever know ourselves.

Tucked into the record of the journey of Israel east of the Dead Sea during the last part of their journey with Moses toward the Promised Land is a story of an itinerant preacher that was brought in from far away Mesopotamia to pronounce a message cursing the incursion of Israel on the land of the Moabite tribes…

The text offers vignettes of four distinct personalities:

The first is God Himself – who is at work all through the story, but loudest in the confrontation near the end. Next the story exposes two different kinds of people – those who knew God, and those who needed God. Inside the story of those who knew God the people are divided further – between those who were obedient to God and those who were disobedient – just as any room of people studying the story today. Among men, then, there were three other personalities:

• The obedient believers in the story are the children of Israel. They have proven themselves imperfect and stubborn – but in this story they are doing what God said, and are progressing in their call.

• The disobedient believer is a seer named Balaam who lived in Mesopotamia, and knew the Lord. He could ask of God and hear His voice, but the seer was not walking in faithfulness and integrity.

• The unbelievers were the Moabites, led by their chief – a man named Balak. He didn’t claim to truly believe in the LORD, but he wanted to blunt the invincible reputation of Israel that caused his own army to quake in their sandals at the mention of their name.

The text develops three distinct parts of the story:

Just as there are four personalities in the text, there are three parts to the story. First, there is the context – God’s people advancing. Next, there is the confusion, where the absence of inner confusion in the camp forces God’s enemy to search for and find a perfect ally – the disobedient believer outside the advancing camp. Finally the narrative turns toward the confrontation – God’s dialogue with the true “jackass” of the text – the disobedient and hypocritical believer (not the spiritually discerning donkey he was riding upon!) and the results of that confrontation. Let’s take the story apart…

First, the Context: God’s People were finally moving forward

Obedient believers are a threat to the enemy following God’s commands (21:21-22:4).

• When internal strife, disbelief and disobedience were no longer keeping the people from doing what God said they should do, they moved ahead against the Amorites in the area between the Arnon and Zered wadis, and cut through the opposing armies (21:21-32). The power of the believer is exponentially increased through obedience to God’s commands.

• They marched on the plateau east of the Jordan River all the way to Bashan and defeated tribal chiefs in the region (modern Golan Heights – 21:33-35). The opposition melts when God is moving.

Israel conquered just as God directed. A once defeated rabble now acted as a sharpened fighting force when they walked in obedience and surrender. The people of God today must grasp that we are powerful agents in God’s mighty hand – when we are surrendered to His purposes. No act of Congress or court can block our ability to show compassion to the sick, to pass a cup of cold water to a thirsty child, to open our doors to hospitality and feed hungry people. When the church acts in obedience, she acts in power. When she acts in disobedience, she creates confusion, hypocrisy and cynicism.

God has His own press secretaries that can compound the testimony of His people (22:1-4).

22:1 Then the sons of Israel journeyed, and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan [opposite] Jericho. 2 Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. 3 So Moab was in great fear because of the people, for they were numerous; and Moab was in dread of the sons of Israel…

• The Moabites feared the size and strength of the army of Israel (22:1-4). The reputation of the believers and their God was clear and powerful in their obedience. They were not much physically stronger than when Edom refused them entry – but this time they were walking together and in obedience.

I frequently run into believers that are worried about God’s reputation in these days, as if the Most High is somehow a concerned fading celebrity or aging politician. He is neither. He started it all, and the Bible makes clear that He will be there for the last act of a rebel. He has no fear that popular opinion will somehow cause Him to cease to exist or become less relevant. Long ago God made the point with stinging clarity to Job – there simply is no one that God fears. He has no equal, and He needs no one to tell Him how to run the world – though many feel self-qualified to do so. He is not defensive, because He has in His hands the whole plan of human history. His people should not therefore be defensive – but gentle and unbending to the moral whim of popular sentiment.

Second, the Confusion: Unbelievers look for an ally in Disobedient believers

Unbelievers recognize external power, but not the real source of strength (22:5-7).

22:5 So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, [in] the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me. 6 “Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” 7 So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the [fees for] divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam and repeated Balak’s words to him.

• Balak of Moab knew of a great Seer who spoke for the LORD, but thought that Seer could determine or manipulate the message he received from God (22:5-6). The issue wasn’t simply that Balak believed that Balaam could KNOW who would win – he wanted to thwart the psychological advantage of Israel’s string of victories with the news of a curse amongst his own troops. The world will causally and cynically use both God’s Word and God’s people for their own end game.

Do not blame them – they do not know the power of the Word of the Living God. They do not feel the warmth of the fire. They know only the cold, and believe all references to the heat are but myth. We were like them, so we should be understanding.

• Balak thought the fee paid could win him a favorable outcome with God (22:7). Don’t miss the important lesson here. When God’s enemy wants to find an ally, they look for the believer that is not walking in obedience to God’s Word.

Ponder that for a moment. Right in the room of every church today are some of the enemy’s most potent allies. They have a form of godliness, but they practice it in self-will. When the enemy desires to attack God’s plan – they are the ones he will use to accomplish the damage. That’s worth a moment, and a sobering thought about our own heart and its surrender to the Master’s beckoning.

Disobedient believers are selfish, and neither represent God well, nor serve others honestly (22:8-14).

22:8 He said to them, “Spend the night here, and I will bring word back to you as the LORD may speak to me.” And the leaders of Moab stayed with Balaam. 9 Then God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” 10 Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent [word] to me, 11 Behold, there is a people who came out of Egypt and they cover the surface of the land; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I may be able to fight against them and drive them out.'” 12 God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” 13 So Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s leaders, “Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.” 14 The leaders of Moab arose and went to Balak and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.”

• Disobedient believers promise (by implication or open statement) to accurately reflect God’s Word to the people who want to know it (22:8). Instead of refusing to participate in any way, they make a show of their fake obedience to God. In many ways, it would be better for a man or woman to never meet a believer – than to meet a disobedient one. If they never met one, God could meet them through other means. If they know disobedient ones, God has a hurdle to overcome to reach their heart.

• Though the disobedient believer hears and understands God’s Word when they seek Him (22:9-12), they will undoubtedly choose to report only part of what God said – either not taking it all seriously or evaluating the other part as that which would make them less palatable to the world (22:13). God’s Word is not blocked from them in their disobedience – they simply dismiss uncomfortable parts of it.

• They leave a negative view of themselves before the world, without carefully explaining God’s point of view from His Word (22:14). God had a representative on the scene who failed to represent Him in his disobedient state – setting up further compromise in the future. If Balaam had carefully explained the truth – all the truth – God shared with him, he could have left Balak with better information, and would have removed the obstacle of further temptation from himself.

Think for a moment about the Moabites that heard the “half record” from God…Unbelievers who have not received the faithful record of God’s Word, keep pressing for their own objectives with their own false understanding (22:15-21).

22:15 Then Balak again sent leaders, more numerous and more distinguished than the former. 16 They came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, ‘Let nothing, I beg you, hinder you from coming to me; 17 for I will indeed honor you richly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Please come then, curse this people for me.'” 18 Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the LORD my God. 19 “Now please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the LORD will speak to me.” 20 God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise up [and] go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.” 21 So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey and went with the leaders of Moab.

• Balak didn’t hear what God said concerning Israel, only that Balaam was unable to come to them – so he proceeded without understanding (22;15a-16). The believer’s task is as a faithful witness. Failure to offer truth because we believe people will not accept it is taking the work of others in our hands

• Balak offered Balaam more money and honored him with a more prestigious delegation (22:15b, 17). The world uses tools that work among lost men – enticements in the physical world like fame and fortune.

• Even the disobedient believer knows that such enticements should be openly shunned – and he appears to do so publicly (22:18-19). Disobedient believers are the hypocrites that turn the world’s hunger for God off.

• God let the compromising prophet move ahead in his own desires and his lusts set up the confrontation and conviction (22:20-21). Knowing the man’s heart to press forward, God opened the door and “gave him over” to his desire. Had he truly believed what God told him before – that God was with Israel – there is no way he would have gone with the men. Believers who don’t take God’s Word seriously are headed for a confrontation with God – either before death or after.

Third, the Confrontation: God dealt with a disobedient follower

The disobedient believer God permission to play out his own desires (22:22a).

22:22a But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as an adversary against him

• In the story, it is not immediately clear why God would give Balaam permission to do something that He didn’t really WANT the man to do. God was asked, God answered, and now God was in the way – so there is certainly MORE TO THE STORY than the surface. A further search of Scripture answers the problem. It appears God gave him over to wrong desires and allowed him to go – so that God could lead him back to repentance. Reading the story it may not be immediately apparent, but God offered more commentary on the story in four other places in His Word. The first two, from the Hebrew Scriptures, are both a reflection of the history, used to remind people of God’s faithfulness and the ongoing penalty of God for the incident:

Deuteronomy 23:3 “No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD; none of their [descendants], even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the LORD, 4 because they did not meet you with food and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 5 “Nevertheless, the LORD your God was not willing to listen to Balaam, but the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you because the LORD your God loves you. 6 “You shall never seek their peace or their prosperity all your days.

Micah 6:5 “My people, remember now What Balak king of Moab counseled And what Balaam son of Beor answered him, [And] from Shittim to Gilgal, So that you might know the righteous acts of the LORD.”

Essentially, both Moses and Micah offer the truth that the historical event of Balaam was a ploy, and that he was a prophet for hire. Yet, later commentary on the event in the Christian Scriptures offered a clearer window into Balaam’s reasons for wanting to go with the men. Peter and Jude both comment:

Speaking of disobedient people in the assembly of the early church, Peter comments in 2 Peter 2:12 But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, 13 suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong. They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, 14 having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children; 15 forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the [son] of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; 16 but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, [for] a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet. Peter clearly indicates that Balaam was “on the take” and working from his fallen nature and its lusts – not on behalf of God’s true intent. God sometimes gives people over to what they truly want to teach them something important.

Jude offers a nearly identical insight when referring to disobedient and defiant people in the early church in Jude 1:10 But these men revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals, by these things they are destroyed. 11 Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah. The reference appears to be warning that some are fussing in the body because of a burning passion for physical gain. They were apparently willing to trade truth for cash.

Don’t forget a truth from Scripture about God’s emotions as they are recorded. We read that God was ANGRY. That grammatical term, like all human terms about God is only bluntly accurate. When I am angry, I am acting in selfishness. I am normally making myself, my desires and my comfort more important than those around me. When God does it, it is a function of truth. There is a sense in which it is entirely beyond the grasp of human language to define with specificity the emotional responses of God. His anger usually leads to teaching the object of His anger. Mine does not. I am forced to conclude the word, when applied to God is a blunt and crude description of His true feelings limited by human language.

God hadn’t left the scene, but was setting up a confrontation with the wayward believer (22:22b).

22:22b “…Now he was riding on his donkey and his two servants were with him”.

• God didn’t send him alone into the world – there were some who (in the mercy of God) could still point the way back to God. Sometimes the real jackass isn’t obvious.

On the way to a confrontation with God, many disobedient believers fight God’s Word and God’s messengers (22:23-30).

22:23 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand, the donkey turned off from the way and went into the field; but Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back into the way. 24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path of the vineyards, [with] a wall on this side and a wall on that side. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed herself to the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he struck her again. 26 The angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn to the right hand or the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam was angry and struck the donkey with his stick.

• Spiritual sensitivity sinks when disobedience flourishes (22:23-27). For a while, the disobedient believer would be at odds with those who were sensitive to God’s leading – but they are God’s redirecting gift. Jude says it this way: Jude 1:22 And have mercy on some, who are doubting; 23 save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.

Watch Balaam as he traveled. The donkey saw God’s interruption, the seer did not. The donkey turned to save his master and for that she was struck by her master (22:23).

A second time the donkey avoided calamity for his master and she was struck again for the small pain he caused him (22:24-25).

The third encounter caused the donkey to lay down in the pathway, which got her a beating with a stick (22:26-27).

In some ways, obedient believers are like the donkey, trying to warn the disobedient but getting beaten by them. Obedient and spiritually sensitive believers should sense the privilege of being used by God when disobedient believers react against them. Sometimes our job includes taking an unfair shot.

22:28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” 29 Then Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.” 30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.

• God has a way of speaking to the disobedient believer – and convicting them with truth while allowing them to continue to disobey (22:28-30). Note the donkey walking “in his own way” was analogous to the true jackass – Balaam – walking HIS OWN WAY. We can often detect a flaw in others because we have mastered it in ourselves!

In effect, God empowered the donkey to argue with the Jackass on his back. “Knock it off!” complained the donkey. “I am not doing anything wrong! I have been with you for a LONG time, will you please wake up and pay attention to what is happening and QUIT SMACKING ME!” The DONKEY seemed to have more spiritual comprehension than the man riding upon her.

The confrontation between donkey (a faithful servant) and her master (the disobedient believer set up the confrontation with the LORD (a faithful Master, 22:31-35) and the true jackass of the story (the disobedient believer).

22:31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground. 32 The angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me. 33 “But the donkey saw me and turned aside from me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, I would surely have killed you just now, and let her live.” 34 Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I will turn back.” 35 But the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I tell you.” So Balaam went along with the leaders of Balak.

• God made Balaam see what his disobedient eyes could not naturally see – this is part of the process of conviction (22:31). Disobedience often blinds us to God’s warnings until we are ready to place God back in charge of our life.

• The angel of the LORD repeated the question about abuse to the donkey that the animal raised earlier (22:32). When we don’t hold God in His rightful place, we can easily abuse the place of others around us. I have seen this many times. Leaders who are not surrendered to God can easily be tyrants – even in the household of faith. Surrendered leaders are much more sensitive servants than unsurrendered ones.

• God’s emissary made clear the donkey was faithful, while the seer was not (22:33). God speaks against the poor handling of truth, and the abuse of His servants.

• The arrow of conviction found its mark, and the seer admitted his sin, offering to turn back and go home (22:34). Repentance is agreeing with God about my sin, and offering back to God the right to re-direct my steps.

• God used even the disobedience, once surrendered, to advance His agenda (22:35). When a testimony is broken, it will take time to fix, even though the sin is forgiven.

The final results of the confrontation were a renewed prophet that had, through earlier compromise, put himself in real discomfort by his poor testimony (22:36-41).

22:36 When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the city of Moab, which is on the Arnon border, at the extreme end of the border. 37 Then Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not urgently send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me? Am I really unable to honor you?” 38 So Balaam said to Balak, “Behold, I have come now to you! Am I able to speak anything at all? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I shall speak.” 39 And Balaam went with Balak, and they came to Kiriath-huzoth. 40 Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep, and sent [some] to Balaam and the leaders who were with him. 41 Then it came about in the morning that Balak took Balaam and brought him up to the high places of Baal, and he saw from there a portion of the people.

• The unbeliever felt entitled to the loyalty of the once disobedient believer (22:36-37). When the ungodly buy a man, they own him. Herein is the quiet warning: Don’t be manipulated by men to feed lusts for fame or fortune, power or pleasure. The borrower becomes the slave to the lender!

• The unbeliever thought he could cynically read the motivation of the believer – because in disobedience they were very much the same (22:37). Now they were not, but he didn’t know that. Renewal before God and renewal before men are not the same process.

• The unbeliever heard the claims of the believer – but he didn’t really believe them – why would he (22:38)? The track record of this believer was that he could be manipulated by enticement – and that his walk with God was just a show. Hypocrites naturally sow the seed of cynicism in those around them.

• The unbeliever offered religious practice in place of relationship (22:39-41). By the end of the story, there stood the once disobedient believer in a high place of Baal, with the smoke of a pagan offering in his nostrils – being coached along by a pagan.

Don’t mistake the positive nature of the end of the story.

The narrative began with obedient believers moving forward, and a disobedient seer brought in as an ally to the world. The scene ends with all the believers doing right. Despite the compromises and discomfort created by the disobedience of the past – there was much reason to hope – because all of God’s people were now following His instructions. That is the goal of instruction.

Paul said it best to Timothy long ago: 1 Timothy 1:5 “But the goal of our instruction is love (right action) from a pure heart (clean thinking) and a good conscience (proper innate self-judgment) and a sincere faith (vision as God says things are).” Right instruction leads to correct and unselfish actions that come from proper discernment based on truth.

God knows more than our actions – He knows our intentions. He is a God of the heart, not simply of the hands. There is simply no hiding from Him.