On Spiritual Maturity : The Error of Balaam

In the book of Numbers, four chapters are devoted to the history of a prophet who had a profound impact on God’s people during their conquest of the Promised Land.  This prophet was not a Jewish man, but a seer who dwelt in Pethor: Balaam son of Beor.  In 1967 archeological evidence was discovered with the inscription of “Baalam son of Beor” prophet of “El Shaddai” – the Almighty God as he was known to the Israelites in the days of Moses.  This archeological evidence adds tremendous historic weight this account in the Bible.

Image of wall tiles inscribed by "Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai" found at  Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See  www.bible.ca/archeology/
Image of wall tiles inscribed by “Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai” found at Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See http://www.bible.ca/archeology/

The reason why this account of a foreign prophet speaking to ancient Israel is important to contemporary believers is highlighted by the numerous New Testament references to Balaam.  All of these references of Balaam are warnings: Peter warns the church of false prophets who “have gone astray… in the way of Balaam…” (2 Peter 2:15).  Jude warns of “ungodly people… [who] abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error” (Jude 1:1, 11).  John wrote of those in the church in Pergamum “who hold to the teachings of Balaam.” (Revelations 2:14).  In each of the three texts the prophet Balaam is used as reference or type of ungodly lifestyles and doctrinal error of believers that is condemnable.  But what is this dangerous “error”, “way” or “doctrine”?

Reading through the historic account of Balaam’s dealings with Israel (Numbers 22:1-25:10, 31:8,16), one has to acknowledge his absolute commitment to relay only what God says: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more” (22:18).  Throughout these three chapters he maintains this stance, repeating his commitment to speak only the words of God another five times (22:38;  23:8, 12, 26; 24:13).  In the end, Balaam’s loyalty to prophesy in truth as God revealed cost him his wages which Balak promised (24:11).  Thus Balaam is an accurate prophet, true to delivering God’s message, not yielding to pressure or bribe to speak falsely.

So why the negative connotations with Balaam?  Numbers 25 records a shameful time in Israel’s travels as they camped on the Eastern side of the Jordan river and started living like the Moabite people.  Swaying under the power of cultural seduction to sexual immorality and idol worship, the Israelites came under the wrath of God through as a plague that killed 24’000 Israelites (Numbers 25:1-9).  This moral decay is attributed to Balaam (Numbers 31:16).  Although he was extremely gifted and graced by God to hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, he himself was an immoral man whose way of life was corrupted with sin (“way of Balaam” 2 Peter 2:15; ““error” Jude 1: 11) and his teachings deceptive (Numbers 31:16).  His lifestyle and teachings were not to be followed, admired or trusted.  In fact, Balaam was executed along with the Midianites under the wrath of God (Numbers 31:8).

The first talking ass - Balaam's donkey!
The first talking ass – Balaam’s donkey!

Although his prophesies is shown to be infallible in the text, the author of Numbers includes the humorous account of his journey on the donkey to Balak (Numbers 22:21-38), which is very deliberately inserted to humble this “great prophet”.  For instance, Balaam the great prophet is hired to subdue Israel with words, but he cannot even subdue his donkey with a stick.  He claims to see visions (24:4,17) but can’s see what the donkey sees on three occasions (22:32).  He claims that his prophetic speech is from God (22:38; 23:5, 12, 16), yet the donkey silences him as its mouth is also opened by God (22:28).  Balaam claims to posess knowledge “from the Most High” (24:16) was beaten in verbal exchange with a stupid donkey (22:30) and then has to admit to the angel “I did not know [what the donkey knows]” (22:34).  Although Balaam is on his way to slay a whole nation with his words he has to draw a sword to kill the donkey (22:29); while lamenting lamenting that he had no sword to slay the animal, the donkey sees the drawn sword in the hands of the angel (22:23) right in front of him.  This irony is meant as a lesson in humility – that the great prophet, like any donkey, can see and speak only what God shows him, and that he simply is graced to serve in the purposes of God.  Secondly, this account shows that although the prophet speaks graceful words by God’s Spirit, he is more beastly than his donkey: where the beast is kind to move his master Balaam out of harm’s way three times, the master is beastly in beating the faithful, kind-hearted, willing animal without considering the motive.

Godliness and our culture

Although Balaam had the ability to speak God’s words accurately, he had lead a whole nation astray.  His life serves as a warning that accurate spiritual discernment without holy living (from a godly character) is dangerous.  What was this ungodliness?  Balaam’s error (2 Peter 2:15) or Balaam’s way (Jude 1:11) simply refers to his lifestyle of cultural acceptance.  Although being a gifted prophet Balaam lived as the Midianites did, and that lead to the corruption of God’s holy people as they followed his “way” and “erred” in his footsteps.  His love for sensual pleasure made him prone towards greed, sexual immorality and cultural festivity surrounding the worship of other gods, plus his independence lead to rebellion.  (See 2 Peter 2:2-14; Jude 1:1, 6-11; Psalm 106:28; Revelation 2:14).

no_rules
The doctrine of Balaam: everything goes! No consequences!

The doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14) teaches that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their lifestyle.  So by his example and by his teachings the great prophet Balaam deceived God’s people into a lifestyle of sexual immorality and the worship of Baal of Peor.  As a result, many died under the wrath of God, never reaching the Promised Land (Jude 1:5).  Still today Balaam’s dualism (distinguishing spiritual holiness from moral life) is taught in many places (associated with Gnosticism in the early church and extreme grace teachings).  Apart from formal teaching, the way of Balaam is engrained in our spiritual DNA by the example of our contemporary church culture where Sundays is God’s day, and the rest of the week we live good lives, but find pleasure and security as the rest of society does.

Balaam is not the only example of this fallacy in Scripture.  Samson, the mighty deliverer of Israel was like him: a man empowered by the Spirit of God to lead and deliver Israel, yet always seduced and enticed by his worldly passions and made ineffective. (Judges 14-16)  Giving in to the seduction of sensual sins enslaves God’s people and brings shame to his Name.

In contrast to Balaam and Samson, Daniel and his friends stand out as examples of godliness amidst a crooked world.  Daniel chapter three records how Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image that everyone in his kingdom had to bow down to whenever the music played. The image was not an image of a particular god, but rather represented the religious culture of the day.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the image, and was persevered by God in the fire.  Their refusal to succumb to the cultural pressure in faithfulness to the One True God stands as an example to every believer in our present-day materialistic, promiscuous culture feeling pressures us to conform.

How do we respond?

Considering the the error of Balaam, I find three ways to respond to this in pursuit of spiritual maturity.

  1. Review your definition of “Spiritual Maturity”

The reference to Balaam in Peter’s second epistle pertains to false prophets among the first readers, thus spiritually gifted leaders. This is worth mentioning.  Peter appeals to his readers to note the ungodly fruit of these spiritually gifted ministers, and therefore not following their example of sensuality and rebellion.  Peter looked at the character and behavior of these gifted leaders and was not easily mesmerized by their prophetic ability.  After all, Jesus taught him that a person is “known by [his] fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

Peter needed to write this to the growing young church, since the charismatic gift of prophets is very appealing to especially young believers.  And the display of spiritual gifts is easily taken as signs of spiritual maturity. It is the will of God that we grow up (Ephesians 4:11ff), but how do you define maturity? That is why these warnings by Jesus and his apostles are so strong and clear.  So re-evaluate your view of spiritual maturity: Who do you admire?  Who do you want to follow after?  Consider their character – are they known by their love? What can you learn from their marriage and family relationships, their work ethic and how they manage money?

Take stock of your life spiritually.
Take stock of your life spiritually.
  1. Take stock of your own life.

In Jude and Revelations the warning to individuals walking in the error or teachings of Balaam is merely to wrong belief of individuals in their congregations of those in their midst.  Balaam is the image of a spiritually gifted man with the lust of sensual pleasures that are lead by his passions through this life like waves thrown around by their earthly desires (Jude 1:12-14).  Take an honest view of your life your own life, with special reference to you your passions and desires.  Are you leaving it unchecked?  What are you doing about it?  And who are you accountable to about it?

  1. Grow in godliness.

Our aim remains to be conformed to the image of Christ Jesus and to help form others into that image (Romans 8:29; Colossians 2:28-29).  Be purposeful about it.  How have you grown in godliness in the last year, and in which area do you need to grow now?  Are you growing in the will of God?  What does the Lord say, and what will you do to grow in that area of Christ-likeness.  Again, and who knows about that?

While closing with growth in Christ-likeness, remember these words of Paul: “Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, giving you the desire and ability for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  Continue, don’t stagnate in your pursuit of Christ-likeness.  Work it out yourself, don’t expect it to automatic or someone else’s job.  As you grow in Christ-likeness you also will grow to emulate the Christ – the Anointed One (Acts 10:38).  Earnestly desire spiritual gifts but let the motive be love (1 Corinthians 12:31).

And work with God – it is he that works in you, leading your through your desires and gracing your with the power needed to grow in Christ-likeness.  Don’t stop!  Work joyfully with the grace God gives.

On marriage and our culture

Marriage is still very popular[1], but it is increasingly reported that single Christians struggle to find suitable life partners[2], which is ironic in this information-age where a Google search for “dating web sites” return 122 million responses in under 1 second.  This seems to indicate that a multitude of possible life partners does not solve the problem of loneliness.  But why not?  Is it because there are too many options, or that a more perfect partner is perhaps one more click away…?

Another possible explanation why single people today struggle to find suitable life partners are due to unclear or unrealistic expectations from marriage and marriage partners.  The myriads of writings and  media resources[3] bring varied opinions and ideologies about marriage which leave a world in confusion about the essence and design of marriage as God intended it.  In particular three most destructive trends keep people from finding and enjoying fulfilled marital lives: firstly the culturally accepted norm of “falling in love”[4] where marital partners are selected (and de-selected) based primarily on emotions. Secondly, the belief that there is a “other half” or “soul-mate”[5] you need to find in order enjoy a fulfilled marriage relationship. Thirdly, the consumerist mindset that markets, searches and compares potential partners to seek an ideal fit, as we do with accessories, cars or clothes. These secular ideas are perpetually propagated and fueled by contemporary music, films and novels, and has become normative in our Christian thinking.

I believe that finding a marriage partner is not primarily about falling in love, not about finding my soul mate, and not at all about comparative shopping.  These ideas are foreign to Scripture and does not lead to fulfilled marriage.  This leaves us with the questions “what is marriage?” and “what makes marriage work?”

In the light of this confusion I find God’s message through the prophet Malachi refreshingly clear and concise.  Although the tone of the conversation we pick up is quite negative: God says that He has no interest in listening to the religious elite’s prayers because of their lack of respect for the institution of marriage and their marriage partners (Malachi 2:13).  Then the the Lord clarifies the intent and meaning of marriage, cautioning them regarding the destructiveness of promiscuity and divorce for both the couple and the children.  Malachi 2:14-16 reads as follows:

But you say, “Why does [God not hear our prayers]?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.  Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

The terms God uses to define marriage in and it’s intent in this passage are companionship, covenant, union, for children, and faithfulness.  Let’s look at each one of them to re-evaluate our understanding of marriage.

old-married-couple

  1. Marriage is companionship: she is your companion”

In definition and defense of marriage in Malachi 2:14-18, God first mentions companionship.  Here in Malachi 2:14-15 companion refers to the wife, but in Proverbs 2:17 it refers to the husband. Marriage is companionship.

The common interpretation of the role of the wife as “the helper” quoted from Genesis 2:18 is understood to mean that she should help in the purpose of the husband and running of the household.

However, that interpretation misses the intended meaning of Eve as helper, and the primary intent and definition of marriage.  Genesis 2:18 reads “LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’”  To understand the meaning of the term “helper”, one should ask “in what area did Adam need help when the Lord graciously sought to solve his problem?”  The answer is clear from the context: Adam was lonely – in the midst of a perfect world!  Adam needed someone to share life with, to take away the sting of loneliness.  Adam needed companionship, and the Lord gave him a helper, a companion.

This first picture of marriage is important since it reveals God’s design intent of marriage: to remove the sting of loneliness, so that man and woman may share the fullness of life together in intimate relationship.

Another important point to notice here is that while Adam was in a perfect environment, in a perfect relationship with God – with no sin and consequently no separation because of it ­­– Adam had a need for companionship which God recognized, God articulated, and God acted upon to solve.  (The solution was marriage).  I mention this because I have read and heard too many times that single people should “find their happiness and contentment in God.”  The sentiment is great, but it seems as though God did not meet that need for companionship in Adam, and that He was the one who recognized (and even created) that need in Adam, and provided that for that need in companionship.

Marriage is companionship.  Marriage is given to eradicate loneliness.  This is the primary task and responsibility of the marriage partner.  Every other motive for entering into marriage will set one up for disappointment and eventually marital failure.

Rings - the sign of the covenant
Rings – the sign of the covenant
  1. Marriage is covenant: she is …your wife by covenant”

In Christian circles we frequently hear that marriage is a covenant (legal promise).  But less frequently the covenant is defined.  We frequently read or hear about the ceremony regarding ancient vow-taking, but the essence of the vow is mentioned less frequently.

However, every person who contemplates divorce remembers his/ her vows to be something like “I will never leave you nor forsake you… in good times and bad… in sickness and health…” And that is the essence of the promise: marriage is a covenant of companionship[6]a promise to never allow the other person to feel lonely again.   Marriage is a promise which bind two people together in this life in mutual partnership.  Where two is better than one.[7]  It is not a contract of mutual performance (“you do this – i do that”) but rather a promise of companionship (“being with you always, regardless of your performance or state”) as Ruth did to Naomi. [8]

Marriage is covenant – a partnership by promise to remain together and share all “until death do us part”.  Marriage is a covenant of companionship.

  1. Marriage is unity: make them one”

One of the most frequently quoted Old Testament text by New Testament authors is Genesis 2:24, where we are reminded that the essence of marriage is to “leave” what is familiar and “cleave” your spouse, and “the two shall become one flesh.”  Thus the unity requires in part our participation (perpetual actions that move us towards our spouse (“cleave”) and move away from our old familiar life of singleness (“leave”).  But God’s strong hatred for the Israelite’s prevailing indifference and unfaithfulness towards marriage in Malachi 2:15 also reveals His part in marital union: “did not I make them one with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” 

This phrase shows the essence of marriage is a mystical, spiritual union of two people, brought about by God.  “Mystical” means something difficult to explain, but can be understood through participation.  This truth is also taught by Jesus when He is asked to comment on the practice of divorce made cheap in His day: “So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:8-9).    It is a mystical unity that speaks of a shared life, a shared identity.

Although the unity is difficult to observe, the effects of separation – what Malachi calls “violence to one’s flesh” (Malachi 2:16) – is observable.  The well-researched, traumatic effects of divorce affect the loss of identity, decreased emotional and physical health as well as shortened life expectancy, lowered social status, increased financial pressure and lowered relational attachment[9]. The devastation in children affected by divorce include behavioral problems such as aggression and rebellion, psychological effects such as depression,  anxiety and lowered concentration, followed lower academic achievement and poor self-esteem.[10]   These adverse effects in physical, emotional and spiritual well-being makes sense when one considers that divorce is a tearing apart of two people that have in reality become one, causing tremendous injury and death in all involved.

 holding baby

  1. Marriage is for Godly offspring: what was… God seeking? Godly offspring.”

Contemporary Western civilization is self-seeking, bent on entertainment and consumerism.  It is a culture that opposes long-term commitments, any difficulty and a sacrificial lifestyle.  This lifestyle hates children and views such dependent relationships as burdensome and thus undesirable.  Even within good marriages children will be delayed as long as possible to ensure a time of care-free enjoyment.  And a family who has more than 2-3 children will be followed by stares and comments such as “don’t you have a TV?” from passer-by’s wherever they go.

At the heart of this culture, marriage is for self-enrichment and pleasure for self children is an after-though or necessity to prolong society.  However, God says He made marriage as a union to solve the problem of man’s loneliness through the covenant of companionship.  Yet, what He wants from this union is “godly offspring”.  Marriage is the only setting where godly offspring can be raised, in the secure setting of mutual faithfulness.  This is the place where godliness is modeled and grafted into the young children, and where children are protected in their identity and perception of others from the “violence” of divorce and unfaithfulness. Thus the immediate context of the phrase in Malachi 2:15-16 teaches us that “godly offspring” require “faithfulness” in the union between husband and wife, to not bring about “violence” to the home.

When God thinks of marriage, he thinks of children.  What God wants from the union of marriage is godly offspring.

couple-bed-feet

  1. Marriage requires faithfulness: do not be faithless”

However, “Why does he not [hear our prayer]?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant… So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (Malachi 2v16)

Marriage is a divine union through a covenant of companionship, a place where Godly offspring is raised.  And marriage requires faithfulness.  Two reasons for faithfulness emerge from the text:

Malachi 2:14 starts with a question from the Israelites who faithfully offer to God sacrifices to maintain good relationship with Him, and entreat His favor.  But God says clearly that He does not hear their petitions, because of their marital unfaithfulness.  About 450 years later the Apostle Peter again wrote to the people of God “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel… so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7).  This is a profound statement – that God cares so much about our marital relations that He either hears our prayers or not!  Thus the first reason for faithfulness in marriage is because God sees, God cares, and God requires faithfulness (and honor) at home before He accepts public worship or answers prayers.

Yet a second reason in the text seems to be the core reason of the appeal to marital faithfulness from God: to not cause “violence” to self, your spouse or your children.  This text enriches our understanding of our sexuality, teaching us that sexual practices are not merely physical or biological activities, but also spiritual and relational.  Malachi warns that sexual promiscuity has a negative impact on your own spirit and therefore cautions us to “guard yourself in your spirit”.  Your spirit is the seat of your identity and relationships, is your capacity to create and dream (hope), to rejoice, to endure, to trust (or have faith), to communicate, to understand or perceive etc. God says “preserve this! – do not be sexually unfaithful!” 

But God also says to remain faithful to your wife for the sake of your wife and children – since the breaking of the covenant brings violence to the spirits of the entire family (as mentioned in the previous section).  It seems as though the covenant family enjoys protection from God as God enters into the marriage with “a portion of [His] Spirit in their union” (v15), and faithlessness regarding the covenant allows violence to spirits of the family members, especially if the faithlessness leads to the breaking of the covenant (divorce).

married-couple-talk

Conclusion and practical response

Thus a clear definition and intent of marriage from Malachi 2 could read:

Marriage is a covenant of companionship by which God makes the husband and wife one for the sake of godly offspring, which is preserved in mutual faithfulness.

How do we respond to this revelation of marriage from Scripture?   We need to re-evaluate our expectations of marriage and our (potential) marriage partners in light of God’s design.  For a fulfilled life, we need to approach marriage from a Biblical perspective otherwise we will not find the life of satisfaction and joy God contained therein.

Our first mental adjustment from this definition is that marriage is not primarily a romantic notion.  It is a relationship built on companionship, trust, faithfulness and a shared life.  Thus the marriage partner is not firstly a lover, but a companion.  The aim is an intimate life, not an erotic life.  What one seeks for in a marriage partner, and seeks to maintain in marriage is good companionship: someone trustworthy, someone supportive, someone with whom you can live well and work well.  Someone to take away loneliness by living a shared existence.

Secondly, marriage is permanent.  Malachi’s understanding of marriage re-enforces the truth that marriage is indeed “until death do us part”, and the consequences of faithlessness and divorce is “violence” – death and destruction to all involved.  This requires loyal devotion as well as patience and forgiveness from both marriage partners. Thus marriage cannot be approached with the self-centered consumer mindset, where marriage partners are compared and traded in.

Thirdly, the end of marriage is not merely “my happiness” but a Godly legacy, including God-fearing children.  The pursuit of self-indulgence (“my happiness”) increases selfishness – the worst enemy of marital joy and bliss.

How do we renew our minds about Godly marriage?  I suggest three ways, the first of which are obvious: study the Scriptures to prayerfully evaluate and re-adjust your own opinions of marriage.  I do not believe that a mere reading of the Bible is sufficient for transformation here – one has to systematically study it, preferably in discussion with your spouse.  Secondly, once a good Biblical understanding of marriage is established, one needs to actively evaluate the underlying presumptions and messages in contemporary music, novels and movies, etc relating to love and marriage.  For the trout to swim upstream he needs to know the force with which the river is flowing downstream, and compensate appropriately.  Lastly, and sadly this is a difficult one: find a godly example of marriage and make deliberate effort to spend time with them and learn from them. A good, living example is still the best way to grow in godliness.

So, in light of this Scripture – how does your view of marriage compare with God’s design and intent?

[1] Amidst increasing divorce rates, 80% of Americans are still expected to marry according to NY Times article by Cherlin A. J., In the season of marriage, a question – why bother?, NY Times Sunday Review dated 27 April 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/opinion/sunday/why-do-people-still-bother-to-marry.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[2] From Christian Today published 18 April 2013 http://www.christiantoday.com/article/single.christians.experience.anxiety/32169.htm

[3] A search into the Amazon online shopping database on “marriage” results in more than 230’000 books and related resources. Accessed 14 July 2014.

[4] From the Roman Cupid myth where the belief is that the angel Cupid shoots arrows and the victim falls helplessly in love with another upon sight. Refer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid

[5] From the Greek creation myth where the humans were created both male and female in one body, one soul, but for their rebellion Zeus split them in half so that they male and female would forwever wander miserably in search for their other half or “soul mate” Refer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul_mate

[6] Adams J.E., Marriage, Remarriage and Divorce, Baker House Books (Grand Rapids, MI, 1980), p8

[7] See Ecclesiates 4:9-11.

[8] See Ruth 1:16 -17 as a good example of such a vow, although this vow is not between husband and wife, the context is a vow of companionship.

[9] Hawkins J.H., Fackrell T.A., Should I keep trying to work it out? (Utah Commission on Marriage: 2009), p96.  Online version and program available here: http://divorce.usu.edu/

[10] Cherlin A.J. et al, Longitudinal studies of effects of divorce on children in Great Britain and the United States, Science, Vol. 252 no. 5011, 7 June 1991, pp. 1386-1389