Budd (WBC) proposes that the key elements in the narrative recorded in chapters 22-24 are as follows:

1. Balak, king of Moab, encourages the Midianites to join him in a deputation to Balaam, the Mesopotamian seer, with a view to securing a curse on the Israelites (22:2–7).
2. God consults with Balaam, and forbids him to go (22:9–12).
3. In the night God resolves to let Balaam go, on condition that he speaks only the word given (22:20).
4. Balak meets Balaam, and is reminded that only the word given can be spoken. They go to Kiriath-huzoth (22:36, 38–39).
5. Balaam and Balak offer sacrifices, and God meets Balaam (23:1–4).
6. Balaam utters the first oracle, to the dismay of Balak (23:7–11).
7. Balaam utters the second oracle, reminding Balak that he must speak God’s word (23:18–26).
8. Balak proposes another location, and further sacrifices are offered (23:27–30).
9. Balaam, inspired by God’s spirit, utters the third oracle, provoking Balak’s anger (23:27–30).
10. Balaam is prompted to deliver the fourth oracle (24:15–19).
11. Balaam and Balak then go their separate ways (24:25).

(It should be noted, however, that Budd thinks that the story as it stands has been assembled from various elements, previously unconnected to one another.)

Balaam Refuses to Curse Israel, 1-14

22:1  The Israelites traveled on and camped in the plains of Moab on the side of the Jordan River across from Jericho. 22:2 Balak son of Zippor saw all that the Israelites had done to the Amorites. 22:3 And the Moabites were greatly afraid of the people, because they were so numerous. The Moabites were sick with fear because of the Israelites.

The Israelites…camped in the plains of Moab – Moab bordered with the promised land on the east side of the river Jordan.

‘Throughout the story, the Israelites remain oblivious to the drama taking place outside their camp. They rest in peace, totally unaware of the curse that threatens them and of God’s persistent efforts to block the curse and, instead, to bless Israel.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

22:4 So the Moabites said to the elders of Midian, “Now this mass of people will lick up everything around us, as the bull devours the grass of the field. Now Balak son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at this time. 22:5 And he sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor at Pethor, which is by the Euphrates River in the land of Amaw, to summon him, saying, “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are settling next to me. 22:6 So now, please come and curse this nation for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will prevail so that we may conquer them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”

The Midianites lived in Sinai and east of the Jordan.

This is a critical point in the wanderings of the Israelites.  They are just a few months short of the end of their 40-year journey toward the promised land.  But now an alliance is formed against them, and a deadly enemy is summoned.  But, as events prove, God’s covenant promise will not fail.

Balak clearly has no faith in his own army, so appeals to Balaam for help.

“Whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed” – God’s promise to Abraham (Gen 12:2f; 27:33) is to be directly challenged, if Balak is to have his way.  In the event, however, God’s promise will be confirmed by the very mouth of of a powerful enemy, v12.

Balaam makes a living as a ‘professional curser’, or ‘hired gun’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary), whose weapons are words which have the power to bless or curse.  ‘Balaam is regarded in Scripture as an evil man. The apostle Peter’s verdict is, ‘He loved the wages of wickedness’ (2 Pet. 2:15–16; Jude 11). His desire for riches drove him to oppose God and his people. The text repeatedly mentions his fees for divination (Num 22:7, 17–18; 24:11). When Israel took revenge on Midian, Balaam perished with them (Num 31:8).’ (NBC)

22:7 So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fee for divination in their hand. They came to Balaam and reported to him the words of Balak. 22:8 He replied to them, “Stay here tonight, and I will bring back to you whatever word the LORD may speak to me.” So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. 22:9 And God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” 22:10 Balaam said to God, “Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent a message to me, saying, 22:11 “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Come now and put a curse on them for me; perhaps I will be able to defeat them and drive them out.” 22:12 But God said to Balaam, “You must not go with them; you must not curse the people, for they are blessed.”
22:13 So Balaam got up in the morning, and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your land, for the LORD has refused to permit me to go with you.” 22:14 So the princes of Moab departed and went back to Balak and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.”

Balaam Accompanies the Moabite Princes, 15-21

22:15 Balak again sent princes, more numerous and more distinguished than the first. 22:16 And they came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak son of Zippor: ‘Please do not let anything hinder you from coming to me. 22:17 For I will honor you greatly, and whatever you tell me I will do. So come, put a curse on this nation for me.’ ”

v17 ‘Balak seemed to know that money mattered to the seer.’ (Brown)

22:18 Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, “Even if Balak would give me his palace full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the commandment of the LORD my God to do less or more. 22:19 Now therefore, please stay the night here also, that I may know what more the LORD might say to me.” 22:20 God came to Balaam that night, and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, get up and go with them; but the word that I will say to you, that you must do.”
22:21 So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab.
God Opposes Balaam, 22-35
22:22 Then God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him. Now he was riding on his donkey and his two servants were with him. 22:23 And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand, so the donkey turned aside from the road and went into the field. But Balaam beat the donkey, to make her turn back to the road.

‘Up to this point Balaam has been portrayed as a man of great spiritual stature, who can meet with God when he wants and whose words have tremendous effects on the fate of nations. Here his spiritual blindness and powerlessness are disclosed.’ (Wenham)

Why was it that God’s anger was kindled because he went, when in v20 it is recorded that God had commanded him to go?  Brown perceptively comments: ‘Israel’s God first told the pagan seer that he must not go with Balak’s messengers (22:12). Later, he was permitted to go (22:20), but God was angry when he did so (22:22). Did God change his mind? Is it possible here that our omniscient God became angry because he alone knew why Balaam was going (greedily, still hoping for a handsome fee), how he was going (deceptively, leading Balak to imagine there might yet be a curse), and where he was going, to Bamoth Baal, a hilltop shrine dedicated to Baal worship—pleasing Moab’s king but insulting Israel’s Lord?’

The donkey saw the angel of the Lord – The beast had more spiritual discernment than its supposedly spiritually gifted master.

22:24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a path among the vineyards, where there was a wall on either side. 22:25 And when the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed herself into the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he beat her again.
22:26 Then the angel of the LORD went farther, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 22:27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she crouched down under Balaam. Then Balaam was angry, and he beat his donkey with a staff.
22:28 Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” 22:29 And Balaam said to the donkey, “You have made me look stupid; I wish there were a sword in my hand, for I would kill you right now.” 22:30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am not I your donkey that you have ridden ever since I was yours until this day? Have I ever attempted to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.”

The donkey said – Are we really to believe that a donkey could talk?  Certainly, Peter thought so, 2 Pet 2:16.  Note that the communication originated with God, not Balaam (‘the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey’, v28).  As for why it was a donkey who spoke, then surely it was to draw a contrast with the supernaturally-powered and highly respected Balaam.  ‘The donkey saw the angel blocking the way ahead, before Balaam ever did, and so exercised more spiritual discernment than the supposed mighty leader…The emphasis is on the comparison between a man of reputedly great spiritual utterance, and a common little donkey.’ (Bewes, The Top 100 Questions, p241)

Wenham: ‘It is immaterial to the story whether the donkey really spoke, or whether Balaam just imagined it talking. The Old Testament certainly sees inspiration as a supernatural phenomenon caused by the Spirit of God. Thus if men were able to utter God’s words, why should not the same be true of animals?’

“I wish there were a sword in my hand, for I would kill you right now” – ‘The irony here is powerful, since the animal has saved Balaam from the sword.’ (Bellinger)

‘Throughout the ancient world, men like Balaam earned their living as fortune-tellers or soothsayers; their trade was to ‘see’ into the future of people who paid handsomely for a favourable message. But this Mesopotamian seer could not see the angel of the Lord obstructing his path. The perceptive donkey, by contrast, could see the angel plainly enough. Moreover, the mercenary speaker, well rewarded for saying the right things, could not speak what he was paid to say; yet the donkey was not dumb. The animal became daringly eloquent as she saw the Lord’s angel standing before her with a drawn sword.’ (Brown)

‘Balaam vainly imagined he was able to do anything he liked, but he had not begun to reckon with a sovereign God. His pagan notions about those pseudo-deities he usually had dealings with concentrated on the most appropriate offerings to make to them, the right way to placate or humour them and the best places to stand in order to obtain their favours and meet the client’s requirements. Given the right treatment, such gods could easily be flattered, controlled or subdued. But Israel’s God could not be bought or cajoled into doing anything that mere humans might want or not want. He had declared plans for his people, and neither a fearful king nor a greedy soothsayer could thwart them. Balaam was a voice God was determined to use, nothing more, and he could do little to prevent it. We have something to learn from Balaam. We must not arrogantly assume that, given appropriate spiritual formulas, correct prayer-language or sufficient intensity in our belief mechanisms, God can be persuaded to do something contrary to his wise purposes.’ (Brown)

Lessons from a donkey

‘Throughout Scripture we are repeatedly confronted with frail instruments who are used to further the purposes of God: a mercenary patriarch who deceives his brother, an innocent youth unjustly confined in an Egyptian dungeon,10 a quick-tempered refugee guilty of manslaughter, an obscure leader fighting a battle single-handed with only an ox-goad as his weapon,12 a terrified tribesman hiding his meagre supply of corn from the invader. When God makes his mind up to do something he can use anything—ox-goads, a pagan soldier’s dream, trumpets, jars, torches, even donkeys—to further his wise designs. This donkey is our teacher; nobody should be discouraged because of meagre equipment. Over the centuries, the Lord has taken special delight in choosing and using the world’s nobodies to do his will, to further his work and to convey his message, ‘so that no-one may boast before him’.’ (Brown)

2:31 Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his sword drawn in his hand; so he bowed his head and threw himself down with his face to the ground. 22:32 The angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? Look, I came out to oppose you because what you are doing is perverse before me.
2:33 The donkey saw me and turned from me these three times. If she had not turned from me, I would have killed you but saved her alive.” 22:34 Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood against me in the road. So now, if it is evil in your sight, I will go back home.” 22:35 But the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but you may only speak the word that I will speak to you.” So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.

Balaam Meets Balak, 36-41

22:36 When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at a city of Moab which was on the border of the Arnon at the boundary of his territory. 22:37 Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send again and again to you to summon you? Why did you not come to me? Am I not able to honor you?” 22:38 Balaam said to Balak, “Look, I have come to you. Now, am I able to speak just anything? I must speak only the word that God puts in my mouth.” 22:39 So Balaam went with Balak, and they came to Kiriath-huzoth. 22:40 And Balak sacrificed bulls and sheep, and sent some to Balaam, and to the princes who were with him. 22:41 Then on the next morning Balak took Balaam, and brought him up to Bamoth Baal. From there he saw the extent of the nation.

Balak…went out to meet him – ‘Balak’s eagerness to have Balaam’s help oozes out of the text. He came to the border to greet him, mildly rebuked him for the delay and mentioned again how he would reward him (36–37). The very next morning, they both ascended Bamoth Baal (‘the high places of Baal’) to pronounce curses (41).’ (NBC)

“I must speak only the word that God puts in my mouth” – Balaam has finally learned his lesson from his donkey.

‘God’s control of events is apparent in this last section of the chapter, a further instance of God’s control of Israel’s future in attempting to enter the promised land.’ (Bellinger)

Commenting on the entire section (chapters 22-24) Budd writes: ‘The story is a powerful celebration of the certainty of Israel’s success. Her triumphant progress to the land of promise cannot be halted or even hindered by the strategems of adversaries. Yahweh’s control is such that the worst they can do turns to a positive good in Israel’s favor. This overwhelming confidence in the success of God’s good purpose persists in Christian theology. The coming of God’s rule to the world he made cannot be hindered or turned aside by the scheming and devices of men.’

Balaam - true or false prophet?
Harper’s Bible Commentary regards the biblical estimation of Balaam as mixed, owing to the different traditions (which are supported by archaeological evidence in the form of writings on plaster panels in a temple at Deir’Allah near the Jordan River) that have been incorporated into the text.  Whereas the assessment of Balaam in Deut 23:3-6 is negative, in the present chapter (it is suggested) is ‘essentially positive’.

Budd, similarly: ‘with the passage of time the tradition of Balaam undergoes a number of other remarkable developments. The favorable element in the picture of Balaam, which emerges at its strongest in the Yahwist’s story, begins to fade, and the antagonism to all things anti-Israelite is highlighted. In Deuteronomy the tradition is used as a ground for excluding Moabites from the Yahwistic community (Deut 23:3–6). Balaam himself begins to emerge as hostile to Israel, and Yahweh refuses to hear him (Deut 23:5; Josh 24:10). The priestly author of Numbers extends this process in Num 31:16, implicating Balaam in the seduction and apostasy of Num 25:1–18. As one of the enemies of Israel he is killed (Num 31:8; Josh 13:22). From this basis it was open to later Jewish exegesis, from the Targums to the Talmud, to enlarge upon the sins of Balaam. He becomes a man moved by cupidity and vanity, the bad man of history, almost above all other. Early Christian interpretation follows a similar pattern, seeing in Balaam the forefather of the libertines or Nicolaitans who appear to have gained influence in the Christian communities (2 Pet 2:15–16; Jude 11; Rev 2:14).’

We ourselves are not convinced that the portrayal of Balaam in the present passage is as positive as these scholars make out.  A key element is that his donkey is more spiritually perceptive that he is!

The power of story

Brown remarks that ‘stories have acquired fresh value in this postmodern generation. People’s interest is rarely captured by abstract concepts or precisely defined ideas; they enjoy hearing about living situations, specific experiences and actual events…This ‘masterpiece of ancient Israelite narrative art’ has something to say to communicators of God’s word in the twenty-first century. The encounter of an anxious pagan king and a materialistic soothsayer is told in excellent prose and memorable poetry, with several exchanges of specific, repeated words and motifs, all designed to capture and maintain the interest of the hearer.’

Among the many expert storytelling elements is that of repetition.  ‘The words these three times reappear in the story: on the lips of the donkey (22:28), the angel (22:32–33) and the king (24:10). Three times Balaam is reminded of the considerable material benefits of his sinister work (22:17, 37; 24:11), and the frustrated Balak finds himself in three unproductive encounters with the helpless seer (22:39–23:3; 23:13–15, 27–29).’