“So when the donkey saw the Angel of God, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam became angry, and struck the donkey with his staff.” (OSB)
As much as the story of the wilderness wanderings in Numbers illustrates Israel’s faithlessness and rebellion, it is even more so a story that is driven by God’s word of promise. God is “not a man such that He should lie” (Heb 6:18; Num 23:19 [KJV]). Having made a promise to Abraham and his Seed, His Word will accomplish what He has sent it (Him) forth to do (Isa 55:11). Many Israelites according to the flesh at the time of Moses—just as at the time of Paul—“judge themselves unworthy” of their inheritance of the Land—that is, “eternal life”—that comes in and from the “word of God” (Acts 13:46). But this does not nullify the Promise, because the Promise is not dependent upon human will and effort.
Again, God makes His promise with Abraham and his Seed, who St. Paul tells us is Christ Himself (Gal 3:16). The God who ratifies the covenant promise in His own passing between the severed animals in Genesis 15 is the same God who, in and through His incarnate Son and Word, comes to be both the fulfilment and the heir of God’s promise to Abraham. Through Christ’s perfect obedience to God the Father, He undoes the “old Israel” and becomes the Head and Pattern of the “new Israel,” the Church, who are heirs not of a particular track of land in the Near East, but of “the cosmos,” all creation (Rom 4:13).
The inexorable movement of Israel towards the Promised Land in Numbers 21 and following, and the wars against Canaanite kings, are, for us, principally a spiritual picture of our combat with the passions and hostile spiritual forces in “heavenly places” on our journey towards our inheritance in the eternal Kingdom. In Christ, our journey is already completed for He is the journey and the destination—we are already “seated in heavenly places in Christ” above the principalities and powers (Eph 1:20; 2:6). And yet we must remain faithful until our growth in and union with Him is perfected, consummated.
Along the way, the Church will always be beset by “naysayers” and “false prophets” like Balaam, those “hired guns” of the spiritual Enemy (“Balak” and “the Moabites”) who try to bring an accusation against God’s “elect/chosen” (Rom 8:33) for the sake of profit. The motive of the spiritual “Moabites” is clear: they are fearful because they do not want to lose their “domain.” But such is the power of God’s word of promise that even the enemy’s intention to curse is overridden by God’s word of blessing, for “all nations will bless themselves by you” (Gen 12:3), every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10-11).
Though Balaam is, it seems, less spiritually perceptive than the donkey he is riding, out of his mouth will come prophecies of Christ Himself—true inspired speech from him as unexpected as rational speech from a donkey:
A Star shall rise out of Jacob; And a Man shall rise out of Israel. He shall break in pieces the rulers of Moab and plunder all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be His inheritance, and also His enemy shall be His inheritance. (Num 24:17-18)
“Where is He who has been born King of Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matt 2:2). Indeed, He is with us!