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Brother Balaam Casts a Long Shadow

Every child who has had any Christian background knows the story of this strange, “mad prophet” and the embarrassing tongue-lashing his friendly donkey gave him. For too many, though, as the years go by, that’s all the story of Balaam they remember.
But Brother Balaam is so much in all of us — to ignore Balaam is to ignore areas in each of our lives that need attention. Hardly a person alive has not had to struggle with the challenges that Balaam struggled with. Many go on and play out Balaam’s life drama. Some play the same game but withdraw before the game overpowers them.
What do we know about Balaam? Not much! But Bible writers remembered him in most unflattering terms. Jude likened current theological mischief-makers to Cain and to Balaam who ran “greedily in the error of Balaam” (Jude 11). Jesus, in characterizing one of the negatives describing Pergamos, the third church in His historical analogy, zeroed in on Balaam (Revelation 2:14). Why? Because for financial gain, he plotted with the Moabite king as to how to weaken the triumphant Israelites as they trounced other kings and countries in their march to Jordan and the Promised Land.
His conniving strategy? Send in the sucker punch — the charming women of Moab and the sensuous allurement of pagan religion. No theological debates, no recital of God’s providential leadership — just the fatal attraction of sexual excitement.
Did it work? It has almost every time it’s been tried! Rarely does anyone (man or woman) see in advance where the exhilaration of the moment will lead. Think, the morning after! How did God respond? Twenty-four thousand died at Peor, on the border of the Promised Land (Numbers 25:9).
What kind of a prophet was Balaam? Again, we don’t know much, but the biblical record notes that he had unusual powers and his reputation was widely known. More directly, he knew the true God with whom God would speak! It shows much about God’s universality, in working with men and women who responded to the Holy Spirit in all ages. Yet there is so much we do not know.
All we know is that he failed in the biggest test of his life. He didn’t fail because he didn’t struggle with his conscience and his open conversations with God. At least four times he went head-to-head with Balak’s charm and increasing promises of great compensation. Balaam’s appetite for financial bribes and the allure for the power that money would bring propelled him on but God truly stepped in, hoping to bring him to his senses. But Peter said that he had become a “mad” prophet (2 Peter 2:16).
Balaam slipped into madness when he rejected the awesome experience of listening to God. The promise of immense financial security and its accompanying power suffocated his once sensitive allegiance with God. In the end, he again returned to Moab with a scheme that would surely demolish the defenses of many Israelites — a strategy that many, it seems, choose not to resist ever since.
Has Balaam’s long shadow darkened us today?
Who hasn’t heard of the fifty billion-plus Ponzi scheme generated by former NASDAQ chairman, Bernard Madoff. His investors were among the most financially astute in the country but also included many, many who deposited their life savings (sometimes many millions of dollars) that seemed to be the surest “deal” in the world. All these funds were lost and many families and charities devastated.
But Madoff was only the tip of the larger iceberg. They may not be as horrendous as Madoff’s swindle, but many more (still increasing) similar schemes are now in the heat and light of the noon-day sun.
Think of the charming 60-year old, Allen Stanford, who, a few months ago, was worth two billion dollars — but is now penniless and in prison, facing charges of fraud. But first his elaborate scheme allegedly stole seven billion dollars from trusting investors who enjoyed (for a while) his high-rated CDs.
I could go on and on. But how about closer home? Many Adventists with modest “nest eggs“ have been devastated by investing with fellow Adventists who had a “sure thing” — dazzled by “arbitrage,” “offshore investments,” “products that will be front-page news soon,” etc. This kind of inducement is called “affinity” investing, where a trusted member of the religious community is a fast talker. The illustrations are beyond number in all church groups.
Are there any among us who have not at least been tempted to join a multilevel pyramid scheme which promises a high rate of return in the mistaken belief that everyone benefits. It works marvelously until it collapses under the need for an exponential increase of participants — and we see a modern example of musical chairs.
What happens to the Adventist memory when such names as Harris Pines, Pawtucket Nursing Villa, Davenport post offices, Shady Grove compensations, Boston Regional Medical Center, etc., come to mind? [See Douglas Hackleman, Who Watches? Who Cares? (Morrison, CO: Members for Church Accountability, 2008).]
What’s going on here? The shadow of Balaam! The twin lures of fast money and sexual attraction have blighted many families in our midst. The hopes for secure retirement, children’s educational needs, and the need for the extra car and vacation home, etc., have all vanished for too many.
But these financial collapses are not the worst consequence of greed. Balaam became “mad” in his soiled pursuits. So many Christian leaders, whom some of us know well, are no longer on their once chosen paths. Death came to Balaam surrounded by his evil consequences. And the future for all who have been infected with Balaam’s disease is bleak. “But outside the city (New Jerusalem) are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murders and idolaters, and whosoever loves and practices a lie” (Revelation 22:16, NKJV).

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