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One of the Bible’s most confusing stories has to do with a man named Balaam and his talking donkey. How in the world can that apply to our lives and uncover spiritual truth?
In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose take you through eighteenth-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg’s detailed answer.
Jonathan sometimes has to ask if something is difficult because it’s a challenge you need to push through or because it’s a brick wall placed to put you on a new path. He’s had more than one occasion where he encountered an obstacle that steered him in a better direction.
For Curtis, these alerts usually come after a previous path he was taking has crumbled. This can be a kind of brutal wake-up call!
In today’s story from Numbers 22, a sorcerer named Balaam is hired to curse the children of Israel. On his way to do this, God seems to get angry at Balaam, so the angel of the Lord comes and “stand[s] in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand.” For more on God’s apparent anger, see our episode “Why Is God So Angry in the Bible?”
Balaam’s donkey sees the angel and takes measures to hide from him. Frustrated with his donkey’s behavior, Balaam beats it three times. Then “the Lord open[s] the donkey’s mouth,” and the donkey actually argues with Balaam over the abuse! The angel comes to the donkey’s defense, though, explaining that it saw him and was protecting Balaam’s life.
In the end, Balaam sees the error of his ways and goes on to bless—rather than curse—the children of Israel, despite his employer’s protests. So what’s the deal here? Well, in order to understand what’s going on, we need to apply Swedenborg’s concept of correspondences—every story in the Bible is an analog for a deeper spiritual truth.
By Balaam . . . are meant those whose understanding is enlightened and who teach truths, but still love to destroy by guile those who belong to the church. (Apocalypse Explained §140:2)
Balaam was a sorcerer at heart, so when left to himself, he thought only of sorcery. In the Word’s spiritual sense, the donkey he rode on symbolizes an enlightened intellect, so riding on a donkey or mule was a sign of a chief judge or a monarch. The angel with the drawn sword symbolizes Divine Truth shedding light and fighting against falsity. So “three times, the donkey turned aside from the path” means that the enlightened intellect did not agree with the thinking of the soothsayer; the same thing is meant by what the angel said to Balaam: “I have come out to oppose you, because the path you’re taking is evil in my sight!” (Numbers 22:32) A path, in Scripture’s spiritual sense, means the thoughts that spring from our intentions. Balaam was held back from the thought and intention of using sorcery by the fear of death, as is clear from the angel’s words to him: “If your donkey had not turned aside before me, surely I would even have killed you now.” (Num. 22:33) (Revelation Explained §140:4)
So Balaam wasn’t exactly a good guy—he only did the right thing and changed his path because he had no other choice.
It sounded to Balaam as if his donkey spoke to him. In reality, she did not speak, but he heard words as if they came from her. This phenomenon has frequently been demonstrated to me by personal experience. I was given to hear horses seemingly speaking—they were not speaking, but they seemed to be. This was actually the case with Balaam so that the story could be told in the Word, for the sake of the inner meaning in every detail. The inner meaning describes how the Lord safeguards people devoted to truth and goodness, protecting them from being harmed by the type who seem to be speaking from enlightenment, but actually have the thought and intention of leading them astray. (Revelation Explained §140:5)
So Swedenborg knew first-hand about this phenomenon of hearing animals speak. He even tells of hearing a hammer talk! For more on this, check out our episode “5 Kinds of Spiritual Experiences.”
It’s important to know that our intellect can be enlightened even if our will is evil. This is because the intellectual faculty is separate from the voluntary faculty in all who have not been regenerated—only in those who have been regenerated do the two faculties act as one. It is the function of the intellect to know, think, and speak the truth; but it is the function of the will to will the things we understand, and to willingly and wholeheartedly do them. The disagreement between these two faculties is clearly apparent in evil spirits. When they turn to face good spirits, they understand and even acknowledge the truth, almost as if they were enlightened. But as soon as the evil spirits turn away again, they go back to the love in their own will, and cannot see any truth—they even deny the things which they had heard. The ability of our intellects to become enlightened has been given to us for the sake of our reformation. Within the human will resides every kind of evil—the evil we are born into, and the evil we get ourselves into—and our will cannot be changed for the better unless we learn about truth and goodness on the one hand, and falsity and evil on the other, and then intellectually acknowledge them. Otherwise we cannot turn our backs on falsity and evil, and come to love truth and goodness. (Revelation Explained §140:6–7)
Intellect alone is an extremely tricky path to heaven. Instead, our wills need to genuinely align with God’s.
Having planted those three seeds in our minds, let’s take a moment to meditate on the different pathways that make up our journey in life.
Sometimes you’ll be struggling in life, and there’s a reason for it—like the donkey straying from the path at the sight of the angel in order to protect Balaam, you might need to change your own path because of things you just can’t see.
For more on how to get at the truth and find the right path, see our episode “How to Test a Spiritual Idea.”
- Jonathan: Demon possession
- Curtis: The Church
At the beginning of the episode, we asked how you’ve changed your path. Here’s what viewers had to say:
- A COURTROOM JUDGE. Lol -Matthew Bush
- When my friends said stop or we are calling the police. -Tacitus
- I’m a big dunce, most of the time I have to be knocked off the path I’m on, otherwise the decision seems too easy! -Sean Smith
- When I discovered I do not look good in Orange!!! -Angel Shining
- Absolute misery – my job (specifically the school where I was teaching at the time – not the profession as a whole) – transferred schools & regained my happiness- environment can be crucial!! -Shanna Dowd
- My wake up was having a severe mental breakdown that ended up with me being hospitalized against my will in a psychiatric hospital. Yeah. That woke me up. -Grow ByDoing
- Cancer punched me in the head. -Donna Golden
- When I began to find out more about the afterlife, actually changed my outlook on life in general. -mtp358
- After an incidence of gossiping, I was warned strongly not to do it. I GOT THE MESSAGE -Sheila Montgomery
- When the amount of love was nowhere near my amount and effort. So I let go. -Shane’s Aegis
- Divorce -Joy Borazjani
- The quiet voice of divine providence incessantly (yet gently) trying to direct me on another path -Kendall M.
- I was alerted- felt pty inside like something was missing….ansit was the Lord!i didnt find Him, He said in the Word He drew me. yaaaaay!! Love my life with Jesus -K Mastanzway
- lost in the woods! Lol -DavidJ
- When multiple obstacles come up and my best efforts fail, one after another, usually worse and worse every time. -The Salvation Navy
- As a recovering addict, I used to get alerted every time I hit rock bottom…and it was a few -DavidJ
- I’m afraid that it usually takes someone I love waking me up to the error of my ways before I see where I need to change. -Jon Childs
- Even though I knew it was wrong, I engaged in gossip with a coworker I began to have nightmares. I knew immediately why. -Ellen Potter
- It was a great day when I discovered and acknowledged I was completely wrong about something. By embracing my mistake, my alert, I could more easily pivot and make a change. -Maudy Paden
- I have noticed that when I am on the wrong path I get alerted in my mind as if asked a question “how long are you going to keep trying to go forward on this rough road? “ Like finally -Bonnie Bowers
Thanks for joining us—we’ll see you next week!
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About Swedenborg & Life
In a lighthearted and interactive webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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When we wake up in heaven, Swedenborg tells us, angels roll a covering from off of our left eye so that we can see everything in a spiritual light. The offTheLeftEye YouTube channel uses an array of educational and entertaining video formats to look at life and death through an uplifting spiritual lens.
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