This is indeed a very strange story. And it seems to have been randomly inserted in the middle of the Israelites' wandering and grumbling in the wilderness. It's strange not only because it involves a talking donkey, but also because the whole ordeal between Balaam and Balak happened completely behind the Israelites' back without their knowledge.
Balak was the king of Moab (east side of the Dead Sea). He must have heard the news of how the Israelites defeated other people earlier and was now very worried because they were approaching Moab. His wanted to curse these people.
So he summoned Balaam, a famous oracle well-known for his ability to call upon the spiritual world, and asked him to curse the Israelites for a return of gifts and benefits.
Balaam was aware of his reputation was at stake: If he obeyed Balak but it turned out God blessed Israel, he's in big trouble. If he refused Balak's request, he's also in trouble. He actually heard directly from God that God had decided to bless Israel. So probably out of fear, Balaam tried very hard to avoid Balak's request. But Balak kept coming up with more gifts to tempt him!
Should Balaam obey God to bless His people, or obey Balak to curse? Balaam decided he had no choice but to obey a much greater force: God (unwillingly). God finally allowed Balaam to follow Balak's men, but he must only speak what God told him to.
And this was when the talking donkey came in (Chap. 22).
Balaam got on a donkey for the journey but the donkey kept stopping and hurting him! Balaam got so angry with the animal that he started beating it. Balaam simply thought it was the donkey's problem that was preventing him from going forward. He failed to see God's presence and work in the whole incident until God opened his eyes. It's only then he realized God was standing in the way. So the animal could see God better than this famous oracle!
God still allowed Balaam to go forward, but He made Balaam see who was really in charge. In the end, Balaam only brought blessings to God's people.
Here the amazing part of this story was that when God's people were preoccupied with grumbling and rebelling against God, God had been actively protecting them from curse and only brought blessings on them. God absolutely refused to curse His people despite their repeated rebellion.
The story is also a solid proof of God’s sovereignty. No plans made by men—even the most powerful men—can happen without God's permission. “Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” Blessings and curses are all in God's hand. Even when the enemies are resolved to bring harm, God intervened and brought only blessings.
Unfortunately, the following chapter (Chap. 25) described Israel's downfall. But it wasn't because the enemies managed to curse Israel. Spiritual downfalls are rarely caused by external enemies, but almost always our internal problems: our sinful heart. The Israelites began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, and soon began to worship the Moabite gods (25:1).
From the outside, Balaam looks like a very 'spiritual' person: he could talk to God directly; he could hear His voice; he had a very spiritual reputation among his people; he chose to obey God (or at least he didn't dare to disobey).
But on a closer look, we can see his outward 'spirituality' was never genuine worship:
He just kept trying, perhaps hoping God would change His mind?
His main concern was his own reputation and well-being, not what God was concerned with: His people. His heart was not with God's heart.
He could not see God's active involvement in the event. Even an animal could see it, and God had to use a talking donkey to remind him.
How can we be blinded by our outward 'spiritual' image and experiences today? How do you truly measure your 'spirituality'?
What can we learn about the character of God? Is there anything that strikes you?
Which part of the story speaks to you most: Balak, Balaam, or the Israelite people?
Both Balaam and the Israelite people had very limited perspectives on the big picture. How did these limitations affect their emotions, choices and attitude towards God?