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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Christian journalist: Learn from Balaam’s ass (Number 22-23)

Numbers 23:5. “The LORD put a message in Balaam’s mouth.”

Exegesis and Application

This is a fascinating episode in the life of the Old Testament Church. Israel, on its way to the Promised Land, has camped across the Jordan River from Jericho on Moabite land. Balak, King of Moab, was “terrified” that Israel would attack Moab. So he sent for the Syrian prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites before they could attack. God comes to Balaam and tells him not to go back with the Moabite embassaries and not to curse the Israelites (22:12). The next day Balaam tells the Moabites to go away (“the LORD has refused to let me go with you.”). They go away but return with even more inducements and Balaam tells them that he doesn’t care what they offer. “I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the LORD my God.” That night God changes His mind and He too comes back to Balaam and tells him to “go with them, but do only what I tell you.” So off goes a confused Balaam to Moab with his donkey to deliver four messages to Balak, all of which are discouraging and not what the king wanted.

The most interesting aspect of the Balaam story is his interaction with his donkey. On the way to Moab with the “princes of Moab,” he has three brief conversations with his donkey. Balaam meets an angel on the road but doesn’t apprehend him. The donkey does recognize the angel and reacts by going off the road. Balaam beats the donkey for being disobedient and thus begins the famous brief conversation between the Mesopotamian prophet and his jackass. Besides the talking serpent in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3) this is the only place in the Bible that we encounter a talking non-human. It is interesting that Balaam doesn’t seem to be shocked when his donkey, tired of his treatment, says, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”

While Balaam’s talking donkey is the most arresting aspect of this story, the issue I want to address gets little attention: God’s common grace as He reveals his will to a pagan Syrian prophet. Furthermore, God opens Balaam’s eyes to see the angel standing in the road. The donkey has better spiritual sight than the pagan human! There are only four other times recorded in the Bible that God speaks to non-believers: Abimelech (Gen. 20:3), Laban (Gen. 31:24), the Egyptian cup bearer and baker (Gen. 40:5) and Pharaoh (41:1). Implicit in these accounts is the idea that God’s people do not have a monopoly on revelation of the deity. The revelation of His will to all people is possible. The most stunning illustration of this universality in the Old Testament is the claim made by the biblical reporter that godly king Josiah was killed in battle because he did not listen to the words of pagan Pharaoh Neco from the mouth of God (“Josiah would not listen to what Neco had said at God’s command,” 2 Chronicles 35:22-23). Add to this divine revelation to pagans the example of pagan Jethro giving wise judicial advice to his son-in-law Moses about how to organize the court system of Israel (Ex. 17-24) and you get the picture that God is not limited to His children in His instruments of wisdom teaching.

Christian journalist, if we are to understand our role as Christian journalists in a post-Christian culture we must be discerning enough to think independently and be prepared to be informed and corrected by those excellent in the profession, Christian or not. A Christian view of the role of journalism in a post-Christian newsroom that is so completely at odds with the prevailing view in our journalistic culture will:
1) miss the benefits of God’s grace which informs our minds and practice
2) miss the opportunity to take our rightful place in the journalism culture because we will be excluded.

The conclusion I draw from Numbers 22 – 23 is that Christian journalists must be prepared to learn from our non-Christian colleagues because it may please God for us to do so.  We should take good clues from the world as to how to act in the world.  Here is just a sampling of what our best secular counterparts can teach us:
*Use words carefully and love the English language
*Be tenacious and competitive in pursuing a story
*Be open to the latest technological advances in communication
*Be compelled by great story telling
*Be insatiably inquisitive and follow the rabbit trails of a story

The tricky part is that while embracing the good and instructive aspects of the prevailing secular and ever-changing journalism kingdom, the Christian journalist needs to hang on to her citizenship in the eternal kingdom.  And that challenge is never-ending.

The kingdom of God advances by the Christian journalist being a careful, accurate and verifying journalist, and not by being a proselytizer with a missionary mouth. Christianity teaches that if journalists take care of their vocational calling (i.e., factual and compelling story telling), their testimony will take care of itself.  Work for the Christian journalist is a sacred stewardship, and in fulfilling his job as a reporter he will either accredit or violate his Christian witness. The labors of the Christian journalist should be the priestly good works that radiate from a serious spiritual life. What distinguishes the Christian journalist is the sense of missionary zeal for the truth, however unpleasant that truth may be. We will fail time and time again to get it right, but the honest attempt to get the facts right is at the core of a Christian view of journalism. And because of common grace, the Christian journalist never loses his sense of hope in the midst of his story telling.

One final note on common grace: As our passage teaches, Christians are not the only truth-tellers in the profession. Non-Christians can also speak the truth and Christians can lie. That’s not the point. The point is: It is our obligation, our sacred duty as Christians to always strive to write true statements which are verified by credible sources. Anchoring the truth-telling role of the journalist who is a Christian is the sixth sense – the illumination of the Holy Spirit to guide the journalistic process.

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