Bilaam is a Moabite prophet with a special vocal power: Whoever he blesses is blessed, whoever he curses is cursed. So when the Israelites approach the territory of Moab on their march to Canaan, their king Balak seeks Bilaam's help. He sends messengers with a request and with gifts. The request: Curse the Israelites.
Bilaam inquires of God, who tells him that he may not curse the Israelites, who are blessed. Bilaam tells King Balak's messengers, who are then sent back again with an offer of even greater reward. At this point, Bilaam repeats his answer -- but he adds: Stay overnight and I will inquire again of God.
Surely Bilaam knows that God will not change the message this time. Why doesn't he hold firm? The gifts from the king distract him -- a quick reward, the esteem of powerful people. Or perhaps he genuinely doubts what he heard in God's vision. Either way, his once clear voice disappears.
God allows Bilaam to go back to Balak with the messengers. But along the way, God plants an angel with a sword that Bilaam can't see. But the donkey he is riding can! Bilaam whips the donkey, who rears back from the threat three times in an attempt to protect his master. Finally Bilaam scolds the donkey, who explains himself. Then God opens Bilaam's eyes and speaks to him. God chastises Bilaam for going to the king, and charges him again to bless the Israelites rather than do Balak's bidding.
God's voice of prophecy within Bilaam represents Bilaam's own inner voice. His true being and path. Once Bilaam starts to doubt that voice inside, he loses it. He wonders if he should simply go along, rather than speak the truth to the king and his messengers. He loses his compass; even his donkey sees the path more clearly than he does.
Sometimes we know clearly who we are, what we stand for, what we should say in a difficult situation. Sometimes we know but don't do it, from fear of the crowd or vulnerability before someone with power over us. Like Bilaam, we can lose track of the prophetic voice inside, even to the point of foolishness. The "donkeys" around us sound more like us than we do!
Yet Bilaam does eventually regain his voice, and fulfills the mission that was always his. He loses his voice -- but it comes back. When we find ourselves in similar situations, and know that we don't sound like ourselves, that's a signal. To remember to have faith in what's inside, and to start speaking again to others from our truest heart.