Balaam and the Talking Donkey (Num. 20)

The Book of Numbers, as mentioned in our two previous posts on it, continues the story of the Israelites and their eventual journey to the promised land. Balaam, the soothsayer of the Moabite King, Balak, was perhaps one of the more famous hurdles on this way. Balaam was renowned among the people of the region as capable of harming people with merely words. Balak, worried about the Israelites, who were–seriously–killing and messing up all the peoples in the region, decided to do something. Balak, reasonably worried about this marauding horde, dispatched Balaam so he could curse his way out of the situation. Balaam was set to take care of the problem. (See Num. 22:1-20).

Oh yeah, and he had a talking donkey.

Balaam’s story makes for a couple interesting–but disturbing–insights.

We’ve encountered talking animals before. But the talking “serpent” of Genesis seems a much more obviously mythological figure than Balaam’s talking donkey. So what do we make of it?

Well, it wasn’t like the animal was pulling an Eddie Murphy in “Shrek” and chatting nonstop. It was only after getting spooked by an angel, and after turning off the road and getting beaten by Balaam, oh and getting its life threatened (maybe Balaam’s name means “furious beater of animals” in Moabite?) that the poor creature protests:

The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” (Num. 22:30)

The donkey makes a pretty good point, I think. In fact, almost too good of a point. Backing up, Numbers 22 tells us that Balaam, despite being some soothsayer and mega good curser, has only gone out on this mission because God told him to (Num. 22:20). This after Balak was pressing him pretty hard. Balaam relented, and now, on his mission from God, he is mercilessly beating the crap out of an animal because it won’t go any further.

So one would imagine that Balaam was probably pretty taken aback by his donkey talking, right? He would probably utter something in response, like (translating this to current internet terminology) “WOAH WTF OMG WTF U R TALKING? WTF OMG OMG!!!!!1!” Or something like that. Balaam was probably astounded and aghast, right? I sure would be if my dog just came up to me one morning and asked if I’d made coffee yet.

But to the donkey’s question, Balaam simply responds, “No” (Num. 22:30).

So why was the donkey stopping? What obstacle could there be? After all, God had told Balaam that he should go on this mission. Ostensibly God had some master plan that we all don’t know about. In fact, maybe this diversion — maybe this is the plan!

Actually, no. God had sent an angel to block the path. For some magical reason–perhaps the same reason why the donkey could talk in the first place–only the donkey could see the angel.  Balaam’s hand is stayed (echoes of Abram and Isaac here) by that angel, who tells Balaam that if the donkey hadn’t stopped him, the angel would have killed him. But why? Wasn’t God sending him there in the first place? Did God forget to email the angel and tell him not to kill Balaam, because God himself sent him in the first place? Did it slip God’s GTD process? The angel does eventually tell Balaam to go to the Israelites, still, but with the note that he should “speak only” what the angel tells him.

So there are many things wrong with this situation, obviously, but two stick out. One, we have a talking animal, which of course is impossible, and totally without precedent in the Old Testament (aside from the serpent, as mentioned, but here the story seems not so obviously mythic). Second, we have God reneging on his original instructions. Why did God change His mind? Obviously God presented here is not the omniscient, all-knowing God that He later appears to be in the New Testament. He’s still a warrior-type God, a divine king whose will is apt to change with the winds.

The story, in other words, rings pretty false. The talking donkey, Balaam’s credulity toward it, and the general nature of the story make it seem out-of-place here, and if it’s based in any history, it seems likely to be loosely based. There’s much more to this Balaam story, though, but I will save that for another post. Just remember the next time you changed your mind about something: God has apparently done it, too.

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2 Responses to Balaam and the Talking Donkey (Num. 20)

  1. Pingback: Balaam In Context (Num. 20-31) | Holey Books

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