Balaam’s donkey deserves a place in the Donkey Hall of Fame. According to the story in Numbers 22, Balaam set out on his donkey on a mission contrary to the will of God. He hadn’t gone far before a threatening angel stood on the path blocking him. The donkey saw the angel and, wisely, stepped off the path to reroute Balaam. Balaam, however, did not see the angel, so he whacked the donkey with his staff.
A bit later, the donkey saw the angel standing in the path again. This time the donkey was going between two walls, and as she tried to squeeze past the angel, Balaam’s foot scraped against a rock. He took his staff and gave the donkey another wallop.
The dangerous angel appeared a third time. The donkey was in a place too narrow to turn around and too narrow to squeeze past. There was nothing she could do to protect Balaam except simply to lie down. So she did. Balaam, still not aware of the angel, became furious. He picked up his staff and began to thresh away at the donkey.
That’s when Balaam’s donkey earned her place in the list of famous donkeys. She spoke to Balaam: “What did I ever do to you? Why did you beat me these three times?”
It is a wonder that the donkey spoke. It was, perhaps, a greater marvel that Balaam never noticed it was a wonder.
Talking donkeys are really strange. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner called this “the lollapalooza grand-daddy of all the off-the-wall Bible stories. It’s so preposterous it makes splitting the Red Sea look like child’s play.” Is it simply a fable, or is it factual history? One theologian said that most of the year Balaam’s talking donkey may be a mere fairy tale. But when it is read in worship with the gathered community as scripture, then it not just a fairy tale. Then it speaks to us out of the open Bible. Then something is communicated to us if we are able to honor the hour of worship by opening our ears.
Another strange wonder in this story is the dangerous angel. When Balaam’s eyes were finally opened he, too, saw an angel standing there with sword in hand. The angel asked him why he had threshed his donkey. “That donkey saved your life three times, and yet you tried to beat the living daylights out of her.” The angel was a symbol of the fact that if Balaam continued the way he was going, it would end in death and destruction.
Where was Balaam going? Balaam was a hired gun in a Western movie. The king of Moab wanted to defeat the Israelites who were coming up from Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. But he felt he could not defeat them with the current condition of his military force. He needed something extra, something that would be absolutely devastating. That is where Balaam comes in. Balaam had a reputation for being able to lay on curses that really worked. If true, it would be the ultimate weapon. It was the mustard gas of the First World War, the atomic bomb of the Second World War.
Balaam, as any good person would, first asked God whether he should accept the assignment from the king of Moab. God’s answer was clear and concise. “Don’t do it. Don’t lay your curses on the people. They are blessed.” Later, when Balaam was asked a second time to come and curse the Israelites, Balaam told the king’s emissaries to wait and he’d ask God again.
Why did Balaam need to check with God the second time? Am I merely being cynical to ask? If Balaam knew it was wrong to act as the king of Moab’s ultimate weapon, why would he think the mind of God had changed? If I am suspicious of Balaam’s motives, then so is the New Testament. Balaam “loved the wages of doing wrong” (2 Peter 2:15). Perhaps it was the “house full of silver and gold” that persuaded him. Perhaps it was a matter of honor or a desire to keep his reputation intact.
When Balaam asked God a second time, he was told, “Go if you must, but only do what is right.” So Balaam went. That’s when the donkey helped him see the danger of his choice. Balaam is no longer interested in knowing God’s will. He is seeking to influence it. Or to circumvent it. Perhaps he wanted to see how far he could go in the wrong direction before God got angry.
Balaam is not the only one who fails to listen to a message from the natural world. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote about the world being filled with heaven and every common bush ablaze with God. Only those who see take off their shoes, she said, while “the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” Sometimes I wonder how much in the world of nature is ignored or beaten when it is only trying to warn us of threatening angels. What are melting glaciers and endangered species trying to tell us?
Dangerous angels still stand in the pathways of our world. They warn those who have eyes to see that, if we keep going the direction we are going, there will be death and destruction at the end. Singer Bill Mallonee in his song, “Balaam’s Ass” from album Blister Soul,says, “I will bind myself to the truth and speak it like Balaam’s ass once more. . . . Life boats are burning!”
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.