When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? . . . Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”
—Numbers 21:27-28, 30
The story of Balaam and the Moabite king Balak has all the makings of a good mythic tale—a pagan prophet, a talking donkey, and a sword-wielding angel. It contains some very good lessons as well.
As the story opens, the Israelites are camped on the plains of Moab, and Balak is justifiably concerned: he knows what they have done to the Amorites, and he worries that they will overpower his army as well. Having considered his options, he sends for the “gentile seer” Balaam, whom he will order to place a curse on the Israelites.
During the night, however, Balaam receives a message from God, instructing him not to go. And so Balak’s men return, telling the king of the prophet’s decision. But Balak doesn’t give up. In response, he sends an even larger, “more distinguished” delegation, promising Balaam silver and gold if he complies. Once again, God visits the prophet in his sleep, this time telling him he can go, provided he does only what God tells him to do. Balaam saddles his donkey and leaves with the men the next day.
What follows next is contradictory, and is usually attributed to the fact that Numbers has more than one writer: God becomes angry with Balaam for going, and sends an angel to block his way. Only the donkey can see the angel, however, and so when the animal attempts to avoid it by going off the road, Balaam strikes him with his staff.
This occurs not once, but three times, after which the donkey speaks, asking his owner what he has done to merit such treatment. At this point, Balaam finally sees the angel as well. Rebuked for his punishment of the donkey, Balaam is instructed by the angel to continue his journey, but is again warned to say only what God tells him to say.
The next morning, after Balaam is brought to Balak, the prophet makes a sacrifice and finally learns what he is to say to the king: “How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced?” In short, instead of calling down God’s wrath on the Israelites, Balaam blesses them.
Not easily dissuaded, the king then takes Balaam to another location, thinking this change in perspective might cause the prophet to hear a different message from God. But Balaam stands firm, and is eventually sent home by a frustrated and angry king.
What we shouldn’t lose track of in reading this passage is the fact that Balaam is indeed a pagan prophet. Elsewhere in Jewish tradition, we see him characterized as “wicked”—haughty, deceitful, and lewd. And yet, despite his own predilections, he consistently speaks for God, foretelling the Israelite’s ultimate victory over their enemies.
And then there’s the matter of that talking donkey. As Professor Carol Ochs of Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion puts it, “From a thoughtful reading of the story of Balaam's ass . . . we recognize that the question posed is not ‘How can an ass speak?’ but ‘How can we become like Balaam, able to hear what the world has to say to us?’”
Ultimately, Ochs says, “The Jewish prophet is a person, like us, who is on the extreme end of a spectrum that begins with those who are deaf to the meanings found in all of creation and extends to those who are capable of recognizing the divine spark in everything.”
Even in a donkey, one can say. Even in the words of a “godless” seer.
O God, let me not be deaf to the word you speak through all creation, through saints and sinners, through the wise and unwise, through those who know you and those who do not, through everything you choose to be an expression of yourself.