Pithy Passages.3: Balaam’s Talking Donkey

by admin on January 27, 2015

Reflections for 25 January 2015
Numbers 22:1-41

This will be fun. Let your imagination roll with this one. Think of how we could market this story in dozens of ways: everything from kids’ toys and programs to his own TV series. Kind of like Mr. Ed the talking horse of your childhood.

Among Old Testament Bible stories Balaam’s talking donkey is one of a handful of “supernatural” narratives that are told to underscore definite theological themes. Remember that the Hebrew canon was compiled over many generations to challenge the status quo and to interject into the human assumption of power and control that there is a Power greater than ourselves.

While we can sit in relative comfort this morning a bit bemused about this story, the upshot is that there is a subtle reorientation to the basic narrative by which we understand our lives. We should leave here with the gnawing feelings that we really don’t have all this figured out.

The ancient Jewish rabbis thought this story was literally true. This was one of several other stories of inexplicable exceptions to the natural order that were divinely fore-ordained on the eve of the Sixth Day of Creation for only one specific time and place. And their ultimate design is to throw a monkey wrench into our ordered mindset.

Three encounters between Balaam—a foreign prophet-for-hire– and Israel’s God. Within these encounters Yahweh transforms what is supposed to bring curse upon Israel into a blessing. This, of course, says something big about Yahweh the Transformer.

First, let’s consider Balaam the foreign prophet, seer, magician for hire. His world view is pagan. God is not in control. All deities are subject to fate, spells, magic and the external world. Balaam assumes that Yahweh is fickle and that he can outsmart Yahweh and therefore escape his sovereignty. But Yahweh gives Balaam a look-see into another world view. Balaam has free will and with it the capacity for self-deception. Yahweh allows the donkey to have more insight than the “insightful prophet.”

Vv1-14⇒When King Balak of Moab first offers Balaam cash to curse Israel, Yahweh instructs the prophet not to go to the king. Interesting that a pagan seer who really has no connection with Israel’s god is now obeying him. Might this now hint at Israel’s theological conclusion that Yahweh is Lord of all? Certainly Hosea, Jeremiah and Second Isaiah have his idea: “The Assyrians? Babylonians? Persians? They all work for me now.”

Vv15-21⇒The Moabite officials come a second time to persuade Balaam to come along. Perhaps they upped the ante: offered more money, a condo on the beach, a place at the king’s table.

[You must allow your imagination to roll with this one. Most of the time we just sit like lumps on logs and not think of the human element in these stories. And ancient Israelite story tellers enticed and encouraged the listeners’ imaginations to be in process. Think of the story as a campfire story told around the fires of the traveling tribes as they entered the Promised Land then moved in to take it over. Later this story would be told around the fires of a nomadic clan and maybe even among the Exiled Jews in Babylon]

Vv22-41⇒ As Balaam rides along on his donkey in seeming obedience to Yahweh, an angel of the Lord of Hosts (this idea is always at play) with a drawn sword stands in the way. Can you recall another incident where this same scene is portrayed? Garden of Eden. The donkey then becomes the faithful one—the one who can see. Please note the irony and play on words here: the paid seer is blind and the dumbest beast in the menagerie is the smart one who sees—as in “gets it.”

Eventually Balaam offers to reverse course but Yahweh instructs him to proceed and meet Balak. In the next chapters Balak will receive Balaam’s prophetic discourse. It’s something for which he isn’t prepared. “Wait a minute, I’m paying you.” It is akin to the preacher who is too meddlesome on Sundays only to be met at the door by the church treasurer who reminds him: “I’m your boss.”

Just a couple of notes on the next: V2⇒ All that Israel had done = recent military victories in 21:21ff. V8⇒ even though Balaam is not an Israelite, he still obeys Israel’s god.

1. The talking donkey and the irony that it can see the angel while Balaam cannot gives this scene the character of a fable. The truth here is that Balaam’s power is minimized—his capacity to pull off what he is professionally trained to do and make a profit at it, BTW—is severely curtailed. In the end it is Yahweh who is lifted up as the one in control of events. Israel is trying to insert into the common human narrative of “I’m the decider” that there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Maybe we don’t have as good a grip on things as we’d like.

2. Yahweh is the one who must open Balaam’s eyes just as he is the one who opened the donkey’s mouth. Verbs of “seeing” will play an important part and role as key words in the next two chapters as Balaam presents his “visions” for Israel’s future. Much to the chagrin of Balak I might add. Imagine how crestfallen the king must be to hear the very guy he paid to pronounce a curse now pronounces that blessing happens instead. Some people call that karma, but the Hebrew Bible calls that Blessing. This in one of the major themes of Old Testament theology: Yahweh is constantly turning the table of disaster to bring hope and new creation.

In a couple of months will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end to the Nazi death camps—the final solution. Where are we in the world with that? Does that stuff still happen? How does this theological truth the Hebrew Bible wants to assert confound us? Does God open eyes and turn curse into blessing?

3. Balaam was a pagan prophet, yet he listened to God. My hunch is that he didn’t start out being obedient but saw in that action a way to gain. As he progressed he found himself drawn deeper and deeper into the plans of Yahweh. I think this means that even in the actions of halfhearted obedience God can work. Maybe it’s not whole hearted surrender that is called for but just the willingness to be willing. That is what Dallas Willard was constantly saying.

Can as seer raise himself to the level of a donkey? Consider the three actions here than Balaam experiences. Re-routed; Squeezed; Stopped. All were necessary and increased in intensity until he had his eyes opened. Only then did he see what was really going on. What was really going on? Blessing amid the plan to curse. How do you know you’re having a good day? Do you define “good” as the absence of “bad”; as in: well nothing bad happened today? Balaam’s talking donkey invites us into the world of blessing. This is not silver ling, Pollyanna, positive thinking self-help, but a life orientation to the fundamental work of God as that of Original Blessing. How could that get played out for you?

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