Balaam is a seer and diviner who has been hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel, because Balak fears Israel's growing strength. The fable of the talking donkey is a humorous way to make Balaam see the danger of following Balak's order. (In the surrounding narrative, this is already clear to Balaam. The fable makes the point in an independent way.) As we will see, God will turn Balaam's curses into blessings, and Israel will continue safely on its way, altogether unaware of either its danger or its rescue.
The fable is a beautiful example of ancient storytelling. Having seen the angel of the Lord with his threatening sword, the donkey tries three times to keep Balaam from going down that path. The tension heightens each time, but Balaam perseveres. Finally, God opens the animal's mouth, and it argues with Balaam, remarkably reasonably, that it is Balaam who has misunderstood everything. The primary surprise in the story is Balaam's total lack of surprise at hearing the donkey speak. Both Balaam and the reader know that they are in a "fable," a type of folklore in which animals and other inanimate creatures are given speech (see the fable of the talking trees in Judges 9:7-15). Fable becomes another genre used by the ancient writers to tell the truth about Israel and God.
The angel describes himself as an "adversary" (satan in Hebrew). Here, "satan" is not a personified divine being; the term is simply used in its original sense as an obstacle or opponent. An important theological theme of the story is the assertion that God is protecting the people even from threats they don't know exist. This is all made even more remarkable by God's selection of Balaam, someone from outside of Israel, to save the people. The ironies of this divine providence are theologically more important (and more interesting) than the strangeness of the story's details: an outsider is used by God for redemptive purposes; the foreign king's intended curses are turned to blessings; and the animal sees something that even Balaam, the renowned seer, misses.
Twentieth-century Old Testament theologian Gerhard von Rad builds on this theme in his sermon on the Balaam story. He calls upon his hearers to suspend their modern secular notions for a moment and to enter the world of the Balaam narrator who "regards the blessing of God as a real power under which we live unconsciously day and night, so that we would be lost if we could not take refuge in it." This might be a better picture of reality, suggests von Rad, than our contemporary notion that human beings are solely responsible for their own destinies: "Here is where we must make up our minds about the actual reality in which we live" ("Sermon on the Balaam Narrative, Num 22-24," November 8, 1970, in Predigten [Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1972] 165, trans. Frederick J. Gaiser).
22 Gods anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back on to the road. 24Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaams foot against the wall; so he struck it again. 26Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaams anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. 28Then 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? 29Balaam said to the donkey, Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now! 30But the donkey said to Balaam, Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you in this way? And he said, No.
31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. 32The angel of the Lord said to him, Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse* before me. 33The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely I would by now have killed you and let it live. 34Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home. 35The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak. So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
10 February 2011