Numbers 22:22-35 – Balaam and His Talking Donkey
SummaryHired to curse Israel, Balaam's journey is thwarted by God's angel who can be seen first only by Balaam's donkey. The donkey is given speech to awaken Balaam to the threat.
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).