The original talking donkey was less talkative, but a lot more perceptive than his fictional successors.
Scripture passage: Numbers 22:21-33
Balaam and his talking donkey
Balaam was a prophet of God, though not actually an Israelite. He lived around the time when Israel was about to reach the Promised Land. Israel's enemies, the Moabites, chose Balaam because they were afraid of Israel and believed that Balaam could curse Israel. At first, God told Balaam not to go, but then the Moabites turned up the pressure. God then told him he could go, provided Balaam said exactly what God wanted him to say. God now chose Balaam because God wanted him to bless Israel instead of curse it.
Balaam's choice? The text is a little unclear, but it appears that although God said Balaam should go, it was Balaam's intention to go to curse Israel, because the Moabites increased the pressure, and, well, the money was good. He recognised that he should not go against God's will, but greed and lack of fortitude were the loudest voices, it seems.
Here begins an amusing story in the Bible, with Balaam setting off on a routine professional job, not knowing that he had a barrier to overcome - actually, one barrier disguised as two: an armed angel and a talking donkey!
Donkey makes an ass of Balaam
Picture Balaam, riding his faithful donkey, on his way to meet with the Moabite king, when God sends an armed angel to block his way. Balaam does not see the angel, but his donkey does, and veers off the road, which earns him a beating.
Next, the angel warrior scares the donkey so that he pushes up against a stone wall, pinning Balaam by the foot. This would have generated a bit of a chuckle from Balaam’s servants, witnessing their master’s questionable riding skills, so Balaam gives the poor donkey another beating.
Finally, there is nowhere to escape the sword-wielding being, so the donkey just lies down on the path, and Balaam, red faced, isn’t going anywhere. This time, Balaam hits the donkey with his staff.
God lets the donkey have his say: "Why do you keep hitting me? What have I ever done to you?"
Balaam complains back. He should have killed the stubborn ass, not just beaten him! Suddenly, God lets Balaam see what the donkey could see all along: an angel of the Lord with his weapon drawn, ready to kill the wicked Balaam!
Balaam sees, and humbles himself before the Lord, and instead of going and cursing Israel, he blesses them!
So what was special about Balaam's donkey?
There is a lot that we can get from this story. One is: God can make donkeys talk! Although I do wonder why it does not say that Balaam was somewhat shocked at this, I am impressed that God can "open the mouth" of an ass.
However, this is not what strikes me the most about this passage. More on that in a minute.
Our talking donkey is the historical forerunner of a series of not-so-historical but famous talking donkeys:
- Puzzle, a donkey in C. S. Lewis' book The Last Battle, was not bright, and easily led by his "friend", a chimpanzee. In the end, Puzzle showed a lot more sense and wisdom than at the start.
- Eeyore, a friend of Winnie-the-Pooh, was a pessimistic, gloomy, depressed, old grey stuffed toy donkey. Any words of wisdom Eeyore managed to get out were typically coming to terms with his depression.
- Donkey, the loudmouth friend of Shrek ("It talks!" "Yeah, but it's getting him to shut up that's the trick!") is a selfish, annoying fairytale ass.
Balaam's donkey doesn't have much of a speaking role, except to complain to his master. His power of speech was not the most impressive aspect of the story.
It was the donkey's ability to see the danger that was truly unique. Balaam, the great prophet or seer, was blind to it. His faithful mount saved him from God's wrath, and all Balaam perceived was a wayward donkey and the humiliation he must have felt before his servants.
An armed angel, ready to strike! That was blind Balaam's doom, saved by a donkey who saw the danger plain as day. It took God to open Balaam's eyes to see the danger, and that was what finally saved Balaam. Who was the real ass, here?
What kind of ass are we?
How many of us - we who have God's Spirit dwelling inside us - are oblivious to the danger of our disobedience, our bowing to pressure from a society who opposes God? If a dumb ass can see the consequences of continuing in the wrong direction, surely we "enlightened" ones should be able to see so much more clearly, and move back to the path of blessing!
As God's people, we have a job to bless the world. Sadly, the pressures and temptations of society put us onto a dangerous path that leads to destruction. Instead of being like Balaam's perceptive ass who can see the danger ahead, we tend to be like Balaam, the stubborn ass blind to all but himself.
Let us see the perils awaiting us on that path before we have to suffer Balaam's humiliation and frustration, and let us be the blessing we were called to be.
Greg Simon BA; Dip Ed; Cert Teach
Greg has taught and tutored secondary Maths, Science and ICT for over thirty years, and has been a school principal before dedicating his life to working with home-educating families. He was actively involved with the homeschooling of his four children.