October 21, 2013

The Old Testament story about a talking donkey cracks me up. But I have to choose how to speak accurately and politely about this animal. Apparently this is a female (a “jenny”) and also a true ass (Equus asinus), the species that brays “hee-haw,” not a half-ass (Equus hemionus). “Ass” has had a respectable history, winding its way through Greek, Old Norse, Old High German, Old English, and Middle English down to the present day. The translators of the Jewish Publication Society use the word “ass” in the story, and these people know a thing or two. But most of the rest of the English translators use “donkey” or even “she-donkey.” Maybe this is courtesy to tender ears.

So mostly I’ll use polite donkey-speak in talking about Balaam’s “donkey.” This is one of two related funny stories buried in what seems an unlikely place, the Book of Numbers. Numbers is a mishmash of lists of names, clans, numbers (!); laws about life and ritual practice; stories of traveling in the wilderness; and a bit of debauchery. But chapters 22-24 throw in high humor full of surprise and reversal.

The first of the stories frames the second. King Balak of Moab was scared of the Israelites, who were then perched at his borders, and wanted to hire a reputable religious guru to curse them. So he sent for Balaam with a lucrative offer and high confidence: “For this I know: whomever you bless is blessed, whomever you curse is cursed.” (22:6) The story is a little fuzzy on whether it’s okay for Balaam to do this, but eventually he agrees to do it with the caveat that he can only say what God allows him to say. Three times, on three different overlooks, the Moabites build seven altars and on each of them sacrifice bulls and rams. And three times Balaam blesses Israel at the expense of Moab. After the first occasion, King Balak protests, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, and you heap blessings on them!” (23:11) But he hires Balaam twice more! After the third time, “Balak flew into a rage with Balaam. He beat his hands together and said to Balaam, ‘I brought you to curse my enemies, and you bless them three times over!” Balaam is all innocence, reminding the king that he had warned that he could only say what God told him. The piling up of extravagance, reversal, and failure in face of the king’s desperation is funny storytelling.

donkey headThe talking ass donkey is even better. The story is wonderfully told, and I invite you to read it with your imagination open for business. (See Numbers 22:22-35.) Be clear, of course, that this is not Mr. Ed, the talking horse of ancient TV fame, or the sassy donkey of the movies Shrek. The donkey here has served Balaam well for a long time with never more than a true ass “hee-haw.” It is on this reliable beast that Balaam sets out on his questionable journey. As mostly a city kid, I don’t know much personally about donkeys except for participating once in a donkey basketball game. They say donkeys can have a mind of their own, and it looks like that in this story. First, she goes running off the road into a field. Then she knocks her rider’s foot against a vineyard’s stone wall. Finally, she simply lies down under him. Each time Balaam beats her with a stick, the last time so furiously that he’d just as soon have killed her.

That’s when the faithful donkey, with God’s help, starts to talk. “What have I done to you? Why beat me three times like this?” Balaam storms on that she has made a fool of him and he’d kill her if he had a sword. The donkey continues, and here you have to choose a voice or tone to interpret the sense. Is it accusing, mournful, puzzled, indignant, or ___________? I usually go with indignant sob story. Choose a voice, read it out loud, and put yourself into it. “Am I not your donkey, and have I not been your mount from youth? In all this time, have I ever failed to serve you?” (Come on, get some tears into it.) Balaam: “No.”

Now, for the first time, Balaam sees the messenger/angel of Yahweh who has been standing in the road with a drawn sword. All this time, the donkey has been seeing what the seer (“the one with far-seeing eyes” [24:3]) can’t see. The angel scolds Balaam for beating his donkey and then explains, “You’re lucky she did turn aside, or I should have killed you by now – though I would have spared her!” (I laugh every time at this tag line.) Of course, by now Balaam, even more than the donkey, is all ears. He repents and promises to do whatever he’s told, which sets up the stories of King Balak’s sacrifices and saying only what God tells him to say.

Here humor serves the writer’s larger themes well, and it invites us to enjoy it when it shows up. We don’t need to be too earnest here in squeezing out hidden meanings. A seminarian once offered me this application: “If God could speak through Balaam’s ass, then God can speak through yours.” But I don’t think we need to go there. Just let the texts live, breathe, and giggle.




  1. Marti Garlett says:

    This/these is/are truly inspired stories, especially the way you narrate them! I gained more than I ever have from these passages. Thank you for your generous wit. No wonder you’re such a good teacher.

    On a semi-related note, when Peter Pan was playing at Wichita’s Music Theater, I hyped it on Romper Room the week before it opened. I had the crocodile on the show, a couple of the pirates, and Wendy and John. You may recall that at one point in the show, Peter calls Tinkerbell a “silly ass.” He says it fondly. We did not use the phrase on air mostly because we had more important things to talk about. But a group of righteous citizens banded together and called on Christians to stay away from Peter Pan because it contained an “obscenity.” I wrote a letter to the paper, which it published, explaining the historical context, the British use of the term, the fact that Sir James Barrie (Peter Pan’s author) was British and lived in Victorian times, times that were not especially obscenity-laden, and that Peter’s fond remark to Tinkerbell essentially meant “silly donkey,”

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