Monday, January 18, 2010

More on Balaam and Behaving Like an Ass

I thought I'd copy and paste a recent email addressing some discussion over Balaam's strange reaction (or rather lack of rxn) to his talking donkey. I was a little long-winded, so feel free to skim...

N's email on Balaam's lack of reaction to his talking donkey got me thinking about the passage a little bit more. I agree that it's pretty interesting that the writer doesn't document Balaam making a comment about his donkey's new found abilities or at the very least making some sort of facial expression. I have no basis for these, but here are a few of my thoughts to maybe explain the omission.

  • My first thought is that the style of much of the Old Testament is many times a vague outline of events. There are, of course, some exceptions to this: the image-laden poetry of Job, the lists of genealogies, or the passages on very specific Old Testament laws, but it seems when comes to narrative prose that many times the writers don't always supply all the details. With that said, maybe Balaam did have some kind of facial or verbal reaction, but it just wasn't included in the retelling.

  • On the other hand, I would posit that this very absence could make the literal events even more believable. A response from Balaam to explain it would strike me as somewhat artificial, as if Balaam was conscious of an audience who would need some kind of response or explanation, instead of just living through what was happening. Just another idea.

  • Last (and what I consider the most likely explanation), Balaam's stubborn, prideful, and self-absorbed character might be what prevents him from commenting on his donkey's ability to speak.

To elaborate on this last theory... in the context of Numbers 22, Balaam is behaving in direct opposition to God's plan by following after this group of men. In verse 32 the angel specifically says "your path is a reckless one before me." Balaam has blinders on (like a horse or donkey might) and up to this point has refused to accept guidance. So wrapped up in the path he's going down, the only thing that registers with him is that something is preventing him from doing what he wants to do. Like many people who know they are making bad choices, he is stubbornly determined to do what he wants, and his pride makes him defensive about anything averting him from that very literal wrong path that he's going down. I don't know if donkeys carried the same cultural connotation then as they do for us now, but isn't it ironic that a donkey is the animal that teaches him about stubbornness? Um, yes, you got it. Balaam is behaving like an ass.

In other words, Balaam doesn't make a pointed comment on his donkey speaking b/c he doesn't care the donkey is speaking. The only thing he cares about at that point is his pride, which is quite a comment on the destructive power of pride in one's life. Note what he does say immediately after the donkey talks. "You have made a fool of me!" First of all, his response sounds like something you say to a person, not to livestock, but aside from that, it is all about Balaam's pride and image of himself. The truth is that she* didn't make him look like a fool. His stubborn refusal to bend to God's will is what has made him look like a fool in the story.

This theory especially jibes with me b/c of this inherent themes dealing with human nature--many times people are most stubborn and defensive about their behavior when they know they are doing wrong. And also: pride can blind us from doing right. Also note what he says directly after that. "If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now." Doesn't that seem like a bit of an overreaction? He sounds like a man with a total lack of control of his emotions and in something of a temper tantrum.

It is this very surprising (and to some perhaps unbelievable) conversation that precipitates the shift to humility in Balaam. She asks him, "Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?" These calm and logical questions from this animal snap him out of his emotional fury so to speak. He answers with a logical no and this is precisely the point where God reveals the angel to him, who very pointedly implies that he dumber than his donkey, bringing him to a point of confession and humility and obedience.

Lest we get too focused on human nature, I'll say that the story contains an obvious truth about God's character too: he is unafraid of sometimes using drastic and creative measures to bring us to revival and redemption and fruitfulness, and to me, that is very comforting and consistent with what we see from Christ and throughout the Bible and hopefully our own lives.

*I don't know if other translations use the pronoun "she" as opposed to "it," but I do think that it contributes to the human-like nature of this animal. The official rule in English is if an animal has a name "he/she" is the appropriate pronoun, but if it does not, then "it" is appropriate.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Really thoughtful analysis, Beth. I bet you miss this part of teaching.