Yesterday, in Orthodox shuls, we read the Parsha of Balak (Num. 22:2-25:15), which includes the famous story of Balaam’s talking donkey. What exactly is the meaning of this story, and what does the Torah wish to teach us by bringing it? For anyone who needs a short review, the story goes something like this:
Balaam has just received some messengers who represent Balak, king of the Moabites. These messengers have been sent to hire Balaam to curse Israelites, so that Balak and the Moabites may defeat them and drive them out of the land.
However, God tells Balaam not to go with the Moabite messengers and not to curse the Jews, “for they are blessed” (22:12).
So, Balaam tells them he can’t do it.
But Balak really wanted Balaam to come, so he decided to send even more important messengers to hire the powerful magician. This time, God tells Balaam that he “may go with them”, but that Balaam must do whatever God commands him to do (22:20).
Presumably excited that God has (inexplicably) changed his mind, Balaam decides to go with the messengers to the camp of Balak, where he will think up a good curse for the Israelites.
So, Balaam saddles up his donkey, and goes with the Moabite dignitaries, intent on cursing the Jews. This of course goes completely against God’s explicit instruction for him not to do so earlier, but hasn’t God changed His mind?
And this is where the story gets interesting.
On the road, Balaam’s donkey sees an angel of God with a drawn sword, standing in front of them. Not being a complete fool, donkey swerves to avoid the deathly angel, until Balaam hits her to turn her back onto the road. Two more times the donkey sees the angel in front of them with its sword drawn, and stops to avoid death. Two more times Balaam beats her.
Finally, God “opens” the Donkey’s mouth, and she berates Balaam for hitting her. “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?!”
“You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you!” Balaam replies angrily.
The Donkey points out that she has always served Balaam well, and asks “Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No”, he admits.
Then God comes to reveal the dangerous angel to Balaam, and likewise berates him for beating the donkey. God tells Balaam he sent the angel to “come out as an adversary, for the errand (of cursing the Jews) is obnoxious to me.”
“If you still disapprove, I will turn back.” Balaam offers.
But the angel of the Lord said to Balaam “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you.”
So Balaam continued with Balak’s dignitaries, still intent on cursing the Israelites (Num. 22:21-31).
In order to understand the meaning of this story, we must first look at Balaam himself, and examine how he sees the world1.
Balaam most likely sees the world as a pagan, and his relationship with God reflects this. In the Pagan worldview, God is not completely in control, like in the Jewish view. Rather, He and all gods are to be viewed as subject to fate, magic, and the influence of the world around them, so that God, or the many gods, may be beaten in a confrontation if the circumstances are right. Perhaps Balaam may use magic, or perhaps he may outsmart the gods, but he believes they can be beaten.
When we read the story with this in mind, we can now understand each step. God tells Balaam not to go, before saying later that he may go. God threatens to kill Balaam, but does not do so.
God is fickle like the other gods; Balaam may think to himself, so who knows why He contradicted Himself? Maybe it was magic, or fate.
In each step, Balaam assumes he may escape from God, that God is not all powerful, and that eventually he may outsmart God, and successfully curse the Israelites.
However, God wishes to inform Balaam that the world is not this way, and that in fact, He has not contradicted Himself. God tells Balaam not to go, but also allows him the free will to make his own decision2. This is misunderstood by Balaam as a sort of victory in his contest against God. Somehow, he has fooled God into thinking he will not curse the Jews.
God then allows the donkey to act with more insight then Balaam. There is a dangerous angel in the road, but Balaam is oblivious to it. God grants the donkey the ability to see the angel in order to mock Balaam. “You think you can outsmart me? You are not even as smart as your donkey!” Balaam should have understood that he had not beaten God, but rather God has granted him the free will to continue on his way.
The fact that there had been an entirely different view point from Balaam’s from the beginning (in the form of the deathly angel) should have tipped Balaam off to the fact that he was completely misunderstanding the situation. However, he does not get the hint3, and continues to view himself as being in a struggle with God. He may believe he faces an uphill battle, but still thinks he can win.
Why include the Story?
Now that we see the story of the donkey is brought to mock Balaam (and it does so well), we may wonder why it is brought in the Bible. Why is it relevant to us if Balaam’s an idiot?
However, with our explanation in mind, we may argue that the story is included in the Torah as a polemic against the worldview of Balaam and the pagans. While Balaam thinks he may compete with God in a contest, the Jewish reading of each of God’s encounters with Balaam is obvious. God is in control as He has always been, and He instructs Balaam not to go with the dignitaries. However, God has also granted free will, so if Balaam wants to go, God will let him. Balaam misunderstands his freewill as the possibility to “beat” God.
When we sin, it is not because we have “beaten” God, but rather because the Almighty allows us to sin. To believe that we may contest the will of God is so foolish, the Bible tell us, that even a donkey knows better. This then, is the lesson of the story of Balaam’s talking donkey4.
- The following explanation of the pagan worldview comes from “The Religion of Israel”,by Yehezkel Kaufmann (translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg) pp. 21-59 (Schocken Books,1972). See also JPS Torah Commentary to Numbers, by Jacob Milgraum, on this passage, in particular on Num. 22:19 “what else” and verse 23 “Balaam beat the ass”. Relevant as well may be his comments on verse 28, “The Lord opened the ass’s mouth”.
2. However, see R. Samson Rafael Hirsch on Num.22:20 for a different interpretation of God’s words here. He
holds not that God has instructed Balaam not to go, and then seemingly given permission, but rather that God
has really give Balaam permission to go, but not to curse the Israelites.
3. In fact, Balaam acts throughout this process as though nothing strange has occurred at all, and donkeys accuse
him of things all the time. His stubbornness is key to his ability to continue on his mission.