By Rabbi Dr. Charles Middleburgh,
Leo Baeck College, London
If you think really hard, I wonder how many animals you can think of that occur in the Bible and fulfill a role? First there was the snake in the Garden of Eden, then there were the pairs of every species that went into the Ark with Noah – but what else? The raven and the dove that helped in the search for dry land after the Flood; the ram that sacrificed itself for Isaac; the speckled sheep that helped to make Jacob’s fortune and which still survive as a recognized breed today, called Jacob’s sheep; the ravens that helped feed Elijah when he was hiding from Jezebel; the she-bear that devoured the children who abused Elisha, his successor; the wild and domestic animals whose peaceful coexistence is such a beautiful metaphor of the Messianic age in the writings of Isaiah; the whale that helped Jonah perform his mission to the people of Niniveh. And doubtless there are others too that have slipped my mind.
However, in the entire Bible there is only one mammal that talks, and I have left her till last. It is the she-ass of the pagan prophet Balaam which plays a significant role in the portion of Balak.
Balaam is an Aramean who is summoned by Balak, the ruler of Moab, to curse the Israelites and, in so doing, halt their march towards his country. He has heard of their advance to date and is fearful of their intentions, so something special must be done to stop them. Balaam’s reputation must have been very high, for not only is he called from a long way away, but he is also offered a massive fee to perform Balak’s bidding. As is so often the case in human life, though, things do not transpire in exactly the way either Balak or Balaam intend. God is not prepared to have the Israelites cursed, and tells Balaam this in no uncertain terms; if anyone is going to give the Israelites a broch (misery, disaster), it will be Me, not you, God seems to say. To further make the point, Balaam sees the Israelites encamped in a valley from a mountain vantage point.
He sees how numerous they are, and realises that God is with them, that God has blessed them, and that as long as this is the case there is nothing he can do to curse them, whatever Balak his employer may say.
Unfortunately, although Balaam is quite clearly meant to be understood by us as being a cut above the run of pagan seers, especially as he is given the opportunity to approach God directly and to experience divine revelation without any intermediary, he is nevertheless not as bright as he should be; indeed, in the key aspect of his story he is so downgraded as to be bested by a donkey.
Before looking at the story again, let me digress a little bit about modes of transport in the ancient world. Apart from walking, or being pulled in carts drawn by oxen, there were three animals on which one could ride. The ass, the symbol of patience and understanding in ancient Jewish sources, which had two names: Hamor, the male, used as a beast of burden as well as a means of transport, and the Aton, the female of the species, used only for riding and usually owned by the rich and well-to-do. The camel, or to be more precise the dromedary, camelus dromedarius, which was one of the first domesticated animals, used largely for transporting goods or people over long distances, and whose remains have been found in Egypt from the time of the beginning of the First Pharaonic dynasty, c.3000 BCE. And the horse, used for war, which was something of a luxury in biblical times and was not indigenous to the Middle East, being introduced there from the steppes of Asia and Africa.
In this tale, Balaam, riding his she-ass (a sign of his wealth and position), sets off in contravention of what he has been told by God, to curse the Israelites. An angel is sent to block his path and prevent him from fulfilling his intention: Balaam, however, cannot see the angel, identified by the rabbis as the Angel of Mercy, but here an adversary, and it is only because the she-ass sees it that her master is saved from death.
Balaam, however, does not understand why his mount is continually shying and gets more and more angry with her and violent towards her, beating her with his stick each time she disobeys him; in the end he is so wild that he tells her that if he had a sword he’d kill her, a sure sign of the pitch of his frustration.
There is a lovely twist in this part of the tale, because although Balaam does not have a sword the angel does, and Balaam is informed by the angel that had the ass not seen what was in front of her and shied away, he, Balaam, would have been killed by the sword and the ass would have been spared. In fact, the story is full of twists and ironies, so replete in fact that scholars have suggested that it was not part of the original tale and that it was interpolated for a specific purpose. They also point out that it does not fit properly with the context in which it falls.
So what was the reason for the tale? The answer seems clear. The story is designed to humiliate Balaam, who could not be forgiven for having desired to curse Israel, and not out of conviction either, but for money. Balaam wants to subdue Israel with words, so he is unable to subdue his ass with a stick. He claims prophetic sight, but is unable to see what his ass sees three times. He claims prophetic speech, because God puts words in his mouth, but he is now matched by his ass. He is extremely wise, or so he makes out, but in conversation he is bested by his ass, supposedly a stupid animal. Balaam would slay Israel with his words but cannot even slay his ass with a sword. And when the angel, who does hold a sword, is finally revealed to him, it states as I have already mentioned, that if the ass had not stopped him from proceeding, the angel would have killed him with the sword and spared the she-ass’s life.
Clearly, then, as some scholars have remarked, this story is a lampoon, inserted to downgrade the reputation of Balaam; it demonstrates that this heathen seer, intent on cursing Israel without God’s consent is in reality a fool, a caricature of a seer, outwitted even by his beast of burden.
It is also possible that the tale is part of a genre of folk stories, spread among many peoples, concerning confrontations with negative or demonic forces while making a journey. An example from Italy states (T. Gaster, Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament, vol.1, p.310):
Between Aci Castello and San Filipo, there is an ancient oak, haunted by spirits who prevent anyone from passing. A man who once found himself at the spot around midnight and who wanted at all costs to forge ahead, was knocked so violently against the walls on either side of the road that he died. Another, who likewise reached the place at midnight with his donkey, was forced to turn back. And a laborer who came by one day with a cartload of hay saw the rear-axle of his vehicle buckle and the oxen stop in a fit of terror. He had to take to his heels, leaving everything by the roadside.
If we can derive anything else from this story – beyond, that is, its clear statement of the stupidity of Balaam and his shortsightedness – it is the fact that animals are often much more percipient and quick-witted than we are.
They sense things, and become aware of things, before we do, and in many cases show greater intelligence. All of which makes the crimes we perpetrate against them, be it through horrific laboratory experiments, innate cruelty, the quest for food that could just as easily come from other sources, the lust for their riches like ivory, or the morally despicable hunting of whales, quite indefensible.
As Madame de Stael once remarked: “the more I come to know men, the more I love my dog”.
Seen in this light, Balaam and his ass become nothing less than paradigms: he for the myopia of men and women, she for the suffering of an innocent animal kingdom. As we ponder this thought, I am sure that we should not ignore the fact that in the final analysis it is the beast, not the man, who is vindicated.