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Balaam’s Donkey: Stubbornness as a Path to RepentanceA Reflection on Numbers 22:4b-35

By November 16, 2006 No Comments
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Traveling on foot through the Cevennes in France, with a view to writing about the place and the people, Robert Louis Stevenson decided to buy a donkey (which he named “Modestine”) to carry his supplies. Never having worked with a donkey before, he soon found that what he thought was an accessory to his trip became the central focus–even to the point of becoming the title of the book, Travels with a Donkey. In it, Stevenson described how Modestine would not move, would not do as she was told, and finding himself being made a laughingstock because of her, Stevenson noted:

I remembered having laughed myself when I had seen good men struggling with adversity in the person of a jackass, and the recollection filled me with penitence. That was in my old light days, before this trouble came upon me. God knows at least that I shall never laugh again, thought I. But oh, what a cruel thing is a farce to those engaged in it!

The Prophet

What a cruel thing is a farce to those engaged in it! Was something like this on Balaam’s mind as he experienced that strange sequence of events? What a strange sequence it was: God says “go with them,” then blocks Balaam’s way and comes near to taking his life. A donkey talks, an angel appears–what a cruel thing for a renowned man of God on his way to do what he is so renowned for: to reveal God’s word. Where is the dignity due such a man on such a mission?

Balaam was sent for by Balak as a known and honored prophet, but not to make known God’s will relative to Israel, rather to use his–Balaam’s–power to curse Israel. Balak sought to use Balaam’s inf luence and renown to help ward off Israel–he was not seeking God’s word.

In responding to Balak, especially after Balak’s intense bribing of Balaam with princes and fees and promises of personal honor, Balaam is assuming the glory for himself, whether he means to or not. Implied in his coming to Balak is an acceptance of Balak’s charge to curse the nation of Israel, and an acceptance of Balak’s honors–honor toward Balaam, not God. Balaam is seen not just as the conduit of God’s word, but as the source of power, one who can decide for himself how that power should be applied. In accepting this task, Balaam is (and remains) viewed by Israel as one who cursed Israel–even though God saw to it that the curse became a blessing. Balaam’s story sends a biblical ripple through the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Nehemiah, Micah, 2 Peter, Jude and all the way into Revelation; his failed curse is turned back on himself. The name “Balaam” becomes a symbol in the Bible for God’s saving power: God’s ability and God’s desire to turn a curse into a blessing for his people.

God says “Go with them:” Balaam thinks he is obeying God’s command, and, apparently feeling he knows his task, goes off on his donkey to fulfill it.   Yet God’s word is not always so immediate or so obvious; it often seems beyond our abilities to follow, and surely God wishes some fun for us along way, some enjoyment.  How does one complete an unknown task? God only told him “do only as I tell you”; Balaam really doesn’t know what he needs to do. Yet there he goes, so intent on his task that he doesn’t see the angel blocking his way–perhaps even to give him instructions. Isn’t it a wonderful act of faith to follow God’s command into the unknown? But is Balaam acting on faith? Perhaps Balaam has already formed his own ideas of the task before him.

We all know God’s word, God’s will. We all know it in our hearts where it was planted as part of creation. We all know it in our lives, as we live in the continuum of creation. Yet God’s word is not always so immediate or so obvious; it often seems beyond our abilities to follow, and surely God wishes some fun for us along the way, some enjoyment. Why shouldn’t Balaam accept honor and prestige? Why shouldn’t he comply with Balak’s wishes? A fter all, God surely is not relying on Balaam’s words to protect Israel; no matter what Balaam says, it is in God’s power to see Israel prevail. A nd it may even ser ve Israel to have Balak overconfidently attack, setting his forces up for surprise, ambush, and defeat. God did say that it was OK to go to Balak–surely that implies that it is also OK to accept Balak’s honors. Maybe Balaam can have his cake and eat it too! Maybe we can, Maybe I can,

Why can’t I live comfortably, in a nice house, with lots of “toys” ? Why shouldn’t I spend my days working to earn money to pay for these things, to serve my own needs? Isn’t it a good thing to support myself? Why shouldn’t I keep the money I need, then see what I can afford to share? After all, when I prosper, it creates prosperity for others; when I spend, others earn; when I earn, a portion is taken in taxes, some of which goes to help others. Were I to stop seeking money, others would suffer! So it is good for me to prosper, and to seek my own prosperity. I am serving others when I take good care of myself. Am I not?

The Angel

So, likewise, isn’t it good, for Balaam to be honored, and to accept the gifts and honors from Balak? A fter all, all this honors God as well, doesn’t it? If Balak seeks a curse and God tells Balaam to go, doesn’t that suggest that the task is to curse Israel? Balaam and the AssIf Balaam is honored as God’s prophet, doesn’t that honor God as well? But maybe this is only true if Balaam truly does speak God’s words; God said, “do only as I tell you,” yet it seems Balaam has already formed his own thoughts about what God’s word might be in this situation. He seems to be intently focused on something other than what is right before him: the angel–God’s message.

Who does see the angel? A nd who is not blinded by his own ideas about the purpose of this mission? Who receives God’s command to stop? The donkey! Yet Balaam beats the donkey for stopping, even though by stopping the donkey saved Balaam’s life and helped Balaam to hear and receive God’s word.

God can come in glory and power right before our eyes, and we are so consumed by our ordinary tasks and expectations that we fail to receive him. We require that our ordinary routine be dramatically interrupted and disrupted so that our eyes may be opened. This is even more true at those times when we are most certain that we are serving God and doing God’s work; the times we need most to question ourselves are just those times when we are most certain of being right. So perhaps we all need to not only be prepared to be “Balaamed” occasionally, but to hope for it as well.

When the donkey stops, Balaam still fails to pay attention, to be present before God. He beats the donkey, repaying the donkey’s service with pain. Finally, the donkey actually speaks to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? ” Balaam, apparently not surprised by the donkey speaking, tells the donkey that it–the donkey–is making a fool of Balaam. When the donkey stops serving Balaam’s wishes and starts responding to God’s, it is apparent that Balaam is not the master of the donkey, and one who cannot even master a donkey must really look like a fool! (What a cruel thing is a farce to those engaged in it!) Balaam is infuriated, and would kill the donkey right then and there for ignoring his commands. He still does not see the angel of the Lord standing in front of them, ready to kill Balaam for disobeying the Lord (the angel has a sword in hand, where Balaam only wishes he had one). Who is the donkey now? Who is the disobedient one? Who is the master?

Balaam on the Brink

The moment was captured by Rembrandt in a painting completed early in his career: the donkey fallen to his knees, Balaam ready to strike him, and the angel ready to strike Balaam. The story is relayed to us by more than just the characters–the composition, too, conveys the struggle.

The lines of Balaam’s stick and the reins, the two devices he uses to attempt to control the donkey, are directly in opposition to the lines of the donkey’s head, which warns him of his error, and the angel’s sword, which is ready to kill him for his disobedience.

On the right of the painting, two men observe Balaam, who is being made a fool of by the donkey.   God demands justice, and justice–like Bonhoeffer’s grace–is costly. Justice is not attained by making sure that all have, but by acknowledging that none have.  They sit back in the dark, in the world of humans, in the world of our own creation, waiting impatiently for Balaam to end his foolishness and get back on the road, get back to fulfilling their expectations of him. He, and through him, God, is a tool to be used to attain their own ends.

Yet the other side of the painting is brightly illuminated. On this side of light is the angel, God’s word of warning and God’s power. Balaam is in the center, dividing these two realms: he leans back to the human world; his stick points back and with the reins he tries to pull his donkey back. Balaam on the brink–which way will he go? Pulled in two directions: one which he knows to be the better, but the other so much more immediate and seemingly real. Why can’t he just do ser vice to one with mere words, while enjoying the pleasures of the other?

The angel bears that two-edged sword of justice–the very sword that Balaam would wield against the donkey is, in fact, poised against Balaam; there is no justice without personal cost and sacri- fice. Balaam cannot protect his own well being and honor before Moab and speak for God as well, he can only serve God by putting aside his own interests. God demands justice, and justice–like Bonhoeffer’s grace–is costly. Justice is not attained by making sure that all have, but by acknowledging that none have. If none have, then what I have is not mine. It is not my house, my job, my money. When I perceive such things as mine, I am committing injustice against not only others, but against God, just as Balaam would be doing if he spoke his own words as God’s words and if he accepted the honor due to God.

The demand of justice–that two edged sword–cuts both ways. It is not just a matter of some token, easy effort to help others while I remain unchanged and unaffected. A contribution of time and money to a good cause is wonderful, but it has nothing to do with justice, just as Balaam can go to Moab but it has nothing to do with God’s word or will. Like Balaam, I need to be made low, freed of my delusions and stripped of my accruements. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

As Balaam heads toward Moab, already comfortable with his actions, God visits him with immanent death. He has a choice: he can choose God, or he can choose to work for his own ends. Which will it be? It is a choice of life or death. And it is a choice Balaam can’t even see. God needs to hit him across the head with a two by four just to get his attention. How far from the right choice it seems Balaam has already wandered! Why does God even bother to correct him? Why not just cut him down then and there?

For that matter, how many times do I wander from the right choice–from following what I know right well to be God’s word just because I can rationalize alternatives? Why doesn’t God just cut me down?

The Donkey

But no, God sends a donkey, a lowly, abused and mocked creature to catch my attention and point to another way. True, I beat this donkey–once, twice, three times–without even realizing what I am doing. I try to force and cajole and coa x it to go where I want to go; I am often even blinded to the possibility of another choice, having already “figured out” how my own choice will ser ve God’s word. But if I listen for just a moment, I can realize that the donkey is not an obstacle, but an unhoped for and undeser ved opportunity. Just as I beat the donkey without just cause, so the donkey saves me without just cause. In contrast to my efforts to somehow, someway, make my actions and choices seem rational, the donkey saves me for no rational reason. It is not following a code or a law, its actions lack any rational basis, but those actions speak louder than my many words.

Can it be that despite my poor choices, God frees me to choose again? Can it be that as I try to robe myself with God’s power and righteousness and glory, God, rather than responding by taking my life, offers me a new life?

When the donkey reminds Balaam that it has always served him well, Balaam relents, and in shifting his focus from his own honor and goals, and opening his eyes to see things from the donkey’s perspective, Balaam’s eyes are also opened to see the angel and receive God’s instructions.

How difficult it is to be truly open to God, a difficulty compounded by actually wanting and trying to serve God well. One is reminded of Jesus saying, “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,” and, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And perhaps even more so, Jesus’ repeated statements that unless one lowers oneself–becomes as a child, as a servant–one can not enter the kingdom of heaven. Balaam reminds us that it is not just a matter of going through the motions–one can not make oneself low by thinking that by doing so one is made great–instead, one must truly put one’s own life aside. The worth and value of life lies outside of any individual’s life. To the degree that I seek worth, honor, or value in my life, I will miss it entirely, but when I see it in the donkey, I start to find it.

…being in a civilised country of stage-coaches, I determined to sell my lady friend [Modestine] and be off by the diligence that afternoon … I had an offer of twenty-five francs; and before noon, after a desperate engagement, I sold her, saddle and all, for five-and-thirty. The pecuniary gain is not obvious, but I had bought freedom into the bargain … It was not until I was fairly seated by the driver, and rattling through a rocky valley with dwarf olives, that I became aware of my bereavement. I had lost Modestine. Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone,

‘And oh! The difference to me!’
Karl Griffith is an architect with a firm in Schenectady, New York, where he has practiced for over twenty years. He lives in Scotia, New York with his wife and three children, and serves as an Elder at First Reformed Church in Scotia.