By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Balaam’s ass is part of an exclusive club in the Bible: animals that can talk. The only other creature gifted with the power of speech is the serpent from the Garden of Eden story, which we have analysed here. But what’s the meaning of the story of Balaam and his talking ass? Who was Balaam, and why did his animal speak to him?
Balaam was a soothsayer who was called by Balak, king of the Moabites, to travel to Moab and curse the Israelites who had invaded Moab. Balaam’s ass speaks to him as he makes the journey, after the animal refuses to move when the angel of the Lord stands in its way. However, only the ass can initially see the angel.
Let’s take a closer look at this intriguing story, first by summarising what Numbers 22-24 tells us, and then by offering an analysis of the story’s meaning.
Balaam’s ass: summary
When the Israelites drew near to the land known as Moab, the king of the Moabites, Balak, feared they were about to invade Moab. He sent for a wise man or soothsayer, Balaam, to curse the Israelites and warn them that evil would befall them if they invaded Moabite lands:
22:5 He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me: 22:6 Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me
However, God was not happy about this, and told Balaam not to accompany the Moabite embassy and agree to Balak’s plan:
22:12 And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.
So Balaam refused. Balak wouldn’t take no for an answer though, so he sent another embassy to try to persuade the wise man:
22:14 And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.
22:15 And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they.
22:16 And they came to Balaam, and said to him, Thus saith Balak the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me: 22:17 For I will promote thee unto very great honour, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people.
But Balaam refuses again, because it doesn’t matter what riches or honour Balak promises him, he cannot go against what God commands him.
22:19 Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the LORD will say unto me more.
22:20 And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do.
God decides it would be better to allow Balaam to go to Moab, but that he, God, will control what Balaam says. He gets Balaam to agree to this plan. And so Balaam saddles his ass and accompanies the Moabite princes to Moab.
22:23 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.
22:25 And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again.
22:26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
22:27 And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
Balaam’s ass sees the angel of the Lord before her, and stops moving, turning off the road. Balaam cannot see the angel, however, and grows angry that his ass has stopped. So he strikes her with his staff.
22:28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? 22:29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
22:30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.
Here’s the twist in the tale: God imbues Balaam’s ass with the powers of speech, and she asks him what she has done to deserve being hit. Balaam answers that she has mocked him by stopping in her tracks, and this has made him so angry that, if he had a sword in his hand instead of a stick, he would kill her.
However, God makes the angel visible to Balaam, and he realises what was in the way:
22:32 And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me: 22:33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.
Balaam realises what he has done, and repents. He is told to continue on his way but only to speak the words that the angel of the Lord speaks to him. In other words, he is to speak from a prepared script:
22:35 And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
When Balaam reaches Moab, he does as God has told him, and refuses to speak out against Israel. He opens his mouth to curse, but instead, blessings upon the Israelites come out of his mouth. He does this cleverly by pretending that, because he is divinely inspired, he can only speak the words that come to him. He doesn’t write the script, as it were. This is true enough, since he has agreed to say what God commands him to say.
Balaam’s ass: analysis
The story of Balaam’s ass is, as we mentioned at the beginning of this analysis, one of only two episodes in the whole of the Bible in which an animal speaks. It is thus of considerable interest because of its unexpectedness. After all, if God wanted Balaam to do as he was bid, why not just have the angel of the Lord appear to him straight away? Why does the angel of the Lord conceal himself from Balaam initially, and show himself only to his humble donkey?
It’s worth noting that throughout the Old Testament, whenever his name is mentioned, Balaam is presented as a powerful magician and wise man, even to the Israelites. (It’s a somewhat different story in the New Testament, where he’s described as ‘wicked’: see, for instance, Revelation 2:14.) He is also unwilling to condemn the Israelites when God shows himself to the sorcerer and forbids it. Not all of the riches and honours that Balak can throw at him can persuade Balaam to go against God’s command.
Balak has scored a propaganda coup in persuading Balaam to come and speak out against the invading Israelites, then – or so he thinks. If Balaam will come to Moab and curse the Israelites, the Israelites – in trusting in Balaam’s word – may be put off invading Moab altogether.
Even if that doesn’t happen, the Moabites will be emboldened by the ‘knowledge’ that this foreign threat has been denounced and cursed with failure, and they will defend their land with all the more confidence and belief in their invincibility.
But there are a number of confusing elements to the story, which are worth analysing more closely.
Let’s revisit the plot of this episode. Balak sends an embassy to persuade Balaam to come and curse the Israelites, in the hope that such condemnation, coming from such a respected and powerful magician, will dissuade the Israelites from attacking Moab. When God forbids it, Balaam offers a polite no.
Yet when Balak’s men return and try again, God tells Balaam to accept and go to Moab, but that he is to say only what God commands him to say.
So, Balaam agrees to God’s plan. Then God gets angry when Balaam accepts and goes to Moab. It’s all very confusing. Has God forgotten that he has just told Balaam to accept Balak’s offer?
This is perhaps an indication that, although God is determined to control Balaam’s actions, he is not happy about the idea of such a powerful sorcerer agreeing to speak against God’s chosen people, even if Balaam has promised to stick to the script God gives him. It adds dramatic tension to the story. Is God worried that free will might lead Balaam to be tempted by the promise of honour and riches into cursing the Israelites after all?
There are no easy answers to these questions, and the interception of the talking ass is perhaps merely yet another miraculous event in the story (as if the appearance of the angel of the Lord weren’t enough). We may surmise, too, that it is significant that such a lowly animal as Balaam’s ass speaks out in her own defence: Balaam may want her to go forward towards Moab, but God’s divine will has other ideas. The donkey does not rebel, then, but simply reacts to a clear obstacle in her way, an obstacle with Balaam is unable to see.
Analysed this way, the significance and symbolism of the story become more apparent. Balaam wishes to go to Moab, having been bribed by Balak’s princes and priests.
The divine hindrance he experiences en route is a reminder that God is the one controlling things, and thus a strong reminder that Balaam should follow God’s instructions when he reaches Moab and that he should make sure he supports ‘the right side’. Balaam is reliant on the ass to convey him to Moab, but even that reminds him, through talking back to him, that God is in full control, after all.