Some parts of the Bible are incredibly dry and boring. So it is with the Book of Numbers. However, tucked away in this otherwise ponderous book is the amazing story of Balaam and his donkey, a story on which I’ve never heard a sermon.
Balaam is a reluctant messenger who is called by the King of the Moabites to cast a curse on Israel. On the journey, Balaam is visited by the Lord, who directs him to inform the king that Balaam will not curse Israel. Fearing the king’s retribution, Balaam tries to avoid the journey. Here’s where it gets interesting.
Balaam has donkey traveling with him. When Balaam tries to turn away from his mission, the donkey resists. Twice Balaam beats the donkey yet the donkey continues to resist. Finally after a third beating, the donkey speaks! He protests the beatings, saying “What have I done to you that deserves your beating me three times?” The donkey goes on to say “Have I ever done anything like this before?” at which point Balaam gets the message to continue on his journey and to refuse to curse Israel.
I have no idea whether this event really happened and obviously I am not alone in wondering why God chose to use a talking animal to make His/Her point. Further, given that the talking donkey got Balaam’s attention, why would God not use such an effective device at other times? Perhaps it is one of those many curious parts of the Old Testament that has little relevance today.
A friend, however, raised an interesting question during our discussion of Balaam’s donkey. She said “I wonder what Balaam’s donkey would say to us today?” So, using the gift of imagery, here is what Balaam might say to us:
“How dare you mistreat my brother and sister animals! You torture them with your experiments! You buy them as pets then abandon them! Like Balaam, you sometimes beat them or starve them! Are they not a part of God’s creation as you are? They offer you loyalty and service yet look how you treat them!”
Perhaps, too, Balaam’s donkey calls us to be alert to what we can learn from animals. Our beloved cat Athena taught me much about simplicity and gratitude. A group of singing canaries reminded me to beware of distraction and pay attention to the present moment. A herd of deer in the Lincoln Forest reminded me that animals too can be a source of mystical wonder.
Finally, Balaam may call me to witness my own arrogance as well as that of my fellow human beings. In our assumption of superiority over all of God’s creation, how well have we done in taking care of that creation?
I wish the Bible had more talking animals!
Reflection: 1. What role do animals play in your own spiritual journey?