When A Donkey Sees What A Prophet Won’t


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:12 p.m.
Torah: Num. 22:2-25:9
Haftarah: Micha 5:6-6:8
Havdalah: 9:19 p.m

The narrative of Bilaam and Balak is quite unusual in many respects. It includes a non-Israelite prophet who speaks God’s word, a talking donkey and a foolish king who deeply desires to curse Israel and yet allows Israel to be blessed repeatedly. It also includes incredibly beautiful poetic odes to Israel, including the very famous “Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, “How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob…” 

Many have striven to make sense of this text, and its contradictions, the greatest of which involves the characterization of Bilaam himself. Throughout the first chapter of the story [Numbers 22], Bilaam, although a non-Israelite prophet, and despite being offered vast riches and honor, piously refuses to speak anything about Israel without God’s approval. He makes clear over and over that he will only speak what God allows him to speak. What more could anyone expect from a prophet, all the more so from a non-Israelite prophet, albeit one who expresses devotion to the God of Israel?

All of this changes, however, in the second chapter [Num. 23], as the scene moves to the journey that Bilaam takes, having received God’s permission, to speak to Israel. Along the way, an angel blocks the path several times. Each time, the donkey on which Bilaam is riding sees the angel and struggles to get out of the way [Num. 22:23-34]. Bilaam, however, is blind to this vision, and expresses his anger at the donkey that seems to just be recalcitrant.

Once Bilaam understands all of this, he once again expresses his devotion to God, saying that he will only speak what God allows him to speak.

While again, Bilaam speaks to God with loyalty, scholars generally understand this scene as depicting Bilaam in an unfavorable light. After all, the great, gifted seer actually sees less than his donkey. Many claim that this negative portrayal is very important in order to counteract the perhaps too positive and too powerful portrayal in the first chapter. 

This always made sense to me until I was discussing this section with my son Ayal, a budding careful reader of biblical text. He claimed that this reading didn’t work. Having the donkey see more than Bilaam was not embarrassing to the talented seer. After all, don’t we often think that animals are more aware of their surroundings than humans? Don’t we assume that animals sense danger before we do? For example, many claim that animals predict strong weather patterns and natural disasters like earthquakes well before humans. Having the donkey sense the angel of God before Bilaam is not insulting to the seer, but rather part of the natural pattern of life. His point made sense not only from the perspective of nature, but also from the perspective of the Bible.

After all, one can make the point that the snake, in the only other story in the Bible involving talking animals, also understood the reality of the world better than the humans. While the woman thought that she would die if they ate from the tree, the snake correctly asserted that they would not die (and, further, that eating from the tree did not make them mortal, as is evident in God’s continued concern that they may eat from the Tree of Life and become immortal.) So here, too, the animal understood the surroundings and all that was happening better than the humans.

While I like this reading very much, and truly appreciate the respect thereby given to animals, it leaves us with a literary difficulty. If the scene with Bilaam and his donkey does not serve to counteract Bilaam’s characterization, then we are left with a non-Israelite seer with too much power. As usual, however, the text provides us with a wonderful response. One need only read the end of the story to see Bilaam’s foolishness. After speaking with God, and blessing Israel with among the most beautiful blessings in the Torah, Bilaam completes his mission, but, rather than being transformed by this remarkable experience, Bilaam simply returns to his home [Num. 24:25].

Perhaps there is nothing more thoughtless than not allowing oneself to be shaped by experience, failing to develop into the person one could be. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the 19th century scholar known as the Netziv, emphasizes this point in comparing Bilaam to Laban who also went home after meeting up with Jacob [Genesis 32:1]. In both texts the same language is used for this return home. He observes that in each case, Laban and Bilaam return to their homes unchanged. This return to what one was before a momentous event, a special meeting, or the influence of an extraordinary human being is a dismal failure.  The lives of individuals and the lives of communities are made up of series of experiences, events, meetings and potentially fruitful encounters.  The growth of individuals and communities is dependent on our willingness and ability to learn from each human encounter, and to be shaped by each and every spiritually fraught opportunity.

Ora Horn Prouser is executive vice president and academic dean of The Academy for Jewish Religion.