I am in the process of preparing a sermon on Numbers 22-24 which features the episode about Balaam and his ass *snicker*. Maybe the UK translations are more accurate, I don’t know. But I think we will run with the more generic ‘donkey’ favoured, for obvious reasons, by all the American translators.
There are several interesting features of the story. First, there is the fact that a Mesopotamian seer who is more than a little money-driven appears seems to have his own hotline to the living God. Second, given that Balaam is certainly not a believer (cf. Deut 23:4-5; 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11; Rev 2:14), his insistence that he will only speak ‘the word that God puts in my mouth’ (22:38) is intriguing. Third, there is what, at first glance, looks like a sharp and harsh about-turn from God (Num 22:12f cf. 22:20-22). Fourth, there is the whole talking donkey bit and, alongside it, Balaam’s apparent underwhelmed reaction that his donkey has suddenly started chatting. Finally, having blessed Israel three times – much to Balak’s chargrin – there is the total lack of response from Balak; he just slinks off.
Iain Duguid suggests the key to understanding this whole episode is to look carefully at what is not said, rather than just what is. He says:
Balaam was a politician as well as a prophet, a man who made a living from his words. Such people do not always say what they mean or mean what they say. The speeches of people like Balaam need to be analyzed [sic] closely to hear what they do not say as well as what they do say. When you do that, the narrative springs to life with a whole new level of clarity.
This helpfully cuts through the first two issues outlined above. Duguid notes:
Balaam used the personal name of Israel’s God (Yahweh) as the one from whom he would seek direction. It raises the concern that if Balaam were able to consult the Lord, perhaps he could change the Lord’s mind from blessing to curse. Perhaps he had enough standing with his master to receive what he requested. Yet one shouldn’t jump too quickly from Balaam’s words to the conclusion that Balaam was an orthodox follower of the Lord. Like all politicians, Balaam was quite capable of playing the ‘God’ card when and how it suited him to do so. He obviously knew who the Lord was and apparently received messages from him, but exactly what his relationship to the Lord was has yet to be made clear. In a narrative in which a donkey also sees the Lord and speaks his words, the ability to prophesy truthfully in the Lord’s name should not by itself be rated too highly.
Once again, Duguid is helpful on point three:
Many commentators fail to notice that [v20] is not a direct command to go to Moab. And it is not the exact opposite of the previous command to remain at home. Rather, it is a conditional sentence: ‘if the men have come to call you… go’. Clearly the condition in the clause has been met: the men have, in fact, come to summon him. So what is the point of including the condition here? The answer is by putting the focus on the men, it brings to the foreground the same issue as was posed by the Lord’s original question: ‘Who are these men?’ That is, what authority did they have to summon him? In other words, the Lord was saying to Balaam, ‘If the summons of men and the glory (reward) that they offer is really so important to you that it outweighs the expressed command of God, then you may go with them’.
God was not, in fact, doing a volte face. He was asking the same sort of question I would ask my son when he’s been naughty, ‘what did you do?’ God wanted Balaam to reflect on what was being asked of him. It was stating things in such a way that Balaam could be in no doubt that he was, in fact, disobeying God if he went with these men. That is why, in v22, God is so angry. It isn’t that he has changed his mind, it is that he has given Balaam his command, Balaam carried on ‘seeking God’ in the hope he would change his mind, the Lord then made explicit that if Balaam ignored his original command he would be favouring money/glory over and above obedience to God. It was willful, open and knowing rebellion on Balaam’s part.
The talking donkey is, then, something of a chide to Balaam. As we know, donkeys are not exactly renowned as intelligent or obedient. The subtext to the episode is that even a belligerent and foolish donkey appears to have more insight and sense than Balaam. Gordon Wenham spells out what is going on:
Up to this point, Balaam has been portrayed as a man of great spiritual stature, who can meet with God when he wants and whose words have tremendous effects on the fate of nations. Here his spiritual blindness and powerlessness are disclosed. He cannot see the angel of the LORD standing in his path, though his donkey can. Furthermore, he sees no significance in her behaviour, though strange actions by animals were often regarded as omens in Mesopotamia. As a specialist in this sort of divination, he ought to have realized [sic] the deity had a message for him. Instead, he beats his donkey viciously three times, an ungodly act in itself (Prov 12:10).
Then to our astonishment the ass speaks (28-30). Such a thing would have seemed just as unlikely to the ancient Israelite as it does to us. It is immaterial to the story whether the donkey really spoke, or whether Balaam just imagined it talking. The Old Testament certainly sees inspiration as a supernatural phenomenon caused by the Spirit of God. Thus if men were able to utter God’s words, why should the same not be true of animals? This is the real point of the episode. The donkey’s acts and words anticipate the problems Balaam is about to face. The ass was caught three times between the angel’s sword and Balaam’s stick. Soon Balaam will find himself trapped three times between Balak’s demands and God’s prohibitions.
Nobody comments on the fact that Balak appears to simply let Balaam walk away. Perhaps he feared the spiritual, or possibly human, consequences of killing a well-regarded, widely revered seer. Maybe he feared a curse from Balaam. In truth, we don’t know. What we do know is that the Lord judged Balaam himself (cf. Num 31:8-16). The point being that the Abrahamic covenant which guaranteed Israel’s blessing and a curse on those who seek to curse Israel (cf. Gen 12:3) was fulfiled in the judgement of Balak and Balaam.