Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth.
From the moment we brought him home, our cat Cody has displayed more intuitive insight than any animal Walt or I ever owned. Lest I sound like one of those people claiming their pet or child is the brightest ever born, we often wish ours wasn’t so intuitive. Whenever we override our better judgment, Cody sets us straight. For instance, since we’re both night owls who don’t keep planned bedtimes, Cody's taken over as our curfew officer. When it’s time to turn in, he gently taps our arms. If we brush him off, he returns with impatient whimpers. If we dismiss him again, he turns into a bully, creating complete chaos to break our concentration until we shut down for the night. Not until the lights go out is peace restored. It’s crazy to think Cody recognizes our need for rest when we don’t (or won’t). But he does. And while many of us have similar stories of our pets’ abilities to sense what we need and observe what we ignore, Balaam’s donkey tops them all. It grabs the headlines, yet the whole tale, recorded in Numbers 22, leaves us plenty to think about.
A Perilous Road
Israel’s wilderness trek is reaching its end. During the journey’s last leg, it’s attacked on two occasions by different kings. Israel routs them with God-given force, causing rulers it’s yet to pass to quake with fear. They summon Balaam, a pagan prophet attuned to God’s voice, offering him a lot of money to hex Israel. The first time he’s called, God instructs him to decline. The rulers dispatch more prestigious emissaries a second time with an offer he can’t refuse. Balaam knows the richer fee won’t alter God’s caution against cursing His people. Still, it’s too sweet to resist. So God tells Balaam to go ahead with one caveat: he’s to do only as God commands. (In actuality, He gives Balaam an out. He can tell the pagans, “I’ll go, but I can’t obey your wishes.”) Misconstruing God’s option as tacit permission, however, he starts down a perilous road.
Three times, an angel blocks Balaam’s way. He doesn’t notice, but his faithful donkey does. First, it veers off the road. Next, it stubbornly leans against a wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. Lastly, it sits down and refuses move. Each time, Balaam beats the donkey until it finally cries, “What have I done to deserve this?” Balaam says it’s made him look foolish. “Do I normally act like this?” the donkey asks, implying something irregular is going on (no kidding) and the famous seer’s too blind with greed to perceive it. “No,” Balaam answers. Honesty opens his eyes to the angel his donkey recognized all along. “I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me,” Balaam is told. (Numbers 22.32) The angel shames the psychic: “The donkey saw me… If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.” (v33) Balaam is cleared to proceed on condition he speaks exactly as God instructs. He reaches his benefactors, enrages them, and humiliates himself by blessing Israel instead of cursing it.
Balaam’s donkey invariably sparks debate about whether it really speaks. Other than the Garden serpent used as a disguise, the donkey is the Bible’s only talking animal. If it actually speaks or, like Cody, simply conveys its displeasure has no consequence. The story is neither about the donkey nor Balaam. It’s about God’s turning a stubborn donkey and master into unwitting channels for Him to speak and bless His people. While this is one wise ass unlike any other, how God uses him is fairly common. He works similarly in the Early Church and He’s doing it again.
In Romans 11, Paul says God parlayed mainstream Jews’ denial of Christ into an unwitting channel for non-Jews’ acceptance. He calls it a “mystery,” saying, “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles has come in.” (v25) The Jews’ closed minds create openings so “you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience.” (v30) Balaam’s opportunism gives God opportunity. The Jews’ rejection of God’s forgiveness enables Gentiles to receive it. “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable,” verse 29 reads. Whom God chooses to use He will use. Disregarding God’s gifts and call sends them down a reckless path, yet they always come to serve His purpose.
Today, another people is leaving its wilderness of religious rejection and spiritual deprivation. While these freed slaves march into the land of promise, fear grips their foes. Prophets ignore God’s warning against seductive offers to curse His people. Self-interest lures them down reckless paths. They ride on the backs of those wise and intuitive enough to see what they miss. Although those under them suffer hard beatings, God will open their mouths to speak and He’ll show Himself to their blind masters. His gifts and call are irrevocable; errant prophets—even pagan ones endowed with unique skills—will obey Him in the end. When God decides to bless His people, no ruler or prophet can defy Him.
The donkey speaks, the seer sees, and God’s people are blessed.
(Tomorrow: Eyes and Ears)