Numbers 22: 1-35
I was reading a fascinating book*, one that made me think and also gave me some “AHA” moments. The one that particularly grabbed my attention was a subheading of “Failure to Communicate .” It dealt with a fundamental lack of communication, as exemplified in the story of a man named Balaam and his donkey found in Numbers 22. It doesn’t seem to appear in any lectionary reading, which means it isn’t read unless someone stumbles across or finds it referenced somewhere.
To condense it a bit, Baalam was a non-Israelite diviner with the gift of blessing or cursing. Balak, king of Moab, sent representatives to Baalam with the intent for Balaam to curse Israel, which was threatening the land of Moab. Balaam refused twice and even consulted with God both times, but in the end, God told Balaam to go with the representatives but only to say what God told him to say.
Balaam was on the road, riding his donkey, along with two servants. God sent an angel to block the way, which Balaam could not see. The donkey did, though, and refused to go ahead despite blows from Balaam’s stick.
This happened twice more, until the third time when the donkey, with nowhere else to go, laid down in the road and suffered a severe beating. God opened the donkey’s mouth and allowed her to question why he had beaten her in such a manner. Balaam was angry, saying the donkey had made a fool of him, and he wished he had a sword to kill her on the spot. The donkey reminded him that he had ridden her for years, and she had never caused him to treat her in this manner. Balaam had to agree. It was then that God opened Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel who had blocked the path. The upshot was that Balaam followed God’s direction and returned home, presumably on the same donkey, but this time without difficulty or beatings.
Poor donkey! She suffered cursing and beatings because she saw something Balaam didn’t, and couldn’t communicate this to him in any other way than to try to get around the angel blocking the road or lying down where she was. She tried her best to let Balaam know that something was wrong, but he only understood that she was not obeying his command to move ahead. Finally, God gave her the words to make Balaam stop and think about his anger and how unjustified it was, given the length of time he and the donkey had been working together. She also gave him an awareness that she had seen something he had not, and that her behavior was not just a whim but rather a sign that he missed.
We often miss communications because we act first, think later. We miss hearing essential things and get into trouble because of it. We depend on sound-bytes rather than entire messages, simply because we are in a hurry in a world that demands we keep moving, no matter what stands in our path that we should notice. We even ignore the growls of the dog we are walking, pulling on his leash to move him ahead when he is warning us of danger nearby.
Israel had prophets to warn them of things, not necessarily the immediate threats, but the ones further down the road. We have prophets today who look at the signs and see perils ahead if we do not correct the path on which we are moving. We depend on financial advisers to tell us when to buy or sell commodities or stocks to maximize our wealth but ignore the experts who warn us of climatic and ecological peril as a result of our greed. We don’t hear the voices of the trees and beasts as their various species die out due to deforestation and loss of habitat, not to mention overhunting and fear. Maybe we need a few more Balaam’s donkeys around; we might believe the messages if something utterly improbable spoke to us.
Donkeys are strong, intelligent, cautious, and with a great sense of self-preservation, which we often call stubbornness. They are playful, gentle, quick learners, and sure-footed, all of which make them valuable in many cultures and jobs. Is it not surprising that God had a message to pass to Balaam through the voice of the donkey?
To make a further point of wordless communication, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt of a donkey that had never been ridden. Emperors rode into a new city on the back of a strong, imposing white stallion, but the King of Israel chose a more peaceful, gentle method of entry to communicate his message, intent, and purpose.
Perhaps we need to listen to a more non-verbal way of passing along messages and lessons. We don’t need words to show love to our fellow humans, as well as all of creation around us. I believe it would be good if we could show respect for not only our neighbors but also the creatures, flora, fauna, and even inanimate inhabitants of our world.
I have a friend who has a donkey named Duncan. I think I’ll ask my friend if Duncan has given him any messages lately. It might be that Duncan has lessons he could pass on to his owner’s Education for Ministry group – and the world. Who knows, God might speak through Duncan and give us the words to enable us to see and feel the world as others do. It might just help us to be better God-followers as well.
*Roach, Jonathan C, and Gricel Dominguez, Expressing Theology: A Guide to Writing Theology That Readers Want to Read, (2015) Kindle edition, Chapter 4, Subheading “Failure to Communicate,” paragraph 1. Portland OR. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Image: Balaam and the Ass, Artist James Tissot, (painted ca 1896-1900). Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. Her owners, Dominic, Gandhi, and Phoebe, keep her busy and frequently highly amused.