Balaam’s Ass

This post picks up on a theme that was touched on in some earlier discussion on the topic of Bible inerrancy. In that earlier discussion, Adam took the position that a presumption of Bible inerrancy was useful, and I am finally writing a response: Balaam’s ass!

I teach early morning Seminary, and today we covered the story of Balaam and Balak. As you may remember, Balak is the King of Moab, who wants Balaam — a mysterious prophet — to pronounce a curse on the Children of Israel. After counseling with God, Balaam refuses, and he sends Balak’s messengers away. When Balak sends messengers a second time, Balaam assents to accompany the messangers to see the masses of Israelites, making no commitment on the issue of the curse.

On the way to see the Israelites, Balaam and his ass encounter an angel that only the ass can see. I assume that Balaam has been blinded to spiritual things by his own greed (a hoped-for reward from Balack). Three times, the ass refuses to proceed as directed by Balaam, and each time Balaam applies a punishment. Finally, after being abused a third time, the ass speaks: “What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?”

Of course, Balaam answers the ass (what would you do?!): “Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.” To which the ass responds: “Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?” Balaam replied: “Nay.” (Is this some sort of animal joke? I guess horses “nay,” while asses “bray,” but could this story get any stranger?)

So, what are we to make of this. In his prior post, Adam writes:

In my own experience, this presumptive inerrancy can be very fruitful. For instance, sections of the Old Testament may well be legendary or otherwise misconstrued (e.g., the Flood, Job). Other parts are parts that we would like to exclude (e.g., the massacres that God commanded on the enemies of the Israelites). But my understanding of the Gospel has been enriched by treating them all as true, so I will continue to act and think as if they were.

OK, I’ll play along. If I really thought this story was based in fact, I might adopt the view described as the “conservative view” by the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The usual traditional, or conservative, view of the episode of Balaam is that it is an historical narrative in the ordinary sense. The supernatural plays an important part in it, but it is contended that the credibility of the narrative requires only a belief in the miraculous, and that the acceptance of many of the most important parts of the Bible requires such a belief. The episode of the speaking ass is strange; but no stranger than the story of the speaking serpent in Paradise.

You got me! I don’t believe the serpent spoke, either! What kind of argument is that? (A bad one.) Where do we go with this “conservative” view? Certainly, my interactions with God cannot be universalized, but my own experiences tell me that God does not deal in this way with His children.

The Catholic Encyclopedia also offers an alternative, “critical” view:

Modern critics take a different view of the episode…. For them the narrative of Numbers, chapters xxii, xxiii, and xxiv, is part of the prophetical history. That is, in these chapters there is no trace of the priestly writer P…. Though critics are unanimous that chapters xxii, xxiii, and xxiv are the work of the two writers called the Jahvist and the Elohist, they do not find it easy to apportion that part of Numbers between the two authors. Indeed, the only point on which they are agreed is that chapter xxii belongs to the Elohist, with the exception of verses 22-35, which they assign to the Jahvist. This section contains the episode of the ass, and critics say that it destroys the sequence of the narrative. Thus in verse 20 Balaam gets leave from God to go with the princes of Moab; but in verse 22 God is angry with him, apparently because of his going. Though this apparent inconsistency has been variously explained by conservative commentators, critics argue from it and other similar instances, that the episode of the ass has been skilfully fitted into the rest of the chapter, but is really the work of another writer; and that the original narrative which is broken off at verse 20 continues at verse 36.

If I am reading this correctly, the Catholic Encyclopedia offers two views on the story of Balaam’s ass: (1) it is historical fact, accurately recorded; and (2) it is a mistake, a story improperly inserted by an unknown author. This is not a Hobson’s choice, it’s Sophie’s Choice!

Joseph Smith obviously read this story closely. He was troubled enough by the apparent internal conflict noted above — where Balaam is told in verse 20 to go with the princes of Moab, but in verse 22 God is angry with him — that he inserted words in the Joseph Smith Translation implying that Balaam was given the choice to go. Under this view, Balaam is a bit like Joseph Smith himself, asking the Lord repeatedly to approve of a course of action once denied (the lost 116 pages). Balaam’s subsequent encounter with the angel suggests that he made the choice for impure reasons.

It is clear enough to me that the story of Balaam’s ass is not historical fact. Nevertheless, I like the story for the lessons it teaches. So would I be too heretical to consider this story, and others like it (e.g., the Flood, the Garden of Eden) to be like the parables that Jesus taught, except that they (for the most part) involved historical figures?

11 comments for “Balaam’s Ass

  1. Adam Greenwood
    December 5, 2003 at 2:52 pm

    I’m not sure if I understand the argument, so bear with me.

    I claim that a presumption of biblical inerrancy or of “two truths” has proven very useful to me. That is, when interacting with the text, I find it more helpful to ask questions other than, “did this really happen? Is this really inspired?”

    I don’t see how the story of Balaam’s ass somehow refutes that presumption. Yes, it seems silly. So what? Things that gratify are pre-existing ideas don’t always open the mind to revelation.

  2. December 5, 2003 at 3:30 pm

    There’s nothing bad about the argument from the Catholic Encyclopedia. Scripture is filled with accounts of strange and miraculous happenings. If you don’t believe in the speaking serpent, just pick another miraculous event and plug it in instead. If, on the other hand, you don’t believe in *any* of the miraculous occurances in Scripture, then I would suggest you’ve denied something much more fundamental than Biblical Inerrancy.

  3. December 5, 2003 at 3:37 pm

    Adam, perhaps I misunderstood your original point, but my misunderstanding may have lead to an insight that I try to share with my Seminary students. As you might imagine, I often hear the question from those high-school students, “Is this story true?” Now, I know what they mean: “did this story really happen as it is recorded?” Nevertheless, I usually play a little Socratic game with them: “What do you mean by ‘true’?” Yes, it is as frustrating as it sounds, but my point is that the story can be true even though it did not really happen in the manner recorded.

    Mine is not the way that most people who believe in biblical inerrancy understand the Bible. That is, they understand it according to the “conservative” view described in my main post. Historical accuracy. In my view (apparently neither “conservative” nor “critical”), this is patently ridiculous. As a result, making assumptions of inerrancy is a waste of time. Indeed, I might even go to the opposite extreme and claim complete indifference to the historical “claims” of the Bible. If it is “the word of God,” why would I care whether the events really happened as described?

    After reading your comment, I suspect that you have some sympathies for this view. Right?

  4. Nate
    December 5, 2003 at 4:00 pm

    Gordon, I think that I probably think about the scriptures is ways substantially similar to you. I think that a lot of it is “historically accurate” and a lot of it is not. The problem, however, is methodological. You don’t buy the talking ass story because it seems silly. However, I take it that your problem is not necessarily that it is miraculous. Thus, for example, I take it that you except the resurrection as a literal fact. Perhaps you accept other miracle stories — the feeding of the five thousand? etc. etc. Thus, it seems that you reject the “historical accuracy” of stories not on the basis of some consistent world view (e.g. naturalism) but on some rather undefined criteria of silliness. This is problematic.

    How is this for a theory. A later editor thought that the Book of Numbers was dragging a bit and suspected that readers were not going to be paying close attention. What better way to grab them back than to throw in a talking donkey story!

  5. December 5, 2003 at 4:54 pm

    A few months ago, I substituted for our early morning seminary teacher and one of the lessons we covered was the fall. In preparing for the lesson, I came across several commentaries about the serpent speaking and Balaam’s ass. Some of these also mentioned other scriptural references (I think some in Revelations) which I mention “beasts” talking. Some of these individuals have theorized that in fact, because of the fall, animals, being lesser intelligences cannot communicate verbally, but that God can loose their tongues and allow them to speak. I don’t know what I think about this personally, but it would not seem patently absurd that in certain instances that God could cause or allow lesser intelligences (animals) to communicate with the higher intelligences.

  6. December 5, 2003 at 5:05 pm

    Nate and Josiah: Rest assured that I am not anti-miracles, having witnessed many personally. In addition, I have a deep faith in miracles in which I have not participated, most importantly the Resurrection and the Atonement. In my view, other miraculous events recounted in the scriptures fall somewhere between completely implausible (e.g., the talking donkey) and easy to believe (e.g., Jesus healing the sick), but my attitude toward each of these “non-essential miracles” is pretty much the same: I don’t care whether they really happened. I believe the stories to be inspired, and I try to learn the lessons they teach. Most people do not ask, “Who was the Good Samaritan?” Likewise, I am not looking for a talking donkey. So I partly avoid the problem you identify by adopting an attitude of indifference to the historicity of scriptural miracles. This leaves me with the problem of attempting to distinguish essential miracles from non-essential miracles, but that seems more manageable to me.

  7. Jeremiah John
    December 5, 2003 at 5:30 pm

    One thing that I always find fascinating about the Bible is its unique kind of ‘miraculous realism’. The Hebrews, especially in the from the reign of the kings, were not known throughout the Near East as foolish people, tossed to and fro by the latest religous fad. Indeed they were known for their practical wisdom and sophisticated system of law. They weren’t anyone’s fools! Unlike animistic cultures, Jewish culture was not prone to spiritualizing the animal kingdom. And so it may be surprising to hear of serpents or asses talking, or fishes swallowing people and then throwing them up a few days later. And yet the Biblical record does not seem to be self-conscious about the fact that it is reporting something unusual or ridiculous.

    As for implausibility–I think that a talking ass is a wonderful miracle. It’s no more earthy than feeding the five thousand or turning water into wine. If God is a God of miracles, then I have no problem if his miracles turn out seeming gratuitous or bizarre. Indeed, I think it is very much like God to be gratuitous (‘needlessly wonderous’) and bizarre (or jarring to our received sensibilities).

  8. Adam Greenwood
    December 5, 2003 at 6:31 pm

    I think Jeremiah John puts it best. I will not be crushed if, at the end of days, Balaam’s ass admits that he never said any such thing. But for now, I get more out of the story if I think of it as factual.

  9. December 6, 2003 at 12:30 am


    I guess I just don’t see on what basis you could say that one miracle is “implausible” while another isn’t. It’s not like we can judge these things by our ordinary experience.

  10. December 6, 2003 at 3:44 am

    I was inclined simply to move on, but Josiah’s question inspired me to make one more comment. In my view, the whole purpose of this life is to become like God. (I enjoyed Jim Falcouner’s take on this: “I don’t see becoming like God as a matter of gaining understanding (though that comes along with it). I see it as a matter of learning to love as he loves.”) How do we do that? Through a process of trial and error and repentence. Over time, as I have gone through that process repeatedly, I have come to feel closer to Him. Perhaps I delude myself, but I feel like I have some understanding about how He works with me. Moreover, my frequent conversations with others combined with my study of the scriptures and concomitant insights (which I think are rightly called “revelations”) have strengthened my understanding of spiritual things. Working from that base, I make judgments about the manner of God’s dealings with men.

    By the way, I am clearly not alone in doing this, and my impression is that most of us sort claims about inspiration, revelation, miracles, etc. based on our own sense of God’s workings. Do you believe in voodoo? That people bend forks through mental telepathy? That the Pat Robertson is God’s mouthpiece? We are constantly asked to make judgments about these sorts of things. I suspect that the only reason people are resisting my conclusions about the story of Balaam’s ass is that this story is contained in canonized scripture. (If I wrote on this blog in all sincerity that my dog had spoken to me, would you think me a prophet? Or would you worry that I am related to the Lafferty brothers?) Not that being canonized scripture is a trivial distinction between the story of Balaam and a blog entry. Nevertheless, I still don’t believe the story was factual because it does not comport with my understanding about the way in which God works with people.

    That said, and here is a bone for the other side, I recognize that my understanding is still limited by my experiences. I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the last time.

  11. Paul
    December 6, 2003 at 11:09 pm

    I’ve been following your comments with great interest, trying to decide where I stood on the matter. After realizing there was no way I was going to come to a conclusion on my own, I took my search to I found a New Era article by Elder Bruce. R. McKonkie, here’s how he introduced the story of Balaam’s ass:

    Let me tell you the story of a prophet, in some respects a very great prophet, but one “who loved the wages of unrighteousness,” who “was rebuked for his iniquity” in a most strange and unusual way, and whose actions (which included the uttering of great and true prophecies) were described by another prophet in another day as “madness.”

    This is a true story, a dramatic story; one with a great lesson for all members of the Church; one that involves seeing God, receiving revelation, and facing a destroying angel in whose hand was the sword of vengeance. It includes the account of how the Lord delivered a message to the prophet in a way that, as far as we know, has never been duplicated in the entire history of the world.

    This puts the matter to rest for me, although please feel free to continue discussing this as I thoroughly enjoy the new insights.

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