This week we are featuring one of our Hildy Tails. This series of essays were composed last year for our Sustainers Circle. They were dictated to John by the Abbey’s mascot, Hildy the Monk-ey. Hildy is a bit of a free spirit who likes to entertain and doesn’t normally feel constrained by conventional story structure . . . or grammar, in general. She lives by the motto that “all stories are true; some actually happened.” We wanted to share them with you, our wider Abbey community, to give you a small monkey-sized, humorous perspective on some biblical passages and stories of the saints.
Balaam & the Talking Ass (Numbers 22:22-40)
Hello and welcome back!
(Don’t panic. This reflection isn’t late. After an Abbey of the Arts staff meeting, it was agreed that the front end of the month was kinda crowded with a lot of content and I volunteered to post my stories later. So, here we are.)
Now before I get into today’s odd Biblical story (it’s a doozy), I need to talk about animal classifications and the ever-changing nature of language (it’s a bit long, but please bear with me . . . and pardon the pun.)
A mule is the barren offspring of a horse and a donkey (I think the gender of each matters, but I can’t remember which . . . and it doesn’t really matter here). But not all donkeys are the same. Not only are there different breeds, but there are different names for donkeys that have changed overtime. Up until last century, donkeys were called “asses” (it has to do with their Latin name . . . but don’t worry about that; there won’t be a test later). And for a while, a distinction was made between a donkey (a wild animal) and an ass (a domesticated animal). But that wild/domesticated version isn’t consistent, depending on region and era. (Dictionaries don’t always agree. I know! I’m as shocked as you are.)
Long story short, in not-so-older English translations of the Bible (this passage from the Book of Numbers in particular), the word “ass” was used instead of the term “donkey” that one finds in more modern translations. It was changed to cut down on the number of giggles in Bible classes, as the term “ass” now also refers to stupid/foolish people . . . and butts.
It’s a reasonable change, as the terms are basically interchangeable now. But it means that instead of the older English name for this story of “Balaam and the Talking Ass” one gets “Balaam, the Donkey, and the Angel.” But why take all the fun out of the story? As you’re about to see, changing the name doesn’t make the story any less weird.
John’s right. I should just tell you the story and get back to the commentary after.
The story begins some forty years after the Exodus from Egypt, as the Israelites are returning to the Promised Land. As it’s already occupied and the new locals aren’t so keen on new neighbours, fighting breaks out. At this point in the story, the Israelites are on quite the winning streak and the local tribes are starting to get worried. In particular, the king of the Moabites felt that something drastic had to be done if he was to defeat the Israelites in the inevitable battle (I guess sharing wasn’t an option, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Now the Moabite king knew of a guy named Balaam who had the power to tell the future and that whoever Balaam blessed would be blessed (and whoever he cursed would be cursed). Balaam was ordered to go to the king and curse the Israelites and bless the Moabites. Balaam was reluctant to go and tried to explain that it wasn’t his words that changed the future, but that he spoke what was to be. The Moabite king wasn’t having any of that and ordered Balaam to come to him to curse the Israelites. He even threatened Balaam’s life, if he did not do as he was told.
So, reluctantly (and under instructions from God in a dream), Balaam saddled his ass (or “donkey,” if you’re reading this to small children . . . who I’d think would enjoy the story all the more for the use of the term . . . Okay, John. I’ll get back to the story.)
But as Balaam progressed on his journey, God got angry that Balaam was going to curse the Israelites and so sent an angel (with a sword) to stop Balaam. The angel, sword in hand, stood on the road, blocking Balaam’s path. But Balaam could not see the angel (or the sword). The ass could see it though and so took a detour into a field . . . saving Balaam’s life.
And what did the ass get for this heroic deed? A pat on the head? A scratch behind the ears? A tasty treat?
Balaam struck the ass for not staying on the road!
Balaam got the ass back on the road, but the angel (still holding the sword) just went a bit further up the road and waited . . . this time in a spot between two walls. Again, only the ass could see the angel (did I mention it had a sword?) The ass was able to swerve out of the way of the sword-wielding angel, but Balaam scraped his foot on the wall . . . and so beat the ass, again.
Next the angel (sword still dangerously in hand) went a bit farther down the road to a narrow gap where the ass wouldn’t be able to get out of the way. When the ass saw this (and Balaam couldn’t), the ass lay down to avoid being stabbed by a sword. And again, for the third time (as another translation of this text states) “Balaam beat his ass a third time.”
(You’re beginning to see why John’s teenage male students loved this story when he taught high school. But that’s just the silly modern English translation issues. We’re only just now getting to the really weird bit.)
It’s at this point (after the ass has saved Balaam’s life three times and gotten beaten for it each time) that the Lord opens the mouth of the ass (. . . I’ll wait for the giggling to stop . . .) and says to Balaam, “Why are you beating me?” Balaam replies that the ass is making a fool of him and he might just kill the ass. The ass then points out that it’s been a loyal and faithful mount for Balaam for years and has never done anything like this before today and maybe (just maybe) it deserves the benefit of the doubt and has VERY good reasons for doing what it’s been doing. Balaam agrees to this excellent point by the ass and his eyes are suddenly open to seeing the angel (the one with the sword sent to kill him) and he understands what just happened.
Balaam, properly humbled bows before the angel and asks God’s forgiveness. God relents and instructs Balaam to only repeat the blessings that God tells him. The Moabite king isn’t happy to hear the Israelites blessed by Balaam, but there is nothing he can do about it at that point.
Now in case you missed it, the weird bit isn’t that the ass suddenly can speak (although that is weird). It’s not even that the ass and Balaam get into a bit of an argument. It’s that Balaam doesn’t seem all too surprised that the ass is now talking to him (maybe this isn’t an unusual thing for Balaam, maybe this is how he gets all his curses and blessings . . . from animals talking to him). On top of THAT . . . and perhaps my personal favourite bit in the whole story . . . Balaam loses the argument with the ass. The ass makes several good points and Balaam, as murderously mad as he is at this particular point, can’t help but be persuaded.
There’s all sorts of messages and lessons we can take from this story: God speaks through ALL of creation/ALL creatures; staying on the straight and narrow path isn’t always the best option; follow God’s instructions; even a talking ass can utter words of wisdom, so listen carefully to everyone and don’t let your emotions/ego keep you from hearing the truth; the Bible is a lot more fun that most people think.
I could go on, but I think this talking monkey has made her point.
How can you get out of your own way and learn more from the larger world around you?