When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff.
Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?’
Balaam answered the donkey, ‘You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.’
The donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this very day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?’
‘No,’ he said. — Numbers 22:27-30
In what is one of the most fantastical narratives in the Torah, a rebellious donkey has the chutzpah to talk back to the great conjurer Balaam.
Fascinated by this episode, the ancient rabbis (Pirkei Avot 5:6) claim that the mouth of the donkey was among those things created during the last moments of the six days of creation. The talking animal transgresses the laws of creation and requires God’s special attention to weave it into the unfolding structures of life.
But what does Balaam’s talking donkey teach us? It is my contention that this story contains an important lesson about the nature of God’s revelation to human beings.
Among medieval Jewish philosophers there is extensive discussion about the nature of prophecy. Some thinkers view prophecy as a supernatural phenomenon in which God inexplicably chooses the bearer of his message, regardless of the individual’s spiritual constitution. Maimonides, however, adheres to what is called the “naturalist position.” In his Guide to the Perplexed (Part II, chapter 32), he argues that prophecy rests only upon an individual who has perfected his intellectual and imaginative faculties.
According to Maimonides, God is always transmitting messages; the question is whether or not human beings can refine themselves sufficiently in order to receive them. The prophet thus represents the fullest development of human potential.
The story of the donkey reflects the first form of prophecy, that is, the miraculous entrance of God’s word into the world through an unlikely instrument. The donkey is a vessel of revelation, but with no existential connection to the words emerging from its mouth.
In a surprising rabbinic teaching on Deuteronomy 34:10 we read: “No prophet like Moses has risen in Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:10). But the rabbis then add the following: “There did not arise one in Israel, but among the nations there did arise one, and it was Balaam” (Sifrei Deuteronomy 357).
How can the sages compare Moses, the greatest of all Israelite prophets, to Balaam, a roving conjurer-for-hire, who makes only a brief appearance in the Torah?
I want to suggest that this midrashic statement teaches us that while these two men both speak God’s word, their experiences of the Divine are profoundly different.
Balaam serves as a mouthpiece for God, but not as a consequence of his moral or spiritual faculties. The divine words that move through him do not penetrate his soul. He is, in this sense, like his donkey. In fact, he is so obtuse in this scene (and arrogant, as some rabbinic commentators suggest) that he not only fails to sense God’s presence before him, but he does not pick up on the physical queues of his animal. Ironically, God must cause the donkey to speak — just as God fills Balaam’s mouth with words — for this prophet to realize what is going on.
Moses, however, represents the Maimonidean ideal of a person who seeks to refine himself. As the Torah states, Moses was “the most humble of all men” (Numbers 12:4). His many experiences of God move him deeply. He becomes so close to the Divine that the words that emerge from his mouth are considered by the rabbis as being the word of God. It is for this reason that our sages refer to the Torah as the “Torah of Moses.”
In translating this teaching into our lives, we must seek to be among the disciples of Moses, actively working to refine ourselves as we seek out God. Like the great prophet, we must always remain humble in our spiritual pursuits, knowing our limitations and recognizing the possibility of learning from all those created in the divine image.