Unless you’re an avid reader of the Old Testament, the phrase ‘Balaam’s Donkey’ probably provokes one of two reactions: a) ‘What?’ or b) ‘Oh yeah, that weird story about a talking donkey – what’s that about?’
That’s right, the Bible has more in common with Shrek than you thought. Nestled away in the book a Numbers (a book which, lets face it is almost exclusively read by OT scholars, theology students and dedicated subscribers of ‘Read the Bible in One Year’ plans), this story is not widely chosen as a text for a sermon or to inspire personal prayer. In fact it feels like it would better belong in an anthology of fairy tales. When I was on the preaching team at my previous church, we used to have the overall principle of preaching Jesus in every sermon and from every text. Here comes the confession: I used to wrestle with a bit of cynicism with this approach – surely it’s a bit reductive to do this with every passage, or perhaps it leads us to find meaning that simply isn’t there and in doing so miss the actual point of the text? I would probably have flippantly used this particular passage as a case in point. However, thanks to a theological reflection exercise on this passage with some of my fellow community members, I found myself arriving at the conclusion that Balaam’s talking Donkey can be seen as a forerunner of Jesus. Surprised? So was I, but hear me out.
Before launching into how this conclusion was reached, let me tell/remind you of the story in question. Disclaimer: what follows in an unashamed paraphrase of the actual text. If you want to read the original you can find it in Numbers 22 v 22-40.
Once upon a time (well, somewhere around 1440 BC), there was a man called Balaam who had a donkey. For a very long and complicated reason, Balaam was on his way to curse the people of Israel on behalf of the people of Moab because it would help him on his way to position and riches, despite knowing that this would not be pleasing to the God of Israel. Balaam was on his way to the people of Israel, riding his donkey when an angel, with a drawn sword in his hand stood in the middle of the road to bar his path. This angel had been sent by God in order to stop Balaam from cursing the people Israel. Now, Balaam did not see the angel but his donkey did, so the donkey did what any reasonable donkey would do in the face of a warrior angel and turned off the road. Balaam didnt like this so struck the donkey to get him back onto the road. Then the angel appeared infront of them again, this time in a walled passage. In order to get past the angel, the donkey scraped up against the wall, scraping Balaams foot in the process. Balaam struck the donkey again, still not seeing the angel. A third time the angel appeared on the road infront of them and this time there was no where to turn, so the donkey simply laid down in the road. Balaam once again struck the donkey. Then God enabled the donkey to speak who said “What have I done to deserve you striking me three times?” Balaam replied “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword to kill you right now!” And the donkey said “Haven’t I been your donkey all your life? Have I ever done anything like this before?” “No” replied Balaam. Then, God opened Balaam’s eyes and he was able to see the angel with the flaming sword infront of them on the path. The angel said to him “I have been here to stop you in your tracks because of what you are about to do. If it hadn’t been for your donkey, I would have killed you and let him live”. The angel made Balaam see that it wasn’t right to go and curse the people of Israel and started to obey God. And they all lived happily ever after (well, that’s not exactly accurate, but that’s beside the point for todays purposes).
After my group had been discussing the passage for a while, someone said:
“I don’t like the idea of God sending an angel to simply kill someone for doing something He didn’t like”.
This made me think. Do we really believe that God (and therefore the angel) actually intended to kill Balaam? Because I’m not sure I can get on board with the idea that a Donkey is able to outrun and outwit an angel with a flaming sword in his hand. If the angel wanted to kill Balaam then surely he would have done so. Maybe the angel was there to show the potential very real and just consequences of Balaam’s intention to go and curse a nation. But God enabled the donkey to see these consequences when Balaam couldn’t and therefore acted on Balaam’s behalf, in order to save him from the darkness that lay ahead of him.
None of us would disagree that there is darkness in the world. We all face this darkness in different ways, sometimes it is the product of our own failures, sometimes it is is the product of another persons failure, sometimes it is the product of a whole societies failures. Sometimes we are responsible for the darkness we face, sometimes we are innocent victims. Sometimes it is a mixture of both. Either way, we all face darkness which is the natural consequence of human failure. Sometimes we find ourselves experiencing it, sometimes we narrowly escape it.
But the ultimate darkness that all human beings are at a very real risk of facing is living outside of the reality that we are all God’s creations who he fiercely loves. This leads to living outside of the reality of a full relationship with Him, living outside of the reality that we have value, worth and significance just as we are (arguably, this is where all other human failure and darkness come from). We are all like Balaam, heading away from the love of God and therefore blindly towards some sort of darkness. Balaam was fortunate in that his donkey was more switched on than he was. His donkey diverted Balaam from the dangers ahead (even though he arguably deserved it, especially when it was to save thousands of people). But isn’t this what Jesus does for us? He keeps the very real and (sometimes just) darkness at bay. Instead of allowing us all to continue blindly on our roads that lead away from the reality of God’s love, Jesus came and chose the cross. In dying on the cross at the hands of his creations, and in experiencing separation from the Father, Jesus himself suffered the very real and most intense version of darkness that comes from human failure – so that we won’t have to. In doing so, like Balaam’s donkey, Jesus diverted our path away from the darkness ahead and leads us into life through His resurrection. The cross shows us that God’s love for us is very real and is more powerful than any human failure. The cross shows us that God doesn’t want us to have to face the angel with the sword any more than we do. To me, the angel in the story doesn’t represent God’s wrath (that we escape through Jesus), but serves as a warning to us about the natural consequences of our choice to live as if God doesn’t exist. This story shows us that we have an alternative choice – we can be like Jesus and willingly choose the cross. We can sit on the donkey and trust that it knows better than us the way to life (even if we are as confused by the mystery of the gospel as we are by a talking donkey).