Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

Laughing Donkey, by Tobias Mayer, 2022, chalk pastel on black

And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed. / And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him.
Numbers 22:12/20-22a

The story of Balaam and his donkey is a tale of irony and parody, and one of only two biblical stories featuring a talking animal (the other being the earlier story of Eve and the snake). In this story, the renowned and esteemed prophet Balaam is shown to be inferior even to his donkey in understanding God's will. Balaam is incapable of seeing what is right in front of his eyes, while his donkey sees clearly. Balaam beats the donkey for disobedience, and man and donkey get into a ridiculous argument about the justice of such punishment. It's very comical—and of course, very poignant, illustrating once again the power of God's will over that of man.

One curious aspect of the story is contained in the quoted verses. Balaam is summoned by Balak, the Moabite king, to curse the Israelites, all two million of them, who have landed on his doorstep, and likely to lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field.1 First God tells Balaam not to go, then He tells him to go, and immediately He gets angry because he went. The dilemma theologians and apologists are confronted with is a perfect, infallible God changing his mind, not once, but twice. Some deal with this by claiming multiple sources for the story, merged together (and presumedly poorly edited). This comes of course from a literal reading, and is certainly not a very satisfactory explanation, although is does conveniently make man, not God, the inconsistent one.

It is again Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who offers, at least to my ears, the most satisfactory understanding.2 God says no, and only no. But Balaam does not wish to hear no, especially when offered great reward for saying yes. This is our modern day dilemma in a nutshell: we want to hear what is convenient, what matches our cognitive bias, what best serves our own ends, or what appeases our masters. Whether being guided by sage advice, or from a place of personal experience and integrity, we easily override our truth when our status, comfort, safety or monetary needs are threatened. When working in corporate environments one of the things I teach, perhaps the most important thing for improving relationships, is having the courage to say no. Too easily we are swayed from what we know is right, too easily we cower to our base desires. Our external voice says yes, but internally we know the answer is no. Thus we live much of our lives in misalignment.

For Balaam then God's voice is his own inner voice. He knows what he must do, but what he knows does not fit with what he wants, so he hears what he wants to hear, he twists the words so they match his desire. God's first No was final. The rest is Balaam's justification, and the story plays this out in metaphor. The angel is Balaam's conscience, Balaam himself is his own will, and Balaam's donkey is God's will. The two are in conflict, but happily for Balaam God's will and his own conscience combine to a force stronger than Balaam's self-will. That's not always the case for us, today, especially if we lack one of the two essential elements: trust in God and the small, still voice within.

1 Numbers 22:4
2 The Hardest Word to Hear, by Jonathan Sacks, June 2013