Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Lesson of Balaam's Donkey

Now the donkey saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way and went into the field. So Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back onto the road.

Then the Angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side. And when the donkey saw the Angel of the LORD, she pushed herself against the wall and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck her again.

Then the Angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the donkey saw the Angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam’s anger was aroused, and he struck the donkey with his staff.

Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”

And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!”

So the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?”

And he said, “No.”

Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face.


In this story, Balaam physically could not see the danger that he was in. In a more metaphorical sense, this applies to many situations because we all have blind spots in life, and we don't always know what danger we are facing or what trouble we are getting ourselves into. The story of Balaam is a lesson in humility; why should he have paid attention to the perspective of a sub-human creature who was incapable of telling him a good reason for what he was doing? There are several key elements in the set-up to this story, though, and these elements are also seen reflected in many more modern tales, but I'll get to that later.

  1. Character #1 faces danger of some sort
  2. Character #2 is a loyal or upright character who has proven untrustworthy
  3. Character #1 looks down on Character #2, doesn't think them worth listening to
  4. Character #2 tried to prevent bad stuff from happening
  5. Character #1 for whatever reason does not hear or does not understand the reason that Character #2 has for getting in the way
  6. Character #1 gets angry at Character #2 for getting between them and their goals
  7. Character #1 hurts Character #2
  8. Finally, Character #1 sees the danger prevented and appreciates Character #2

That's generally how it goes. Where did Character #1 go wrong? Well, other than the obvious mistake of getting himself into trouble somehow, there are the issues of trust, of respect, and of anger. After Balaam had hit the donkey several times, the donkey is able to speak back and he asks whether in the past he had ever gone against Balaam or been stubborn like that. The donkey asks if Balaam has any reason not to trust him, and Balaam has to admit that the donkey had always been a loyal servant and never untrustworthy in that way. Balaam was wrong, then, to judge rather than trust his loyal servant. In Balaam's mind, though, he was a man and the donkey was a donkey, which means that he was right by default. There wasn't the slightest possibility, in his mind, that he should actually heed the donkey.

Similar plotlines pop up here and there. In Lady and the Tramp, for instance, the Tramp knocks over the baby's basset (with the baby in it) while helping Lady to protect the baby from a vicious rat who was attempting to bite the baby. Naturally the noise brings in Aunt who-ever-it-was, and she berates both dogs, also calling the dog catcher to take the Tramp to the pound. The parents get home, and they actually listen to Lady's barking, she leads them to the curtain where the rat (then dead) was lying, and then of course the Tramp is appreciated. The Aunt distrusted all dogs from the very start, despite Lady's habitual past trustworthy conduct, and saw Lady as a lessor being (obviously) so that the possibility that she should actually heed the dog's barking (first warning her of the rat, and later trying to show the dead rat) wasn't in her mind at all. Again, there is a lack of humility that she could have a blind spot, dismissal of input from those she looks down on, retaliation toward those who were protectors, and final revealing of the truth.

In another well known story, It's A Wonderful Life, there is a scene near the beginning where the main character is a child working for a pharmacist. The pharmacist, Gower, accidentally grabs the wrong bottle and inadvertently sends young George to give a child poison. Young George notices this danger, refuses to deliver the drug, and attempts to explain...


Why, that medicine should have been
there an hour ago. It'll be over in
five minutes, Mrs. Blaine.

He hangs up the phone and turns to George.

Where's Mrs. Blaine's box of capsules?

He grabs George by the shirt and drags him into the back


(shaking him)
Did you hear what I said?

Yes, sir, I...

Gower starts hitting George about the head with his open
hands. George tries to protect himself as best he can.

What kind of tricks are you playing,
anyway? Why didn't you deliver them
right away? Don't you know that boy's
very sick?

(in tears)
You're hurting my sore ear.

You lazy loafer!

Mr. Gower, you don't know what you're
doing. You put something wrong in
those capsules. I know you're unhappy.
You got that telegram, and you're
upset. You put something bad in those
capsules. It wasn't your fault, Mr.

George pulls the little box out of his pocket. Gower savagely
rips it away from him, breathing heavily, staring at the boy

Just look and see what you did. Look
at the bottle you took the powder
from. It's poison! I tell you, it's
poison! I know you feel bad... and...

George falters off, cupping his aching ear with a hand.

Of course, after Gower realizes that it was, in fact, poison, he was penitent and very grateful to poor George, who became deaf in one ear after the incident. Unlike the previous two stories, Character #2 wasn't an animal. The dynamic remains the same, though, because George was just a child; there wasn't the slightest possibility present to Gower's mind that the kid saw something that he didn't. Rather, the child seemed to get between the old man and his goals, and there was hell to pay. In this case also, George had been nothing but trustworthy and reliable; there was no reason for Gower to distrust him and turn on him just as there was no reason for Balaam to distrust and turn on his donkey. The motivation is understandable: what underling dares get between a man and his goal, especially without being able to articulate quickly and clearly why? That underling faces wrath for being "in the wrong" automatically, not heard, and getting in the way, even though getting in the way protects the other character from the destruction that lies in that way.

Therefore, the lesson of Balaam is simply this:

We all have blind spots. Therefore, if some loyal underling (even one below your statue, your rank, your education, your age, or sub-human) gets between you and a very urgent goal then follow these three steps: Respect their motivations even if you don't understand or you disagree; Listen to their perspective if you can to try to consider their angle on what the danger might be; Whatever you do, don't hit them in anger just because they stand between you and your goal. If anything, it is better to be too gracious than too quick to condemn.


drwayman said...

Skarlet - Thanks for sharing this. It is amazing what God can bring to bear upon our lives to show us our blind spots.

One thing that I find amazing about this story is that it just seems natural to Balaam that his donkey talked to him. I think, if I had been Balaam, I would have jumped off the donkey and run away screaming, fearful that I had just lost it. Maybe Balaam and his donkey had other conversations prior???

Anonymous said...

Yo! What about animal rights & cruelty to children? Should the bible be read in Sunday school? All that violence LOL.Ha, ha, ha.

The Jewish Talmud combines Balaam & Jesus together:

Gloats over Christ Dying Young:

A passage from Sanhedrin 106 gloats over the early age at which Jesus died: "Hast thou heard how old Balaam (Jesus) was? - He replied: It is not actually stated but since it is written, Bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days it follows that he was thirty-three or thirty-four years old."

Says Jesus was a Sorcerer:
Sanhedrin 43a. Says Jesus ("Yeshu" and in footnote #6, Yeshu "the Nazarene") was executed because he practiced sorcery.

Horrible Blasphemy of Jesus Christ:
Gittin 57a. Says Jesus ( see footnote #4) is being boiled in "hot excrement."
Sanhedrin 43a. Jesus deserved execution: "On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu was hanged...Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defense could be made? Was he not a Mesith (enticer)?"

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