A thin haze covered the fortified city of Damascus. Dozens of stone chimneys belched the smoke of cooking ovens into the morning sky. The slapping of sandals on old stone mixed with the sounds of hooves and creaking wagon wheels. Clanging metal and the hollering of early market hagglers created a cacophony of sound. The smell of stale bread, rotting apples and unwashed bodies filled the air. Five horses followed by three donkeys, all with riders, exited the heavy gates of Damascus. They trotted rapidly southward on the Bashan road. On either side of the road were golden fields of wheat, barley and spelt.
The five horses were beautiful Egyptian stallions, all of a deep chestnut color. Their riders wore bejeweled Moabite robes. One of the donkeys was a white, neatly combed jenny with a shiny black harness. Her rider was an ancient wiry man in flowing black robes. The jenny was followed by two dull colored jacks each with a servant in a grey tunic.
“Finally we’re out of that dreadful city,” Chamra the white jenny brayed to Abot and Kostel, the two jacks behind her.
“Yes, smelly city,” Kostel agreed.
“Noisy city,” Abot chimed in.
“Smelly,” Kostel insisted.
“Noisy,” Abot repeated.
“Quiet you two,” Chamra yelled at them.
“Sorry, Chamra,” they both chanted.
“The stonework was the worst part,” Chamra said. “It was so uneven it hurt my hooves. Let’s take a break and let those prancing fools get ahead.”
Chamra stopped suddenly. Kostel and Abot stopped.
“What’s the matter with you?” Chamra’s rider yelled at her.
“My hooves are hurting and I don’t want to look at the backside of those Egyptian jerks anymore,” Chamra brayed. Her rider didn’t seem to understand.
“Why do you keep talking to Bilaam like he’ll understand?” Kostel asked.
“The only alternative is to ignore him and that seems rude,” Chamra answered.
“Works for me,” Abot said.
“That’s because you are rude,” Kostel pointed out.
“I’ll show you rude,” Abot slammed his body into Kostel. Both riders cried out in pain.
“Knock it off,” Chamra commanded.
“Sorry, Chamra,” they chanted.
Bilaam squeezed his knees into Chamra’s body. “Move on girl,” he whispered.
Chamra ignored Bilaam until the Egyptian stallions were several donkey-lengths ahead. Bilaam kept squeezing his knees and instructing Chamra to move. Without warning she started to trot at an easy pace. Kostel and Abot followed. Bilaam tipped over precariously but quickly regained his balance on the saddle.
“Where are we going?” Kostel asked Chamra.
“Didn’t you hear Bilaam’s discussions with the Moabite princes? Their king Balak wants Bilaam to curse the Israelites.”
“Curse them? They’re in big trouble,” Abot said. “Remember what happened to that Aramean tribe that he cursed? That was horrible.”
“I think this time it’s a bad idea,” Chamra said.
“Why? What’s the matter? Bilaam is really powerful. Who can stand up to him?” Abot asked.
“I think the Israelites have some special protection,” said Chamra.
“How do you know?” Kostel asked.
“Bilaam was murmuring in his sleep, ‘they are blessed, they are blessed, God does not allow, God does not allow’.”
“So why are we going?” Abot asked.
“Because Bilaam is a stubborn human.”
The cavalcade trotted southward uneventfully for several days. The road led up the mountain range on the eastern side of the Jordan River. On either side of the road grew lush vineyards with stakes raising the vines to man-height. Red grapes peeked out from under large green leaves. To the west they saw an enormous blue lake reflecting the morning sun. The Egyptian horses rounded a corner on the road.
Chamra sensed sudden heat and a shimmering light in front of her.
“Bilaam, do you sense that?” Chamra brayed.
Bilaam was oblivious.
The shimmering light transformed into a winged man holding a fiery sword.
The winged man gave Chamra an evil smile raised his sword and approached.
“Bilaam, that man will kill us. Do something,” she brayed and stopped.
Bilaam was busy putting leaves in his smoking pipe and instinctively squeezed his knees into Chamra’s sides.
“You are the dumbest being I know,” Chamra brayed and ran off the road into the vineyards as the winged man swung his sword at them.
Chamra ran under and through the thick growth of vineyards. Bilaam was jostled as she galloped over the uneven undergrowth. He kept ducking to avoid smashing his head into the vines, still holding his pipe in his outstretched hand, clutching the harness tightly with the other hand. Grapes fell on Bilaam’s head and spurted their red juices down his face. Chamra ran up to the next vine. Bilaam could not move his body out of the way. The vine banged into the elbow of his outstretched arm, pushing his hand violently into his face. The long mouthpiece of the pipe entered his eye. Red liquid continued to flow down his face.
“Curse you, you dumb donkey,” Bilaam yelled, dropped his pipe and banged his fist into Chamra’s side.
“You want to curse me?” Chamra brayed loudly. “You ugly hairless monkey. I just saved you from that crazed angel.”
Chamra made her way cautiously on a path back to the road. From within the vineyard path she looked both ways for signs of the angel. She spotted Kostel and Abot nibbling on some vines by the side of the road. When she was satisfied there was no one else around she got back on the road.
“Chamra,” Kostel brayed. “Where’d you go?”
“I was escaping that crazed winged man. Did you see him?”
“Yes,” Abot answered. “He was frightening, but he disappeared when you left the road.”
“Let’s go forward and keep our eyes open,” Chamra suggested. “These humans are all blind. It’s up to us to defend them.”
The donkeys continued on the road. Bilaam had taken some materials from his pack and bandaged his eye. The road climbed higher. The vineyards were laden with large ripe red grapes. The vineyards were protected by low stone walls.
Suddenly the hair all over Chamra stood on end. She saw the shimmering. The rampaging angel appeared a few feet away and ran at Chamra with his outstretched sword on fire. The angel raised his sword and slashed at Chamra.
Chamra jumped rightward smashing into the side of the stone wall. Bilaam’s leg was crushed by the impact. Bilaam screamed in pain. In fury he smashed his fist into Chamra’s side and then screamed again from the pain in his hand.
“You blind crazy human,” Chamra brayed at the top of her lungs. “You soft two-footed weasel. Why can’t you hear me? Why can’t you see? This angel is trying to kill us and all you can do is hit me?”
The angel disappeared. Chamra kept trotting, afraid to stay near the place of the attack.
The road climbed even higher. On either side of the road, vineyards gave way to olive groves. The olive trees were thick and gnarled, heavy with young green olives. The groves were protected by high stone walls.
Protruding from the right side of the wall was a tower of rock. The bottom of the tower made the road narrow. Only one donkey at a time could pass through the narrowing. Chamra trembled looking at the tight passage. That is the perfect place for an ambush, Chamra thought. That angel will reappear and attack us and there will be nowhere to go. Chamra stopped. Backwards is not safe either. This angel can reappear wherever he wants. Why does he want us dead? I wish I could make Bilaam understand. We will die for his mule-headedness. She moved slowly, her fur tingling with the expectation of danger.
“Wait here until after I pass,” Chamra instructed the jacks.
“You’re the boss,” Abot said.
“I thought Bilaam was the boss,” Kostel said.
“He may be the big boss, but Chamra’s our boss,” Abot said.
“Why do we need a boss? It’s bad enough having a human grinding his knees into your sides because he wants you to move. I don’t need other bosses,” said Kostel.
“Quiet, both of you,” Chamra commanded. “I should let you guys go ahead and get your heads chopped off.”
“Sorry, Chamra,” they both chanted.
Chamra reached the narrow passageway. The shimmering repeated itself and materialized into the shinning angel with the fiery sword. Chamra could not move to either side, but she was prepared. She quickly buckled her legs and dropped to the ground. Bilaam fell hard on the saddle and gasped in pain. The angel’s sword swung unnoticed over Bilaam’s head. Bilaam grabbed his long staff from his pack and rapped Chamra strongly on the head.
“What have I done to you, that you’ve hit me three times already?” Chamra was surprised at the different sound.
She felt Bilaam stiffen on the saddle and was shocked when he answered.
“Because you ridicule me,” Bilaam yelled at her. “If I would have a sword, I would kill you.”
“Aren’t I your donkey, your beloved, which you’ve ridden your entire life? Have I ever shamed you?” Chamra retorted with the unusual sound.
“No,” Bilaam admitted, as a light shimmered in front of him. He saw the angel with the burning sword.
Bilaam jumped off Chamra and bowed his head until it touched the dirt.
“Why have you hit your donkey three times?” the angel asked in a thunderous voice. “I came to intercept you. She saw me and saved you from my hand these three times. If it were not for her, you would be dead, while she would remain alive.”
“I have sinned,” Bilaam cried out with his head pressed to the ground. “I did not know you were against me. If you want me to stop, I will go back.”
“Go with the men,” the angel commanded. “However, only that which I tell you, that is what you will speak.”
Bilaam got off the ground and mounted Chamra. He glanced at the angel. The angel scowled at him with red eyes as fiery as his sword. Bilaam bowed his head quickly and urged Chamra forward with a gentle squeeze.
Chamra looked at the angel. The angel smiled at Chamra with kind eyes and winked at her before disappearing forever.
Chamra craned her neck to look back at Bilaam. She pitied the dumb animal in her charge.
* * * * * *
Notes: Donkeys are apparently very intelligent and level-headed animals (even more so than horses). Chamra is a female take on the Hebrew word for donkey: Chamor. Abot and Kostel is a mild tip of the hat to the comedy duo (Abbot and Costello).
It seems that in ancient times donkeys were the travel vehicles of the rich. Horses were used mainly for war and though Egypt was famous for its horses, I think it’s not unreasonable that the neighboring Moabite nobility would have horses for international travel.
Bilaam is reported as having lost use of an eye, leg and reproductive organ during the course of his journey.
The Moavites traveled ahead of Bilaam, not together.
The two servants that accompanied Bilaam may have been his sons.
Bilaam’s troubles started when he approached the stone monument of GalEd/Gilaad that was erected centuries before by Jacob and Lavan (father-in-law) as a peace treaty. Bilaam (who according to sources is Lavan or descendant) is hurt by the monument when he intends to cross the border of their peace treaty with evil intention.
Numbers Chapter 22
21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. 22 And God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the Lord placed himself in the way for an adversary against him.–Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.– 23 And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. 24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side. 25 And the ass saw the angel of the Lord, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he smote her again. 26 And the angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. 27 And the ass saw the angel of the Lord, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff. 28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam: ‘What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?’ 29 And Balaam said unto the ass: ‘Because thou hast mocked me; I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I had killed thee.’ 30 And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?’ And he said: ‘Nay.’ 31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the Lord said unto him: ‘Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I am come forth for an adversary, because thy way is contrary unto me; 33 and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times; unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I had even slain thee, and saved her alive.’ 34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord: ‘I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me; now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back.’ 35 And the angel of the Lord said unto Balaam: ‘Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.’ So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.