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All the king’s men (and a donkey)

How a biblical prophet learned that God is in charge from a talking donkey - without cracking a smile (Balak)
'Am I not the same donkey you ride every day? Have I been in the habit of doing thus (talking)?' (Num. 22:30) (iStock)
'Am I not the same donkey you ride every day? Have I been in the habit of doing thus (talking)?' (Num. 22:30) (iStock)

Torah is not funny.

It may be a valuable guiding light, and a meaningful legal code, and a life-enriching gift from God, but it is not funny.

At least, not until this week’s story of Balak and Balaam — where we might be remiss in our appreciation of Torah were we to ignore the comedic elements that occur when one of the few confirmed international prophets attempts to curse the Children of Israel.

Our parshah opens with an unusual glimpse of the behind-the-scenes workings of the non-Jewish reaction to the Children of Israel. In ways reminiscent of Pharaoh, King Balak of Moav is afraid of the numbers encroaching on his land. Demonstrating that he has learned from Pharaoh’s folly, however, he seeks out not smoke-and-mirror soothsayers, but a legitimate prophet of God, with a distinguished reputation: “He whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6).

Thus, the stage is set. But even the names of main players are suggestive of the buffoonery that is to follow: Balak ben Tzipor and his trusty prophet Balaam ben Be’or (who lives in Petor). And “all the king’s men” — the elders of Moav and Midian (both!) — are commissioned with the difficult task of convincing Balaam to do Balak’s bidding, against the word of God. To his credit, Balaam refuses. When they offer even greater honor in their presence and their presents, however, God permits Balaam to accompany the dignitaries. Then, no sooner does the prophet depart, when God interferes with his progress…by messing with his trusty steed, the famous donkey! Given the terrain, it would be unfair to presume anything comical in Balaam’s choice of locomotion; nonetheless, the culture of myth and fable does not grant that species any degree of dignity — a significant detail in the tableau that follows.

Keep in mind Balaam’s perspective. He believes he has a divine blessing to meet his king and do his bidding. More to the point, he thinks he is riding his donkey down the road just as he (presumably) has done many times before. And the reliable animal appears to go crazy, first making for the fields, then bumping into the cliff-wall (crushing Balaam’s foot against the wall), and finally mastering its own attempts to refuse the journey by plunking itself down in the middle of the road. Dramatic irony is the name of the game, of course, for the reader knows well that God’s angel is playing “chicken” with the donkey and blocking the road. Balaam, however, sees only a misbehaving stubborn mule.

And then — to top it off — the animal speaks!

Not since Eden had an animal spoken. Even the donkey seems aware that speech is not its custom: “Am I not the same donkey you ride every day? Have I been in the habit of doing thus…?” (Num. 22:30). “Thus” most naturally refers to the donkey’s refusal to carry its rider, but the double-entendre regarding the animal’s new-found eloquence is inevitable, and captures the humor of a donkey rebuking its prophet-master well.

The Bible scholars of the Middle Ages were aware of the humor as well. Even Christian pageant plays, performed to while away the long summer days in a religiously instructional manner, take note. Thus, the donkey’s rhetorical question becomes “Thou haddest never ass like to me” (Bevington, Medieval Drama, 345). A crass line, certainly — and a rascally medieval actor proclaiming that none was ever so great an ass as himself was surely cause for laughter.

But the story of Balaam is not only — or even necessarily primarily — funny. Rather, the humor sharpens the focus of the narrative: “Balaam said to Balak, ‘…have I the power to speak freely? I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.’”  The donkey drives the point home to his master, who in turn makes it clear to his king — and the narrative as a whole makes the point to the Children of Israel. We understand that Balak called his prophet for reputable cursing, but without realizing that Balaam’s reputation does not ride on skill, nor are the benedictions “on demand.” Balaam is not Balak’s prophet, but God’s, and only God’s will determines blessing. Moreover, the famous “goodly tents of Jacob” may have been acknowledged against Balaam’s own will (according to many commentaries), but his prayer, “May my fate be like theirs” (Num. 23:10), suggests that he has achieved the humility appropriate in one who serves as the conduit for the divine message — a message that is taught first by the donkey. It is not for nothing that donkeys are traditionally regarded not only as comical, but also humble. If only we were as ready to recognize the humorous foolishness in even attempting to thwart God’s intent, perhaps we would also merit the donkey’s prophesied role, as humble steed of the messiah.

(Originally published in the long-closed ShiurTimes)

About the Author
Anne Gordon is the deputy editor of Ops & Blogs at The Times of Israel and a co-founder of Chochmat Nashim. She has taught Judaic Studies widely, in the US and Israel, and studied in the various women's batei midrash for nearly a decade. She is a graduate of Drisha Insitute's Scholars Circle and holds a BA in History & Philosophy and an MA in Judaic Studies from Harvard University, and is ABD in her pursuit of a PhD in Jewish Education.
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