Balaam, Abraham, and Their Donkeys

Many otherwise committed readers of the Bible find themselves a bit surprised to discover that the Bible has an extensive network of humor.  One such network is formed around parody.  Parody imitates and distorts something with the intent to arouse amusement, or even derision and scorn.  Parody occurs when traditional texts are altered so that they do not conform to what we expect.   In this, the parodist may mock either the original or the new creation.

Readers fail to recognize parody for at least two reasons.  Sometimes, it is just too good, that is, the imitation is so successful that readers do not recognize the key distortion.  Another reason that readers may miss parody is that only objects with which they are familiar can be successfully parodied.  This means that parody has a very short half-life, for once the people, events, or objects being parodied have passed from public awareness, the parody will be lost, as well.  Failure to recognize parody in the Bible probably falls into the second category.

One of the Bible’s most famous pieces of anti-prophetic narrative satire is the story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22.   Part of what gives the story its satiric effect is a little-noticed bit of parody involving Balaam and his donkey, and Abraham and his donkey.  As the story opens, Balaam is on his way to speak the word of the Lord regarding the migrating tribes of Israel at the behest of his patron Balak, the king of Moab.  Balaam’s donkey, however, has issues and is not cooperating in this venture:

So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the officials of Moab.  God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him.   The donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road.

Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side.   When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again.   Then the angel of the LORD went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left.  When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff.

Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”   Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!”  But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”  Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face.

This story in Numbers 22 is a parody of the narrative of Isaac’s binding in Genesis 22.   The two stories are linked by the motif of godly men (Balaam and Abraham) who make a journey on donkeys.  Thematically, Abrahm’s journey is at God’s instigation, while Balaam’s invitation is, shall we say, less distinguished.  The linguistic links are the narrator’s notice that both men got up early in the morning, saddled their donkeys, and took two servants with them. (While mundane, no where else in the Bible will you find arising early and saddling a donkey linked.) Finally, both men are prevented from doing something drastic to the innocent characters (Isaac, the talking donkey) who accompany them by the intervention of an angel.

The key distortion leading to Balaam’s denigration is the role of his donkey.  In Abraham’s narrative the donkey is incidental to the story except to make the point that the otherwise unannounced destination is not nearby.  In Balaam’s story, however, the donkey is mentioned fourteen times.   Indeed, the real seer in Balaam’s narrative is the donkey, not Balaam, because it is the donkey who is able to recognize and respond to God’s initiative in the journey.

And on such a small change turns the difference between veneration and ridicule!

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Mormon Archipelago

November 2009
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