Balaam’s Donkey and Animal Minds
August 10, 2016
Numbers 22:21-35, “So Balaam rose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab. Then God’s anger was aroused because he went, and the Angel of the Lord took His stand in the way as an adversary against him. And he was riding his donkey, and his two servants were with him.
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. Now 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. And the Angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to stand against you, because your way is perverse before Me. The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside from Me, surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live.’ And Balaam said to the Angel of the Lord, ‘I have sinned, for I did not know You stood in the way against me. Now therefore, if it displeases You, I will turn back.’ Then the Angel of the Lord said to Balaam, ‘Go with the men, but only the word that I speak to you, that you shall speak.’ So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.”
In case you doubt the story of Balaam and his donkey, consider that Balaam was named as a historical person in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Nehemiah, Micah, II Peter, Jude, and Revelation. So this guy gets mentioned in eight books of the Bible. A 1967 archaeological discovery at Deir Alla, Jordan, appears to refer to this same Balaam son of Be’or.
Balaam is a pagan prophet, but he knows God, and he is apparently planning to cast a curse upon the Israelites. His donkey sees the “Angel of the Lord,” which usually refers to Jesus, taking angelic form. Jesus has a sword ready, and waits to kill Balaam. Balaam does not see the danger.
There are only two conversations between humans and animals in the Bible. The Serpent in Eden talking to Eve, and the donkey with Balaam. In each case, the humans seemed un-surprised.
Many Christian writers suggest that animals could speak to Adam and Eve in Eden.
George Hawkins Pember says that since God gave dominion to Adam, and the animals were his subjects, it makes perfect sense that Adam and the animals should be able to communicate with each other. It says that God “opened the mouth of his donkey,” which might imply that animals have had their mouths closed, so to speak, since the Fall. In Job 39, God says about ostriches that “God has made her to forget wisdom,” which implies that ostriches used to be much smarter. Maybe all the animals were much smarter before sin came into the world.
Another reason to think that animal brains are less smart than human brains is found in the book of Daniel. When King Nebuchadnezzar becomes arrogant, an angel warns him what will happen in punishment if he remains proud.
Daniel 4:15-17, “…and it must live with the animals in the earth’s vegetation. It’s human mind is to be changed: it will be given the mind of an animal. ”
Then the king spends a long time grazing grass like a cow. But when he repents, God restores him. Nebuchadnezzar said, after repenting, in 4:36, “So at that moment my reason returned to me.”
It seems that Nebuchadnezzar had his mind changed to a cow mind, until he learned humility. The King himself described his return to human mind as “my reason returned to me.” This is one reason to think that a big difference between humans and animals is “reason.” That does not mean that animals have NO reason, but a lesser level of abstract thinking.
So back to the story of Balaam.
The donkey spoke. You might say, maybe God or an angel was speaking through the donkey?
No, there are a few reasons to reject that view.
The biggest one is the pronoun. “SHE” spoke. It was a female donkey, and a female that spoke. In the Bible, God is not referred to as a female, nor are any angels apparently female, as far as we know. Also, II Peter 2:16 says that “a dumb donkey speaking with a human voice restrained the madness of the prophet.” [That word is dumb, meaning speechless, not dumb as in stupid.]
Why can’t we say that God was talking through the donkey? First of all, God, that is Jesus, is standing nearby as the angel of the Lord, and He is going to speak in a few moments. So why would God speak out of the donkey and then speak moments later out of the angel?
Also, why would God speak out of the donkey like a ventriloquist or impersonator? The phrase, “the Lord opened her mouth” would be meaningless. If God is pretending to be the donkey, why would that be? It just doesn’t make any sense.
As for the donkey talking, how much intelligence can we grant to the donkey? Aside from being supernaturally enabled to speak Hebrew (or whatever language Balaam used)… are these “her own words”? Did she have the ability to think these things on her own account, and only now she is able to express them verbally? The implication of the text is that the donkey is speaking her mind.
I am agreeing with what a writer Cameron Howard wrote about this story, with some modifications of my own.
Balaam’s donkey clearly knows a few things.
Rather than telling Balaam that she sees a fiery angel standing ahead with a sword, what does she say? She speaks about her feelings about her relationship with Balaam. “Haven’t I been a good donkey for you for many years? Did I ever cause trouble for you before?”
Don’t you find that strange? If Balaam had been riding in a rickshaw, pulled by a male servant, he would say, “Balaam, I am trying to save your life from that vicious looking angel up ahead!” A human slave wouldn’t talk like this donkey does. Maybe she doesn’t even know what an angel is, just that it is scary looking. She says, “why are you hitting me after my long years of good service?” In a manner of speaking, this female donkey refers to the importance of her relationship to the man, not just the current circumstances.
What seems to be the most important issue to Balaam’s donkey? Their relationship. She asks basically, “why have you been hitting me?”
You may be thinking I have gone off the deep end. But I ask you, as divine revelation, given by God to Moses, do these verses not mean something? If so, what alternative do you have for interpreting this passage? Either you think it a myth, which puts you outside of the Bible-believing audience, or you think it is true. I cannot see any alternative to saying that the donkey has some memory and amount of intelligence. She is not citing poetry here, waxing creative; nor explaining the mysteries of the universe. What she does seem to know, and say, is that she recognizes her role as the helper to Balaam, and her constant obedience to that role, until now.
One might think that God had created domestic animals with the very basic understanding that their role was to help humans. Would it not make sense that if God intended for certain animals to be man’s helpers, they would have enough brains to submit to that role? That is implied in many Scripture passages, such as Isaiah 1:3, “An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know, My people do not understand.” This verse strongly infers that domestic animals know at least two bits of useful information: 1) who their owners are, and 2) where they get their food. In John chapter 10, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes how sheep know the voice of their owners, but not strangers voices.
Instinct is a sort of automatic, unthinking programmed response to situations. Intelligence requires thinking and flexibility. Choosing between two possible courses of action requires some decision making. Domestic animals are making decisions, making choices, some wrong, and some right. Your dog sometimes decides the cookie on the table is more desirable than staying off the table as previously trained.
Balaam’s donkey has habitually obeyed, until now, when a frightening angel keeps blocking her path. Balaam is unable to see this danger. She chooses to disobey and suffer Balaam’s retribution, unjustly, to avoid the angel.
About the donkey’s mind, what do we see?
- She has memories. She remembers a long history of faithful service to her owner. She remembers doing well and not being a problem for Balaam.
- She can count to three, at least.
- She knows who Balaam is, and that she belongs to him, and works for him.
- She recognizes dangers and chooses to disobey Balaam in order to help him, when necessary.
- She has a sense of right and wrong. She knows that she has done right, and that Balaam is doing wrong by beating her, in this incident. That is not to say that animals have a biblical sense of right and wrong. I think that animals have an instinctual idea of fairness. If you have two dogs laying side by side, and you give one dog a treat, does the dog with no treat find this situation acceptable? I suspect that one dog feels “cheated” and is watching you expectantly for another treat. In this example, perhaps the giving of food to one dog and not the other is not truly “injustice” but more a lack of fairness.
Animals also can learn new ideas of right and wrong from us. You can train animals to believe that good is evil and evil is good. For example, a pit bull trained by a drug lord will attack police because the dog is loyal to the owner. The dog does not recognize that his owner is wicked and the police are good.
If you teach your dog not to sit on the couch, then the animal learns that couch is bad, even though there is no biblical rule about dogs on couches. Domestic animals decide what is right and wrong based on the teachings of their owners. And that is a lot like children, is it not?
Notice also that the donkey is a person. Not a human person, but an individual. She says I and me, those are personal pronouns. She knows that she is her and Balaam is another person.
What bothered the donkey was the breach of trust in her relationship with Balaam. We joke about the differences between dogs and cats, saying that the dog looks at its owners as gods, and the cat views itself as god and the domestic humans as servants. In a sense, we are gods to domestic animals. We act in ways completely beyond their comprehension; have powers or abilities they cannot match; and provide for their needs.
When God enabled the donkey to speak its mind, the central problem in her mind was showing Balaam her faithfulness and the injustice of his now cruel treatment of her. She does not seem angry as much as confused or worried, perhaps hopeful that he will see his error.
Elephants and camels are notorious for reacting angrily to injustices perceived.
This case proves only that Balaam’s donkey was intelligent. But it would seem unreasonable to assume that God only made one donkey intelligent just to speak to Balaam, one time. More likely, it infers that domestic animals, designed by God to help man, have enough intelligence to perform that work well. A lot of wild animals seem to have high intelligence also. Whales and dolphins and sea lions. Tigers and lions.
My guess is that the cherubim may be a clue. The four living creatures have faces of a man, lion, bull, and eagle. They praise God in Heaven. If indeed they represent animal kingdoms on Earth: human, domestic animals, wild animals, and birds, then we might say that their ability to praise God infers that those four animal kingdoms are capable of doing so. Birds, domestic animals, and wildlife (at least mammals) are the most intelligent, scientifically speaking, as opposed to fish, reptiles, and insects, which seem less “bright.”
When Balaam has failed to temper his anger against the donkey, even with her new-found abilities of self-expression, Jesus appears. The very first thing the Angel of the Lord asks is exactly what the donkey asked. “Why did you beat your donkey three times? I was going to kill you, and she saved your life.”
Just as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, the Father knows (and cares) when any sparrow falls to the ground. Do you not think that the Father knows (and cares) when a man beats a beast?
And how did Balaam respond to the challenge of the Angel? “I have sinned.”
I suspect that donkeys are among the more intelligent animals God made. I encourage you to consider that your pet probably is a “person” in the sense of being an individual with thoughts about himself or herself, and about you. Your pet probably knows that you are the owner, and has some ideas about fairness and right and wrong.
One other interesting possibility to consider,…
In the new heavens and new earth, you may actually get to talk to your pets, just as you will talk to your Christian family.