Numbers 22:27 “When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her with his staff.”
I know I’ve been focusing a lot on the Old Testament, but as an animal lover, I just can’t turn my back on Balaam and his faithful, talking donkey. This part of the story is an odd little vignette. God has just told Balaam that it’s okay for him to go along with Balak’s men, and as soon as poor Balaam saddles up his faithful steed to do just that, there’s an angel threatening to kill him if he doesn’t stop. You have to wonder if the angel forgot to check his e-mail or something to know that this trip had been authorized. Nevertheless, he is there, sword in hand.
The trouble is, Balaam doesn’t see the angel. The donkey sees the angel and keeps trying to go another way. She turns into a field and gets beaten. She presses close to a wall, crushing Balaam’s foot, and gets beaten again. Finally, when it is obvious that the angel means business and isn’t going to let them go anywhere, she simply sits down. When she is beaten again for this last bit of disobedience, God does a marvelous thing. Before God opens Balaam’s eyes and allows him to see the angel, God opens the donkey’s mouth and lets her speak up for herself. As it turns out, she has saved Balaam’s life, and Balaam acknowledges that his donkey is more righteous than he. He is the prophet of the Lord and she is a donkey, but she could see what he could not.
I think sometimes we ride through life like Balaam on his donkey. Others try to warn us about our path but we beat them and berate them, never thinking that they might be able to see something we don’t. We discount them and their warnings because we are the Christian and they are not, or because we are the educated and they are not, because we are the powerful master and they are the lowly servant, or sometimes because they aren’t rich enough to buy the right to speak.
We ride through life and believe we know what God wants and that we are doing the right thing. But even “What would Jesus do?” is a complicated and often murky question. If you stood the woman taken in adultery (in John 8) next to the moneychangers in the temple (in John 2) and asked them how Jesus deals with sinners, you would get two very different answers.
I think the story of Balaam and his donkey reminds us to be alert to all the messages around us. It is a call to humility and the recognition that no one has a corner on discerning the will and presence of God. Sometimes even the beasts of the earth can teach us the ways of God. Sometimes those we believe have no business talking are the ones who can truly see the Lord.
God of prophet and donkey, powerful and lowly, help us to hear the witness of the mute. Amen.
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