IVP - Strangely Dim - Oops, We Nearly Forgot Balaam's Ass

October 20, 2008

Oops, We Nearly Forgot Balaam's Ass

Part of the challenge of our double-fortnight of donkey tales was to see if we could do it without Balaam, and we've learned that we could. It would be unfair, however, to ignore Balaam in such a writing exercise, so we close with a reflection on his story.
The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her. (Numbers 22:33)
I suspect if you took a poll, the story of Balaam's ass would be among the first donkey tales people would remember. It would probably be a tie, in fact, between Balaam's ass and Joseph and Mary's pilgrimage to Bethlehem--except that there's no donkey in that story. Lisa checked.
You might recall, from Numbers 22, that Balaam is some sort of mystic: those he blesses are blessed, and those he curses are cursed. Balak, king of Moab, solicits his aid when the Israelites show their strength on their way to the Promised Land.
Balaam is no dummy. His capacity to read the signs of the times and pronounce oracles to that effect has earned him a broad reputation and a pretty penny. He is technically honest when he admits that God doesn't do his bidding, but he nevertheless manages to string along his clientele to believe that he, not God, is doling out curses and blessings. Balaam knows that God has no intentions of cursing the Israelites, and yet he agrees to ask God "Pretty please" when Moab ups its offer. He's not a prophet so much as a profiteer.
God is no dummy either, however, and Balaam learns as much when God confronts his opportunism en route to his assignment. Three times Balaam's donkey sees the angel of the Lord; three times the donkey refuses to transgress God's boundaries, no matter how much Balaam cajoles and punishes her for it. Three times Balaam loses it, and then the donkey speaks, reminding him that it's no more normal for her to disobey him than it is for her to speak in his native tongue. And then Balaam learns from the angel of the Lord that, in fact, by disregarding his instructions the donkey has saved his life.
I think of Balaam and then I think of Simon the Sorcerer, a Samarian with a lust for power. He, like Balaam, had some unique talents, and like Balaam he paid at least lip service to the notion that God was sovereign over his own special gifts. But like Balaam, he was an opportunist, and when he thought he saw an opportunity to dole out the Holy Spirit on command, he went after it. Only Peter, who on more than one occasion reminds me of a donkey, alerts him to the fact that he's courting disaster, that he'd better get right with God. 
And what more can I say? Sometimes, I guess, it takes an ass to save you. I do not have time to tell of all the other donkeys that populate the Scriptures, from the patriarchs to the prophets, in the psalms and the parables, from Genesis to Revelation. Suffice it to say that where there are donkeys in the Bible, there are also people--people whom God loves and laments, whom God judges and redeems. And where we find donkeys in the Bible, we usually find them on a journey, taking people where they otherwise wouldn't take themselves, perhaps, or where they can't travel on their own.
It strikes me that each of those donkeys is there for a reason, which has been the driving force behind this double-fortnight. We would do well to consider which donkeys we might turn to when it comes time to enter into our own passion, as Abraham and Jesus did, or which donkeys we might mount as we head out from our comfort zone, as Abigail and Moses did. We might also consider whose donkey we can be, when it comes time to speak up no matter the cost. I quote the late great Rich Mullins: "God spoke through Balaam's ass, and he's been speaking through asses ever since." 
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at October 20, 2008 8:20 AM Bookmark and Share | TrackBack

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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