Monday, April 14, 2008

God and his Amazing Talking Donkey: Numbers 22-24

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

For those who take the Bible literally, this is where Numbers gets truly bizarre. Actually, I was so interested to hear how this would be rationalized that I went on Google to find some appropriately conservative evangelical websites. You'd be surprised how tough it was on this occasion. In a way it's even more puzzling than the flood story. This is basically a children's fantasy story, told in the stilted, copy-of-a-copy language of the Holy Bible.

The Israelites have finally reached the plains of Moab, where evil king Balak is sitting on his throne, rubbing his hands and cackling maniacally. The Moabites talk with some Midianites, since they apparently cohabit the land, and Balak decides to summon a prophet for advice. He chooses Balaam of Beor. Elders come to Balaam with a "fee for divination" and Balaam promises to give them an answer.

It will surprise you, no doubt, to learn that Balaam apparently worships the same god as the Jews. This doesn't make much sense - why is God on intimate terms with pagan prophets? - and the conversational tone he uses with Balaam is something usually only referred to the lofty Moses, at best. Balaam talks with God and God tells him not to go see Balak. Balak's messengers initially accept the refusal, but the king is unhappy and promises to "reward him handsomely" if he comes anyway. Balaam refuses but promises to talk to God again. This time, God says he's decided that Balaam should go with them.

Weird. Balaam gets up the next day, saddles his donkey and sets out to go see Balak. God is enraged by this and determines to "oppose" the trip. This is yet another example of God forgetting his own instructions; in this case, mere hours after he told Balaam to go to Balak, now he's angry that Balaam's going to Balak. God is "enraged" by the fact that Balaam is obeying the command of God!

Weirder. God's method of disciplining Balaam is stunning and creative. Rather than the various methods of annihilation with which he regularly bombards Israel, God plants an invisible angel in front of Balaam's donkey. Actually, it's only invisible to Balaam; the donkey can see the angel just fine, and stops dead. Several times, which really pisses off Balaam. Now it's Balaam's turn to get angry; he starts to beat the donkey.

What the fuck? God speaks to Balaam using the mouth of the donkey, complaining, "What have I done to you to make you beat me three times?"

I'm not sure what's more disturbing: that God pretends to be a donkey, literally talking out of his ass; or that Balaam is apparently completely unperturbed by the fact that his donkey is talking to him. Balaam's response indicates that he really does think his donkey can speak: "you have made a fool of me! If I had a sword, I would kill you." Were talking donkeys such a regular occurrence in Biblical times that it wasn't even a shock to Balaam? Is he insane and hallucinating?

After toying with Balaam a while longer, God makes his angel fully visible. Balaam realizes now who he's been talking to and begs forgiveness. God then repeats the instructions from the previous night and the prophet resumes his journey to Balak.

Balak holds the requisite sheep sacrifices, and then Balaam begins to speak. Balak wants him to curse Israel, but instead he prophecies that the Israelites are righteous and will not be defeated because God is with them. Balak demands another oracle, so they perform some more sacrifices, and Balaam returns with pretty much the same message, adding that Israel is like a powerful lioness and God has made the tribe mighty. Balak, showing a very strange concept of how divinity works, tells Balaam to try again. He does, with the same result. Balak has had enough and orders Balaam to go home, but before he does, the prophet offers one final oracle: Israel is going to conquer and destroy all its enemies. On his way home, Balaam delivers a few more warnings to random Amalekites and Kenites, telling them that they, too, are doomed to fall under the sword of Israel.