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A Prophet, A Sorcerer, and a Talking She-Ass: A Biblical Story of Good, Evil, and the Possibility of Transformation

I only wrote a few papers in college that would qualify as Judaic in any way. And only one of them is relevant to this week's parsha, or Torah portion. I wrote a longer version of this for English 199t. Animals that Talk, with Prof. Marc Shell. (I cut out about half of the paper, which I think was mostly filler to make it long enough, and was not directly connected to the main point of the paper.) I'm not claiming to be any kind of authority on midrash, parshanut, or anything else. If I have any actual facts wrong, please let me know. If you think that this paper is full of rampant speculation--well, you're probably right. It was a fun elective. Without further ado...


"A Prophet, A Sorcerer, and a Talking She-Ass: A Biblical Story of Good, Evil, and the Possbility of Transformation"
December 4, 2002

The story of Balaam, his talking ass, and the blessings he bestows upon Israel is recounted in Numbers 22-24. This story is important in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. However, in the Christian tradition, Balaam is mostly characterized, in the words of St. Thomas, as "a prophet of the devil."[1] Balaam is seen as a heathen, prideful, or worse. It takes a talking animal to set him straight. The blessings or prophesies themselves are only interesting in the Christian tradition in that they foretell the celestial setting of the birth of Jesus. The lessons learned from the story of Balaam and his stubborn she-ass are reiterated several times in the New Testament, but otherwise are given relatively little attention.

In the Jewish tradition, the story of Balaam is an important story about the human potential for both good and evil, as well as for transformation from evil into good and good into evil. Balaam is alternately identified with Laban, Jacob's father-in-law who tried to rob Israel of its inheritance, and with Moses, the greatest Jewish prophet to ever live. In the Jewish sources, Balaam is transformed, likewise, from a prophet into a sorcerer and back again, and his curse becomes transformed into a blessing.

In this paper, I will argue that the talking ass is the perfect metaphor or vehicle for this transformation. When God opens the ass's mouth, and thus Balaam's eyes, the mute gains speech, the blind gains vision, and, for a brief moment, the animal and the human switch places. The animal gains mastery over the human through the gift of speech. This foreshadows a later transformation in the story, when God, again, controls speech and Balaam utters a blessing instead of the curse that he intended.

Why the talking she-ass? Talking animals are rather rare in the Bible; the only other one is the talking serpent in the Garden of Eden.[2] The anomaly of the talking animal did not escape Jewish or Christian commentators and scholars. The Jewish analysis of the talking ass phenomenon, in particular, reveals the centrality of transformation to the Balaam episode. Numbers Rabbah, a collection of commentaries that adds a layer of interpretation to the Biblical book of Numbers, is one of the earlier explanations of the talking ass. One such midrash, or explanation, reads:

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, had mercy on the self-respect of his creatures [i.e., Balaam] and knew their needs so he closed the mouth of the creature. For if she had continued speaking, people could not subject her. For this was the stupidest of creatures and this was the wisest sorcerer, and as soon as she spoke he could not stand before her.[3]

This midrash contains many themes that run throughout this story. Although on the surface the midrash explains why God took the power of speech away from the ass, it also explains why God had to give the ass speech in the first place.

The talking animal was able to stop Balaam in a way that an angel of God could not. Even the wisest sorcerer cannot always sense the supernatural, in this case the angel of God that attempted to block his path. The supernatural needed to invade his life in a tangible way to get Balaam to stop and notice it. Furthermore, Balaam was the best in his field, yet the talking animal was able to reduce him to the extent that he could "not stand before her."

This midrash reveals that humans only dominate animals because humans have the capacity of speech, and animals lack it. If animals gained speech, as occurs in this episode in the Bible, then humans would be unable to control or subjugate animals. This is interesting for several reasons. It sheds some additional light on why a talking animal was necessary in this story, which is ultimately about who controls speech, including the speech necessary for cursing or blessing a nation. In most interpretations, Balaam believes that he controls blessing and curse, and this story teaches that God actually controls all speech. The entity that controls speech controls all. Just as God's control of speech enables him to force Balaam to bless the Israelites rather than to curse them, humans' normal control of speech enable them to force animals to do their will. This is the power of speech as exemplified again and again in this story.

Along the same lines, Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, a sixteenth century Jewish Italian commentary on the Bible, says that God made the ass speak to show Balaam that God actually controls speech. Just as God can give voice to an animal that doesn’t normally speak, so too, can God control what comes out of Balaam’s mouth. That is, even if Balaam intends to curse, God can make him bless. God could make an ass bless Israel if he wished to. Sforno says that this was an attempt to encourage Balaam to repent before he tried to curse the Israelites.[4]

A slight variation on this idea is found in some modern interpretations. They say that the ass, rather than Balaam, sees the angel, and that this occurs to mock the power of the sorcerer: Even the best sorcerer, or seeer, cannot see what the dumbest animal, the ass, can see. The point here is that sight rather than speech is what gives power. Speech seems to be more central to this story than sight, however.[5]

Who is Balaam? Traditional Jewish sources often go to great lengths to prove that various biblical characters are either good or bad. Balaam is unique in that he is identified both with "good" characters, such as Moses, and "bad" characters, such as Laban. Although different sources identify him with each and only a few identify him with both, the inclusion of both identifications in the Jewish canon indicates ambivalence about the character of Balaam. In expressing both Balaam's good (“prophet”) and evil (“sorcerer”) sides and his various transformations, Balaam is complexified as a literary character.

The idea that Balaam was transformed from a prophet to a sorcerer, or from a sorcerer to a prophet, is particularly interesting, as it fits into the theme already expressed in the talking-ass part of the story. When the ass spoke, the animal became human and the human became animal, as he lost the power of free-will to curse as he wished. This idea of transformation, so evident at the moment when God opens the mouth of the ass, is then applied to the rest of Balaam’s life: "In the beginning [Balaam was] a prophet and in the end he was a sorcerer."[6] Others say that Balaam was a sorcerer and then he repented and became worthy of prophesy. They locate the turning point when Balaam tells the angel of the Lord that he has sinned.[7]

There is one source that categorically denies the possibility of change. This source pins Balaam down as bad, through and through. Balaam tried to repent and Phineas, who was generally known as a zealot, wouldn't give him that chance.

When Balaam the Evil saw Phineas pursuing him [to kill him], he started doing magic….Immediately Phineas recalled the great and holy name [of God] and ran after him and grabbed him by the head and pushed him to the ground and unsheathed his sword to kill him. Balaam opened his mouth with words of supplication and said to Phineas: "If you sustain my soul I swear to you, all the day that I live I won't curse your nation." Phineas replied to him, "Behold you are Laban the Aramean who wanted to kill Jacob our father….You cannot remain in this world any longer."[8]

The analysis of the character of Balaam within a story that contains a talking animal leads to a deeper understanding of both elements of the story: the elusive character of Balaam, who is at once a sorcerer and a prophet, and the talking animal, who, because of his power of speech, is somehow both human and animal. His transformation from animal to human and back to animal is what allows Balaam’s own transformation from a sorcerer who sets out to curse Israel, to a prophet who gives the Israelites one of their greatest and most important blessings.

[1] The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1, Copyright 1907 by Robert Appleton Company, Online Edition copyright 1999 by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02214b.htm
[2] There is a fascinating article about the intertextuality between the two talking animal stories in the Bible. See G. Savran, “Beastly Speech: Intertextuality, Balaam’s Ass and the Garden of Eden.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 64.1. December, 1994. 33-55.
[3] Numbers Rabbah, 20:12 as cited in Leibowitz, 301 (translation mine).
[4] This interpretation is heavily based on Numbers Rabbah 20:12.
[5] Leibowitz, 301-302.
[6] Sanhedrin 106b
[7] Numbers Rabbah 20:15
[8] Targum Jonathan, Numbers 31:5

Sources Consulted

Babylonian Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin
Babylonian Babylonian Talmud, Sotah
Deuteronomy Rabbah
Ethics of the Fathers
Midrash Agadah Numbers
Numbers Rabbah
Otzar Midrashim
Targum Jonathan
Yalkut Shimoni
Zohar, volume 1

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1, Copyright 1907 by Robert Appleton Company, Online Edition copyright 1999 by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02214b.htm

Hasidah, Yiśra’el Yitshak, ed.. Otsar Ishe ha-Tanakh: Demutam U-fo’alam be-fi Hazal (Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities: As Seen by the Sages of the Babylonian Talmud and Midrash). Mahad. New and Expanded. Jerusalem : Re’uven Mas, 1999.

Leibowitz, Nehama. Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers). Translated and adapted from the Hebrew by Aryeh Newman. Rev. ed. Jerusalem : World Zionist Organization, Dept. for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, 1982.

Savran, G. “Beastly Speech: Intertextuality, Balaam’s Ass and the Garden of Eden.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 64.1. December, 1994. 33-55.

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R. Art Green says that the story of Balaam appears where it does (right after Moses striking the rock in Chukat) as a rebuke to Moses: You acted impulsively and disobeyed God's instructions; now see how a real prophet acts - he only says the words that God puts in his mouth!
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