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Shabbos Frivolity: A Talking Animal Story

So. A talking animal story.

There are only two in the Scripture, you know, and this is the second one, the one where Balaam is mocked by his own ass. Balaam is a bizarre and troubling figure, so there are lots of stories about him that are added to the ones in Numbers 22-24, because frankly the ones in Numbers 22-24 don’t really make much sense. Which is OK, because the ones made up to explain why the earlier ones don’t make any sense? They don’t make much sense, either.

The king of the Moabites sends for Balaam, the son of Beor, to curse the Israelites, because at this point the Israelites are threatening to wipe out the Moabites like they wiped out the Amorites and the whoeverites. He wots, the Moabite king does, that whomsoever Balaam blesses is blessed, and whomsoever Balaam curses is well and truly cursed, and if these troublesome Israelites were well and truly cursed, then maybe Moab will repel them and there would be a little something in it for Balaam. Anyway, Balaam, being a prophet and all, tells the Moabite messenger that he need to checkswith the Divine, and the Divine specifically forbids it. Don’t go with them, don’t curse the Israelites. So. The messengers put the rewards back in their pockets and go back to the Moabites, and the king is not very happy. As you might guess. He sends the messengers back to Balaam with even more promises and rewards, and Balaam says no. He cannot go beyond the word of the Divine for all the silver and gold in Moab. Read my lips, he says. Not gonna happen.

But on the other hand, why not check with the Divine one more time? So he does, and this time, the Divine tells him to go with the messengers and to say what the Divine tells him to say. So, up he gets, and tell the men that he is ready to go with them to the Moabite king. And that makes the Divine angry. Gets right up the Divine nose, it does. Which you may think is odd, because there’s the Divine in Numbers 22:20 saying rise up and go with them, and there’s the Divine in Numbers 22:22 with his anger all kindled in his nose because Balaam rose and went. So some of you are thinking that the Divine is really a big jerk, when you think about it. And you are not wrong, not in this story.

Because the Divine decides to humiliate Balaam in front of the messengers. So he sends an Angel of the Lord with a sword in his hand to appear in the road immediately in front of Balaam, and here’s the kicker—he makes the Angel invisible to everybody and everything except Balaam’s donkey. Right? Here’s this maginificent prophet and curse-master, and he can’t see the Angel of the lord, but his donkey can. That looks good.

Anyway, the donkey, not being stupid, keeps trying to dodge out of the way of the otherwise invisible Angel, and Balaam doesn’t know what the hell’s going on only his donkey keeps plunging off the road into bramble bushes or squeezing up against the wall (and squeezing Balaam’s wall-side leg pretty painfully in the process). Finally, Balaam and his retinue are in such a narrow street that the Angel blocks the entire way. The donkey does what donkeys do best: she refuses to move.

By now, Balaam is beating the crap out of the donkey with a stick. And the donkey says—

You remember this is a talking animal story, right?

The donkey says What did I do to you? How come you’re beating on me?

And Balaam says Because you mocked me, you ass! and further says If I had a sword in my hand instead of a stick, you’d be dead by now.

And the donkey says Don’t you know me by now? Do I do shit like that?

And Balaam says No.

And then the Divine makes the angel visible to Balaam, and the angel says that the Divine is mad at Balaam for going with the Moabite King’s men. So Balaam says Gosh, I didn’t know, I’ll turn around and go home. But the Angel tells him to keep going, but warns him only to say what the Divine tells him to say.

Which, you know, he does: instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them, saying How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel. Actually, there are some nice comic bits in that part, too, with the Moabite King and Balaam building seven altars and sacrificing seven rams, and then doing the blessing-instead-of-cursing business, and the King says Why did you do that? and Balaam says I have to say what the Divine puts in my mouth and the King says Come over here where the Divine can’t hear you. And they build another seven altars and sacrifice another seven rams, and Balaam prophesies again, and brings the word of the Divine, which says Did I stutter? And the King says come over here where the Divine can’t hear you. And they build another seven altars and sacrifice another seven rams, and this time the Divine is all I can do this all day, you know. And Balaam says the Ma tovu, and prophesies about the doom of the Amalekites and the Kenites and the whateverites. That’s pretty much it.

Now, does this story make any sense? At all? Clearly the Divine is chatty with Balaam, which is a bit unusual since Balaam isn’t of the Tribe, but still, given that—what’s up with the whole ass-and-angel business?

The only sense it makes to me is to posit that there are a bunch of stories about Balaam and how powerful he is, and how when he curses people they stay cursed, and how when he kisses, she stays kissed. And everybody knows these stories. Balaam is a great big powerful super-wizard, and all the stories the people Israel tell about pillars of fire and sea-parting and plague-inflicting and covenanting are competing with Balaam stories. Possibly Balaam stories about plague-inflicting and sea-parting and so on. So we take a brief detour from our regularly scheduled story to have a sweeps-week cameo appearance by Balaam, who not only endorses the Israelites and their conception of the Divine, but is made in the process to look like Mr. Noodle’s brother, Mr. Noodle. I mean, he loses an argument with his ass because he can’t see an Angel with a sword. Dorothy wants to ask someone else.

Just a guess, here. And the problem with the guess is that we do not, in fact, have any Balaam stories; if there were a bunch of them, they have fallen into the mists of history and are no more. And one would think that if the Balaam stories were so widespread and popular, we would have some of them left. So it’s not even a very good guess. But it makes the story work a little better, and it gives the Divine some motivation in fucking around with Balaam which otherwise seems totally unnecessary.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Amy and I like the idea that scripture authors were responding to the comic book superheroes of the day. "Oh yeah, you think Superman's so awesome? Well here's a story where he can't even see an angel, and then his donkey kicks him in the nuts! Not so awesome now, is he?"

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