Bilam appears to be a sorcerer who can bless and curse people, but he is actually a prophet who transmits God’s blessings and curses. Bilam’s donkey1 appears to be an ordinary domestic animal, but she actually knows more than Bilam.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Balak, King Balak of Moab is alarmed by the large Israelite camp on his border. He sends messengers to Bilam, whom he thinks is a professional sorcerer, with this request:
“Now come, please, curse for me this people, because they are too mighty for me. Then perhaps I will be able to strike them and drive them out from the land; for I know whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:6)
God has used Bilam as a prophet so often that Bilam believes he can count on God to speak to him during the night (presumably in a dream). So he tells Balak’s messengers:
“Remain here overnight, and I will bring back to you whatever God speaks to me.” (Numbers 22:8)
That night, God tells Bilam:
“You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, because it is blessed.” And Bilam got up in the morning and said to the officials of Balak: “Go back to your own country, because God refused to permit me to go with you.” (Numbers 22:12-13)
Bilam fails to mention that God has already blessed the Israelites. When the messengers report to their king, they fail to mention God at all; they simply say:
“Bilam refused to go with us.” (Numbers 22:14)
King Balak assumes Bilam refused only because he did not expect to get paid enough, so he sends a larger and higher-ranking group of officials. His second message promises Bilam:
I will honor you very impressively, and anything that you say to me I will do; just come, please, curse for me this people. (Numbers 22:17)
This time Bilam suggests the payment he would like: the king’s house full of silver and gold. In other words, he wants as much wealth and/or as much honor as a king. But he is at least honest enough to add that he cannot do anything that contradicts God’s command. Then he asks the messengers to stay overnight while he checks with God.
And God came to Bilam at night, and said to him: “If the men came to invite you, get up, go with them. But only the word that I speak to you, shall you do.” And Bilam got up in the morning and saddled his she-donkey and went with the officials of Moab. (Numbers 22:20-21)
Bilam’s silence in the morning is dishonest, since it gives Balak’s messengers the impression that the cursing will take place as requested.
And God vayichar af because he [Bilam] was going, and a messenger of God manifested itself on the road as an accuser for him. (Numbers 22:22)
vayichar (וַיִּחַר) = and he/it became glowing hot.
af (אַף) = nose, nostril.
vayichar af (וַיִּחַר אַף) = and his nose burned: an idiom meaning “and he became angry”.
God gives Bilam permission to go to Moab, but God is angry when he goes. Perhaps God disapproves of Bilam’s lying by omission, or of his greed for a payment he is unlikely to receive.2
Three times a messenger of God (i.e. an angel), manifests on the road to Moab. Who sees the divine apparition? Not Bilam, the prophet and would-be sorcerer; not his two human servants; but only his donkey. Bilam has only heard God’s voice at night, but his donkey sees God’s angel in broad daylight.
Each time Bilam’s donkey sees an angel with a drawn sword in the middle of the road, she refuses to go forward. The first time she runs off into a field, the second time the road lies between walls and she presses Bilam’s foot against the stones, and the third time the way is so narrow she lies down in the middle of the road. Each time Bilam beats his donkey, unable to see the reason for her behavior. The third time, the Torah describes the beating:
…and she lay down underneath Bilam, and Bilam vayichar af and he beat the she-donkey with the stick. (Numbers 22:27)
Then god opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Bilam: “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?” And Bilam said to his she-donkey: “Because you made a fool of me! If only there were a sword in my hand, I would kill you now!” (Numbers 20:28-29)
Bilam has been beating his donkey out of pride. With his servants and possibly King Balak’s officials watching him, he wants to look as if he is in control of his animal. In fact, his donkey is in control of where Bilam goes, and the donkey sees God’s messenger—with a sword in its hand, ready to kill Bilam!
And the she-donkey said to Bilam: “Am I not your she-donkey, upon whom you have ridden all your life until this day? Have I really been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he said: “No.” (Numbers 22:30)
The donkey says “all your life”, not “all my life”, even though the average life-span of a working donkey is 15 years in developing countries (a category that applies to all countries in biblical times). While Bilam’s age is not given in the story, he is a man who has developed a reputation, so he is too old to have been riding the same donkey his whole life. The donkey’s words are a clue that the donkey is not just a talking animal; she also represents a part of Bilam.
Though he enjoys hearing God speak in the dark, Bilam is only a human being, and he cannot do anything without his animal: his body. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Bilam rides a she-donkey; in Biblical Hebrew, the word nefesh, which means both an individual body and the soul that animates the body, is feminine.
When Bilam answers his donkey with the word “No”, he both recognizes the truth and humbles himself before the animal he rides.
Then God uncovered the eyes of Bilam, and he saw the messenger of God standing in the road, and its drawn sword was in its hand. Then he knelt down, and he bowed down le-apav. (Numbers 22:31)
le-apav (לְאַפָּיו) = to his nostrils, to his nose. (A form of af.)
Bowing down to his nose is an idiom for making a full prostration, indicating his humility and submission before God’s messenger. But it also implies Bilam is surrendering his own “hot nose”, his own anger.
Then God speaks through the divine messenger and explains that the donkey saved Bilam’s life three times. If the donkey had not shied away from the angel, God would have killed Bilam—but spared the donkey.
After that humbling experience, Bilam becomes a better prophet. He is more direct and honest; as soon as he meets King Balak, he warns his employer that he can speak only the word God puts into his mouth. And now God speaks to Bilam in the daylight, and even gives him prophetic visions.
Of course all three times Bilam attempts to curse the Israelites, God makes praise and blessings come out of his mouth. And his employer, King Balak, is enraged.
Balak, vayichar af at Bilam …and Balak said to Bilam: “To curse my enemies I called you, and hey! You kept on blessing them, these three times! So now run away to your own place! I said I would honor you impressively, but hey! God held you back from honor.”
King Balak dismisses Bilam rudely and without payment. But Bilam no longer seeks honor from other people. Now he knows that seeking wealth or fame blinds him to God’s message, and he is a prophet. He responds to Balak only by pronouncing another prophecy—one that includes Israel defeating Moab. Then, unrewarded by either wealth or status,
Bilam got up and went and returned to his own place. (Numbers 24:25)
Personally, I resent being humbled by my donkey. All too often I set off on what looks to me like a rewarding path, assuming I can do what I want—only to find that my body refuses to carry me. My chronic pain increases and my energy flags. If I try to whip my body into doing my will by drinking too much coffee, for example, my body starts lying down underneath me.
These days I find myself getting a “hot nose” less and less often, thank God. I am trying to pay attention to my own donkey. I am slowly giving up my desire for recognition and honor, knowing that I am still blessed with the ability to do my calling, as long as I listen to both my God and my donkey.
Who knows, if I learn enough humility, maybe someday my eyes will be uncovered and I’ll see a messenger of God in the road! But I’m not planning on it. It’s enough to learn how to get along with this faithful donkey whom I’ve been riding all my life.
1 “Donkey” and “ass” are two words for the same species of equine animal. In Hebrew, a she-donkey, or jenny, is an aton (אָתוֹן).
2 According to Ramban (3th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman or Nachmanides), God was angry at Bilam for leaving without telling Balak’s messengers everything God had said, and for hoping that he might be able to curse Israel after all.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in June 2010.)