Balaam’s Donkey and Animal Cognizance

This is another older entry resurrected from a blog I had years ago. It was originally posted 18 June 2008.

As you probably recall, in Numbers chapter 22 in the Bible, we are given the remarkable story of Balaam, Balaam’s ass, and the angel of the Lord, in which Balaam’s beast actually speaks to her master after turning aside from the angel which had remained invisible to Balaam.  The question of the donkey’s speech is usually at the forefront, but I think there is not so much to ponder there: God supernaturally gave the donkey the capacity for vocalization. That satisfies just fine. I’ll await further details in heaven.

My question, as it relates to this narrative, has to do not with donkey’s vocalization, but with the donkey’s message. That is, with the donkey’s thoughts. Was she given the message by God? There is nothing in the text to indicate that that was the case. Rather, the passage says that “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” upon which she subsequently “said [something] to Balaam.”  It appears at first glance, that all the Lord did was give the donkey utterance, and she simply said what was on her mind. I don’t think this is far fetched. I think an animal such as a horse or a donkey could have such thoughts as Balaam’s donkey’s.  Balaam’s donkey 1) wants to know why she was deserving of whipping. She says, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And 2) makes an objection based upon past service. Says the donkey, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” These sentiments are simplistic enough. We do not see the donkey beginning to pontificate the finer points of Aristotelian philosophy.

Notice once again the language. The Bible says that “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” as if only so she could say what was already there (in her mind). The passage then uses similar phrasing for Balaam when “the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way.”  When Balaam’s eyes were opened he was made able to see what was already there. Is it that incredible to think that when the donkey’s mouth was opened (i.e., she was given the ability to vocalize), she simply said what she was already thinking? I give the benefit of the doubt to the donkey. I think that she, as just a normal donkey, was thinking the things she spoke before God worked any miracle. The miracle was the vocalization, not the message, of the donkey.  God, the ultimate mind reader, knew what she would say, given the chance, and opened her mouth to get Balaam’s attention.

So what’s the moral of the story, kids?  You’re pets have feelings too.  “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (Proverbs 12:10).

My old blog notes that at the time I wrote this I was reading a Michael Crichton novel called Next. Next did have some talking orangutans, as I recall, but I think that was only a coincidence.

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