Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 16: Numbers 22-24, 31(updated)

Balaam, the donkey, and the angel, by Jaeger. Public domain in US via wikimedia commons.

These chapters are all about Balaam, Balaam’s talking donkey, God’s power, blessing and cursing. The manual chooses as subtitle “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord” and describes its purpose as “to encourage class members to submit to God’s will without hesitation.”

First off, I think without any parsing, that’s a dangerously overstated thing to say. And secondly, even when carefully parsed… I think it’s dangerously overstated.

  • The difficulty of communication
    • “Submit to God’s will without hesitation” Ok, but God’s will as expressed by whom? Early on in the winter of my mission, in Verviers, we received a new mission rule. Wake-up time was now 6am instead of 6:30 and the lost 30 minutes of sleep was to be replaced by 30 minutes of exercise. Well, it was dark, cold, and we were tired. It was hard enough to wake up at 6:30, but we dutifully tried to abide this new guideline. I remember waking up one morning about 8 on the floor by the heater in the living room. We’d both woken up on time, gone out to do pushups, and fallen asleep on the floor. We kept trying, failing often, and not feeling food about it. Six weeks later in an interview, I remarked that we were awfully tired from waking up so early. “Well, why are you waking up early?” the Mission President asked. Turns out, he had made an offhand comment to the Assistants, who passed it down to the Zone Leaders, who passed it down to the District Leaders, who passed it down to us as as the 11th Commandment, direct from the mouth of the Mission President himself. The will of the MP had not been clearly communicated to us. There was a middle management problem.
    • Another version of this is found in the movie Crimson Tide, with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. A nuclear-missile submarine receives the order to launch its missiles. Shortly thereafter, a second message starts coming in, but is cut off. The captain wants to fire the missiles, but the first mate argues the second, incomplete message might have been a cancel code. He mutinies instead of firing the missiles, because there’s doubt as to the actual command.
    • In short, we rarely get direct crystal-clear directives that are unquestionably from God. Particularly when we feel we’ve received something like that, which runs counter to good sense, morality, or received tradition (which has its own problems), we need to be cautious and seek strong confirmation. On the other hand, if you feel prompted to love your neighbor more, or help your friend, or some such, I’m happy to suggest you just do that and not worry about it.
  • The assumption that God gives commands intending only that they be carried out- The scriptures rarely portray such communications issues or self-doubt as described above, reading simply that “God said to so-and-so.” Even when the line of communication is apparently clear like that, the assumption that when God says “jump” we should simply say “how high” doesn’t follow. Did God wish Isaac dead? And yet he commanded Abraham to kill him. When God told Abraham, he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, should Abraham have just buckled under and said nothing? Or did God approve of him speaking up on behalf of the potential innocent life there? When comparing Abraham and Noah, some Jewish tradition is highly critical of Noah for not responding to God when told of the coming flood; as put by one modern rabbi,

    Unlike Abraham or Moses who attempt to change God’s mind when faced with Divine plans for destruction – as when Abraham pleads for Sodom and Gemorrah or Moses intercedes on behalf of the Children of Israel – Noah seems to accept God’s annihilation of the human race without protest, displaying pure obedience and loyalty towards the Divine.  He acts without creativity or initiative, performing only those tasks which have been asked of him and nothing more….The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yohanan argues that this verse [Noah was righteous in his generation] expresses only qualified praise about Noah, explaining that his behavior was seen as righteous in relation to the very wicked people around him but that if he had existed in a more decent age, he would have been no better than average….[Noah] acts with moral cowardice – not because he is willing to follow the Divine word but rather because he is willing to do so mindlessly, without attempting to save his fellow human beings along with his own family.

  • The circumstantial nature of God’s commands– Some of God’s commands are short term, some circumstantial. Others, while given as apparently eternal or unchangeable, are later changed or completely reversed. They are rarely labeled, and often unclear as to whether a command is actually eternal/temporary/circumstantial/individual/etc., but even those that are so labeled are sometimes changed (implicitly or explicitly) so that the label no longer applies. Not all God’s commandments are found in the scriptures, and some that are no longer apply to us. There’s not a bright-line way of distinguishing these, really. See here, though, for some thoughts.
  • The way things die out in the Church– How many of you are still planting gardens, per the prophetic directives in General Conference in the 1980s? How many of you avoid cocoa and strong spices, per Elder David O. McKay’s General Conference talk in October 1926? Or avoid wheat flour, pepper, and mustard, per Elder David A. Smith’s General Conference talk in April 1930? The Church rarely offers a formal or public disavowal of previous statements, even those by prophets and apostles in formal settings. When they do, it’s particularly significant. (For one example see here.) But most often, these statements and their implications simply disappear slowly and silently as they are not repeated, republished, or commented on. Sure, they can still be dug up, and made authoritative through traditional rhetoric of  “Elder Jimbob S. Smith taught in General Conference that…” but they really don’t represent Church teachings of God’s commandments.
  • The problem of interpreting scripture-  This issue is similar to the two above. Some Protestants have a version of this, that you do what the Bible says. You get rhetoric of “But what does the BIBLE say?”which  assumes that the Bible, or scripture in general, is entirely consistent, has only one directive on a given topic, and we have only to locate it within its pages. But on many specific and general topics, scripture records differing commands and directives. This may be due to different circumstances and times, or other reasons. (See my posts here and here, the section on “theological diversity.”) Often, scripture does not speak directly to our situation, and we have to interpret, reason, analogize, extrapolate. And we often do that differently from each other.  In short, we can’t simply say  “find what scripture says and do it” because the assumptions built into that idea rarely hold up.

I am strongly for listening for God to direct and teach us, studying scripture closely, and respecting the earthly authorities that God has chosen; but the assumptions that this is an easy, clear, always consistent, unchanging commandment simply doesn’t hold. Rhetoric that implies the contrary cheapens our obedience by making it thoughtless, instead of something carefully weighed, deliberately chosen, approached in faith.

So, on to the actual content of the lesson…

here’s the combined podcast of Lessons 16-17 I did four years ago. And below are some references about Balaam, the non-Israelite quasi-prophet, and the only one to exist in ancient Near Eastern records outside the Bible. (See the podcast.)

Balaam gives no pretense of being a sorcerer who might actually change the will of God, though Balak’s expectations are quite the contrary. What Balak wants is a sorcerer’s skill, but what he acquires is a diviner’s divine direction. In the end Balak becomes the recipient of that which he intended for Israel, in fulfillment of the promise made by Yahweh to Abram: “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3).- Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, I:380.

 Re: the talking donkey.
Tales of talking animals in the ancient world often contain warning, irony, or satire. In the Egyptian Story of Two Brothers, a cow advises one of the brothers to flee because his brother was seeking to kill him with a lance.From the Aramaic Words of Ahiqar (seventh century b.c.) comes a conversation between a lion, a leopard, a bear, and a goat, each representing a human characteristic in facing the struggles of life before the gods.
Interpretation of this donkey event has given rise to two general options: (1) God gave the female the power of speech similar to how he empowered Ezekiel to speak after a prolonged period of silence (Ezek. 3:27; 33:22); (2) the donkey’s normal braying was heightened such that it was perceived and interpreted by Balaam in a human manner. The scene is replete with irony in that the female donkey is more perceptive of God and is able to speak God’s word in a manner superior to the internationally renowned expert. Balaam is reminded he will only be allowed to speak what Yahweh, God of Israel, permits him to speak.- Ibid. 381-2.
At times amusing, and somewhat mocking of the non-Israelite prophet, the message of this pericope is serious: The intent of the Lord reigns supreme and cannot be superseded. Even the powers of a well-known non-Israelite prophet are ultimately controlled by God…
[These chapters with Balaam contain four poems.] If read detached from the narrative, the four poems connect to tell the story in poetic form. The entire poem may thus derive from an older independent source. Like much biblical poetry, this poem contains many words and phrases that are obscure or possibly have become corrupted over time. –Jewish Study Bible.

The purpose of the talking donkey episode is discovered in its literary contrasts. The rabbis, kings of reading closely, picked up on this.

The goal of the episode is doubtless the humiliation of Balaam, evidenced by the strain of irony that runs through the entire pericope (and recognized by the midrash). Balaam, who desires to subdue Israel with words, cannot even subdue his ass with a stick (Tanḥ. Balak 9). Balaam, who claims prophetic sight (24:4, 17), cannot see what his ass sees three times. Balaam, who claims prophetic speech since the Lord puts words into his mouth (22:38; 23:5, 12, 16), is now matched by his ass (v. 28). Balaam, who boasts that “his knowledge is from the Most High” (24:16), has to admit, “I did not know” (v. 34; Tanḥ. Balak 10). Balaam, who is the wisest of the wise, is bested in a verbal exchange with the most stupid of beasts (v. 30; Gen. R. 93:10; Num. R. 20:14). Balaam, who wishes to slay a whole people with his words, can only kill his ass with a sword (Num. K 20:14). Balaam, who would slay his ass if only he could find a sword (v. 29), does not see the sword extended by the angel (v. 23). Thus “the ass in this episode plays the role of Balaam—beholding divine visions with eyes unveiled—to Balaam’s Balak.” In truth, Balaam is depicted on a level lower than his ass: more unseeing in his inability to detect the angel, more stupid in being defeated verbally by his ass, and more beastly in subduing it with his stick whereas it responds with tempered speech.
The lampooning of Balaam, then, serves the purpose of downgrading his reputation. It aims to demonstrate that this heathen seer, who was intent on cursing Israel without God’s consent, is in reality a fool, a caricature of a seer, one outwitted even by his dumb beast.

– Jacob Milgrom, Numbers, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 469.

Further reading- Uzzah Killed for Blind Obedience

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7 thoughts on “Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 16: Numbers 22-24, 31(updated)

  1. The thing that frustrates me about this story (and the way we Mormons tend to use it) is the way the story is told: Balaam never seems to deviate from doing God’s will (in fact, the angelic intervention seems really odd, since God has just told him it’s ok to go see Balak if he wants to). But then we get the material in ch. 31 which tells us that despite Balaam’s “good behavior” he’s actually given Balak some advice on how to deal with Israel despite his otherwise righteous behavior. This, to me, seems completely inconsistent with the previous story; it doesn’t seem to fit at all, and yet, for LDS, this is the interpretive crux of the story: Balaam wasn’t really a good prophet, which is why he needs the angelic intervention, etc. and so we should obey God, even in the face of worldly temptations. But if the ch. 31 Balaam material doesn’t fit, then the story changes completely. Not that this is the kind of point one could get away with in Sunday School.


  2. Ben, I especially appreciate the excerpt from the JSP Torah Commentary. It’s a wonderful view of the literary power of the story of Balaam and his donkey.

    While I have some problems with the approach of the manual to this story (not the least of which is related to why this rather “difficult” story is even included as an entire lesson, when so much else in the Old Testament is left out completely or given pretty cursory treatment–only a shared lesson for Enoch, when the PGP provides so much to think about, as only one example), but I quibble with how much you make of the manual’s stated purpose as not taking into account the difficulties inherent in finding out what God’s will is. While Balaam’s story provides some good things to think about on that topic, of which Abu_Casey’s point about the angelic intervention is one (and the manual’s approach doesn’t really go there), the approach of the lesson seems to take a knowledge of God’s will as a “given” and tries to contrast Balaam’s knowledge — the Biblical narrative presents the episode with Balaam having direct communication with God after all — and how he proceeds from there. In some respects, the lesson manual’s approach seems to be a sort of variation on the same theme that is often taken with respect to Joseph Smith’s role in the loss of the 116 pages episode: if only the prophet had listened the first time, he wouldn’t have had to go through a very painful experience. Here, however, the point seems to be that Balaam was determined to do what he was asked by Balak to do, even after having initially taken the position that he would only follow the Lord’s direction.

    Read in that light (and I acknowledge that the manual doesn’t directly approach the material this way), I can see the story as a cautionary tale about erroneous presumptions (that our will is aligned with God’s, or that we can bring God around to see it our way when the alignment isn’t perfect) and posturing (claiming to do God’s will, and making a show of it, when in fact we are pursuing our own agenda), which all of us might be prone to. It also seems clear to me that we don’t have enough of the story to understand exactly the point of its inclusion (and even lack some of the related material that was probably part of the oral tradition related to the story), especially in light of the New Testament authors’ view of Balaam as unredeemably evil. As such, the story (and particularly the pericope with Balaam’s ass) provides a lot to think about and try to ferret out–making it a particularly difficult subject to try to cover in a 40-minute Sunday School class that includes people with very different levels of willingness to engage the scriptures, or even interest in doing so. I think for most members the reaction to the story is complete puzzlement, and sadly, for too many, the thinking about it pretty much ends at that moment.

    Sorry to have gone on so long in this comment . . . .


    1. Fair enough. I think my overreaction stemmed largely from the extreme form of the statement, making it the central purpose of the lesson, and that my first thoughts when I read it were “Well that leads directly to Mountain Meadows and Islamic suicide bombers.”

      Sitting in Gospel Doctrine class, though, the parallel with Joseph Smith and the 116 pages occurred to me as well.


  3. Thanks for this. I’ve started reading the Jewish Study Bible since you quote from it so much. It has a lot of great commentary, but the only thing I got about the talking donkey is that it is perhaps a later addition to the story. So I really appreciate you explaining the literary purpose served by the donkey.

    Also, I really appreciated your intro about how hard it is to discern the will of God. That nuance was completely lacking from my ward’s gospel doctrine discussion of this lesson and without it, Numbers 31 is an extremely troubling text.

    Thanks again.


  4. The most surprising thing about this story is Balaam’s reaction when donkey asks him why he struck him three times. Most people would respond, “HOLY CRAP! A TALKING DONKEY?!”, but Balaam just answers him like talking donkeys are something he encounters every day. 🙂


  5. I zoned out in my Sunday school after the first question. It went something like – after quoting out of context balaam’s apparent statements of loyalty to God’s will – “what do these quotes suggest about the speaker?” The answers included humility, courage, etc. It apparently never occurred to anyone that Balaam is not actually a good example of obedience. Sigh.


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