Essay: Bilam and the Donkey
The story of Bilam and his donkey contains many unbelievable events and
is described in great detail. As the account in Numbers 22:21 goes, Balak
was the king of Moav at that time and was faced with the fear of having
the Jews-a nation of millions of people-damage his land by gaining safe
passage. To avert this problem, Balak called upon Bilam, a prophet, and
requested that Bilam curse the Jews so that Balak would have ease in attacking
them and in driving them out. When Balak sent the first group of messengers
to Bilam, Bilam's reply was that he had to consult with G-d. G-d's answer
was that Bilam should not curse the Jews for they are blessed. Bilam informed
the messengers that he was refrained from going by G-d's word. Balak persisted
and sent more messengers-higher in rank and number. Bilam responded by saying
that even if his house was filled with silver and gold he couldn't go. Nonetheless
Bilam requested an answer from G-d. This time G-d gave him permission if
there was a monetary gain, however he still must refrain from cursing the
What happens next is very remarkable. It is stated that Bilam arose
early and that G-d was angry that he went. This was after G-d gave him permission!
G-d stood an angel in the path to deter him as he was riding on his donkey.
It states that the donkey saw the angel standing in the path with an outstretched
sword in his hand, and that the donkey turned aside and went into the field.
Bilam hit the donkey to get it back on the path. The angel stood a second
time in the vineyard, a fence on both sides of the donkey and Bilam. The
donkey saw the angel and crushed up against the wall, crushing Bilam's leg.
Bilam continued to smite the donkey. The angel passed to a place that was
narrow with no room to pass left or right. The donkey saw the angel and
crouched down under Bilam and Bilam's anger burned, smiting the donkey with
a stick. G-d opened the mouth of the donkey and it said to Bilam, "what
have I done that you have smitten me these three times?" Bilam responded,
"Because you have mocked me. If there were a sword in my hand I would
kill you." The donkey said, "Am I not the donkey that you have
ridden upon from long before until today? Is it my nature to act this way?"
Bilam replied,"No". G-d then opened Bilam's eyes and he saw the
angel of G-d standing in the path with a sword outstretched in his hand.
Bilam then prostrated himself before the angel. The angel said to Bilam,
"For what have you smitten your donkey these three times? Behold I
have come out to turn you away because your way is contrary to me. Your
donkey has seen me and turned aside these three times. Would it be that
you would turn aside. Because now I would kill you and cause her (the donkey)
to live." Bilam says, "I have sinned. I didn't know that you stood
in the path to turn me aside. And now if this is bad in your eyes, I will
return." The angel informs Bilam that he may continue, but only that
which he tells him may he say. Rashi states that the significance of "three"
times represents two things: the three forefathers, and the three festivals.
Ibn Ezra states that once the donkey spoke it died, and that with each successive
hitting, Bilam used a stronger object.
Following are some of the many obvious questions on this section, including
the meaning behind both Rashi's and Ibn Ezra's statements: 1) Why didn't
Bilam see the angel of G-d at first? 2) What's the significance of the sword?
3) Why according to the Ibn Ezra did Bilam hit the donkey with a stronger
object each time? 4) Why did the donkey die after it spoke? 5) What was
the argument of the donkey? 6) Why wasn't Bilam astounded at the ability
of an animal to talk? 7) What does the fence allude to, and why did the
path become more and more impossible to traverse with each appearance of
the angel? 8) Why is it important that Bilam's leg was crushed?
There is a very important statement of Maimonides regarding this and
similar events. He states in the Guide for the Perplexed that in every case
in Scripture where we find the term "angel", the entire account
is describing a vision, and not an actual physical event. The event didn't
take place in physical reality, but in a persons mind. This being the case,
this entire story must be interpreted in this light according to Maimonides.
The story is here is a parable for a conflict with which Bilam was struggling.
If we refer back to the immediate events leading up to the riding on
the donkey, we see that Bilam comes off appearing as a true follower of
G-d. But with a closer look, his real nature is seen. He was asked to curse
the Jews. G-d told him he can't. The fact that Bilam (during the account
of the second messengers) requests from G-d again to know whether he can
curse the Jews, shows that he wanted to curse them. That's why he said that
"G-d has refrained me from cursing." Meaning that he really desired
to curse, but he was prevented by G-d. This desire to curse the Jews awoke
in Bilam a strong conflict. On the one hand he desired the destruction of
the Jewish people. On the other hand, he knew that they were blessed by
G-d. Bilam was well aware that G-d's establishment of His providence over
the Jews was due to our forefather's perfection. Abraham's self realization
of the absurdity of idolatry, his conclusion of the reality if monotheism
and the Oneness of G-d secured this treaty of G-d's providence. With this
knowledge, Bilam was greatly troubled as to which path to follow, namely
1) his desire for the destruction of the Jews, or 2) the word of G-d. This
entire account is a parable of his conflict.
By interpreting the elements of this story as representing psychological
phenomena, the story's real meaning can be explained as follows: Bilam,
being in great conflict, decides to go to Balak with the cursing of the
Jews as his goal. In order to do so, he must suppress his knowledge of G-d's
command to refrain from cursing them. His riding on his donkey represents
the suppression of what his conscience (the donkey) "sees". Riding
always carries with it the sense of dominion over another object. Bilam
himself represents his evil instincts and thus, isn't aware of reality (the
angel of G-d). One's instincts aren't designed with the ability to judge
what is morally good or bad. (The same is true about any apparatus in the
human body. The heart isn't designed to breath, and the lungs aren't designed
to pump blood.) This explains why Bilam couldn't "see" the angel.
Bilam, in this story, represents his instincts - a faculty of the mind unable
to perceive. Instincts have only one function-they guide a person to instinctual
satisfaction. They cannot do an act of perceiving. The angel represents
reality. Bilam's inability to curse the Jews was so threatening, it was
represented by an angel of G-d wielding a sword. A very terrifying sight.
The conscience, represented by the donkey, is designed to perceive reality.
This is it's main function. (This is why Adam and Eve were granted the conscience
after they showed that they sinned too easily. They needed an additional
way for restraining their instincts.)
Now that we understand the main components of the parable, (what Bilam,
his donkey, and the angel represent, namely the instinctual drive, the conscience,
and G-d's reality- respectively- we must go through the story interpreting
it with this information:
Bilam is riding on his donkey-"his evil instincts are riding(suppressing)
his conscience." His conscience only is aware of the reality-"the
donkey sees the angel", but Bilam doesn't. Whenever the conscience
goes "off of the path", it starts to become a bit conscious, making
Bilam a bit aware of his wrong, Bilam "hits" his conscience to
suppress it-"hitting the donkey". His conscience slows him down
-"crushes his leg"- as he tries to go on his "path".
Bilam's weapon for suppressing his conscience becomes stronger-"he
hits the donkey with a stick". Then the conscience finally prevails
and 'speaks'-"the donkey talks". The argument of the donkey is
that "it's not me who's at fault"-meaning that Bilam gains insight
(from his "talking conscience") into his actions and realizes
that there's something behind his suppression of his conscience. At this
point, Bilam becomes aware of his denial only through G-d' s kindness. That's
why G-d had to open his eyes. The donkey dying after it spoke means that
once his conscience made him aware of this information, the conscience ceases
to function-termed here as death. It did its' job. It "dies".
Rashi's statement that the three things shown to Bilam's donkey alludes
to the forefathers and the three festivals fits in beautifully: The donkey-Bilam's
conscience-was contemplating the whole reason for G-d's direct providence
over the Jews, namely the perfection of our forefathers who caused G-d to
originally bring about His providence. Bilam's conflict was directly caused
by these three individuals (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Had it not been for
them, he might have been able to curse the Jews. That's why the donkey turned
aside when it thought about the forefathers. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob brought
about the relationship with G-d. Bilam now desired to curse them-but all
curses are from G-d. We also see why Bilam acted calmly towards a talking
animal, as Maimonides states, this was all a vision.
In summary, the entire account of Bilam and his donkey according to
Maimonides, was a vision or conflict, happening only in his mind. In order
for the Torah to inform us of this, the Torah writes it in a parable format
so that many ideas and psychological principles can be capsulated into one
account. A parable also conceals ideas from those who would shrug at them
if written openly. The fact that Bilam did travel to Balak in physical reality
is not discounted by this explanation. The details mentioned are.