Essay: Bilam and the Donkey

M. Gisser


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 Jews.

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.