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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Balaam's Ass
distributed 6/10/05 & 5/27/11 - ©2005, 2011

The Bible story is known to many as "Balaam's Ass", and what a wonderful story it is! I was deeply disappointed, though, to discover that the New Revised Standard Version consistently speaks of Balaam's "donkey". It just doesn't have the same flair.

The extended story of Balaam and his trusty beast of burden (see Numbers 22-24) has to do with Balaam's faithfulness and God's steadfast love for the people of Israel. Those theological points are worth pondering, but above all it is a splendid piece of storytelling.

Our rich faith tradition is diminished if this delightful account is read by a worship liturgist who is determined that we all experience "the seriousness and dignity of Holy Scripture." No, this is a Bible story that should be told as if we're all gathered around a campfire, with lots of laughter and joy.

There's a sub-text to the Balaam narrative that I've lifted up on occasion which allows me to bring this tale into the realm of eco-justice education. That background theme isn't the heart and soul of the story, but it is an essential piece. And it has to do with that donkey.

Here's the gist of the story: Balaam is a highly respected professional within his community who makes his living by proclaiming blessings and curses. One day, he is approached by Balak, the king of Moab, who is very nervous about a band of people who have wandered out of Egypt, and are intent on settling in what they think of as "the promised land", and that Balak thinks of as "home". Balak wants to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites.

Balaam is sorely tempted by such a lucrative contract, and has a couple of late-night discussions with God about the matter. There may have been some sort of a misunderstanding, though. Balaam seems to think he's doing what God wants when he sets off to work with Balak, but God is determined to stop him.

As we join the story, Balaam is riding down the road on his "donkey". (Hey, if I use the traditional word as often as the story requires, your spam filter will never deliver this email to you!) An angel of God stands in the middle of the road with a sword in his hand. Even though Balaam and his servants don't see anything, the donkey does, and it veers off into the field to avoid the dangerous angel.

Balaam is not pleased, and he strikes his loyal donkey. They get back on the road, and the angel appears again, this time when there are walls on each side of the narrow track. The donkey again tries to avoid an angelic confrontation, and skitters over to the very side of the road, scraping Balaam's foot along the vineyard wall. You guessed it, Balaam -- who still has not seen the angel -- again takes out his frustration on the visionary beast.

The third time, the angel sets up camp in a very narrow spot where there's no way to go around, or to escape to the side. When the donkey sizes up the situation -- an angel with a sword, and no place to get away -- it lies down in the middle of the road.

Well, this really sets off Balaam, and he starts beating the donkey with his staff. At this point, the NRSV text tells the story almost as well as I can:

Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" Balaam said to the donkey, "Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!" But the donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?" And he said, "No." Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he [Balaam] bowed down, falling on his face. (Numbers 22:28-31)

The story's not quite as much fun after that scene, although it still holds onto its rollicking spirit. Eventually, Balaam -- who was hired to curse -- proclaims an enthusiastic blessing over Israel. It only seems fair when Balak refuses to pay Balaam for his errant services.

So what's the sub-theme? Where's the eco-justice bit in all of this?

Balaam's eyes are opened to the full reality of the situation only when he realizes that his reliable and obedient donkey does not normally run into fields, walk into walls, or collapse in the road. God speaks, in this story, by the ways in which a trustworthy animal breaks from routine. When that which has been utterly reliable suddenly becomes unpredictable, we should at least consider the possibility that something important is happening, and that God may be speaking to us. Rather than blame and beat the one who sees what's really going on, we should set aside our own agendas and presumptions, and take a careful look around.

Now, a good story teller does not need to belabor the moral of the tale. So I'll be brief.

When the weather starts to go wacky on us -- when it when it routinely gets hotter than, well, than it used to, and when storms are more severe and droughts are drier and glaciers and ice caps melt -- maybe we should take seriously the variation from what had been thousands of years of reliable climate, and look for an angry angel.

And when "dead zones" start showing up in the middle of previously healthy oceans, maybe we'd better look for the messenger angel -- and for polluting fetilizer run-off that is causing the problem.

Countless animals -- previously plentiful and reliable -- are calling out to us to pay attention, and to heed the message of warning and change. When the populations of migrating songbirds plummet, they are speaking to us about habitat destruction and toxic chemicals. When the rate of extinction is running about 1,000 times higher than reliable, long-standing rates, the dying species are are calling out to us. When we see increasing conflicts between humans and predators -- the species whose habitats we are moving into -- there is a message that we need to hear.

Well, that's not the main point of the story of Balaam, but it is a part of the story. Recounting the riotous adventures of Balaam's Ass allows us to face up to a rather desperate situation that we've gotten ourselves into, and to hear the message with lots of laughter along the way.

It is a story -- with a pertinent prophetic point, and one which in never found in the Revised Common Lectionary -- that could be fun to tell at, say, an informal summer worship service. I dare ya!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

A sermon that I've posted on our website, Celebrating the Asses of In Lives, expands the idea from this week's Notes. It also connects the theme of "the reliable becoming unreliable" to pastoral matters of family relationships and community concerns of justice. The sermon includes a dramatized telling of the story from Balaam's perspective. That story uses the other "donkey" word frequently, and has a far-from-serious edge that the folk in my home church thoroughly enjoyed.

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