One of the strange things about the Bible is that most of it is written as straight-ahead historical narrative, but many of the stories don’t read like any history we’ve encountered outside the Bible. The story of a talking donkey would have to be at the top of that list. If you want anyone to believe a story you’re writing, would you include a talking donkey? So, why put a talking donkey in a story if you want people to believe you’re writing history? That’s a good question. In the first chapter of Uninvented, I give a brief overview of the history of biblical criticism. To understand that history, and its skepticism about the Bible’s historicity, we must understand the Enlightenment assumptions that inform the critics’ perspective.
The fundamental belief of these critics, going back some three hundred years, is anti-supernaturalism. For a variety of complicated historical, philosophical, and cultural reasons, Western intellectuals began to see the universe as a closed system. The world was merely matter, and cause and effect moving that matter, with no room for a God to interfere. Miracles messed with this, so miracles in the Bible had to go. I call this question begging anti-supernatural bias. To “beg the question” is a logical fallacy that means to assume the conclusion without having to prove it. So, a talking donkey? Don’t be ridiculous! Everyone “knows” donkeys can’t talk, therefore, the story of a talking donkey in Numbers 22 must have been made up. It can’t be history because, well, donkeys don’t talk. Question begging at its finest. But let’s get rid of the anti-supernatural bias and look at this story another way.
One of my arguments in Uninvented is that if someone wants to write a believable story, they won’t put stuff in the story that is clearly unbelievable, unless it really happened. If you’re an Enlightenment rationalist any miracle is unbelievable, but if you’re not, some miracles in the Bible are more believable than others. This is where we come to the talking donkey story of Numbers 22. If you’re not familiar with the story, Balaam is a prophet, and the king of Moab, one of Israel’s enemies, is asking for Balaam to curse Israel. He tells the king he can only say what God tells him to say, and it is most definitely not to curse Israel. God was angry with Balaam because he really wanted the rewards the king of Moab could give him, rather than being faithful to what God had said, so the Lord had a donkey rebuke him. When you read this on the surface it sounds like some kind of fairy tale, or a tall tale like the fish getting bigger and bigger with each telling:
21 Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. 22 But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.
24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again.
26 Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. 28 Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
29 Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” he said.
31 Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.
32 The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.”
34 Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”
With an anti-supernatural bias, you dismiss it immediately as invented, unhistorical, something added to the narrative to maybe teach a lesson about obedience to God. However, without the bias you can ask yourself, why include this in the story if it isn’t real? Everyone knows, even 3,500 years ago, that donkeys can’t talk. If the person who wrote the story, and we believe it to be Moses, wanted to be believed, why write this unless it really happened? And as Christians, we believe in God who is the Creator of everything out of nothing, an all-powerful being to whom nothing is impossible. If he wanted donkey to talk to make a point to a wayward prophet, who are we to say that is not possible?
Regarding miracles specifically, as Christians we don’t have to beg the question and assume miracles can happen, therefore this happened. However, our assumptions do influence how we view the text, and all people come to the text with certain assumptions. We, however, don’t come to the text with an anti-supernatural bias, and dismiss miracles out of hand; that begs the question. Our assumptions are rather more reasonable and logical. God is the Creator of all things out of nothing, an all powerful being who by definition can do anything. As he said to the 90 year-old Sarah when he told her she’d have a child in a year, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” No! This talking donkey story is like every other miracle presented in the Bible, muted, mater of fact, part of the historical narrative. Biblical miracles don’t read at all like legends and myths the biased critics insist they are, including a talking donkey.