(Number 22: 21-35)
I think it was a Trivial Pursuit question I got when I was playing with some friends years ago: What are the two instances in the Bible where an animal speaks? My partner and I came up with one fairly easily – the snake in the garden, harassing Eve to take just a tiny bite out of that troubling, tempting apple. But what about the other one? That stumped us. The ox in Jesus’ manger? The pigs the Prodigal Son fed? No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t think of it.
They flipped the card over after we gave up, and there it was: Balaam’s donkey. And I promised myself then and there that I’d never forget Balaam’s donkey. It’s a fascinating story. It has drama and intrigue and plot twists and turns and….well, a donkey that flat-out talks back at its master and drops some serious knowledge. What’s not to love about that?
So, a little context: the Israelites have completed their wilderness wandering, their 40-year sojourn to the Promised Land. It takes close to a century for the people to settle down in their new home, and at some point they find themselves in a region called Moab, ruled over by a king named Balak.
Now Balak is more than a little concerned with this mass of people on his doorstep What’s the one thing an all-powerful king is afraid of losing? That very power, of course – and these Israelites represent, in his mind, a threat to that power. So as he prepares to go to battle with the Israelites, he summons the services of a guy named Balaam – a “seer,” a diviner – and asks Balaam to cast a curse on the Israelites so they’ll lose. Kind of a way of giving his troops an upper hand before the battle even started, I suppose.
Balaam hems and haw a bit, but in the end decides to do as the king orders. So the next morning he gets on his trusty donkey and heads off to the battlefield. He has barely gotten down the street before lo and behold, an angel appears in the middle of the road right in front of them, blocking their way. And this is not some sweet, docile angel – this angel is an intimidating figure, with sword drawn. We don’t usually think of angels as intimidating, but this one was. And he’s standing right in front of them.
And this is where the plot really starts twisting – because Balaam does not see Mr. Buff Angel right in front of him. Totally oblivious to his presence. Note the irony, of course: Balaam, the great diviner, the great “seer,” cannot see the angel That’s pretty crazy. Want to know what’s even crazier? His donkey does. Balaam’s donkey sees the angel perfectly! Which is why the donkey understandably stops right in his tracks.
So just imagine this scene for a moment. Imagine as the donkey stops, turns off the road and heads off into the field to avoid the angel. The angel Balaam cannot see! From the donkey’s perspective, this is the right thing to do. But from Balaam’s point of view, it makes no sense at all. Balaam is confused and gives his donkey a good whack to try and steer it back on course. No luck.
So now they’re traveling along the vineyard off the road, with walls on either side of this wide path. Balaam’s still perplexed about what just happened when the angel appears in front of them a second time – and again, the donkey sees it; Balaam does not. So now the donkey rides up against one of the walls in an attempt to go around the angel. You can imagine how this was for Balaam – who, again, still doesn’t see the angel. A wide corridor between vineyards, plenty of space, and yet his donkey is right up against the wall. He whacks the donkey again.
They continue as the corridor begins to narrow until there’s room just enough for the donkey to walk on. And guess who makes yet another appearance? Mr. Buff Angel stands once again in their way. This time, with nowhere to go, the donkey just lies down. Which sets Balaam off. More whacks.
And that’s when the donkey starts talking!
This donkey turns his head and looks back at Balaam and says, “What have I ever done to deserve all these whacks?” The donkey is talking, people! And asking a reasonable-enough question, right? For all it knows, Balaam is seeing the angel too. He doesn’t understand why Balaam would treat him this way. So he asks why.
Balaam answers his donkey – yet another element of humor in this story; he answers as if it’s not a big deal that his donkey is talking to him. He tells his donkey that he is super-frustrated with his behavior. At which point the donkey gets all logical: “Am I not your trusty donkey on whom you’ve ridden for years Have I ever done anything like this to you before? Have I?” Balaam thinks about if for a second and answers, “No.”
And it is at this moment in the story that Balaam’s eyes are opened and he is able to see for the first time the angel before him. At which point it all becomes clear – why his donkey had been acting so erratically, why his agenda for the day was flawed from the beginning, why he needed to do the bidding not of a human king but of the almighty God. That is when his mission, his purpose finally becomes clear to him. As a nice little coda to this tale, Balaam does go to the battle scene, but instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them. They win.
But seriously: a talking donkey? Plenty have wondered over the years if the donkey really did talk, or if it’s some kind of rhetorical embellishment to add some spice and flavor to a story about a man caught between a rock and a hard place, literally and figuratively. As with a lot of things in the Bible, what truly matters goes deeper than that. Because in the end this isn’t some miracle story meant to “wow the crowds” into submission and compliance. The important thing isn’t that the donkey speaks – the important thing is what the donkey says.
I mean, it’s almost as if this four-legged creature is the embodiment of Balaam’s conscience, this inner conflict he’s mired in. He wasn’t totally sure he was doing the right thing when he set out that morning. And yet the end result of it all – after the angel in the road he couldn’t see, after the donkey doing his thing – the end result is that the right course of action presented itself. Balaam didn’t really know what was going on around him; he couldn’t “see” the right thing to do.
But the donkey could. And then the donkey starts talking!
I mean, that’s life, right? Sometimes we’re cruising along, minding our business and doing our thing – and then the donkey starts talking! Sometimes we make plans, and we like our plans and think they’re great plans – and then the donkey starts talking! Sometimes, as the commercial says, “life comes at you fast” – and we react the best we can, changing course on the fly and waiting for the wind to fill our sails again – and then the donkey starts talking!
Discernment is rarely an easy thing. Knowing the difference between right and wrong is one thing, but knowing the right “right” is a little harder to figure out. Someone once shared with me the story of three farmers out in their fields one day tending to the crops. They each look up in the sky and see two large clouds forming an unmistakable letter “G” and letter “P.” Each of them pauses to contemplate what this means.
The first wipes his brow and goes back to work – the letters, obviously, were telling him to Go Plow.
The second leaves the fields, grabs a bat and ball and heads over to the community softball game. He was only doing what God told him to do: Go Play.
And the third farmer grabs his Bible and heads to the busy street corner in town, where he shares with everyone how he gave his life to Jesus. Because that’s what you do when the clouds themselves tell you to Go Preach.
The question, of course, is which farmer discerned correctly. Or is it possible they all were right – or all wrong?
Tell me this, Trinity: how do you read the clouds? What’s your “talking donkey” moment? How do you best discern God’s will for your life?
Oftentimes I think we see discernment as waiting for a sign. Waiting for something obvious to fall in our lap, right in front of us, telling us unequivocally what we need to do. But rarely does life unfold like this – and in fact, if all we do is wait for obvious signs, we so often miss what is right in front of us already.
There’s a story I know I’ve shared from this pulpit before. There’s a terrible rain storm and a man right in the thick of it. It had been raining for days, raining buckets – the waters were beginning to rise in the low areas. Neighbors are driving by this man’s house, their trucks loaded with possessions as they seek higher ground. They invite him to come with them, to escape the rising waters that show no signs of receding. “No,” he replies, “I’m staying here.” They ask him why he’d put himself at risk. And he replies, “Because God will take care of me.”
The waters continue rising, now even with his front porch. Some local authorities coast by in a small motorboat. “Come with us,” they call out through the rain,” it’s getting dangerous here.” He answers more emphatically: “No – I will not go. I’m staying here because I believe God will save me.”
The waters rise higher and higher, until it engulfs his entire house with only the pinnacle of the roof now visible. And there the man sits, as threatening waters inch closer. A helicopter flies overhead, lights flashing, megaphone screaming, “Sir, “you must come with us now! There isn’t any time!” And at the top of his lungs the man defies them, saying, “NO! I will stay here. God will save me! ”
The rains keep coming, though; and those words turn out to be his last. He goes on to heaven and makes his way before God. He is quite puzzled to say the least! When he finally gets up the nerve he asks God why God did not save. Why was his faith not rewarded? Why was his trust not acknowledged? To which God replies, “What are you talking about? I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter. What more did you want?!?”
Sometimes we miss what’s right in front of us. Balaam sure did. I keep going back in my mind to what that donkey said to his master in that moment right before his eyes were opened: Am I not your trusty donkey on whom you’ve ridden for years Have I ever done anything like this to you before? You know what the donkey was really asking? Do you trust me?
You know, we base our relationships on a host of things – love, work, faith, common interests, to name a few. But none of those mean much of anything if some element of trust is not present. Think about it. You’ve got to trust another person if you’re going to invest in a relationship with them. You’ve got to trust that they’re not going to take advantage of that relationship. And ultimately, you’ve got to trust that they will reciprocate your love with love, or your friendship with friendship, or sharing your life with them sharing their own.
That is what it means to be part of a community of faith – as we’ve said before and will be saying much more in the coming year: connecting with God, connecting with our church family, and connecting with our neighbor. When those connections happen, it means that any moment – especially when we least expect it – has the potential to be a moment when God speaks. Maybe through a donkey, maybe through another person, maybe in that still small voice only we can hear. And it’s our job as people of faith to be tuned in to that voice when it comes.
A few Christmases ago my wife gave me a book titled Small Miracles: Extraordinary Coincidences from Everyday Life. I thought of Balaam and his donkey when I read the following from the book’s preface. Listen:
Thousands of years ago, God spoke to us through the sublime miracles Godperformed on massive and grandiose scales. In modern times, we are bereft of that privilege. Today we wrestle with a God who no longer parts seas, stops the sun, or turns people into pillars of salt. Instead we have coincidences – smaller, more personal, everyday miracles. For when one of these takes place, it is nothing more and nothing less than God tapping us on the shoulder, whispering, or at times even shouting: I am here! I am with you!
Nothing seems clear, and then the donkey starts talking. May we keep our eyes open to see what is there; may we keep our ears tuned in. And may we trust in a God who loves us, who is still speaking to us, and who still taps us on the shoulder from time to time, saying: I am here. I am with you!
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Yitta Halberstam, Small Miracles: Extraordinary Coincidences from Everyday Life (Adams Media Corp, 1997).