• Light of Torah

The Lord opened the mouth of the Donkey...

Numbers 22-24 tells the story of a pagan king (Balak) who commissions a magician (Balaam) to curse the people of Israel. Despite his best efforts, Balaam is unable to curse Israel. The power of the Lord’s protection is such that the would-be curses are converted to blessings. The story’s conclusion is anticipated in an episode in chapter 22 where, travelling along the road, Balaam is confronted by an angel and by a talking donkey.

When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. 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?” (Numbers 22:27-28)

We may be surprised to find a talking donkey here. After all, this is holy Scripture not Aesop’s fables! The Jewish sages of old remind us that every word of Scripture has a divine purpose in directing our hearts and minds to the Lord God. Read chapter 22, in the context of Balaam’s story, and prayerfully ponder: how is God's word speaking to me through this unusual story? What purpose does a talking donkey serve in this sacred text?

Perhaps you noticed that not only is the donkey given a voice (a voice of protest), it is also given enhanced sight. Three times the text says “the donkey saw the angel of the Lord” (22:23,25,27) although it is not until verse 31 that “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.”

In the Bible, references to ‘seeing’ and ‘speaking’ often convey more than a physical-sensory action.

Why is the narrative interrupted by this seemingly ridiculous image of a donkey who sees and speaks in ways that his human master cannot?

Turning to traditional Jewish sources we find this comment in Midrash Rabbah:

And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass. This was d