Nov 19, 2015

Was Balaam's Donkey an Agent of the Lord?

I am enjoying a read through Kenneth Way's book, Donkeys in the Biblical World. In his discussion of the Balaam story, he addresses the "exceptional treatment" of the animal as evidenced in Numbers 22:33: "The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live" (ESV, my bold). Way proposes the following explanation.
Why is the jenny exceptional? Baruch Levine opines that "she would not have been slain in such an encounter, as she was only an animal." But the fact that "she is "only an animal" may just as well be a reason to slay her along with her rider.

In Num 22:22–30, I would suggest that the jenny has a special function as YHWH's agent (cf. §1.6.4). YHWH not only employs her natural behavior for his purposes (vv. 22–27), he also endows her with supernatural ability for his purposes (vv. 28–30). The jenny is the vehicle that YHWH uses in this story to remind Balaam that he may only speak the words of YHWH.  The jenny is therefore quite exceptional and shares a status akin to that of the angel of YHWH. The reason why the angel feels differently about the jenny is that they are both employees of YHWH.
 Kenneth C. Way, Donkeys in the Biblical World: Ceremony and Symbol, History, Archaeology, and Culture of the Levant (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 190-91  

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