What I love about the story of Balaam and his donkey is how completely unnecessary it is. The message the angel gives Balaam at the end of their encounter (v 35) is exactly the same as God gave him before it (v 20). Narratively, there’s no reason to have this interesting little tale, and that probably means that, like other parts of the Bible, this is a mixing of two different versions from the J and E sources. That also explains why the text goes back and forth between saying the LORD and God all the time.

But back to the donkey. This story isn’t necessary, but it’s much more entertaining than all the short vignettes that have made up more recent narrative sections. This feels very much like the kind of fable that would get passed around a campfire in the desert, with the triplism and the detail and the talking donkey.

The text literally says that “the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey” (v 28), not that God made the donkey more intelligent. The implication is that this is what the donkey was thinking already, it just now had the ability to speak in an intelligible way. That raises all sorts of questions about how the ancient Israelites understood animals. Did they believe that animals were thinking beings just like humans, only without the ability to speak? Were people who couldn’t speak seen as non-sentient in some way? (Think of the double-meaning of “dumb” in English) Did the donkey lose the ability to speak after this conversation with Balaam? If God had given the donkey the ability to think (assuming it didn’t have it already), did it lose that as well? If consciousness is the chief sign of having a “soul,” is that something God can just give and then take away?

Admittedly this is probable because I’m re-watching Wolf’s Rain right now, an absolutely amazing allegorical anime where most of the animals can think and speak, but if I were writing Biblical fan fiction, I would make the real reason that Israelites were forbidden from eating “unclean” animals (of which donkeys are one) is because those animals were actually thinking creatures, while “clean” animals weren’t.

That’s not entirely crazy, really. While many unclean animals may not be very bright (pigs, rabbits, mice, mollusks), kosher law does prohibit most of the more intelligent animals form being eaten. Dolphins, apes, dogs, cats, horses, elephants, birds of prey, all the most intelligent forms of each category are off-limits for consumption. I think that’s a pretty good thing.

Back to Balaam for a bit. I said this goes back and forth between using YHWH and Elohim, and I think it’s worth noting that Balaam is from a town “near the Euphrates,” presumably north of Canaan (there’s a Pitru mentioned in Assyrian records, apparently). That would be the area that Abraham’s family had settled in. Does that mean that YHWH was still recognized and worshiped in that area? Or is this a later interpolation that wants to make very certain we know that the deity he receives prophecies from is the same one the Israelites worship?

There apparently is an ancient inscription at Deir Alla in Jordan that might be about a Bala’am son of Be’or who was also supposed to have been a prophet, but there he worshiped deities called the Shaddayin. I cheated and peeked ahead, and at least one prophecy has him invoking Shaddai, one of the many names for God in the Bible. Is this more evidence that Israelites believed that the supreme deities of all their neighbors were really their own God? That’s a few chapters away, but I’ll be thinking about it as I read.

The Japanese: kotogotoku “every, all” (v 2), obitadashii “innumerable” (v 3), uchiyaburu “to beat, to break” (v 6), reimotsu “gift” (v 7), tsugeru “to tell” (v 8), shouchi suru “to agree to” (v 14), kobamu “to refuse” (v 16), yuuguu suru “to treat you well” (v 17), daishou “size” (v 18), samatageru “to hinder, to obstruct” (v 22), yochi “room” (v 26), uzukumaru “to crouch, to squat” (v 27), sokuza ni “immediately, on the spot” (v 29), ikasu “to let a person live” (v 33), hikikaesu “to turn back” (v 34), kahan “riverside” (v 36), sazukeru “to give, to grant” (v 38), tomonau “to accompany,” ittan “a part of” (v 41).

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