Talking Snakes, Donkeys, and Believing the Bible - pg. 2

By Robin Schumacher

Continued from Page One

Balaam's Donkey

The Garden snake in Genesis 3 isn't the only animal that speaks in Scripture.

The book of Numbers chronicles the account of a soothsayer named Balaam son of Beor who is called upon by the Moab king Balak to curse the nation Israel in an attempt to stop the progress Israel was making in their conquest of the land that God had promised them. As a gun for hire, Balaam is anything but an honest guy, and God's anger against him is shown in chapter 22 where God causes Balaam's donkey to actually speak and rebuke him.

Is this something out of a Shrek movie or did it actually happen?

In truth, the historicity of Balaam's existence isn't something that's been debated much by scholars. In 1967, Professor Henk Franken discovered ancient plaster fragments in the Jordanian region called Tel Deir Alla (that exactly matches the area described by the Bible as Balaam's stomping grounds), which contained numerous statements of "the prophet, Balaam son of Beor" has pretty much put to bed the charge that Balaam was a fictional character.

But a talking donkey?

To be honest, the account of Balaam's donkey was the one passage of Old Testament Scripture that I personally struggled with more than any other. But not because the donkey talked; instead, what bothered me much more was Balaam's reaction:

"Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?' And Balaam said to the donkey, 'Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.' And the donkey said to Balaam, 'Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?' And he said, 'No'" (Numbers 22:28-30).

Let me be candid: if one of our family cats walked up to me and said, "Hey, the litter box is pretty nasty right now; you need to be doing something about that," I'd wake up at one of our local hospitals in the cardio-care unit. I certainly wouldn't calmly respond to a talking animal like Balaam did.

This account troubled me for a very long time—how could such a thing actually happen? When I entered seminary, I specifically brought this account to my Old Testament professor, who enlightened me on what the historical narrative was all about.

The story of Balaam and the donkey foreshadows the relationship between Balaam and Balak. The dullness of the prophet to an animal speaking is akin to the dullness of Balak; what the donkey is to Balaam, Balaam is to Balak.

The following chart helps show the back-and-forth between the key characters and what God is demonstrating in the text:



Donkey sees an angel that Balaam can't see Balaam sees blessing of God upon Israel that Balak can't see
Donkey sees angel three times; Donkey is beaten three times
Balaam speaks blessing of God upon Israel three times when asked to curse Israel three time
Each time donkey turns from angel, the effect on Balaam is worse
With each blessing upon Israel, the effect on Balak is worse
Balaam is prevented from killing the donkey
Balak unable to kill Balaam
The donkey speaks because God opens its mouth
Balaam says he can only speak words God puts in his mouth
Balaam is dull to the fact the donkey speaks Balak is dull to Balaam's blessings upon Israel

What's the Real Issue?

Talking snakes, donkeys that speak in a human language, a crucified Jewish carpenter that comes back from the dead... These things, skeptics point out, aren't things we routinely see and experience, and so we must reject them as being false and see them possessing no more real substance than a tale in Aesop's fables.

But what's the real issue here? Is it truly a talking snake or something else?

At its core, the real problem is that the skeptic imports their anti-supernatural bias and philosophical naturalistic presuppositions into their view of the Bible. From the outset, their a priori position is that God does not exist. That being true in their worldview, then miracles become impossible, and since the Bible contains miraculous accounts, the Bible becomes impossible to believe.

But what if God does exist? Then might we expect a book that describes some pretty spectacular and rare things? We certainly might. As C. S. Lewis observed, "But if we admit God, must we admit Miracle? Indeed, indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain." [3]

In truth, a talking snake or donkey is much less miraculous than the odds of life popping up on our planet all on its own, given the universe as we know it and the number of cosmological constants that must be in place for us to actually exist. Or DNA arising on its own accord. Or... take your pick of a variety of astonishing things that are incredible to believe, but somehow still exist.

The question is not if a snake or donkey can talk, but if a supernatural God exists. If the latter is true, the former is a walk in the park. That's the question the skeptic should heartily pursue instead of using a talking snake as an excuse to opt out of the real conversation.

[1] C. S. Lewis, "Dogma and the Universe" in God in the Doc (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pg. 42. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that Lewis also stated in his work, The Problem of Pain, that Satan may have indeed used the snake for his purposes: New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, pg. 119.
[3] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Harper Collins, 1974), pg. 169.

Image Credit: Jean Edmonds; Used with permission

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Published 9-20-12