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Stuff You Never Knew Before (Scripture Edition)

My mind takes random turns, to put it mildly. Case in point: Today, while driving, I was thinking about Balaam’s donkey.

You may know the biblical account, starting in Numbers 22. Balaam is a mystic retained by Balak, King of Moab, to place a curse on the Israelites. But he can’t, not because he’s righteous but because God won’t let him: Balaam is commanded to bless them. In the process, there’s an incident where the donkey he’s riding refuses to proceed, because she perceives the Angel of the Lord blocking her path. angry, Balaam strikes her, and the two of them have a conversation:

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.”

Now that account used to bug me a bit and make me wonder if the people who say the Bible contains fables might not have a point. It wasn’t the fact that the donkey talked: God can do that. It’s the seemingly matter-of-fact way Balaam holds the conversation. Talking animals? The only other time we see that in the Bible is the serpent talking to Eve in the Garden of Eden — and in a world that was new, which had no long-established norms, that wouldn’t have to seem bizarre to her. But Balaam? Why is he apparently taking this for granted? And why does the book’s human author (Moses) seem to think his readers would do the same?

Then, during a Bible study, I learned more about Balaam. I learned that he was a baru diviner, a mystic who would often believe he received messages from animals under the influence of hallucinogens used in his rituals. Such things were a part of his world, and Moses’ readers would have known this. When I learned this, I saw the talking-animal incident in a whole new light. Far from being a “problem” in Scripture, it struck me as another testimony to its truthfulness — a sample of how God uses remarkably appropriate means to deal with specific situations. He turned Balaam’s own beliefs and practices against him.

Bible study has a way of producing moments of discovery like this, when you say to yourself, “Cool: I never knew that before.” And what you’ve learned isn’t mere Bible trivia, but something which highlights the character of God and the ways in which He works.

Many of you must have had experiences like that. Got any examples?

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About the Author

Matt Kaufman

Matt Kaufman has been a columnist for Boundless since the site’s founding in 1998, and did a stint as editor in 2002-2003. He’s also a former staffer and current contributing editor for Focus on the Family Citizen magazine. Matt is a freelance writer/editor who spent some years in Colorado, but gave up the mountains for the cornfields: He now lives in his hometown of Urbana, home of the University of Illinois. His house is a five minute drive from the one where he grew up, and he enjoys daily walks around the park where he used to play baseball.

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