The Significance of the Story of Bilam's Donkey

  • Rav Elchanan Samet
 
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Contribution by Dr. James Cleeman 
in honor of Mr. Aryeh Fund, 
distinguished alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion 
and outstanding Ba'al Chesed.
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Dedicated in memory of my grandmother, Yitele Bat Nathan Hacohen z”l
whose yahrzeit is 11 Tammuz
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I. THE STRUCTURE OF THE PARASHA

The plot of this week's parasha divides logically into two sections. The first part deals with negotiations regarding Bilam's trip to Moav: first negotiations between Bilam and Balak's two delegations, and then between Bilam and God (or rather His angel). The turning point in the story begins in Bamidbar 22:36, with a description of the actual meeting between Balak and Bilam. A description of the reciprocal relations between the two fills the second part of the story, until the last verse which concludes the entire story with the "scattering of the characters" [24:25]: "And Bilam rose up, and went and returned to his place; and Balak also went his way." The parts of the story are differentiated, consequently, by the means of communication between the two main characters, Balak and Bilam: in the first section it is an indirect communication conducted through messengers, and in the second section, it is a direct communication.

In the verses that introduce the second section of the story [22:36-40], the first direct meeting takes place between the two main characters. This meeting actualizes the double effort that Balak had invested in order to bring Bilam to him. Therefore, it is parallel to the first twenty verses of our story [22:2-21], in which this intense effort of persuasion is described.

If the meeting between Balak and Bilam at the beginning of the second section parallels the beginning of the first section (the story of the emissaries), then it stands to reason that the rest of the second section parallels the rest of the first section. (This creates an A-B-A-B structure to our parasha.) In other words, I contend that the description of Balak's blessings and prophecies (part II.B) parallels the story of Bilam and his donkey (part I.B). What is the connection between these two sections?

II.. THE LITERARY FORM OF 'THREE AND FOUR'

The shared quality that is most apparent and recognizable to the reader between the story of the donkey to the story of Bilam's blessings is that both are constructed according the same literary form called 'three and four.'

Professor Yair Zakovitch, in his Hebrew book "On Three... and on Four" (1979), collected and analyzed most of the sources in the Bible where this model appears, and this is what he writes in the introduction to his work:

"The subject of this composition is the literary model three-four in the Bible, meaning literary units built in four layers. The first three repeat one another and there is not, usually, a monumental change from verse to verse, and only in the fourth unit begins the severe change, this change which the central and climactic part of the literary unit."

In part I.B of our parasha, God's angel blocks Bilam's path three times, and all three times the donkey recognizes his presence and responds by turning off the road. All three times Bilam does not recognize the angel of God and only at the climax of the unit, the fourth encounter, does God open Bilam's eyes and allow him to see the angel and converse with him. The first three parts include four repeating components, which either repeat themselves stereotypically or present a development:

Component A: The angel stations himself as a barrier in front of the donkey (developmental repetition).

Component B: The donkey's identification of the angel of God (stereotypical repetition).

Component C: Reaction of the donkey (developmental reaction).

Component D: Bilam's beating of the donkey (development).

Bilam's dialogue with the donkey in the third incident has no parallel in the previous two occurrences, but rather serves to pave the way for Bilam's dialogue with the angel in the fourth incident. For example, Bilam's donkey asks [verse 28], "What have I done to thee, that thou has struck me these three times?" and the angel asks Bilam [32], "Why hast thou struck thy donkey these three times?" And in contrast to the words of Bilam to his donkey [29], "I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill thee," the angel of God shows his sword and tells Bilam [verse 33]: "Unless she had turned from me, I would now have slain thee, and saved her alive."

Now we will move on to part II.B, Bilam's blessings [22:41-24:25]. Balak and Bilam make three attempts to curse Israel, and all three times what emerges from his mouth in actuality is a blessing, that only increases in grandeur. At the climax of the unit, in its fourth part, Bilam makes no preparation to curse Israel, but rather informs Balak without prompting [24:14], "Come, therefore, and I will advise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days."

The first three units (i.e. the failed attempts to curse Israel) include eight components, which repeat themselves in the same order: some of them are simple repetitions, some include mild changes and some express new developments, especially in the third unit.

Component A: Journey to the place which was chosen as fitting for cursing Israel.

Component B: Preparing the altars and sacrifices.

Component C: Bilam setting out alone to receive God's word.

Component D: Bilam's encounter with God.

Component E: Balak returns to Bilam to take up his parable.

Component F: The blessings of Israel. (There are many internal parallels within these blessings, and also a clear development between them, but this is worthy of separate treatment.)

Component G: Balak's angry reaction when he hears the blessings.

Component H: Bilam's answer to Balak.

One of the main purposes for using the form of "three and four" in Biblical stories is to describe how a certain phenomenon emerges as more than mere coincidence, turning it into a undeniable phenomenon whose reason becomes clear to all. It seems that this is the purpose for the use of the "three and four" form two times in our story.

Only after the donkey deviates from the path three times is Bilam ready to understand that this is not coincidental. Therefore, only after three repetitions does the angel of God reveal himself to Bilam, and the reason for the donkey's behavior becomes apparent.

Similarly, only after Bilam blesses Israel three times are he and Balak ready to recognize that this is not coincidental. They realize that God wishes to prevent Israel from being cursed and to bestow upon them a blessing. Therefore, after the third blessing, Balak has no more desire for Bilam's services (24:11): "I called thee to curse my enemies, and behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times. Therefore, now flee to thy place." Thus, when Bilam prophesies for the fourth time, this time without an invitation on the part of Balak, it is completely apparent that Israel finds favor in God's eyes, not only now, but in the distant future as well (24:17): "I see it, but not now, I behold it, but it is not near..."

Here revealed before us is a broad connection between the story of the donkey and the story of the blessings that Bilam bestowed upon Israel, but there is also more to explore.

III. THE MEANING OF THE PARALLEL

The beast of burden (or the donkey) is the accepted means of transportation in the Bible. The relationship between the rider and the animal typifies the relationship between the master and his obedient and submissive servant, who serves loyally as a means for achieving his master's goals. As the donkey says to Bilam [22:30], "Am I not thy donkey, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life to this day? Was I ever wont to do so to thee?" Bilam, acknowledges her words, answers, "No."

Balak expects Bilam to serve loyally as a means to curse Israel. But something unexpected happens both in the relationship between Bilam and his donkey and between Balak and Bilam. The faithful "servant" deviates from the will of the "master" three times, angering the master more and more. The reason for the deviation in both places is similar: God'will causes the servant to act against both his wishes and the wishes of the master. However, the angel of God or God's word are revealed only to the "servant" and not to his master, and therefore the master mistakenly pins the deviation on his faithful servant, not recognizing that this "sin" is being forced upon him.

The truth is that the servant does not totally understand the occurrence that is happening by his hand. The donkey tries to bypass the angel time after time. Similarly, Bilam does not understand the full significance of God's word which is placed in his mouth and therefore he tries over and over to bypass it and to fulfill Balak's desire and curse Israel.

Let us now compare the reaction of Bilam to the donkey's third deviation, to Balak's reaction to Bilam's third parable:

22:28: And Bilam's anger burned, and he struck the donkey with a staff.

24:10: And Balak's anger was kindled against Bilam, and he smote his hands together.

If a staff had been in Balak's hands, he certainly would have wanted to hit Bilam. The smiting together of his hands is clearly an expression of his desire to hit, and therefore Balak says to Bilam in the continuation [24:11]: "Therefore now FLEE to thy place."

The parallel that exists between the story of the donkey and the story of Bilam's blessings leads us to the following conclusion. The incident of the donkey represents a kind of "simulation" (unbeknownst to its participants) for what is going to happen in the near future. The donkey and its master foreshadow the roles that Bilam and Balak respectively are soon to play. And only the angel of God appears in this story and subsequently in a similar role: the word of God placed in the mouth of Bilam. However, what is the purpose of this "simulation game" and for whom is it intended?

IV. THE MEANING OF THE TALE OF THE DONKEY

The purpose of our story is summarized in Devarim 23:5-6:

"And because they hired against thee Bilam, the son of Be'or, from Petor of Aram Naharayim to curse thee. But the Lord thy God would not hearken to Bilam; but the Lord thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the Lord thy God loved thee."

It should be added that the purpose of this story is not only that Israel was saved from being cursed by Bilam, but also the manner in which this was achieved. According to a brilliant Divine plan, those who cursed became those who blessed against their will, and that the lesson was learned by the personalities involved: Bilam, Balak, and the ministers of Moav.

Have these personalities understood, at the end of the story, that the blessings bestowed upon Israel by Bilam were not a coincidental occurrence, but were proof of the permanent relationship between God and Israel? Have they understood that their actions were used as a medium by God, in a pre-ordained plan, to turn the curse into a blessing, and that they served to actualize A plan that was not in their interest? To the readers, the matter seems simple and clear. However, to the personalities within the story, perhaps the import of the events were not totally clear. They could have explained, for instance, that just as God "recanted" his first reply to Bilam and allowed him to go with Balak's messengers, so He changed His mind again and decided to bless Israel instead of cursing them. However, in the future, perhaps He will desire to curse them. What is a greater chillul Hashem than looking at the events from this perspective? Obviously, this perspective would only push Bilam and Balak farther from the lesson they were supposed to learn from these events.

Informing Bilam from the beginning about what was going to happen would have prevented any misunderstandings. However, this was not possible, since Bilam would have refused to participate in this program. The solution was this "game of simulation" with the donkey. When Bilam blesses Israel "three times" in opposition to his desire to serve Balak faithfully, and when Balak becomes angry and frustrated, Bilam remembers that this scenario is indeed familiar to him from the events with his donkey on the way here. Then it becomes clear that everything was pre-destined and was planned so that he would bless Israel three times. When God granted him permission to go on his way, it had always been with this final plan in mind.

Thus, the story of the donkey is not an interpolation within the greater story of Balak and Bilam, and its goal is not "to reduce the stature of the prophet Bilam and present him as an empty vessel: not only is he not a prophet but his ability to prophesy is even less than his animal's ability" (as Zakovitch says). As occurs in other places in the Bible, the chapter on the donkey represents a hidden message about the future. A hidden message such as this is given through a reality that is nothing but a costume for a parable that hides within it. However, the meaning of the parable can be understood only when the future events which it foreshadows actually occur.

A hidden message is used when there is a need to prophesy the future, but in such a way that when the message is relayed it is not understood by those who give it. Knowing the future may paralyze the person and prevent him from acting; but in hindsight, the message will be understood. The incident with the donkey teaches Bilam and us that all the events of the parasha were planned out by God from the beginning.

(Translated by Nechama Barash)