And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff. And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay. Numbers 22:27-30
Balak, the Moabite king, was afraid of the Israelites and sent messengers to Balaam whom he wished to hire to curse the Israelites. Balaam was an arrogant seer who wanted to profit from his powers, knowing full well that God did not want him to go curse the Israelites. While the arrogant Balaam called himself (Numbers 24:16): “one who hears the sayings of God and knows the knowledge of the Most High,” God showed Balaam that his own donkey saw things that Balaam did not. The ass saw an angel standing in the way with his sword drawn, but Balaam saw nothing. You might say that God made an ass out of Balaam. Also humorous, is the fact that Balaam said to his donkey (Numbers ): “Because you have mocked me; if only there were a sword in my hand, I would now have slain you.” Balaam was ready to eradicate an entire nation with his ability to curse but he suddenly needed a sword to kill his own helpless donkey (Midrash Numbers Rabbah ).
Balaam’s donkey, suddenly endowed with the power of speech, did not talk like a lowly donkey and simply tell his master to stop beating him. Instead, God made the donkey speak like an intelligent and eloquent individual. His first comment to Balaam was a rhetorical question (Numbers ): “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said, “Because you have mocked me; if only there were a sword in my hand, I would now have slain you.” The ass replied, “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your life until this day? Have I ever been wont to do such a thing to you?” Balaam’s response reveals him as irrational and hot tempered. The donkey’s words, on the other hand, indicate a superior and rational intellect.
(This paper appeared in Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, Vol. 13:3, Sept. 2000, 258-285. ©2000, by Hershey H.Friedman, Ph.D. & Bernard H. Stern)