This post picks up on a theme that was touched on in some earlier discussion on the topic of Bible inerrancy. In that earlier discussion, Adam took the position that a presumption of Bible inerrancy was useful, and I am finally writing a response: Balaam’s ass!
I teach early morning Seminary, and today we covered the story of Balaam and Balak. As you may remember, Balak is the King of Moab, who wants Balaam — a mysterious prophet — to pronounce a curse on the Children of Israel. After counseling with God, Balaam refuses, and he sends Balak’s messengers away. When Balak sends messengers a second time, Balaam assents to accompany the messangers to see the masses of Israelites, making no commitment on the issue of the curse.
On the way to see the Israelites, Balaam and his ass encounter an angel that only the ass can see. I assume that Balaam has been blinded to spiritual things by his own greed (a hoped-for reward from Balack). Three times, the ass refuses to proceed as directed by Balaam, and each time Balaam applies a punishment. Finally, after being abused a third time, the ass speaks: “What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?”
Of course, Balaam answers the ass (what would you do?!): “Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.” To which the ass responds: “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?” Balaam replied: “Nay.” (Is this some sort of animal joke? I guess horses “nay,” while asses “bray,” but could this story get any stranger?)
So, what are we to make of this. In his prior post, Adam writes:
In my own experience, this presumptive inerrancy can be very fruitful. For instance, sections of the Old Testament may well be legendary or otherwise misconstrued (e.g., the Flood, Job). Other parts are parts that we would like to exclude (e.g., the massacres that God commanded on the enemies of the Israelites). But my understanding of the Gospel has been enriched by treating them all as true, so I will continue to act and think as if they were.
OK, I’ll play along. If I really thought this story was based in fact, I might adopt the view described as the “conservative view” by the Catholic Encyclopedia:
The usual traditional, or conservative, view of the episode of Balaam is that it is an historical narrative in the ordinary sense. The supernatural plays an important part in it, but it is contended that the credibility of the narrative requires only a belief in the miraculous, and that the acceptance of many of the most important parts of the Bible requires such a belief. The episode of the speaking ass is strange; but no stranger than the story of the speaking serpent in Paradise.
You got me! I don’t believe the serpent spoke, either! What kind of argument is that? (A bad one.) Where do we go with this “conservative” view? Certainly, my interactions with God cannot be universalized, but my own experiences tell me that God does not deal in this way with His children.
The Catholic Encyclopedia also offers an alternative, “critical” view:
Modern critics take a different view of the episode…. For them the narrative of Numbers, chapters xxii, xxiii, and xxiv, is part of the prophetical history. That is, in these chapters there is no trace of the priestly writer P…. Though critics are unanimous that chapters xxii, xxiii, and xxiv are the work of the two writers called the Jahvist and the Elohist, they do not find it easy to apportion that part of Numbers between the two authors. Indeed, the only point on which they are agreed is that chapter xxii belongs to the Elohist, with the exception of verses 22-35, which they assign to the Jahvist. This section contains the episode of the ass, and critics say that it destroys the sequence of the narrative. Thus in verse 20 Balaam gets leave from God to go with the princes of Moab; but in verse 22 God is angry with him, apparently because of his going. Though this apparent inconsistency has been variously explained by conservative commentators, critics argue from it and other similar instances, that the episode of the ass has been skilfully fitted into the rest of the chapter, but is really the work of another writer; and that the original narrative which is broken off at verse 20 continues at verse 36.
If I am reading this correctly, the Catholic Encyclopedia offers two views on the story of Balaam’s ass: (1) it is historical fact, accurately recorded; and (2) it is a mistake, a story improperly inserted by an unknown author. This is not a Hobson’s choice, it’s Sophie’s Choice!
Joseph Smith obviously read this story closely. He was troubled enough by the apparent internal conflict noted above — where Balaam is told in verse 20 to go with the princes of Moab, but in verse 22 God is angry with him — that he inserted words in the Joseph Smith Translation implying that Balaam was given the choice to go. Under this view, Balaam is a bit like Joseph Smith himself, asking the Lord repeatedly to approve of a course of action once denied (the lost 116 pages). Balaam’s subsequent encounter with the angel suggests that he made the choice for impure reasons.
It is clear enough to me that the story of Balaam’s ass is not historical fact. Nevertheless, I like the story for the lessons it teaches. So would I be too heretical to consider this story, and others like it (e.g., the Flood, the Garden of Eden) to be like the parables that Jesus taught, except that they (for the most part) involved historical figures?