Origins of the Term Balaam's Ass

About the religious term Balaam's Ass, origins and meanings behind the history.


Balaam's Ass. "The animal who reproached her master, the Gentile prophet Balaam, when he beat her unjustly.

"After wandering 40 years in the wilderness, the Children of Israel were camped on the plains of Moab. They had already defeated 2 Palestinian kings; Balak, King of Moab, feared he would be the 3rd. He therefore ordered the seer Balaam to go and curse the Israelites that they might be overcome in battle.

"Balaam at 1st demurred, having been warned by the Lord in a dream that he must not carry out the King's command. But after an even more peremptory message brought by Balak's couriers, Balaam saddled his ass and set out with the King's men although he knew he would be able to speak only such words as God put into his mouth.

"On the way an angel, invisible to the little company, took his stand in the middle of the road. Only the ass saw the angel and so turned aside into a field, whereupon Balaam struck her a great blow with his stick. The ass returned to the road, but a bit farther on, the angel once more bestrode the path and the ass moved aside and was again beaten. A 3rd time the angel stood before them, so that they could not pass at all. The ass folded her legs and lay down, nor would she move though Balaam rained blows upon her.

"Suddenly the animal raised her head, opened her mouth, and spoke. 'What have I done to thee, that thou hast struck me 3 times?' 'Why,' said Balaam, 'thou has made sport of me. And if my stick had been a sword I would have slain thee.' But have I not served thee faithfully to this very day? Have I ever failed thee?' And Balaam had to answer, No.

"At that moment the prophet's eyes were opened, and he too saw the angel standing with drawn sword. Fearful and contrite, Balaam offered to abandon his mission, but he was told to proceed. When he finally climbed a hill above Moab and looked down upon the hosts of Israel, not curses but a blessing issued from his lips and a prophecy of victory for the sons of Jacob.

"The Book of Numbers, which contains the story of Balaam, is part of the Hexateuch (the 5 books of Moses plus Joshua). These books are a combination of 2 versions, one written about the 10th or 9th century B.C., the other somewhat later. They are differentiated by the fact that the earlier one uses the term Jahweh to name the Deity, and hence is referred to as the J version; the other, the E version, uses Elohim. While there is a difference on a number of details in the Balaam story, the versions agree on one point of particular interest: that it is possible for a man to be a true prophet and yet not be a Hebrew.

"Talking animals are quite common throughout folklore. In the Bible, however, the only other instance is the serpent in the Garden of Eden."

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