One of the Bible’s best oddball stories comes straight out of Numbers 22. And before I write about why this story is important – so important – let’s just take a moment to enjoy it together. Because this is funny stuff.
Here we have Balaam, who is bent on going somewhere God does not want him to go. As a result, the angel of the Lord stands in the road to oppose Balaam. Balaam doesn’t see the angel, but the donkey he’s riding sure does:
When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field (23).
Balaam beats the donkey to get it back on the road. Not to be outdone, the angel of the Lord reappears again – on a narrow path with walls on both sides. Again, the donkey knows what’s up:
When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it (25).
Competing for world’s worst donkey owner, Balaam beats the donkey – again! – to get it back on the road. And the angel of the Lord, who is thoroughly finished with this foolishness, reappears again in a narrow place where “there is no room to turn, either to the right or to the left” (26). The donkey comes through with due reverence:
When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam…(27).
Balaam beats the donkey again. But this time, the Lord permits the donkey to speak, and this is the most affronted donkey I have ever heard: “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (28). When Balaam – completely nonplussed by his talking donkey – responds that he’s angry because the donkey has made a fool of him, the donkey presses his case further:
The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” (30)
“No,” Balaam admits – and suddenly the Lord opens his eyes and he sees the angel and bows low.
What’s striking about this story is that the talking donkey is the least absurd element of it all. What’s most absurd is Balaam’s inability to pay attention to, or put together, the context clues in the world around him that might point to what is really going on. Think about it: he knows his donkey. The donkey has been reliable for years up until this point, and has given him no reason to doubt its behavior. Yet when the donkey shies away three times from going forward on the path – almost as though, hmm, something that it either fears or reveres is standing in its way – Balaam’s response is not to think, “Wonder what’s causing this?” but is instead to beat the donkey senseless. And it’s only when Balaam puts two and two together – huh, that is weird, my donkey normally isn’t like this – that he sees a divine presence clearly.
Balaam is so intent on getting where he wants to go that he ignores the message inherent in his donkey’s actions and behavior. Rather than focusing on what these events might mean or portend, he instead considers them an obstacle to getting what he wants and doing what he thinks he is supposed to do.
And don’t we do the same thing? Don’t we, as believers, often ignore or attempt to surpass real-world signals that point to a greater spiritual truth – even as we plead for God to speak to us?
I’ll tell you a funny story about my own Balaam moment. A few years ago, my husband had an opportunity to take a job in Buffalo, NY. Uncertain about what we should do or what God wanted us to do, we went for a visit. And the visit was an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end. The housing situation discouraged us. My prospects for a potential career there were next to nil. My husband was uncertain about the job he would be taking on. We both felt a strange sense of dread about it.
On top of all that, when we went out to dinner the last night of our trip, our waiter asked us what we’d been doing that day. We explained we were debating about whether or not to move to Buffalo. He looked at us and said, in a completely flat voice, “You’re serious? Don’t. It’s terrible here. No one wants to move here.” Then he went to get us our appetizers.
In spite of all this, the return trip found me weeping in the car. “I just don’t know,” I sniffled, “what God wants us to do. Can’t He be more clear?” Somehow the housing problems and the job questions and the blunt waiter hadn’t been enough; I wasn’t paying attention to the donkey. God was demonstrating His presence and guidance through some unmistakable real-life context clues, but I wasn’t seeing them at all.
A lot of Christians assume that God’s direction and God’s desires can only be deduced and ascertained in burning-bush moments or by some personal, private, remarkable revelation. And by doing that, we can neglect the truth that sometimes God points us the right way through everyday means and inexplicable but mundane occurrences: a phone call, a bill, a strange behavior, counsel from a friend, a random circumstance.
If you really want to buy That Expensive Thing but random bills and costs keep popping up to prevent it, maybe you should pay attention to the donkey. If you have plans to go somewhere but the weirdest events keep occurring to cancel or complicate your trip, maybe you should pay attention to the donkey. If you just talked to your mother yesterday but a commercial about mothers made you cry and then you accidentally dialed her number on your cell phone, maybe you should pay attention to the donkey.
Seriously. Pay attention to the donkey in your life, whatever it is. You may not realize it, but that donkey may be evidence of the presence of God at work.