Bilam and the Donkey

Moshe Ben-Chaim

The story of Bilam and his donkey contains unbelievable events and is described in great detail. As the account in Numbers 22:21 goes, Balak was the king of Moav at that time and was faced with the fear of millions of Jews damaging his land by gaining safe passage. To avert this problem, Balak called upon Bilam, a Prophet, and requested that Bilam curse the Jews so that Balak would have ease in attacking them and in driving them out. When Balak sent the first group of messengers to Bilam, Bilam’s reply was that he must consult with God. God’s answer was that Bilam should not curse the Jews for they are blessed. Bilam informed the messengers that he was restrained from going by God’s word. Balak persisted and sent more messengers; now higher in rank. Bilam responded by saying that even if his house was filled with silver and gold he couldn’t go. Nonetheless Bilam requested an answer from God. This time God gave him permission, however, he still must refrain from cursing the Jews.

What happens next is quite remarkable. Bilam arose early and God was angry that he went. (This was after God gave him permission) God placed an angel in the path to deter him as he was riding on his donkey. It states that the donkey saw the angel standing in the path with an outstretched sword in his hand, and that the donkey turned aside and went into the field. Bilam hit the donkey to return it to the path. The angel stood a second time in the vineyard. There was a fence on both sides of the donkey and Bilam. The donkey saw the angel and pressed up against the wall in avoidance, crushing Bilam’s leg. Bilam continued to smite the donkey. The angel passed to a place that was narrow with no room to pass left or right. The donkey saw the angel and crouched down under Bilam and Bilam’s anger burned, smiting the donkey – this time, with a stick. God opened the mouth of the donkey and it said to Bilam, “What have I done that you have smitten me these three times?” Bilam responded, “Because you have mocked me. If there were a sword in my hand I would kill you.” The donkey said, “Am I not the donkey that you have ridden upon from long before until today? Is it my nature to act this way?” Bilam replied, “No.” 

God then opened Bilam’s eyes and he saw the angel of God standing in the path with a sword outstretched in his hand. Bilam then prostrated himself before the angel. The angel said to Bilam, “For what have you smitten your donkey these three times? Behold I have come out to turn you away because your way is contrary to me. Your donkey has seen me and turned aside these three times. Would it be that you would turn aside. Because now I would kill you and cause her (the donkey) to live.” Bilam says, “I have sinned. I didn’t know that you stood in the path to turn me aside. And now if this is bad in your eyes, I will return.” The angel informs Bilam that he may continue, but only that which he tells him may he say. Rashi states that the significance of “three” times represents two things: the three forefathers, and the three Jewish festivals. Ibn Ezra states that once the donkey spoke it died, and that with each successive hitting, Bilam used a stronger object.

Following are questions on this section, including the meaning behind both Rashi’s and Ibn Ezra’s statements: 

1) Why didn’t Bilam see the angel of God at first? 

2) What’s the significance of the sword? 

3) Why, according to Ibn Ezra, did Bilam hit the donkey with a stronger object each time?

4) Why did the donkey die after it spoke? 

5) What was the argument of the donkey? 

6) Why wasn’t Bilam astounded at the ability of an animal to talk?! 

7) What does the fence allude to, and why did the path become more and more impossible to traverse with each appearance of the angel? 

8) Of what significance is it that Bilam’s leg was crushed?

Maimonides states (Guide for the Perplexed, Book II, chap. XLII) that every case in Scripture where we find an angel appearing or talking, the entire account is describing a vision, and not an actual physical event. The event didn’t take place in physical reality, but in a person’s mind. This being the case, this entire story must be interpreted in this light, according to Maimonides. This is a parable for a conflict with which Bilam was struggling. 

If we refer to the events leading up to Bilam riding on the donkey, we see that Bilam comes off appearing as a true follower of God. But with a closer look, his true nature is seen. He was asked to curse the Jews. God told him he could not. The fact that Bilam (during the account of the second messengers) requests from God again to know whether he can curse the Jews shows that he wanted to curse them. That’s why he said, “God has restrained me from cursing.” Meaning that he really desired to curse, but God prevented him. 

This desire to curse the Jews awoke in Bilam a strong conflict. On the one hand, he desired the destruction of the Jewish people. On the other hand, he knew that God blessed them. Bilam was well aware that God’s establishment of His Providence over the Jews was due to our forefather’s perfection. Abraham’s self-realization of the absurdity of idolatry, his conclusion of the reality of monotheism and the Oneness of God secured this treaty of God’s Providence. With this knowledge, Bilam was greatly troubled as to which path to follow, namely 1) his desire for the destruction of the Jews, or 2) the word of God. This entire account is a parable of his conflict.

Interpreting the elements of this story as representing psychological phenomena, the story’s real meaning can be explained.

Bilam, in great conflict, decides to travel to Balak with the goal of cursing of the Jews. In order to do so, he must suppress his knowledge of God’s command to refrain from cursing them. Riding on his donkey represents the suppression of what his conscience (the donkey) “sees.”  “Riding” conveys a sense of dominion over another object. Bilam himself (in this vision) represents his evil instincts and thus, isn’t aware of reality (the angel of God). One’s instincts aren’t designed with the ability to judge what is morally good or evil. Instincts are not perceivers: they simply emote. This explains why Bilam couldn’t “see” the angel. Bilam, in this story, represents his instincts – a faculty of man unable to ‘perceive.’ Instincts have only one function: they guide a person towards instinctual satisfaction. 

The donkey represents Bilam’s conscience: the part of man that detects good and evil. 

The angel represents reality, or his intellect: the ability to perceive what is real and true. Bilam’s inability to curse the Jews was so threatening, it was represented by an angel of God wielding a sword, a very terrifying sight. The conscience, represented by the donkey, is designed to perceive and make value judgments. This is its main function. 

Now that we understand the main components of the parable, (Bilam, his donkey, and the angel represent respectively the instinctual drive, the conscience, and reality), we must interpret this account accordingly.

Bilam riding on his donkey can be interpreted as his evil instincts are riding (suppressing) his conscience. His conscience alone is aware of the reality – “the donkey sees the angel,” but Bilam doesn’t. Whenever the conscience goes “off of the path,” it starts to become more conscious, making Bilam sense his error. Therefore, Bilam suppresses his conscience – “hitting the donkey.” His conscience slows him down – “crushes his leg” – as he tries to go on his “path.” Bilam’s weapon for suppressing his conscience becomes stronger – “he hits the donkey with a stick.” Then the conscience finally prevails – “the donkey talks.” 

The argument of the donkey is that “it’s not me who’s at fault” – meaning that Bilam gains insight (from his “talking conscience”) into his actions and realizes that there’s something behind his suppression of his conscience. At this point, Bilam becomes aware of his denial only through God’s kindness. That’s why God had to open his eyes. The donkey dying after it spoke means that once his conscience made him aware of this information, the conscience ceases to function – termed here as death. It did its job. It “dies.” 

Rashi’s statement that the three things shown to Bilam’s donkey alludes to the three forefathers and the three festivals fits in beautifully: the donkey – Bilam’s conscience – was contemplating the primary reason for God’s direct Providence over the Jews, namely the perfection of our forefathers – which entitled the Jewish nation to God’s Providence. Bilam’s conflict was directly caused by these three individuals (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Had it not been for them, he might have been able to curse the Jews. That’s why the donkey turned aside (Bilam's conscience experienced greater conflict) when it thought about the forefathers. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob brought about the relationship with God, and now, Bilam desired to curse them! But all curses are from God. We also see why Bilam acted calmly towards a talking animal, as Maimonides states, this was all a vision. 

In summary, the entire account of Bilam and his donkey – according to Maimonides – was a vision or conflict, happening only in his mind. In order for the Torah to inform us of this, the Torah writes it as a metaphor so that many ideas and psychological principles can be capsulated into one account. A parable also conceals ideas from those who would shrug at them, if they were written openly. The fact that Bilam did travel to Balak in physical reality is not discounted by this explanation.