Process Theology and the story of Bilam and his Donkey
June 26, 2010
Parshah Balak is about a talking donkey and its owner, the non-Israelite prophet Bilam, who utters the words “How Fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel” which made it into the Jewish liturgy, and which we read at the very start of our Shabbat morning service. Bilam consults the Israelite God, YHVH, who places befuddled words into his mouth, so that Bilam blesses the Israelites instead of cursing them, as he had intended. I will try to explain what’s going on.
First, let’s examine the context for these puzzling events.
In order to appreciate what the humorous interlude of Bilam and his donkey is doing toward the end of the Book of Numbers, it is necessary to quickly review the history of the wanderings in the desert of the Israelites.
Numbers can be understood as the conclusion to the narrative of liberation and journey to the promised land begun in Exodus. Before the events of Parshah Balak, the Israelites had been wandering and kvetching[i] through the desert for forty years, experiencing dissension and defeat.
The Israelites also exhibited lack of faith in YHVH. Scouts sent out in Numbers13 to the promised land confirmed that though the land flowed with milk and honey, it was inhabited by giants who made them feel like “grasshoppers”. The congregation, hearing the report, refused to advance into the promised land, despite assurances from YHVH that He would be with them. Because of this show of lack of faith, YHVH decided that the current generation of adults that had not been able to rid itself of its slave mentality would have to die out before the Israelites would be ready to enter the promised land.
It is only at the point in the narrative immediately preceding Parshah Balak, thirty eight years later, when the Israelites have defeated the Amorites and Bashanites, and are now camped in the steppes of Moab that their fortune begins to turn upward.
Now, on to the basic narrative of the parsha.
Balak, king of the Moabites, contemplating what had befallen the Amorites and Bahanites is probably needlessly fearful that the Israelites are a threat to him. Balak feels threatened by the numerically superior Israelites, depicted as “a horde that will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks the grass of the field” [Numbers 22:3] and as a people who, like a plague of locusts, “hides the earth from view” [Numbers 22:5]. (As an aside: Do we see a parallel with today’s fear of immigrants in Arizona?).
Because the Israelites have just polished off the Amorites, who previously had defeated these very same Moabites [Numbers 21], Balak believes that he needs something more than a strong army to fend them off. He tries to vanquish the perceived “threat” with something more powerful than force of arms: a sorcerer’s curse! He hires Bilam of Peor in Aram, son of Beor, a non-Israelite prophet of high repute, known far and wide throughout the nearby nations as a seer and expert curser, to “put a hex” (as Robert Alter translates the term) on the Israelites.[ii]
At first, Bilam refuses the assignment. But Balak continues to entice him by dispatching emissaries, of greater and greater importance, and offering greater and greater rewards.
Finally we come to the section of the parsha upon which I would like to focus.
[P. 896] [Numbers 22:15] Then Balak sent other princes, more numerous and more distinguished than the first. 16 They came to Balaam and said: “This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Do not let anything keep you from coming to me, 17 because I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and put a curse on these people for me.” 18 But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the LORD my God. 19 Now stay here tonight as the others did, and I will find out what else the LORD will tell me.” 20 That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” 21 Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. 22 But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him.
[INTERJECT: It might be interesting to ponder, why was YHVH “incensed” when YHVH had just given Bilam permission? We will get back to this later.]
[P. 897] [Numbers 22:23] When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat her to get her back on the road. 24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between two vineyards, with walls on both sides. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat her again. 26 Then the angel of the LORD moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her with his staff. 28 Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
[INTERJECT: Debating with his donkey as if that was the most natural thing in the world, Bilam doesn’t miss a beat and explains to the donkey that she has been beaten because the animal has “made a mockery of him”.]
[P. 897] [Numbers 22:29] Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” 30 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?” “No,” he said. 31 Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. 32 The angel of the LORD asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.” 34 Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.” 35 The angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
A couple of interesting questions to ponder and explore arise from this excerpt:
1. What is the Israelite God doing talking to a non-Israelite prophet, anyway? Everett Fox points out that the Tanakh uses Bilam, as it may have used Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, or later uses Job, to acknowledge “the power of YHVH and Israel’s glory by a wise or inspired pagan.” Fox goes on to observe that just as Pharaoh is forced to acknowledge YHVH’s power at the beginning of the Exodus sequence, the non-Israelite nations neighboring Israel, through Bilam, are portrayed as coming to the same realization at the end of the Exodus sequence.
2. Why is a seeming folktale about a talking animal embedded within the Bilam story (the only animal, incidentally, to talk in the “historical” narratives in Tanakh, aside from the “mythological” serpent in the Garden of Eden)?
Three times the donkey, in the first part of the parshah [Numbers 22:23-22:31] , sees what the professional “seer” cannot perceive: an angel, or messenger, blocking the way. The donkey balks and is beaten by Bilam, matching the three times that blessings replace curses in Bilam’s mouth, later in the parshah. It is only upon the third encounter that YHVH opens Bilam’s eyes. Ultimately, the Bilam story is about the donkey seeing what the professional seer can’t see, and the professional seer seeing a reality at odds from what the Moabite king Balak, the contractor of Bilam, wants him to see.
As Robert Alter explains [Five Books of Moses p799 Note 24], “The story assumes the folktale structure of three repetitions (like ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’) with climactic reversal or revelation in the third occurrence. What is noteworthy here is the progressive constriction: from road to footpath to a way so narrow that there is no room to move to the other side. First Bilam is caused to make an involuntary detour, then caused physical discomfort, and finally totally stymied in his forward movement as the donkey crouches down under him. The spatial arrangement of the story, according to Alter, becomes a dramatization of how man and beast are inexorably caught in God’s design for them from which there is no escape.”
I find Alter’s analysis interesting. But, does it deny free-will? Does it preclude, the kind of “Process-Theologic” interpretation that some of us grappled-with in Rabbi Toba’s Thursday morning class? To try to answer this last question, let me first try to provide a “standing on one-foot” description of what is meant by the term “God” under “Process Theology”, as first propounded by the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, and later refined by other theologians, including Mordachai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionism.
First, God is understood to be a Power or Process in the universe that exercises “persuasive” rather than “coercive” power on all things (atoms, electrons, molecules, genes, animals, humans, etc.), encouraging all, but not forcing all, to act in the best interests of themselves and of the universe. This implies that everything in the universe, including God, is constantly transforming itself and evolving, the universe is non-deterministic, and all things possess free-will. God, in the view of Process Theology, far from controlling the world, is the source of freedom in the world.
Persuasive power can be thought of as Godly forces that encourage us to make choices and take actions that bring us into fullness as human beings. We can further think of this as the power that encourages an individual (Bilam, in this case) to be “in alignment” with the universe so that one can be the best that one can be. The reality of free will means that we can—and often do—act in ways that ultimately are not in our own, or in the collective, best interest. In those cases, there are often unforeseen deleterious consequences, either direct or indirect.
It makes more sense to me to conclude that Bilam, possessing free-will, as everything in our non-deterministic universe, started out, in good faith to obey YHVH. In other words, he started out seeking to become aligned and in harmony with the universe. But once he started out, dishonored his better self, and was seduced by visions of wealth, which led to misalignment.
Recall when I asked “Why was YHVH incensed when He had just given Bilam permission to go with Balak’s emissary, as long as Bilam ONLY said what YHVH wanted him to say?” I think the answer is that YHVH senses that Bilam has decided that he can disobey and outsmart YHVH, and that Bilam plans to secretly pursue riches.
In the language of Process Theology, Bilam understands full-well how he should act, and what he should say, to fulfill himself as a human being, and to stay in alignment with the universe. He knows that YHVH will only allow him to bless the Israelites, and that is what the universe demands of him. But instead, Bilam exercises his free-will to erroneously conclude that he can prosper, even if he doesn’t act as the universe demands.
The reversals revealed in this story – curses turned into blessings, donkey turned seer/prophet, and prophet turned fool – can perhaps be understood, I believe, as a satiric depiction that our personal world becomes out of kilter when we don’t act in accordance with what the universe requires of us and we fall out of harmony with it.
Similarly, I believe that the blessings put into Bilam’s mouth by YHVH in place of the curses Bilam intended to offer, represent the push in the universe for Bilam to fulfill himself as a human being, and to stay in alignment with his best self. The story of YHVH turning intended curses into blessings in the mouth of Bilam serves as a satiric comment on how Bilam SHOULD HAVE acted.
1. In this analysis based on Process Theology, I presented the donkey episode as a kind of metaphor of what happens when we go against what the universe wants of us. Do you think this interpretation works?
2. Given that Bilam possesses free will, do you think that he really meant to bless the Israelites, despite the wishes of his employer, the Moabite king Balak? Or, do you agree with me that one possible interpretation of this story is that, at least in part, it can be seen as a satire showing how the world becomes discombobulated (curses turned to blessings) when we don’t do the right thing?
[i] In Numbers 11:4-6 the Israelites complain, ”Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and melons, and the leeks and the onions and the garlic.”
The Israelites also stage a few rebellions, most notably that staged by Korach against the authority of Moses, but also gossiping against Moses by his sister, Miriam.
[ii] As an interesting aside, in 1967, a plaster inscription was found in a place called Deir ‘Alla in Aram, now Syria – a few days journey from Moab – which tells of a “seer” with the same name, “Bilam son of Beor in Peor”. He holds the honor of being the earliest person mentioned in the Bible who is also mentioned in an archeological source.) Apparently, this prophet, seer, or magician was well-known in the ancient world.