Coincidentally, the Torah reading for the week just ended addressed a similar matter as the Sunday readings. How do we know a real prophet from a false one? The Ezekiel passage we heard at mass confidently proclaimed God’s voice instructing him to address the rebellious people. In the Gospel, familiarity breeds contempt as Jesus’ teaching is rejected in his hometown. The Torah passage from Numbers contains a lively account of a Moab king, Balak, who engages Balaam, a seer, to curse his enemy Israel as they cross through his territory on their way to the Promised Land. Three times Balak requests a curse, but Balaam blesses instead. Yet Balaam’s role is rather ambiguous. He could be considered a prophet, because he seems to speak God’s word, but there’s a hint of self-importance about Balaam that’s a bit off, compared to Jeremiah or Ezekiel.
Even more perplexing in this story is the confusion about God’s message. When Balak’s messengers first arrive, God says to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” Then a few verses later, that night, God says, “If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them.” Then God is mad when he goes! God’s messengers intervene via the donkey that Balaam is riding on. Three times, the donkey can see the angel of the Lord blocking the path, though Balaam cannot, and veers off the road. Each time Balaam beats him. Eventually the donkey is given voice and tells Balaam what’s going on and then he can see the messenger, who says that if the donkey hadn’t moved, he would have killed Balaam!
A donkey plays a similar pivotal role in an incident during St. Ignatius of Loyola’s life as well. While on the road in Spain after his conversion, he rides along for a while with a Muslim, and they begin to discuss religion. They eventually argue and departing in anger, the Muslim makes a disparaging remark about the Virgin Mary. Ignatius is further incensed and wonders if he should follow and kill the Muslim for that insult, based on courtly honor. But he’s not sure. As they approach a crossroads, he determines that if the donkey takes the path the Muslim took, he’ll kill him. If not, he’ll let it go. The donkey chose the other road.
Writing on the Bat Kol Institute website, Ron Baker metaphorically interprets the donkey’s role in the Torah reading in way that’s fitting for Ignatius as well. Baker says, “The Torah story indicates a theology that comes not from above, the ethereal intellectual heights where rationalizations occur, but from below, the place where base gut reactions operate. If I am to do the will of God rather than my own I must be directly connected to the living Place on which I stand; I must trust the living foundation upon which I sit; not just to accomplish a mission but to live; even if the mission fails I will have lived my life connected.”
At the conclusion of the story, for Balaam’s third attempt the text says, “Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned his face toward the wilderness.” Then the spirit of God came upon him.
Photo by Donkey Sanctuary Press Images, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license