Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Tale of the Jenny

Daily Readings
Proverbs 3 + Numbers 22:2-40 + Deuteronomy15 + Galatians 3

Quote of the Day
Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. But the scripture has imprisioned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Galatians 3:21,22

Daily Text: Numbers 22:22-35
22 God's anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23The donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. 24Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam's foot against the wall; so he struck it again. 26Then the angel of the LORD went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. 28Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" 29Balaam said to the donkey, "Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!" 30But the donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?" And he said, "No." 31Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. 32The angel of the LORD said to him, "Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. 33The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live." 34Then Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, "I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home." 35The angel of the LORD said to Balaam, "Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak." So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.

The Tale of the Jenny
The confusion in this story of Balaam is rife. There must be a rational explanation. Balaam responds to Balak’s request to curse the Israelite people by praying to the Israelite god, YHWH.! Throughout, this Mesopotamian seer prays to the God of Israel. Why? Knowing that YHWH has blessed Israel and asked by Balak to curse, why does Balaam pray to YHWH? My own sense is that he was a God-fearer and always prayed to YHWH. But that is not the view of the rest of scripture, or most contemporary commentators.

Concensus, what there is of it, is that there were two differing stories of Balaam and they have been combined in Numbers 22-24. The first is that Balak cursed or wanted to curse the Israelites in response to Balak’s request and the second that he wanted follow God’s instructions. In our story, Balaam at first follows God’s command and refuses to go with the kings emissaries. In the tale of the Jenny it appears that he has been given permission by God to go to Balak and then his donkey refuses and ultimately an angel from God, an angry God, now, is observed blocking their way. This is a humorous, mocking story, rollicking even and perhaps one of the favorites in scripture for many. Talking animals are rare in Holy Writ. Only the serpent in Genesis speaks, except for Balaam’s ass. And Balaam is angry enough to kill the beast because he has been made a fool of. Is it possible that the permission for Balaam to go with the emissaries was a scribal error? We will never know. What we do know is that from Balaam’s own words in Numbers 23:19, God does not lie or change God’s mind!

Both Jewish and Christian theologians have together ‘cursed’ Balaam as a traitor to the God of whom he inquired. It is entirely possible that there was a concurrent oral tradition that saw Balaam in another light and so informed the text. In Numbers 31:8 Balaam is listed as being killed in the assault on Moab and in 31:16 his treachery is listed. In the overall picture of things Balaam’s ass served for Balaam the same role that Balaam served for Balak in the overriding matter of Israel versus Moab. What is meant? The issue here is God’s blessing of Israel and the curse on Moab. Balaam is called to reverse that and he fails to do so. In fact, he makes a fool of Barak for trying and Moab is defeated anyway. The jenny refuses Balaam’s wishes and speaks to him of his unfairness, makes a fool of him and reveals his foolishness in the presence of the adversarial angel sent from God. All of this is done to highlight what is happening as God brings his own people in to possess the land. The Balaam story and the Tale of the Jenny are two illustrative components of this larger tale.

On Balaam’s Ass
Francis Quarles

The ass, that for her slowness, was forbid
To be employed in God’s service, did
Perform good service now, in being slow:
The ass received stripes, but would not go:
She balked the way, and Balaam could not guide her:
The ass had far more wisdom than the rider:
The message being bad, the ass was loth
To be the bearer: ‘Twas a happy sloth;
‘Twas well for Balaam: had his ass but tried
Another step, Balaam had surely died:
Poor ass! And was thy faithful service paid
With oft-repeated strokes? Hadst thou obeyed,
Thy Lord had bought thy travel, with his blood:
Such is man’s payment, often bad for good:
The ass begins to question with his master,
Argues the case, pleads why he went no faster:
Nay, shows him mysteries, far beyond his reach;
Sure, God wants prophets, when dull asses preach:
The ass perceives the angel, and falls down;
When Balaam sees him not; or sees, unknown:
Nor is ‘t a wonder: for God’s spirit did pass
From blindfold Balaam, into Balaam’s ass.


Blogger Norm said...

In 1967, Dutch archaeologists discovered fragments of a sheet of plaster at Deir Alla, Jordon, (called Succoth in the Bible) on the east bank of the Jordan, north-west of Amman. The writing on it dates from around 700BC and mentions Balaam by name, calling him “seer of the gods”. It also lists various curses. In spite of its poor condition, the inscription shows that Balaam’s reputation as a prophet was known beyond the Bible. The text consists of 119 fragments of plaster inscribed with black and red ink. It was among the rubble of a building destroyed in an earthquake. It seems to have been one long column with at least 50 lines, displayed on a plastered wall. According to the excavators' dating, the disaster was most likely the severe earthquake which occurred in the time of King Uzziah and the prophet Amos in about 760 BC (Amos1:1; Zec14:5). The lower part of the text shows signs of wear, indicating that it had been on the wall for some time prior to the earthquake. Written in Aramaic, the text begins with the title "Warnings from the Book of Balaam the son of Beor. It is in red ink, as are other portions of the text where emphasis is desired. The reference to the "Book of Balaam” indicates that the text was part of a pre-existing document and therefore the original date of the material is much earlier than the plaster text itself. Balaam goes on to relate a vision concerning impending judgment from the gods, and enters into a dispute with his listeners. Balaam evidently was well known as a "cursing prophet," for Balak specifically summoned Balaam for the purpose of cursing Israel (Num22:6). Much of the Deir Alla text was given to curses uttered by the prophet. [Bryant G. Wood]

8:54 AM  

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