You may not be familiar with the story of Balaam’s donkey from the Old Testament Book of Numbers. Numbers isn’t one of those biblical books that gets a lot of attention aside from the familiar Aaronic Benediction (“The LORD bless you and keep you…”) in Numbers 6. In chapter 22 of Numbers, Balaam, a prophet who listens to what the LORD has to say (even though he isn’t an Israelite), is asked to curse the people of Israel. Balak, the king of Moab, offers Balaam a handsome reward if he curses the Israelites. Balaam says that he cannot do anything except what the LORD commands, and implies that it is unlikely that God would allow him to curse the Israelites (considering that God has recently rescued them from the Egyptians). But he sets off to go see the Israelites, anyway, just in case he gets the opportunity to curse them and make some big money. Unfortunately, his donkey keeps acting strangely (bumping Balaam against walls, stopping and refusing to continue) because the donkey sees an angel of the LORD standing in the way, barring the path. Balaam cannot see the angel. When Balaam gets angry and starts to beat the donkey, “the LORD opens the donkey’s mouth,” and the donkey tells Balaam what is going on. The animal is more perceptive than the prophet. Imagine that. I bet there’s a lesson in
Sometimes when we read stories like this in the Bible, the question comes up, “Did it really happen just like that? Did the donkey really talk?” That might be an interesting question, but it’s probably not the point of the story. The story is not told to impress us with the donkey’s ability to speak. The story is meant to encourage people to trust God and to discourage people from deliberately trying to go against what they know are God’s purposes. Even the donkey knew enough not to mess with the angel. But the question is still there: did the donkey really talk?
This question has several others behind it. Questions like: “Are miracles possible?” “Can God do things like make animals talk?” “Does God interact with the world in ways that cause events that would otherwise be impossible?” “Are the stories in the Bible historical, newspaper-like accounts or are they more like fairytales?” Much of the time, these questions don’t help us very much. When we focus on these questions, we try to figure out whether the Bible is intellectually satisfying instead to letting the Holy Spirit use the text to shape us into people who love and trust God.
We are often confused about the Bible. Some people say that we have to believe that everything happened exactly like the Bible says it
happened (or seems to say it happened). According to those who hold this point of view, if you don’t believe that God created the world in six 24 hour days, you are a heretic. There’s no room for seeing Genesis 1 as a poetic account that tells us who made the world rather than a scientific description of exactly what happened. This doesn’t seem very helpful to me. There’s no reason to insist that God made the world in six 24 hour days. Genesis 1 was not written to inform us about the scientific facts of creation, that birds were made before mammals or that the stars were formed before plants. Among other important things, Genesis 1 teaches us that God made the universe, that God made the universe an orderly place, and that humans have a special place in creation and a special responsibility to care for creation.
When some people realize that they can’t take the Bible literally all the time, they go to the other extreme and say that the Bible is just a nice book of stories, kind of like Grimm’s fairytales or Aesop’s Fables. They make the error of saying that the Bible is full of good stories that teach nice points, but none of it really happened. Unfortunately, that way of thinking about the Bible really doesn’t do the Bible justice any more than a narrow literal reading does. If the Bible is just a work of fiction, then Jesus’ resurrection is just a nice story. But if Jesus’ resurrection isn’t real, then the whole message of Christianity is an empty one. We know death is very real. If resurrection isn’t real, too, we might as well throw in the towel. As one Christian theologian whom I deeply respect said, “If Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, I’m looking for a new job.”
It seems to me that we must take the Bible seriously all the time but not take the Bible literally all the time. When Jesus talks about removing the log in your own eye before removing the splinter in someone else’s eye, we all realize that he’s not talking about actual pieces of wood sticking out of eyeballs. He’s talking about recognizing our own sin before pointing out someone else’s sin. If we start saying, “Wait a minute! People can’t really walk around with logs in their eyes,” we’ll just miss the point.
But what about that donkey? Did it really talk? I invite you to look at it this way: Could God make a donkey talk if He wanted to? I don’t see why not. If God can raise the dead, making a donkey say a few choice words doesn’t seem like a big deal. But a more important question is “Should this be something that we fight about?” I don’t think so. Some people have difficulty accepting a donkey talking. It sounds too much like a story that someone would tell to make a point powerfully and vividly. (The point being that sometimes people can be incredibly stubborn or completely lacking in any perception of God – the donkey got the picture before Balaam the prophet did, how embarrassing.) Do we need to require believing in the talking donkey as a proof of someone’s faith? Again, I don’t think so. Believing in the talking donkey doesn’t make one a Christian. Believing in the Risen Christ – better, following the Risen Christ — makes one a Christian. Questions about how we view the Bible are not easy ones to answer. Sometimes it’s easier to say what we don’t think (we’re not strict literalists; we’re not people who think the Bible is a book just like any other book) rather than what we do think. The Bible is a difficult, wonderful, inspiring (and inspired), (sometimes) frustrating, holy book. It
is a book — the book — that forms our faith. It is the book that tells us about Christ our Savior and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, helps us live into the story of salvation that God has called us to be a part of. Of course, there is much more to say about how we interpret the Bible, and we do need to think carefully about how we approach the biblical text. However, I think it is fair to say that some questions are more important than others. We might be tempted to get caught up in the question, “Did the donkey really talk?” But that is much less important than listening to and doing what Jesus and the prophets said.