A talking donkey and the word of God?

The 8th Article of Faith, starts out “We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly…”. Joseph Smith also claimed “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 6, p. 57.)

At face value, it seems clear what Joseph Smith means, but it makes some assumptions about originality. Biblical scholarship has revealed much about the origins of the bible. The authors of many books appear to have relied on earlier sources. Even the first books in the bible appear to include edited versions of multiple sources. This gives books something like layers of authorship. So who are the original writers? And what are we to do with scripture that makes use of altered scriptures? Is there another way to look at the word of God other than original authorship?

The part of the story of Balaam, where his donkey talks to him may be an example of a deliberate addition to the book of Numbers to change the meaning of the story from what earlier authors intended. The altered version of the story is later referred to by other biblical authors. As we have it now (Numbers 22-24), the story occurs as summarised below:

The Story of Balaam

King Balak (of Moab) sends messengers to ask Balaam, a famous gentile prophet, to come to Moab and curse the Israelites, who were in or near his kingdom. Balaam asks God and God says no, which Balaam relays to the messengers. King Balak then sends more prestigious messengers, and this time when Balaam asks God he is told to go with them but to only do as God tells him. Balaam obediently gets ready with his donkey and heads out for Moab.

God is angry at Balaam for going and has an angel block his way. The donkey can see the angel but for some reason, the prophet Balaam cannot. Balaam is furious when the donkey does not walk past the angel. When the donkey tries to avoid the angel, Balaam’s foot is hurt and he loses his temper and beats the donkey. Eventually, the donkey opens it’s mouth and talks to Balaam, asking why he is abusing him. The angel appears to Balaam, and he is sorry for his treatment of the donkey. The angel repeats God’s message from earlier. Balaam goes on to Moab.

Balaam meets up with Balak who asks him to curse Israel. Balaam promises only to say what God tells him to. God tells him to bless Israel, which Balaam does. Balak tries again, but God keeps telling Balaam to bless Israel, which he does. After a few times of this repeating, King Balak tells Balaam to leave, to which Balaam responds by prophesying about Balak and others. Balak and Balaam then split and go to their respective homes.

One of these is not like the others.

Why exactly is God angry at Balaam again? Angry enough to send an angel with a sword and make a donkey talk. It doesn’t say, and notice how Balaam is awesome in the first and last paragraphs and not in the middle. Something’s fishy here.

I read about some reasons to think the middle section is a later addition at Torah.com, which I have summarised below.

  • It is unclear why God is angry.
  • The writing style is different.
  • The story reads just fine without this section (try reading the first and last sections, skipping the middle).
  • The angel’s message is simply a repeat of God’s message, possibly so the end of the insertion flows on smoothly.
  • The middle section drastically changes the meaning of the story. It pokes fun at a gentile prophet who can’t ‘see’ as much as a donkey, can’t control his donkey, has a bad temper, and resorts to brutish violence like an animal.

The Original Balaam

Without the inserted section, Balaam, a gentile, was a true prophet who insists from the outset that he will only say what God directs him to. He does this even when offered wealth and told to do otherwise by prestigious and powerful men, including a king. I want to be like this Balaam.

The insertion discredits a faithful gentile prophet by suggesting that Balaam does not really know God that well, that he is not much of a prophet, that an animal is a better seer than a gentile. We often think of prophets as figures mocked in the scriptures, but not usually like this. Not usually mocked by the authors/editors of the scriptures themselves.

Error Propagation

This brings us back to the eighth article of faith and Joseph Smith’s statement. Is this insertion the word of God? I lean toward saying no, the insertion is not the word of God. With the insertion removed, the story seems more inspiring to me. It might sound like I want to bowdlerise the bible, but simply removing the passage would not fix everything. During the thousands of years the insertion was included, Balaam has been maligned in Jewish and Christian thought.

In rabbinic literature, Balaam was often described as wicked. Reasons for God’s anger were first speculated at and then become widely known. Balaam was seen as responsible for Israel’s unrighteous actions in Peor, and the resulting plague which God sent as punishment. People said that when Balaam realised he could not curse Israel, he taught King Balak to tempt them. None of this is described in Numbers, or anywhere else in the Old Testament. It likely emerged as people explored and tried to explain the contradictions they found in the version of the story with the insertion.

In Christian scripture, these maligning ideas are perpetuated through 2 Peter 2:15-16 , Jude 1:11, and Revelation 2:14.

Leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have also spread these ideas. They have made it into latter-day saint seminary manuals, Sunday school manuals, and official magazines. At this stage, simply removing the inserted passage doesn’t fix everything. Removing misinformed references in the New Testament as well isn’t a great solution either. It might be better to add footnotes next to these passages and update church manuals. In any case, I can’t think of a perfect tidy solution.

Word of God?

Some people have found meaningful lessons in this story, notwithstanding the insertion. Now that we know about the insertion, we can learn another one; Defaming a person can have longer-lasting and more wide-spread effects than we might anticipate.

Maybe we can still find the word of God in scripture like this. Sometimes I think the word of God is less about who said it or whether it has been changed and more about what it does to me and where it directs me. I like the image of the word of God as an iron rod that guides us to the tree of life. Lehi’s and Nephi’s visions don’t concern themselves with who built the rod. It doesn’t matter if the rod has changed over time. What matters is that it leads us to God’s love.

The importance of original authorship in the church already seems to be waning a bit. Church materials and study manuals are beginning to use a little of the findings of modern biblical scholarship. This week, for instance, the Come Follow Me manual acknowledges uncertainty around the authorship of Hebrews, explains how many latter-day saints have understood it’s authorship historically, but does not require us to accept this tradition. It allows for latter-day saints to believe the author of Hebrews is unknown, and still find God within it’s words, and find guidance toward God’s love. This way, the 8th article of faith has a kind-of different meaning. The word of God might, in principle, have been successively altered many times, and yet still guide us to God’s love. The iron rod, even with rust, imperfections, kinks, altered or repaired parts can still do that.

What does the 8th article of faith mean to you? Has anyone learned an inspiring lesson from the talking donkey story? Comment below.

3 thoughts on “A talking donkey and the word of God?

  1. kahakura

    I wonder about meanings of the phrase The Word Of God. Perhaps it could be most literally’the words that God speaks’. Or The Saviour, Jesus Christ, is also known as The Word. The Bible, as you mentioned in your post, may be The Word Of God. Curiously, few words in scripture are direct quotes of God in the first person. Some books are entirely the words of a man or a prophet. This challenges me to understand the 8th Article of Faith in different ways.
    We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.
    It is not Jesus Christ. Neither is it God’s words in the first person. The Word Of God perhaps is a metaphor, or possibly it represents something not literal to it’s meaning. This invites the question, what is it that it represents? And what meanings do the diversity of other people give to this phrase?

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    1. Josiah Post author

      While I have not settled on a really satisfying answer, I sometimes think of the word of God as what it does. Like in my post about finding our way, there are things the word of God can for us, like enlightening, directing, and guiding. If something does those things, leading or inviting us to God and his love, then maybe it is the word of God.

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  2. Kinga

    Love this! sometimes its easy to get caught up in the details and base our faith on things like authenticity. But then when these come into question we start to crumble. I like the concept of focusing on what the message does to us, and how it leads us to God. I think this approach will also help us find truth and light in other sources and even other belief systems.

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