As much as science is bringing us fresh and sometimes surprising insights about animals in the present day, all our inquiry is, at the root, heavily inspired by the stories we have told about animals over millennia, and how they have influenced the popular imagination. The Bible generally sees animals as part of the natural world that humans are exhorted to tend to, but there are a couple of unusual cases where the laws of what is today’s fantasy or science fiction intervene – and the animals speak.
Most famous in the Hebrew Bible are a certain duplicitous snake, and a noble donkey who transmits a message from the Divine. What is the literary significance of these episodes? What do they have in common, and what impact may they have had on how we view and treat our nonhuman “others”?
This Scientists in Synagogues event at Kol Ami: the Northern VA Reconstructionist Community on November 19, 2023 explored animal stories from two very distinct perspectives – contemporary encounters with and observations of animals, and the important metaphorical and allegorical roles that two animals in the Hebrew Bible play. The video in this post is of the second half of the talk by Dr. Diane Sharon, which discusses the second topic. Part 1 can be found here.Read Transcript
Gilah Langner: Dr. Diane Sharon is a scholar and teacher in Hebrew Bible, comparative religion and ancient Near Eastern Literature. And she knows all of those languages.
Diane Sharon: I can read all of those languages.
Gilah Langner: She teaches for the Skirball Academy at Temple Emanu-El. She’s also taught at the Academy for Jewish Religion, the Episcopal General Theological Seminary, Fordham University, Manhattan College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Sharon has published and edited books and articles on the Hebrew Bible in its Ancient Near Eastern context, on comparative religion, literary analysis, and women’s studies. And she’s currently at work on a commentary on the Book of Judges for the Jewish Publication Society. She’s served as a scholar-in-residence in more than 50 congregations nationwide, and she holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible from JTS, and an MBA in Finance.
Diane Sharon: God and Mammon. God and Mammon.
Gilah Langer: We are delighted to have you with us.
Diane Sharon: Thank you. Thank you for that wonderful introduction.
Gilah Langner: And may I say, we have the text of the passages from the Bible that Diane is going to read. So if anybody would like, we can pass out some of these books so you can follow along when we get to that.
Diane Sharon: Thank you so much. I’m so glad to be here. Thank you, Michael. That was wonderful. I promise I won’t step on your toes if you don’t step on my toes. I love the idea that this is religion and science walking side-by-side or meeting each other. I’m not sure how much what I have to say has to do with science and how much of it has to do with religion, but I’m reading the Bible.
Animal welfare and ancient idioms
The Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, views animals as having feelings. That is, they are sentient. For example, we’re told to shoo the mother bird away from the nest before taking her eggs, both to spare the mother’s feelings and also to sensitize our own. The Talmud puts a name to this concept of having compassion for living things, that emphasizes the idea of animal sentience that animals can feel. The phrase is, in Hebrew, tza’ar baalei chaim, which literally translates into “the suffering of living things.” This concept is not explicitly named in the Tanakh; it is named by the rabbis. But several Biblical commandments demonstrate broad concern to prevent or alleviate any physical or psychological suffering in animals. For example, we may not plow a field using animals of different species – I’m sure you came up against that this weekend – because this difference in size and strength would be a hardship to both animals. If we see an overloaded animal, we are required on the spot to relieve it of its burden.
Even if we do not like its owner, or even if we do not know its owner, or even if it is ownerless, we are not permitted to kill an animal on the same day as its young. In fact, the Torah actually prohibits the slaughter of very young animals, although through time and interpretation, the original meaning of this command has been transformed. The Biblical wording may be familiar to you: lo t’vashel g’dei bachalev imo, literally, “do not boil a kid in the milk of its mother.” The rabbis interpret this command, which occurs twice in the Tanakh, as prohibiting the cooking of meat and milk together. You’re all familiar with that – prohibiting cheeseburgers forever.
But among the Ancient Egyptian Amarna letters, discovered in 1887 and published in translation in the late 20th century, is correspondence between the Pharaoh Tutankhamen and a Canaanite vassal king. The pharaoh’s practice was to take the eldest son of the king of each vassal state and raise him in the Egyptian court. This would ensure his father’s loyalty to the pharaoh and at the same time familiarize the boy with the culture of Egypt, inclining him, when he succeeded to his parents’ throne, to ally himself with Egypt.
In one Amarna letter, we have the vassal king’s response to the Egyptian request that he send his son to the pharaoh’s court. The father says that his boy is only ten years old and “still in the milk of its mother.” That’s a quote, an untranslated quote. “Still in the milk of its mother,” suggesting that he will be sent to the Pharaoh when he is older. From this, we see that the idiom “in the milk of its mother” does not refer to the milk itself, the cheese and the cheeseburger, but rather to the youth of the child. A ten-year-old is not nursing, but it’s an idiom, so it’s not literal. Even though a ten-year-old boy is probably not still nursing his mother’s milk, the idiom was probably intended to refer to any young or youthful animal. This suggests to me that the Biblical prohibition forbids breast of veal rather than cheeseburgers – but we are rabbinic Jews, not Biblical Jews, so cheeseburgers are still forbidden.
Back to our topic. This example is more evidence of the Biblical understanding that animals are sentient – that they should be cared for, respected, and relieved of any pain or suffering. Now comes the topic of narrative theology, because I’m looking at the biblical text, and the text is talking about our relationship as human beings to God. Everything in the text relates to the issue of human beings’ relationship to God. I’m so sorry, but that’s the focus.
Stephen Hawking once said something like “God may exist, but science can explain the universe without Him.” In the Tanakh, science may exist, but the Torah can explain the universe without it. The Biblical text is a theological document, not a scientific treatise, and not a historical account. Thucydides, the father of modern study of history (if you can’t spell it, don’t worry about it) operated from the premise that any account that has as its main figure a supernatural being is an account of myth and not history. In the Tanakh, of course, the God of Israel is the supreme supernatural being. The Tanakh may draw upon historical events, may rewrite and retell historical events, but it is not itself a work of history the way it’s understood in a contemporary way.
The grand order of things
Because the Tanakh is a theological document, its focus is upon the relationship between God and human beings. Compassionate interactions among all living things is a fundamental principle of God’s covenant with all of humanity. According to the Tanakh, God is the creator of everything that exists, including human beings, and including all other animals. God said – this is, I’m reading from Genesis 1, verse 20 – (this is a translation of the Biblical Hebrew, the original is in Biblical Hebrew, so any translation is an act of interpretation. You’re all with me on that. I can see you nodding. Excellent).
“Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures (the Hebrew is nefesh haya) and birds that fly above Earth, across the expanse of the sky. God created the great sea monsters and all the living creatures” (Hebrew nefesh haya, “living nefesh,” “living creatures”) “of every kind that creep which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind, and God saw that it was good.”
The word nefesh refers to the sentience of living creatures. Besides human beings, other creatures are described as being nefesh. In the passage we just read in Genesis 1:20, animals, birds, fish, sea creatures, swarming, creeping, crawling things, are all described as nefesh, living creatures. I will not read the Hebrew.
In Genesis 2:7, God blows the breath of life – nishmat chayim, “the breath of life.” The word chaim you’re all familiar with – l’chaim, right? – means “life.” God blows the breath of life into Adam and Eve, making them living creatures – nefesh.
This is Genesis 2, verse 7, for those of you keeping track: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the Earth. God blew into his nostrils the breath of life” – nishmat chayim – “and man became a living being” – nefesh. So God has blown the breath of life into creatures and human beings – the same language.
Some of you may have noticed that the Hebrew uses two different words when talking about God creating life. The word nefesh refers to the actual living creatures themselves – the beings. The word neshama refers to the breath that God blows into the creatures – the breath of life. Once God breathes the breath of life, the neshama, into creatures, then they are living beings, nefesh. Nefesh, Neshama. Sometimes they are nefesh, and sometimes they are called nefesh haya, living beings. They refer to the same idea.
Following the Flood story, all human beings are forbidden to eat the blood of slaughtered animals, because in the blood is the life. That’s Leviticus 17:11 and Genesis 9:4. The breath and blood are both necessary for living creatures. Life comes from God. Breath and blood come from God. Both animals and human beings share in the breath and blood that come from God. It is this breath, this blood, that makes creatures into living, sentient beings. Thus, the fundamental principle of Biblical creation is that all living things are sentient.
Which brings me to the topic that I originally wanted to talk about, which is talking animals in the Bible. One of the things Michael did not mention, which is one of my favorite things, is that dolphins talk to each other. Other animals talk to each other – but they are not talking in Biblical Hebrew to each other. They are not even talking in English translation to each other. When the Bible talks about creatures speaking in human languages – Biblical Hebrew in the Bible, English in the translations – it’s because the message is not for other animals (other donkeys, other snakes, other dolphins), the message is for human beings, because the central chore of the Bible is to discuss the relationship between God and humanity. That’s the bias; it’s open. Everyone knows it. No one’s trying to hide it.
The animal fables of the Tanakh
With that in mind, I would like to share with you one of the most interesting analyses of talking animals in the Bible I have read – and I am an academic; I have read a lot of these. This is the most fun. It is not my idea. It is an idea that I have from a fellow scholar and colleague. But before I tell you all about that, I’m going to give you a little introduction.
Making a case for Biblical sentience in the Bible is not necessary. From the beginning of creation, we have seen it’s a given. But whenever animals are present in Biblical episodes, as I said, their function is to highlight the relationship between God and people. This is especially the case in two episodes in the Bible that feature fables. I learned that “fables” is a word that you use whenever the story involves talking animals. I never knew that before.
There are two fables in the Bible, stories that involve talking animals: the talking snake in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3, and Balaam’s talking donkey in the wilderness of Moab in Numbers 22. The two animals that speak in the Tanakh offer two very different messages within two very different contexts. And I do repeat: they are speaking Biblical Hebrew. Go figure. But the many parallels and similarities between these two episodes invite us to compare the two and examine each in terms of the other.
I am going to examine them using the analysis of my colleague. But what we’re looking at is not about the animals, but about what the message is of the two animals who speak, because when you look at them together at the same time, you get a message that you do not get when you look at them individually. That’s my job: we look at the parallels and similarities and we examine each in terms of the other, but we are also looking at the differences. The differences and the similarities together convey the message that these animals have that they convey about our relationship with the divine. Let’s look at the text of these stories first, and then go on to discussion. If you have a device with you, you can look at sefaria.com. If you have a book, you can look at the book. I prefer books myself.
Genesis 3: The Snake
First we’re going to look at the snake in the garden in Genesis 3. Many of us know this story. We learned it as children.
In Genesis 3:1, “The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say: you shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’ The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees in the garden. It is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.’”
Okay, we are going to skip the next section and go on to Genesis 3, verse 4.
“The serpent said to the woman, ‘You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good from bad.’”
This is the text of the JPS translation. All translation is an act of interpretation. So where it’s necessary, I will go back to the original Hebrew and talk about that. But meanwhile, I get to do the voices.
“When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths. They heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day; and the man and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
God called out to the man and said to them, ‘Where are you?’ He replied, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked. And so I hid.’” And then God asked, “‘Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman You put at my side–she gave me of the tree, and I ate.’” And the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done!’ The woman replied, ‘The serpent duped me, and I ate.’”
And then “The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you did this, more cursed shall you be than all cattle and all the wild beasts: On your belly shall you crawl and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity Between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they shall strike at your head, and you shall strike their heel.’” And to the woman, he said ‘I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; In pain shall you bear children.”
The actual word we will see is not “pain.” In Hebrew, it means “toil” or “labor.” We even call it “labor” in English. Some of you may know that.
“’Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ To Adam, God said, ‘Because you did as your wife said and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” Cursed be the ground because of you; By toil shall you eat of it, all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you,’” but “‘Your food shall be the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat until you return to the ground,’” For “‘From it you were taken. For dust you are, and dust you shall return.’”
The punishment for both Adam and Eve is exactly the same. Adam is going to have to work the land with labor and sweat, and Eve is going to bear children with labor (the word in Hebrew in the Bible, the root of the word, is itzavon). To Eve: “I will greatly increase your labor,” itzvonech, “in labor,” be’etzev, “you will bear children.” Genesis 3:16 to Adam: “with labor (be’itzavon), you will eat all the days of your life.”
Both Adam and Eve are punished with the same punishment, one with labor of the seed of the earth, and one with labor of the seed of the body. They are both punished with the same punishment. They begin as one being. They are split in half – I skipped that part, but the word tsela, which is translated by the Christian scriptures as “rib,” means “side,” as it means in the archaeological, architectural stuff that we read in the Bible. It means the side of a building – it’s a side. Adam and Eve are hermaphrodite – the rabbis talk about this – and they are split. Ontologically, from the beginning of creation, Adam and Eve were both present when God gave that command, which is why Eve can say to the serpent, “God told us.” She could say, “You never said anything to me.” Right?
Ontologically, male and female are created equal – (and I teach this in the name of my teacher, Tikva Frymer-Kensky) – but once they are in a social organization, once they are in a community, once they are in a society, the inequality is not inherent in them. It is sociological, societal, and can be changed.
Ontologically, Adam and Eve are created equal. Ontologically, Adam and Eve are punished with the same punishment – laboring to bring forth the seed of the earth, laboring to bring forth the seed of the loins. We know that etzev means “labor” from the only other time it occurs in the Tanakh, which is when Noah’s father names him. In Genesis 5: “When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son, And he named him Noah, saying, ‘This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands’” – Mime’asienu, “from our work,” Umi’itz’von yadenu. You hear itzavon? You hear that? That’s the root – that means “the labor of our hands.” They’re in parallel in this verse. So ma’asenu, “our work,” means the same as “the itzavon of our hands.” They both mean labor. Cursed three times – all three times means labor. That’s Tikva Frymer-Kensky.
Continuing with Genesis 3: “The man named his wife Eve because she was the mother of all living things.” Hava, from the word haya, meaning “living.” “And the Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” Look at that. Exiling them from the garden and then protecting them. Punishment followed by protection is a pattern throughout the Tanakh, part of our relationship to God.
“God said, ‘Now that man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever!’ So God banished him from the garden of Eden to till the soil from which he was taken. He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.”
That’s the Genesis portion of the program – that’s the talking serpent. A curse comes as a result, not on Adam and Eve, but on the serpent and on the earth. And that will be important later.
Let’s read about Balaam’s talking donkey in Numbers 22. “The Israelites then marched on.” The Israelites are in the wilderness, having fled from having experienced the exodus from Egypt, and they’re in the wilderness, and they’re coming to the end of the 40 years. “The Israelites marched on and camped in the steppes of Moab,” across the Jordan from Jericho. “Balak, son of Zippor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.” Balak is the king of the Amorites. “Moab was alarmed because the people were so numerous” – the seed of the loin is so numerous.
“Moab dreaded the Israelites.” And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “‘Now this horde, will it clean all that is about us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’ Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at the time, sent messengers to Balaam, son of Beor, [in] Pethor. ”
This is going to be very confusing. The “Ka” is king, and the “um” basically he’s a prophet, which is by the Euphrates, in the land of his kinfolk, to invite him, saying, “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me.” You may recall that when they were in Egypt, their numerosity, numerousness, was one of the reasons that they became oppressed and enslaved. “‘Come, then, put a curse upon this people for me,'” – because he’s a prophet with a connection to the divine. Even though he’s not an Israelite prophet, he’s revered in his universe, in his society, and the king is going to pay him to put a curse on Israel. “‘Come then, put a curse upon these people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.'”
“The elders of Moab and the elders of Midian, versed in divination, set out.” Two nations go out to see if they can seduce this prophet into bringing a curse on Israel. “They came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s message. He said to them, ‘Spend the night here, and I will reply to you as God instructs me.’ So the Moabite dignitaries stayed with Balaam.”
Anyone else think it’s weird that the prophet, who is not an Israelite, is waiting to hear what God says? “God came to Balaam and said, ‘What do these people want of you?’ Balaam said to God, ‘Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, sent me this message: Here is a people that came out from Egypt and hides the earth from view. Come now and curse them for me; perhaps I can engage them in battle and drive them off.’” He is basically reporting what we just heard.
But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” By whom? By God.
“Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s dignitaries, ‘Go back to your own country, for God will not let me go with you.’ The Moabite dignitaries left, and they came to Balak and said, ‘Balaam refused to come with us.’ Then Balak sent other dignitaries, more numerous and distinguished than the first. They came to Balaam and said to him, ‘Thus says Balak son of Zippor: Please do not refuse to come to me. I will reward you richly and I will do anything you ask of me. Only come and damn this people for me.’ Balaam replied to Balak’s officials: ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything big or little, contrary to the demand of God. So you, too, stay here overnight, and let me find out what else God may say to me.'” He’s hoping for a reprieve here. I mean, it’s a lot of money.
“That night, God came to Balaam and said to him, ‘If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them, but whatever I command you that you shall do.’” This is not going to end well for Moab. “When he arose in the morning, Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. But God was incensed at his going” – God gave him permission, but God expected him to say, okay, no.
“But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of God placed himself in the way as an adversary.” Right. He’s going to have a flaming sword in his hand, the same kind of flaming sword that was outside Eden to keep you from going back. It’s another connection between the stories, besides an animal that talks in biblical Hebrew, he was riding on his she-ass. They always call it a she-ass. It actually is an aton, which is “she-ass” in Hebrew.
“He was riding on his she-ass with his two servants alongside, when the ass caught sight of the angel of God standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand. The ass swerved from the road and went into the fields, and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road. The angel of God then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards with a fence on either side. The ass, seeing the angel of the Lord, pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again. Once more the angel of God moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left. When the ass now saw the angel of God, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and he beat the ass with a stick. And then God opened the ass’s mouth.”
This is the important part of the program. “God opened the ass’s mouth.” God did not open the mouth of the snake. God opened the ass’s mouth. God is giving a message through the donkey. And she said to Balaam: “‘What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?’ Balaam said to the ass, ‘You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.’” He seems totally okay with her speaking Biblical Hebrew perfectly well.
“The ass said to Balaam, ‘Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?’ And he said ‘No.’ Then God uncovered Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and thereupon he bowed right down to the ground. The angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Why have you beaten your ass these three times? It is I who came out as an adversary, for the errand is obnoxious to me. And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. The angel said to Balaam if she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.’”
She saved his life.
“Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, ‘I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.’” It’s not enough that God tells him right now – he sees the angel with the sword, suddenly it’s real. “But the angel of God said to Balaam, ‘Go with the men, but you must say nothing except what I tell you.’” So God’s not even talking to Balaam anymore, sending an angel instead to talking to Balaam. So Balaam went on with Balak’s dignitaries.
How animal stories work in the Bible
These are the two stories. They speak to each other. Get it? It’s a pun. My discussion from here on is based on a brilliant article by my colleague, the Bible scholar George Savran. Anyone heard of George Savran? Brilliant. Yes, brilliant. It’s called “Beastly Speech: Intertextuality, Balaam’s Ass and the Garden of Eden,” and was published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament in 1994.
“Numbers 22 and Genesis 3 are the only narratives in the entire Bible in which an animal communicates in human speech.” This alone “invites a closer look at the relationship between the two stories.”
Here we’ll compare these two fables, first looking at parallels and then at distinctions, to see what theological message for human beings is evoked by the speech of the serpent and the words of the donkey. And I guarantee you, you will not expect it, because when I read it, I was surprised, and I have the same degree that George has. Just saying – he’s brilliant.
In looking at these two stories, George Savran begins with what literary scholars call synchronicity. That’s what the rabbis call ain mukdam u’meuchar. Anybody familiar with that? It means that “there’s nothing early or late in the text.” If I read a story that seems to be early – Garden of Eden, and late – the Wilderness – they speak to each other in a timeless way. I can compare them timelessly. That’s what that means. “Nothing early, nothing late.” We’ll read the two stories as though they both exist in the same framework of time, at the same time, and see how they are similar to or different from one another.
First, we’ll look at the parallels. The ass and the snake speak in a surprisingly natural manner. “Neither creature offers an introductory comment to explain its verbal ability” – “Oh, yeah, I went to JTS and I learned Hebrew.” No, nothing. Further, this ability is accepted unquestioningly by all of the human beings right in each fable. “The ease with which human and animal enter into a dialogue contrast sharply with the extraordinary nature” of the Biblical exchange. They’re talking philosophy, they’re talking I-don’t-know-what – and they’re speaking in Biblical Hebrew. I can’t speak perfect Biblical Hebrew.
“In the garden story, the serpent and the woman engage in a dialogue of interpretation about the correct meaning” of God’s prohibition – about eating of the fruit, of the tree, of the knowledge of good and evil – “as if this were a normal topic of discussion between them.”
In Numbers 22, Balaam responds to the she-ass’s opening words (‘What have I done to you to make you beat me three times?’) by cursing her and threatening her with death, much as he might speak to a rebellious servant.”
Further, “When the ass tries to provide some perspective to assuage her master’s anger (‘Aren’t I your trusty she-ass? Would I do something like that to you?’), Balaam’s monosyllabic response seems to indicate that he’s persuaded by her argument.” He just accepts it. In both texts, the dialogue takes place between lone individuals and the animal, which by itself might suggest,” to some perhaps, “that the person was simply ‘hearing things.’ But the narrator backs up the claim of animal speech with a most authoritative source: In Numbers 22:31-33, the angel of God verifies the ass’s perceptions, and in Genesis 3, God himself curses the serpent.”
Although stylistically, the intrusion of animal speech into the human world is treated matter-of-factly in each fable, the content of each speech differs in significant ways. “Both the ass and the snake use interrogatory statements.” They’re asking questions to persuade the listener, “but their questions have different rhetorical intent.” The snake opens his words with a deliberate misquotation of the divine command (“Didn’t God tell you not to eat any of the fruit?”) which confuses the woman and sets the stage for the snake’s seductive argument a couple of verses later. The snake’s question “cannot be answered by a single word, but requires some explanation.” So the woman has a “lengthy response” to the snake in Genesis 3. “The question at the beginning of the snake’s dialogue with the woman serves as a point of entrance into the discussion.”
On the other hand, “the ass’s speech is straightforward and honest, aimed at clarifying Balaam’s confusion rather than complicating it further.” Her first question in Numbers 22:28, is a partial protest against Balaam’s brutality” – “Why are you beating me?” Her second, in 22:30, is a rhetorical question requiring no response. “Aren’t I the loyal servant? What are you beating me for?” “In contrast to the confused reply of the woman in Genesis 3, Balaam’s response is a brief, clear ‘No,’ despite his inability to comprehend what’s going on.” He takes it perfectly normally and agrees with the donkey.
Why are they speaking?
The source of the animal’s verbal abilities in each fable is significant. “The snake speaks of its own accord, yet the text offers no explanation for this other than the snake’s exceptional cleverness. In a world-view in which words are charged with creative power,” it is possible that the serpent’s ability to speak may hint at a source of power outside of God – sacrilegious, I know, but think about it. However ambiguous that reference is, “the very fact that the snake has the capacity for articulate speech together in Hebrew, together with the subversive use to which it has been put” – undercutting God – ”challenges the hierarchical order of the universe as it has been reported to have been created.” A little bit of counter there. Balam’s ass
“Also has independent powers of judgment, but her motives are not as dark as those of the snake. In her case, the gift of speech is divinely endowed; we are told unambiguously that ‘God opened the mouth of the ass’ and only then ‘And she said to Balam’ (Numbers 22:28). The God of the Balaam story controls prophetic human speech … and animal speech … only results from divine intervention.”
“Now, maybe I can talk because I was born that way, but guess why I was born that way. And the words that come out of my mouth – I’m not saying this, but in general, if I were a prophet, the words that came out of my mouth would be ‘Because God put them there.'” In a sense, I’m reading about the Bible, so God put them there. Okay?
“The theological world of Balaam is much less murky than that of the Garden of Eden; as the extent of the ass’s free will is limited, so is the prophet [Balaam]’s freedom of speech is restricted as well. In addition to the phenomenon of speech, there are other interesting similarities in the roles played by each animal … both animals lead people astray, the snake figuratively and the ass literally.”
She bangs Balaam’s foot against the wall. “But while the snake actually results in the imposition of mortality,” which doesn’t exist in the Garden of Eden until then, “Balaam’s ass saves the life of her master.” See how that works? “The motives of the snake are not stated explicitly, but its ambiguous status and contrary advice” subtly present the serpent as an alternative to the divinely created universe. The rabbis have stories about this you would not believe.
“The she-ass, on the other hand, acts out of her concern for Balaam,” even though her actions cause her to receive a beating after beating after beating from her master.
“In both texts the animals exhibit a deeper understanding of the relationship between God and humanity than their human counterparts do, and they reveal their knowledge in the course of ‘educating’ the figures involved. The snake asks an imprecise question with the intent of deceiving the woman. As a result of his efforts human mortality is decreed…”
That’s a pretty big outcome.
“Angels with fiery swords are set in place to prevent access to Eden and to the tree of life … By contrast the ass asks two straightforward questions … with no deception intended, and acts to save its master from an angel with a sword who stands in its path … All these elements taken together – the nature of animal speech, their roles in relation to the human beings in the story, the threat of the angel with the sword – suggests that the Balaam story should be read as [a complement, completion, of] the story of the Garden of Eden. The garden story establishes, through a series of curses, an interlocking chain of desire and domination that sets man, woman and the natural world at odds with one another. By contrast, the Balaam account describes the frustration of Balak’s desire to curse and to dominate Israel, reflecting a harmonious relationship between Israel and God.”
Let’s look at blessing and curse in each story.
“Among the most significant themes deployed in both is that of curse and blessing. In the garden story, the perfected universe described in Genesis 2 is undone by the snake’s efforts in the following chapter, and the dissolution of this harmony is concretized in the curses of Genesis 3:14-19.”
Adam and Eve are not cursed; they are punished with hard work. The earth is cursed and the snake is cursed. “Enmity is established between human and animal worlds, between humanity and nature, and also among human beings themselves” (which explains Michael’s entire talk).
“The final stage in this process of cursing is expulsion from the sacred center, exile from a place of stability and rootedness to wandering and vulnerability. The Balaam story moves in the opposite direction: After the Exodus from Egypt Israel is still wandering, but she’s moving towards a permanent location. Israel is vulnerable to [attack from] Balak, as well as from other peoples whose land she passes through. As Balaam is saved from death at the hands of the angel by the action of the she-ass, so [Balaam] in turn protects Israel from curse and destruction at the hands of [King] Balak.”
Because – guess what Balaam does? He blesses Israel instead of cursing them, we have the Ma Tovu prayer from that. “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob? How numerous they are and how good they are,” comes out of Balaam’s mouth as a result of this episode.
“Beyond the sense of divine protection that is brought out by Numbers 20 and 21, Balaam also offers blessing to Israel. Whereas the narrative sections of 22 and 24 speak of protection from danger, Balaam’s poetic oracle holds out the promise of positive elements, progeny” – Guess what progeny they’re talking about? The fruit of loins – “protection from sin, rootedness and military success.”
What the trees have to say
Now, the metaphor of the tree. The contrast between the two fables can be seen most clearly by examining the tree metaphors in both texts.
“The trees in Genesis are a source of life and knowledge, but they’re forbidden to humankind. Rather than offering protection and rootedness, they’re a cause of strife between God and his creatures. They generate not blessing, but irretrievable losses. The tree of knowledge leads to the forfeiture of innocence and the dissolution of trust, while the tree of life brings with it only exile and mortality.”
On the other hand, the theme of blessing can be seen clearly in the extended simile in Balaam’s third oracle, my favorite one, where Israel’s good fortune is likened to a tree planted in a garden. You didn’t hear that when I said “How goodly are your tents?” And now I’m going to read it to you.
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel, like palm-groves that stretch out like gardens beside a river” – like the Garden of Eden. Remember that? “Like aloes planted by God, like cedars beside the water, their boughs drip with moisture, their roots have abundant water.”
“The lushness of the trees in Balaam’s blessing is a reversal of the cursed earth’s infertility, literally reversed by an overabundance.” After God punishes Adam in Genesis 3 and harks back instead to the well-watered garden at the beginning of creation in Genesis 2:8-10, planted by God and set beside a flowing river. “But whereas the trees in the garden are unapproachable forbidden, now Israel itself is a tree, likened to a tree towering over the waters, firmly rooted in the primal deep.” In Balam’s blessing, “Israel is restored to a state of harmony with nature, a harmony initially undone by the curses of Genesis 3.”
I do not have to read the dust metaphors, right? I’m going on forever, right? And I do not have to talk about the angel with the sword. You get it? But I’m going to talk about the ultimate meaning of the reversal of the curse. This reversal, the transforming of curse into blessing, is inherent in the language for blessing and curse in both episodes in Genesis 3 and Numbers 22.
The role of curses
“The significance of cursing in both texts is highlighted by the word ‘arar.” It’s a root that means “to curse”: “‘arar.”
“In Genesis 3, the complete breakdown of the blessed state of the garden is manifested in the curses that are pronounced in Genesis 3:14-19, two of which are introduced by the word ‘arar.” – “Cursed.” That’s the curse for the land and the curse of the snake.
“The status and stature of the snake are reduced … Eternal enmity is placed between the snake and humankind … the ground is cursed by diminished fertility.” And an “extension of this curse seems to be to mortality in Genesis 3:19, because the once fertile soil will now has been exchanged for the dust of the grave” – “from dust thou art, to dust return.”
“In Numbers 22-24, King Balak wishes to have Israel cursed.” Guess what the root is? ‘Arar, by means of human intervention. On the part of Balaam, “The blessings described … fall into familiar categories: numerical superiority (fruit of the loins), fertility and longevity (well-planted tree), and an allusion to fruitfulness and divine protection, reflected in kingship, military success, victory over enemies.
To the Moabite king Balak’s dismay, “the prophet Balaam not only rejects the idea of cursing Israel, but substitutes a blessing in its place. As opposed to the depiction in Genesis of a God who curses what God has first blessed, Balaam’s God will not change” the divine mind. “God is not a man to be capricious or mortal to change his mind in Numbers 23, and “the blessing initially bestowed upon Israel will not be changed.” There you go.
When curses backfire into blessings
“This profound reversal of blessing and curse can be seen in the paired uses of curse and blessing in the two complementary verses.” “For I know that whomever you bless remains blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” That’s what King Balak says to Balaam. He knew that if Balaam wasn’t going to come, it wasn’t going to work. And Balak says to him, “It’s not me that does the cursing. It depends on what God puts in my mouth.”
It’s clear, repeated twice. “The emphasis has been changed from subject to object.” Balaam, in the Oracle favoring Israel in 24:9, says “Blessed be those who bless you, and cursed be those who curse you.” So not only those who bless – only if God blesses you will you be blessed – but people who bless you will be blessed themselves. The emphasis has been changed from subject to object. King Balak makes Balaam the agent of unconditional blessing.
But in Numbers 24, the fate of the blessed depends entirely upon the way he treats Israel. Big change. “Not only is Balaam’s autonomy limited,” but now Israel “determines the fate of anyone who would presume to control it.” It’s a lot of power Israel has. The reversal of the curse in the garden is complete in Balaam’s blessing. King Balak’s own words in Numbers 22 “set in motion a process that results in the blessing of the very people whom he seeks to curse.”
So this is my conclusion. The sentience of animals in the Bible, whether they are speaking human language, whether they feel clever or feel offended, feeling hurt or feel burdened, is never only about the sentience of animals. It’s also always about teaching the fallible human beings, in Israel and throughout the world, to be compassionate, to be mindful, to be loyal to the God of Israel.
The curses triggered by the speaking serpent in Genesis 3 are reversed beginning with the speech of the she-ass in Numbers 22, and finalized by the blessing of Israel by the prophet Balaam in Numbers 24, with my favorite words, which I get to repeat because I’m running what I say:
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! Like palm-groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars beside the water; Their boughs drip with moisture, their roots have abundant water. Their king shall rise above Agag, their kingdom shall be exalted.”
The natural and the social have to be in tandem with one another for it to work. Thank you.