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The blog of the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars, Oxford.

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Biblical Beasts: Ass

Friday, July 08, 2011
Narnia and its cast of talking animals may have some Scriptural basis, it seems, for in 22nd chapter of the Book of Numbers there is the unusual story of the Gentile prophet Balaam. At the time the people of Israel are nearing the end of their 40-year sojourn in the desert, they have crossed the Jordan, and under the leadership of Joshua they are conquering the nations. A nervous Balak, king of Moab thus summons the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites.


Balaam, induced by the promise of riches and honour, goes to king Balak, and this angers the Lord God, whose prophet Balaam is, and who is securing victory for Israel. What follows from Numbers 22:22-31 is worth recounting in full, and it has a certain comic quality:
"But God's anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the ass, and his two servants were with him.
And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the ass, to turn her into the road.
Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side.
And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she pushed against the wall, and pressed Balaam's foot against the wall; so he struck her again.
Then 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.
When the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with his staff.
Then the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?"
And Balaam said to the ass, "Because you have made sport of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you."
And the ass said to Balaam, "Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?" And he said, "No."
Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face".
The ass is often characterized as an animal of ridicule, a stupid beast, even. To call someone an 'ass' is an insult to his intelligence. And yet, this humble beast of burden not only perceives the reality of things – that Balaam's way is offensive to God – and so, she sees the angel of the Lord blocking the way forward, but she is able to prophesy to the prophet, and effectively save his life.

As the story goes on to say in verses 32-34:
"And the angel of the LORD said to him, "Why have you struck your ass these three times? Behold, I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me;
and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have slain you and let her live."
Then Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, "I have sinned, for I did not know that thou didst stand in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in thy sight, I will go back again.""
In many Nativity scenes, the ass is shown adoring the infant Christ at the manger. Inspired by Isaiah 1:3, this is a symbol that even dumb beasts know the Lord, and acknowledge him to be God. So, even the ass knows when something is sinful and offensive to God. But we rational animals, Man, are often found wanting: we sin, and we go against the Lord's ways, and effectively, we don't acknowledge him as God. So man acts like an ass in rejecting Him. But perhaps we should imitate the ass's virtues. For the ass is not stupid but humble and obedient. So much so, that it is on an ass that the Lord Jesus Christ rides in triumph into Jerusalem. By grace we too can be that ass, humbly and obediently being led by the Lord, and journeying into the heavenly Jerusalem, into eternal glory.

Lawrence Lew OP

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