Does Balaam's Talking Donkey Prove That the Bible Is a Book of Fables?
Often associated with the definition of a “fable” are talking animals, unnatural phenomena, and make-believe individuals, places, and things. Critics of the Bible are inclined to declare its contents as “fable” in view of the account of Balaam’s talking donkey. However, this dismissal is a premature conclusion that merits examination. The account, recorded in Numbers 22, reports that this non-Israelite pagan prophet manifested reluctance to speak God’s directives to the Moabite king Balak due to a greedy desire for gain (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11). His “perverse/reckless” way (Numbers 22:32, ESV) was confronted by God via Balaam’s donkey by enabling the beast to speak words to its master.
The fact is that this admittedly unusual incident differs in several particulars from the uninspired fairytales and fables that characterize mere human authors. Some commentators believe Balaam’s interaction with his donkey was simply a vision or trance-like state that only he experienced in his own mind.1 But Jamieson rightly labels this viewpoint as “inadmissible” because of “the improbability of a vision being described as an actual occurrence in the middle of a plain history.”2 Indeed, the account does not possess the characteristics or qualities of a fictitious narrative. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “fable” as “1. A usually short narrative making an edifying or cautionary point and often employing as characters animals that speak and act like humans. 2. A story about legendary persons and exploits. 3. A falsehood; a lie.”3 Older dictionaries emphasize the fictitious nature of a fable: “A feigned story intended to enforce some moral precept; a fiction in general.”4 Webster’s original dictionary had “1. A feigned story or tale, intended to instruct or amuse; a fictitious narration intended to enforce some useful truth or precept.”5 The account of Balaam’s donkey does not match the definition of “fable.”
In the first place, as D.R. Dungan notes in his discussion of biblical hermeneutics, “a fable is an illustration made by attributing human qualities to animate and inanimate beings…. [T]he actors are selected from those beings which are incompetent to do such things…. [U]nlike the parable, its actors are unreal,…made to act a fictitious part.”6 Balaam’s donkey was not an imaginary creature that possessed human capabilities comparable to Brer Rabbit or the tortoise and the hare. The characters in fables never existed, never will exist, and are never alleged to exist. In contrast, this donkey was an actual, literal donkey owned by Balaam and on which he had ridden many times (vs. 30). The donkey remained nothing more than a donkey both before and after the supernatural interlude. The animal was able to speak only because God directly intervened to communicate His rebuke to Balaam, using the donkey as His mouthpiece. As Matthew Henry explains: “God opened the mouth of the [donkey]…. God enabled not only a dumb creature to speak, but a dull creature to speak to the purpose.”7 Or as Keil and Delitzsch note, God expressed Himself in “the rational words of human language, which an animal does not possess.”8 The donkey did not cease being a donkey, let alone become human in its nature—as do the characters in fables. Even the rationale offered was God’s argumentation intended to reason with Balaam and prod him to come to grips with his own irrational behavior and internal motives.
Comparable instances of the use of non-human vehicles of supernatural communication may be seen in Satan’s speech to Eve via a snake (Genesis 3:1ff.),9 as well as God speaking to Moses from within a burning bush (Exodus 3:4), and also speaking to Job out of a storm (Job 38:1; 40:1). In each of these instances, the harnessed object (whether animate or inanimate) used by the speaker was purely a physical medium through which the speaker conveyed a message—unlike what happens in a fable. This understanding of the use of Balaam’s donkey is reinforced and supported by the inspired apostle Peter’s remark concerning Balaam: “but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet” (2 Peter 2:16). The donkey did not speak with his own voice. Rather, God spoke using a human voice via the donkey. Other renderings of the Greek further support this conclusion. The NASB reads: “but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet.” The NIV reads: “But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—a beast without speech—who spoke with a man’s voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.” The donkey did not function of its own accord—as do fictitious characters in fables. Rather, the donkey was merely being utilized by God to articulate the divine message. Like the burning bush, God enlisted the physical form of the animal to express Himself to Balaam. As Augustine explained: “God did not convert the soul of the [donkey] into that of a reasonable being, but, as it pleased Him, made her to utter sounds to restrain Balaam’s folly.”10
Interestingly, the Bible does, in fact, contain a smattering of fable. However, its use is easily distinguishable from the erroneous use alleged by skeptics. For example, Jotham related a fable in Judges 9:6-21 and Jehoash told a fable in 2 Kings 14:8-10. But even in these biblically rare instances of this type of figurative discourse, the fables are nothing more than literary devices used by the speakers to press their contemporaries with specific truths. The Bible nowhere portrays itself as fable. Rather, it purports to convey actual history.
In the second place, the Bible is filled with historical accounts of miraculous and supernatural events. The evidence indicates that the Universe had to be miraculously (i.e., supernaturally) created by an intelligent supernatural Being. Supernatural phenomena, therefore, have occurred in the past in connection with the activity of the supernatural Creator. The Bible, itself, has supernatural qualities that prove it to be from God.11 Since we know that supernatural phenomena have occurred in the past and that the Bible can be verified as being the product of the supernatural God of the Universe, if the Bible says that “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” so that it talked, then, we can know that it talked—albeit, supernaturally. As Seraphim explained:
The stumblingblock…lies in the reasonable speech of an unreasoning and speechless ass…expressed in the form of human speech, of which animals are not capable…. [T]he fact remains clearly indubitable that the ass spoke in a language comprehensible to Balaam, and that this was a supernatural event…. The speech of the ass was an act of Divine Omnipotence.12
Indeed, “the episode moves, from beginning to end, on miraculous ground.”13
While mere fables cannot be verified with actual evidence, the claims of Scripture rest upon mounds of evidence that substantiate them—both the natural and supernatural. If God could speak the entire physical realm into existence (Psalm 33:6,9), if He could create a physical body out of dirt and breathe into it a human spirit, endowing that individual with an intellect and ability to speak (Genesis 2:7ff.), if He could part a sea (Exodus 14:21; Hebrews 11:29) and rain down burning sulfur to destroy the cities of the plain (Genesis 19:24)—and the list goes on and on—then God could easily cause a brute beast momentarily to speak His words.
In the third place, the people, places, and events recorded in Scripture have proven time and again to be a matter of history—not fiction—firmly distinguishing its contents from make-believe fables.14 Even in the context of Numbers 22, the account gives no indication whatever that it is conveying mythical events. In fact, several features of the narrative have been historically authenticated, including the plains of Moab15 (vss. 1,47,8,10,14,21,36), the Jordan16 (vs. 1), Jericho17 (vs. 1), the Amorites18 (vs. 2), Midian19 (vss. 4,7), Pethor20 (vs. 5), Egypt (vss. 5,11), Arnon21 (vs. 36), Kirjath-huzoth22 (vs. 39), and Bamoth Baal23 (vs. 41). We’re not talking here of “Neverland” or other imaginary realms or mythical peoples, but actual, historically verifiable places and peoples, cultures and countries. The episode of Balaam’s talking donkey is ensconced firmly in the midst of actual history.24
The more one studies the Bible—with an open and honest heart (Luke 8:15)—the more one is struck with the wonder of divine inspiration. The self-authenticating nature of Scripture will inevitably drive the impartial person to the unalterable conclusion: the Bible is the Word of God.25
1 For example, see “Dissertation V: On the History and Character of Balaam” in John Jortin (1809), Six Dissertations upon Different Subjects (London: Richard Taylor), pp. 142ff. See also “Ass of Balaam” in John McClintock and James Strong (1879), Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1970 reprint), 1:477, and William Smith (1868), Dictionary of the Bible, ed H.B. Hackett (New York: Hurd & Houghton), 1:227-228.
2 Robert Jamieson in Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown (1882), A Commentary: Critical, Practical and Explanatory on the Old and New Testaments (Toledo, OH: Jerome B. Names), p. 247.
4 Samuel Johnson (1777), A Dictionary of the English Language (London: J. Mifflin), vol. 1.
5 Noah Webster (1828), An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse), 1:78.
6 D.R. Dungan (1888), Hermeneutics (Delight, AR: Gospel Light), pp. 244-245.
7 Matthew Henry (1961), Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), p. 166.
8 C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (1976 reprint), Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 1:171.
9 See Gleason Archer (1974), A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago, IL: Moody Press), p. 201: “The serpent was a mere guise through which the tempter spoke to them.” The Hebrew term translated “serpent” is the normal word for “snake.” See also Revelation 12:9,15; 20:2.
10 As translated in Seraphim (1900), The Soothsayer Balaam (London: Rivingtons), p. 147. See also Charles Taylor (1832), “Ass of Balaam,” in Calmet’s Dictionary of the Holy Bible (London: Holdsworth & Ball), p. 113.
11 See the “Inspiration of the Bible” section at apologeticspress.org.
12 pp. 146-147, emp. added.
13 Marcus Kalisch (1877), Bible Studies, Part I: The Prophecies of Balaam (London: Longman, Greens & Co.), p. 142, emp. added.
14 See the “Factual Accuracy” section of “Inspiration of the Bible” at ApologeticsPress.org.
15 See “The Archaeology of Moab” (1997) in The Biblical Archaeologist, 60:194-248, December.
21 See Bruce Routledge (2004), Moab in the Iron Age: Hegemony, Polity, Archaeology (Philadelphia, PA: The University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 44ff.
22 M.G. Easton (1893), Illustrated Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper & Brothers), p. 410, https://archive.org/stream/illustratedbible00east#page/n11/mode/2up.
24 See Edward Wharton (1977), Christianity: A Clear Case of History! (West Monroe, LA: Howard Book House).
25 For more on the supernatural qualities of the Bible, see Kyle Butt (2007), Behold! The Word of God (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).