“The righteous know the needs of their animals, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (Prov 12:10). Some find it odd to discover the Bible has anything to say about animal compassion. With all that talk about blood sacrifice, what could it possibly contribute to that conversation? Quite a lot, I suggest. Recall that God declares animals good even before humans enter the story (Gen 1:24–25), suggesting they have value apart from anything they offer us. There are also explicit statements about God’s concern for animals, as in the question put to Jonah: “should I not be concerned about Nineveh … in which there are … many animals?” (4:11). Jesus reminds us that even sparrows that humans value little (two “sold for a penny”) matter to God (Matt 10:29).
The story of Balaam abusing a donkey (Num 22:1–34) is illuminating here, and Proverbs 12:10 offers fitting commentary on the incident. By the measure of that verse, Balaam is wicked. By the measure of Proverbs as a whole, he is a fool who does not fear God or listen to God. Animal cruelty is a symptom of this willful disregard of divine instruction.
1. Ignoring the Revealed Will of God
When we first meet Balaam, Israel is en route to the Promised Land and their military reputation precedes them. Their victories impressed the king of Moab enough that their arrival to the neighbourhood generates fear. He sends emissaries to the prophet Balaam: “A people has come out of Egypt … they have settled next to me. Come now, curse this people.” God does not allow Balaam to do this but undeterred, the king sends agents again, repeating the request. This time Balaam hedges:
"Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God [Insert a dramatic pause here as you read.] … [R]emain here … so that I may learn what more the LORD may say to me."
Did you catch that? God said ‘no’ to me the first time, but I’ll ask again. We ought to be suspicious about Balaam’s motives. For one thing, if God already warned him not to go, what more did he expect to hear? Furthermore, when God finally relents, it is clearly a concession to Balaam’s stubbornness. The consent is ambiguous because we soon find out “God’s anger was kindled because he was going.” Permission is not approval. Finally, is the reference to silver and gold in his initial hesitation a Freudian slip, of sorts? The author of 2 Peter thinks so, referring to Balaam’s error as love for the wages of wrongdoing (2:15). Balaam prefers money to obedience, choosing to ignore the revealed will of God because of greed.
2. Ignoring the Written Word of God
"The donkey saw the angel of the LORD … with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road … and Balaam struck the donkey…. Then the angel … stood in a narrow path … When the donkey saw the angel … it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. Then the angel … went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn …. When the donkey saw the angel … it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff."
Balaam’s violence against this hapless creature is conspicuous because donkeys are symbols of peace—think of the contrast between warhorses and donkeys in Zechariah 9:9–10, and Jesus the Prince of Peace riding into Jerusalem on the back of one. Furthermore, Torah explicitly demands compassionate treatment of donkeys: “When you come upon your enemy’s … donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free” (Exod 23:4–5). Jesus affirms such kindness to donkeys, observing without condemnation that the pious untie theirs on the Sabbath and lead them to water (Luke 13:15).
If Balaam’s cruelty indicates refusal to listen to Torah, he certainly listens when the donkey speaks:
“What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!”
Ironic, huh? A prophet wants a sword, unaware an angry angel has one in hand, ready to cut him down. Unaware, that is, until “the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel … with his drawn sword in his hand.”
Why didn’t Balaam see the angel right away? I wonder if he chose not to see it. After all, the angel wasn’t hiding. Balaam ignored the revealed will of God and the written word of God, suggesting a pattern of behaviour. He was a prophet of extraordinary capacities, so presumably could have/should have see an angel standing right in front of him—unless, of course, he preferred not to. And so we have the situation of a prophet failing to see a spiritual reality while the least likely of characters spots it without difficulty. The prophet—the real prophet of the story—is an ass. Balaam prefers spiritual blindness to sight. He does not want to be in the presence of God’s messenger, he wants to be in the presence of Balak’s messengers who were leading him at that very moment to the longed-for treasures of Moab.
3. Creation speaks, so listen!
Balaam fails to recognize the animal’s actions and miraculous speech as further messages from God. He ignores them too. God speaks to Balaam through a donkey. He speaks to Jonah—that other flawed prophet—through a fish. Recall the cock’s crow that got Peter’s attention, reminding him of something Jesus said, something Peter refused to believe. But God does not only speak through nonhuman creation as a last resort. The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the works of his hands, day after day they pour forth … what? … speech (Ps 19:1). So too does the rest of the natural world, even donkeys. Why? Because God made them—along with Jonah’s fish and Peter’s rooster and every other creature that exists. And they are, God declares on the first page of our Bibles, “good.” The Balaam story is not just the story of a bad prophet. It is also the story of a good donkey, of the goodness of animal life, and of the evil of treating animal life cruelly or with indifference. And by appreciating the goodness of the world God made, we may just hear him speak in unexpected ways. May God give us ears to hear.