Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? —Numbers 22:30
alking animals, of course, are a staple in every culture’s mythology. There’s Aesop and Tolkien and The Golden Compass and The Jungle Book and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. In Prince Caspian, when Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy return to Narnia for the first time after a long absence, the children are surprised to learn that some of the animals can’t talk; in the brutality of a totalitarian state, they’ve lost the gift of speech they once had, so the surprise is not that they can talk, but that they can’t.
The Bible too is a book of myth and legend and magic and mystery and miracle, so the scarcity of talking animals in the Bible might come as something of a surprise. In the whole Bible, there are only two talking animals: Eden’s crafty snake and Balaam’s loquacious donkey.
Balaam’s ass, it turns out, is so famous and so important he’s spawned a long and rich legacy of chatty equines. Any New Trier kids here this morning? They will know about Xanthus. Xanthus is Achilles’ talking horse in The Iliad. When Achilles scolds Xanthus for inferior effort in a battle with the Trojans, Xanthus responds by telling Achilles that he is about to die.
Shakespeare gives us Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Methinks I have a great desire to a bottle of hay,” he says.
Winnie the Pooh has Eeyore, who lives in The Gloomy Place, Rather Boggy and Sad.
And of course Shrek has a donkey who sounds just like Eddie Murphy, and loves waffles and parfaits.
And if you’re my age or more, you’ll remember this:
A horse is a horse,
of course, of course,
[but] this one’ll talk ’til his voice is hoarse.
You never heard of a talking horse?
Well listen to this,
I am Mister Ed!
Clearly, Balaam’s chatty donkey started something magnificent, but what exactly did he do? This is the story: The Hebrews are ready to take possession of the Promised Land. Unfortunately, of course, the Promised Land is already occupied, and when the Hebrews come knocking at Canaan’s door in swarming millions, the current residents are terrified.
King Balak of Moab calls a cabinet meeting to figure out how to hold them off. Exponentially outnumbered, Balak knows he can never defeat them militarily, so he adopts the curious strategy of defeating them magically or linguistically, with curses and incantations. He can never win a war of swords, so he tries to win a war of words.
King Balak knows a cunning clairvoyant with a silver tongue and an uncommon connection to the nether world of gods and demons. His name is Balaam. If Balaam curses you, you stay cursed, and if Balaam blesses you, you stay blessed. Somehow, magically, mysteriously, Balaam’s word becomes inexorable fact. “Curse these infernal Hebrew hordes,” Balak tells Balaam, “and I will make you richer than God.”
But things do not go well for Balaam en route to the king’s palace. The donkey unaccountably veers off the road into a field as if she wants to snack on the clover. Balaam lashes her flank with the reins. Back on the road, Balaam and his mount pass a narrow stretch between walled vineyards and she lurches so far left of center like a drunk driver she crushes Balaam’s tender ankle against the rough stone wall. He pops her upside the head. They go on for a while but then the donkey just seems to have had enough of this and lies down in the middle of the road with Balaam still astride and refuses to take another step. Balaam wallops her with his walking stick.
And here’s where the story gets really interesting. The donkey, seriously aggrieved, turns around and lets Balaam have it. With words. “What have I done to you that you’ve walloped me upside the head three times?” she complains. Balaam seems to see nothing strange about this and replies as if a talking donkey is the most natural thing in the world. “Because you’ve made a fool of me,” he whines. “If I had a sword, I’d run you through right now.”
Unfortunately for Balaam, and fortunately for the donkey, the only sword in close proximity is in the hands of the flaming angel the donkey has seen all along but Balaam, all—seeing clairvoyant that he is supposed to be, hasn’t noticed yet. But then God opens the prophet’s eyes and he realizes that she has saved his life three times. “If that donkey hadn’t turned aside,” the angel tells Balaam, “I would have killed you and let her live.”
Now Balaam eventually reaches his destination at the palace and agrees to curse the Hebrew hordes, but when he finally gets around to the edge of the Hebrew encampment, the only words he can find are rich with blessing and benediction. With four long and eloquent incantations, Balaam ensures the Hebrews’ prosperous future with God-given promises of health, wealth, and large families of chattering babies. If Balaam cursed you, remember, you stayed curse, and if Balaam blessed you, you stayed blessed.
Where the word ‘donkey’ came from is uncertain, but it might be an affectionate diminutive of the name ‘Duncan,’ commonly given to friendly horses. The older and more vulgar word for donkey is ‘ass,’ of course, from the formal Latin label equus asinus.
The donkey, of course, is the Rodney Dangerfield of the equine family. Humble of reputation and awkward of physique, “with monstrous head and sickening cry and ears like errant wings, the devil’s walking parody of all four-footed things,” as Chesterton put it, the donkey is actually quite an amazing animal—powerful, sure-footed, and perfectly adapted to survival in a rocky, barren wilderness. He is low-maintenance; you barely have to feed him; the jack-ass will find his own forage. The donkey appears one hundred times in the Bible, most famously at Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, carrying the Messiah.
Well, so what’s the point, right? Why am I wasting your time with tales of Eeyore, Eddie Murphy, Mr. Ed, and Balaam’s famous ass, foolish if fabulous fables every one? Well, I’m glad you asked! I want to talk to you about a blocked path, a flaming sword, and a stealthy providence.
Point #1: A blocked path and a flaming sword. Put yourself in Balaam’s saddle for a moment. Blocked paths, flaming swords, and balky donkeys might actually turn out to be gifts from God. The next time your conveyance of choice lies down in the middle of the road with you still astride and refuses to go a step further; the next time your ten-year-old Corolla breaks down on your way to the job interview; the next time you fail the crucial test; the next time your husband of twenty years walks out on you with two kids in college and $80,000 worth of tuition payments; the next time you get laid off from the job you’ve had at Caterpillar for 20 years; the next time you’re the runner-up (again) for that coveted job; you might consider that the balky, garrulous donkey is diverting you from curses and leading you straight to God’s rich four-fold blessing. Closed doors, shuttered windows, blocked paths, scary angels with flaming swords, stubborn mules with keen eyesight, abject failure at what you thought you wanted to do with your life, these all might be God’s clandestine benediction, flashing arrows pointing you a different but a better way.
At the bottom of Jackie Robinson’s elementary school transcript a teacher wrote a curt note about Jackie’s future prospects: “Gardener, probably” wrote the helpful teacher. A few years later Branch Rickey comes calling (Branch Rickey, University of Michigan Law School Class of 1911), Branch Rickey comes calling, the gardener plants himself at second base, plows furrows along the base-paths at Ebbets Field, and transforms baseball and America.
Do you know who John Chambers is? I learned a wonderful lesson from John Chambers. John Chambers ran Cisco Systems for 20 years beginning in 1995. Cisco is this network systems hardware company started by two Stanford professors in 1984 in San Jose, California.
When John Chambers became CEO in 1995, income at Cisco was $70 million a year (with an ‘m’) and when he retired in 2015 they were making $40 billion a year (with a ‘b’). They have over 60,000 employees worldwide and a market cap of about $150 billion. Briefly in the year 2000, Cisco was the biggest company in the world with a market cap of $500 billion, just ahead of Microsoft.
When John Chambers was nine years old, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, but not really, because they didn’t have a word for it in 1958 when John was nine years old. John says he read right to left; it’s too bad he wasn’t raised in Israel where all Hebrew speakers read right to left. But anyway every time John had to read aloud in public it was a traumatic experience. His mind would seize up and he’d have a panic attack and he would break out into cold sweats.
But then in the fourth grade he got a teacher named Mrs. Anderson who taught him to look at his dyslexia problem as if it were a curve ball. Curve balls were something he could handle. Mrs. Anderson taught him that a curve ball comes in the same way every time; it breaks the same way every time; it’s predictable; it’s something you can hit out of the park. For 30 years at Cisco, the former dyslexic made a living speaking publicly to shareholders, employees, customers, and politicians.
But here’s what I learned from John Chambers. John Chambers says that it was precisely his dyslexia that enabled him to be so successful. The necessity to confront and surmount this challenge gave him two gifts essential to running a giant corporation: resilience and sensitivity to others. In other words, John’s learning disability made him tough, and it made him kind. You need those things if you’re going to supervise 60,000 people and manage $150 billion.
Later, General Electric CEO Jack Welch confirmed this life lesson for John Chambers. Mr. Chambers asked Mr. Welch what it takes to have a great company, and Mr. Welch replied, “It takes major setbacks and overcoming them.
Just a few months after Cisco became the world’s largest company, it tanked, and the shareholders were clamoring for heads, new leadership. Jack Welch called John Chambers and said, “Now you have a great company.”
John says, “People think that we are the product of our successes, but it’s probably the case that our challenges are more important in shaping our character.”
Or Point #2: A stealthy providence. This time you’re not Balaam, but the unsuspecting Hebrews. You see, here’s the thing about this Balaam story. It’s one of the strangest stories in the whole Bible, not just because the donkey talks, but also because no one knows where this Balaam comes from.
He’s not a Jew, you see. He’s not a Moabite. He lives in an obscure town on the banks of the Euphrates River, but that’s all we know about him. He’s a non-Jewish prophet; he’s never met Moses or Joshua. Balaam is not a Jew and does not love the Jews and does not care about the Jews, but he is the guardian of all these powerful incantations, and he is on his way to curse the Jews because somebody has paid him a million dollars to do so, but in the end he can’t let loose with his curses.
Did you notice this? The Jews are nowhere to be seen in this story. This is the only story in the Jewish Bible I can think of that doesn’t have a Jew in it. King Balak and Prophet Balaam and Balaam’s loquacious ass act out this whole vivid drama on the edge of the Jewish encampment and the Jews don’t even know it’s happening. Unbeknownst to the Jews God is diverting curses from their doorstep with scary angels and flaming swords and balky donkeys.
Perhaps what it means for us today is that there might be a stealthy providence at work in your life too. Someone is coming to curse you and you didn’t even know it. Someone is coming to curse you, but you didn’t even know it, because his otherwise reliable BMW just broke down in the center lane of the Chicago Skyway. Some rich clairvoyant with powerful incantations is being paid a million dollars to curse you, but when he finally gets to your house, a stealthy providence twists his obscenities into rich blessings for a prosperous future.
Someone has just fallen asleep at the wheel and is drifting across the yellow line to strike you, but you didn’t even know it, because an invisible hand slaps his face just in time. Viruses lurk and malignancies wait and terrorists stalk, but you didn’t even know it, because they have not come nigh you to harm. How many close calls have we all survived and how many times have we been carried to blessing on the wings of an unseen providence? We will never know.
Life is a game of inches and seconds. You stay at the bar for one last drink and in walks the stranger with whom you will forge a prosperous lifelong business partnership.
You are a slow learner, indifferent and distracted and dyslexic, but then the computer arbitrarily assigns you to Mrs. Anderson’s class, and she teaches you to read and you end up running a giant company. The computer might have put you in dull Mr. Bunson’s class, which means maybe you might be out on parole by now.
By mistake you leave a semester’s worth of notes in the classroom, walk clear across campus to the next class before you realize your mistake, turn around for the bootless ten-minute walk to retrieve them—there seems to be an angel with a flaming sword in your path—but then there she is, your first sight of the woman of your dreams, the love of your life, an accidental meeting at the end of a detour. Accidental? Perhaps we use the words ‘accident’ and ‘coincidence’ too frequently.
Someone is coming to curse you, but you didn’t even know it, because there is a flaming sword before him and a stubborn mule beneath him, and when he finally arrives, the only words he can think of are brimming with promise and blessing and benediction. Four times he’ll bless you, this unknown but powerful prophet. Four times!
As Frederick Buechner puts it, “The next time the old mare looks up from her grazing and lets loose with an exultant whinny at the empty horizon, you might do well to consider that the horizon is not as empty as you think.”
“The Donkey” in The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (Dodd Mead & Company, 1927).
Paul Gray, “Busting the Color Line,” Time Magazine, October 20, 1997, p. 107.
Adam Bryant, “In a Near-Death Event, a Corporate Rite of Passage,” The New York Times, August 2, 2009.
Slightly adapted from Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (New York: Harper Collins, 1979), p. 13.