What's up with a talking donkey? What are we to make of stories like this one in the Old Testament that ask us to believe that an ass actually spoke?It's a perfectly reasonable question, and I'd like to offer a reasonable answer. Though focusing on this particular miracle-story, perhaps we can learn something of how to approach the Bible's miraculous claims generally. After all, the greatest miracles--Incarnation and Resurrection--are the very heart of the Christian faith. So what we do with Balaam's Ass has far-reaching implications.
We need to recognize that many moderns attempt to divest the Bible of anything smacking of the supernatural. That is, it is fashionable to take a naturalistic approach to understanding the Scriptures. I find this unreasonable on at least two counts.
The first is that naturalism is a much poorer worldview than Christian theism. Though I cannot summarize it all here, let me just note that the latest scientific understanding from such diverse fields as astronomy, physics, biochemistry, and genomics has presented overwhelming problems for naturalism while comporting perfectly with the Biblical understanding. Naturalism does not provide the rational foundation for conducting science, has no explanation for the order in the universe, and provides no reasonable basis for trusting our reasoning capacities or our senses. (That is, reasoning one's way to naturalism is a self-refuting enterprise.) Naturalism cannot adequately account for the laws of logic or of mathematics, the existence of the universe, the design of the universe, the origin of life, the Cambrian Explosion, the origin of information (in the genetic code), the existence of irreducibly complex molecular machines, or the existence of consciousness.
Secondly, I wonder why those who take a naturalistic approach to Scripture would even bother. The Bible claims to be the Word of God, and this is what has always made it a runaway bestseller. If naturalism is true--if there is no God--than why would anyone read such a book? Those who approach the Bible naturalistically have failed to ask the most interesting question of all--is there a God? Or (perhaps I should say) they have answered it in their own minds a priori (before examining the evidence), and that in the negative. The reasonable position would be to be open to discovering the truth on this issue, rather than to rule out one of the possible answers beforehand.
You see, if there is a God--and by this I mean the exact sort of God of which the Bible speaks, one who both created the universe and acts in human history--then none of the miracle claims contained in His revelation to us can be rightly deemed unreasonable.
But for the sake of argument, let me be more open here. Let's neither assume that there is (or is not) a God nor that the Bible is His revelation to us. What is the most reasonable explanation for why this particular story is imbedded in this larger book?
One option is that the author (I'll call him Moses) intended it as fiction. But this doesn't cut it. The larger narrative reads like history, not like The Chronicles of Narnia (where talking animals were the norm). More importantly, wherever the accuracy of this (larger) historical narrative can be tested, it has been verified.
A second option (perhaps the most popular among naturalists) is that the author did not possess the discernment to recognize the silliness of the idea of a talking donkey. It is likely, they say, that this story simply shows that the people of Moses' day were not as sophisticated as we are, and therefore were not taken aback by the insertion of this outlandish tale. While Moses' overall credibility did not suffer during his (and subsequent) generations, surely this particular gaff (that is, including such a story) is proof against our believing any of it.
But again, this explanation doesn't deal honestly with the available evidence. We have absolutely no reason to believe that Moses or his contemporaries were any less startled than we at the thought of a donkey talking. This is the only record in the Pentateuch (or, indeed, in the entire Bible) of an animal speaking. To suggest that the author or his readers accepted this any more uncritically than we would is unsubstantiated inference. To be sure, Moses (on his own account) was privy to other instances of this same Creator-God intervening in human history, and so was predisposed to accept a supernatural explanation for this particularly odd event. But that only leads us to a third--and most reasonable--explanation.
It could just be--as the whole Bible claims, and as a great deal of reason and scientific evidence can be shown to support--that there is a God who is both transcendent to and immanent in this universe. If this is admitted as plausible, then the most straightforward explanation for why Moses included the story of a talking ass in an otherwise historical narrative is that--in this one instance in all of human history--God chose to reveal Himself through the medium of the voice of an otherwise dumb animal.
When Balaam's Ass talked, it got the attention of Balaam, and reminded him that there is a God to whom he was accountable. It also got the attention of Moses, who was every bit as aware as we are that donkeys don't normally speak, and who nonetheless faithfully recorded the event. It got the attention of Moses' contemporaries, of readers throughout the ages, and of readers today. But even today, it is only reasonable to reject this story if the larger claim--that there is a Creator God who acts in human history--is demonstrably false. But that is not the case.
(I originally published a version of this post on March 17, 2007.)