Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Talk With the Animals

From the January 2011 E-Block.
From the way some critics go on about talking animals in the Bible, you would think that the Scriptures hosted a veritable Country Bear Jamboree. Not so. I decided to do this article as a thematic one to see what objections I could gather on the subject. I found two stories repeated in the main, one of which we have handled before and which I will address here again with additional comments – that’s Balaam’s talking donkey. What else is there? There’s the talking serpent of Genesis, of course. And…well, we found some other interesting claims we’ll bring to the fore as well. 

In general, we have three options when considering these stories:
  1. It was some sort of “supernatural” intervention. It is obviously true that God could miraculously grant to an animal the ability to talk (inclusive of the necessary physical and mental apparatuses). This would certainly be no difficult feat for the Creator of entire galaxies.
  2. It was an act of ventriloquism. In other words, the animal was used as a sort of mouthpiece by some other being. This could be either God or Satan, an angel or a demon.
  3. It’s a joke. A joke? Yes. In fact, that’s the argument I have already preferred for our first story, on Balaam, and will now develop for our second story.
Let’s start with that one we handled some time ago, which is Balaam’s donkey. The link to the full article is below, but here’s the selection that has to do with the “talking animal” part:

The way Spero sees things, however, matches the NT reputation of Balaam quite well. In his view, Balaam was just your run-of-the-mill pay-for-prophecy diviner; and his seemingly pious remark to the Moab princes that he would have to ask God what to do was just a tactic. As Spero sees it, the Moabites "probably winked and nodded at each other knowingly, realizing such 'God talk' to be only a facade behind which Balaam deliberated whether the price was right" -- in other words, Balaam did not know God at all (though he obviously knew of God); and the Moabites were asking Balaam to play the typical role of the diviner, as one who could manipulate the gods and influence their decrees...little aware that Yahweh was not that type of deity.
Fast forward to that night. Balaam wasn't making any plans to actually consult God, but lo and behold, God came to him. We are now to imagine, Spero suggests, a shaking and trembling Balaam coming forth and refusing the offer.
Perhaps so -- perhaps the Jewish reader would have understood that God had not actually spoken to Balaam, and have gotten a good laugh out of Balaam claiming to have heard from the Almighty.

In other words, perhaps it was an obvious joke, one that we have lost sight of. Either way, Spero now sees the second offer as an indication that the Moabites simply thought that Balaam wanted more money -- and this, we may note, matches well with the condemnation of Balaam in the NT.

So now we move to the next episode. The Moabites come back to Balaam's door; he hints at payment in a roundabout way; that night, God tells him to go ahead -- or does He?

Spero thinks there is more to it. "God is mocking and playing with Balaam the idolater even as He mocked and played with Pharaoh." [47] This is followed by the most "exquisite irony" as Balaam, the self-proclaimed prophet of God, isn't even able to see the angel of the Lord in front of him -- while his donkey can see it, and has to tell him about it.

The purpose of the story, then, as Spero sees it, is to "debunk the false notions of the age and to poke fun at the pretenses of self-serving men who deceitfully claim to have the power" to hear God.

Since my subject in that article was not precisely animal vocalization, I did not develop this point further, but will do so now. If this entire episode by Balaam is a sort of parody of history – one intended to mock Balaam – then the “joke” would be that Balaam isn’t listening to God when he delivers his oracles; he’s listening instead to a donkey – which is not to say, he literally gets his prophetic news from donkeys, but he might as well be, and he’s all the more fool because of it.

This would make sense of other aspects of the story that have raised questions. It explains why Balaam is not stunned when a donkey speaks to him, for of course, it is a joke: The donkey here probably represents Balaam’s fevered imagination, and the story essentially labels him a false prophet and a fool.
Others have hypothesized that Balaam, for example, was simply in such an irrational mood that he didn’t stop to think, “Hey, this donkey talks!” I do not place this outside the realm of the possible; I have seen such reactions to the amazing myself, though they usually occur among those who would be considered mentally ill or unstable. Perhaps Balaam could have been counted among this number; perhaps he was a schizophrenic who was accustomed to being spoken to by animals, or walls, or even rocks. Given that madness was sometimes seen by pagan peoples as a sign of someone who had been touched by the gods, this is not merely a fancy. (The classic example of this would be Nebuchadnezzar, who was protected in spite of, indeed likely because of, his own temporary insanity.)

However, the “joke” thesis appeals to me more, partly because it reflects my own rather wicked sense of humor, but also because it is specifically a donkey Balaam has a conversation with. If Balaam was also having conversations with rocks and walls, this would surely have been even greater fodder for mocking this reputed prophet.

The question now left: Is this a better explanation than the other two – both of which hypothesize some sort of “supernatural” intervention? We’ll look at some reasons that might be given, for this and our second story, below, which apply to both. Here, specifically, though, there’s not much reason to opt for 1 or 2 above. The donkey’s message is composed of a mere two sentences, neither of which would serve much purpose for either side of the “supernatural” realm in turning Balaam either way. All they do it make Balaam look like a fool – which is in accord with the “joke” thesis. Indeed, since Balaam essentially loses the argument with the donkey – having to admit his behavior towards it was unjust.

So now we move to our second instance – the “talking snake” in Genesis. Many interpreters opt for the “ventriloquism” interpretation, supposing that a demon spoke through an actual animal. But here too, I tend to opt for a “joke” interpretation – although in this case, maybe not a funny one. Here identification of the evil one with a “serpent” would be akin to a modern editorial cartoon in which various figures are identified with animals. Here is a classic example in which Teddy Roosevelt was identified with a bull moose – his totem animal, as it were:

The serpent, which many ancient cultures regarded as an evil (but also wise) creature, would become a perfect “editorial cartoon” figure to represent the evil being in Genesis (whether Satan or some other figure, matters little).

So is that it? Well, I looked around for more examples, but couldn’t find many. There was one who declared this one a problem:

...four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within; and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty" (Rev.4:6-8).
Obviously, though, being that Revelation is an apocalypse filled with unreal images, including this one in the “talking animals” category is far too literalist.
After this, I found objections about talking objects other than animals. The most appealed to was the burning bush in Exodus, though since the voice is identified as that of YHWH, it seems clear that this one was an act of “ventriloquism” rather than of horticultural enunciation.

Finally, I found one appeal to this:

Yet another such incident is when Jesus says that the rocks will cry out if his followers are silenced in praising him (Luke 19:40). This, of course, only implies that the rocks will cry out, they never get their chance to sing but the fact that it is a feasible occurrence raises some fundamental questions about the nature of geology. Apparently Yahweh has designed the rocks with the ability to cry out, if ever Jesus stops being praised, whether they are sentient or merely set to react to a lack of praise is never addressed.
I probably don’t need to say much about a person like this who can’t grasp the elements of comic hyperbole.

In closing, this leaves us with a couple of questions:

How does this affect the doctrine of inerrancy? It doesn’t It only does if we assume that the intent of the texts was to relate that there was, literally and historically, a talking snake or donkey. If the intent was to have a jab at someone, then what is being inerrantly related is facts like, “Balaam was a false prophet” – via the medium of a joke.

How do we tell a joke from real history? The same way we’d do it if we learned another language from a culture with forms of humor we didn’t understand. There’s no shortcut. My analysis here is based on a general understanding of the broad and vivid sense of humor one finds in Biblical texts and culture, with strong emphases on hyperbole, irony, and wild figures of speech. Those who think a literal reading is better will have to produce their own arguments as to why, contextually, it is to be preferred – and it will not be enough to say, eg, that it threatens common perceptions of inerrancy and interpretation.

Article on Balaam is here.


  1. Nice one! This reminds me of an article I once read which hypothesized that the real genre of Jonah is satire rather than historical narrative.

    P.S. Your Tekton article on Original Sin appears to be down.

  2. Thanks re origsin article. There's a flaw in the new template which means that happens if I use an apostrophe in the title code. I didn't know that at first, which is why I don't know what articles that may have happened to.