Balaam’s Lack of Surprise at Donkey’s Speech

In Torah study group last week, we were discussing Balaam and his attempt to curse Israel. One thing which really struck us is how Balaam doesn’t even seem surprised when his donkey started talking to him! He just answers back! Why didn’t he and the ministers with him completely freak out when it happened? Were such things normal in those days?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your good question. You are right that Balaam seems to express no surprise over his donkey's sudden capacity to speak. He seems to respond right away, as if he were talking to any other person. (Of course the Torah does not have to record every detail of the story for us – only those parts which are relevant for future generations. It is possible that Balaam was taken aback – but clearly, the impression one gets from the Torah is that he took almost no notice of it, but rather immediately responded to his donkey's complaint.) In fact, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:12) notes the utter shock of the Moabite princes over "the miracle that there was never like it ever before." But Balaam apparently took it in stride.

One of the chief medieval Torah commentators, Rabbeinu Bechaye, of 13th-14th century Spain, takes note of this (22:29). He explains that God performed such an extraordinary miracle specifically in order to shock Balaam. God wanted to wake Balaam up, so to speak, so that he would realize just how much of an effort God was making to arrest his travels, and he should have realized from this that God did not want him to go. But Balaam, due to his cruel, wicked nature and his strong desire to curse Israel took no heed. He responded to his donkey almost without flinching and moved on.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:12) likewise states that God performed such a great miracle in order that Balaam realize that the ability to speak is a gift from God. He can grant it even to a beast if He so desires, and He can remove it from a human if that human opposes His will. Balaam should have understood this and realized he will never be able to curse Israel against God’s will. But this message too was lost on Balaam, who in his wicked zeal would not be stopped. (See also Seforno to 22:28.)

I believe that further, Balaam’s lack of a reaction reflected the type of person he was. Balaam was a person of contradictions. The Sages attest that he was wicked through and through, yet he received prophecy from God. He did not nearly have the spiritual strength to achieve prophecy in his own merit, and he could not possibly incorporate such intense spiritual highs into his essence. He thus lived in a messed up world, in which direct communion with God did not sanctify him in the slightest. (By contrast, a true prophet would have to work for years in study and spiritual purification to reach prophecy.)

Thus, Balaam lived in a topsy-turvy world – in which the most spiritual of experiences could coexist with the most vulgar and depraved of behaviors. And so, nothing shocked him. He did not live a “normal” life in any sense. He had no sense of decency or of fair play. He inhabited an evil world, in which prophetic powers were used to curse rather than to instruct and inspire. And so, nothing fazed him; there was no such thing as abnormal. Miracles which would have awed any regular person made not the slightest impression on him.

See also this article, in which I discuss this notion in more detail, contrasting Balaam to Abraham:

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