Animals Can Teach Us
A sermon based on: Numbers 22:15-35
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio August 23, 2015 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
It seems very odd to me that a number of Bible commentaries on the story we just heard don’t mention it’s supposed to be funny. Most seem to take a serious approach like focusing on the angel or discuss the donkey in academic terms like, talking animals are common in folk tales.
But this really was meant to be a funny story. The phrase “talking donkey” alone makes us smile.
I suspect that’s why we don’t hear much about this story. These days Literalists, have co-opted our culture’s idea of how to read the Bible and it’s pretty hard to read this one literally as an it-happened-for-real event. A talking donkey on earth in everyday life is not very likely. So rather than have fun with it Christians tend to hide it. Which is too bad because this story is not only funny, but meaningful.
Balaam is a non-Jewish seer whom God relies upon and blesses. There are actually non-Biblical accounts of Balaam, suggesting it’s probable he was real. But common sense tells us it’s not probable he had a talking donkey, an ancient Francis the mule (or if you are younger Mr. Ed). See while it may be believable humans can speak like a donkey, it’s not believable donkeys can speak like a human. The story plays on this idea, an ass acts as a human should (caring and even risk taking for another) while the human acts worse than an ass berating and beating the very being who rescued him.
We get a jaded picture of Balaam in the lesson. He’s actually portrayed in the Bible in both a good and bad light. 1. Our humorous donkey talking tale is dropped into the middle of a story about Balaam doing God’s bidding. For all his fame and work with God, the story shows us that Balaam is human, and as such fallible. How good of a human seer could Balaam be when an ass can clearly see what he cannot?” Humans are humans, even famous wise ones fail.
Enough about Balaam, I want to focus on his donkey. She’s a good metaphor for what domestic animals do for humans day-in-and-day-out, as our helpmates and pals– whether as pets or as beasts of burden. Balaam’s donkey carries Balaam on her back and we learn from her that she has done so his entire life: “Am I not your donkey which you have ridden all your life to this day?” She asks. And until this story she complied with his commands. But, as we heard, the donkey refused Balaam’s commands three times this one day at great risk to herself.
Why did she refuse? Because she saw what that great seer could not see: A threat to his very being. She risks her master’s wrath to save his life. As the angel tells Balaam “The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” While Balaam claims that if he had a sword he would have killed the donkey for failing to follow orders, the angel it turns out had a sword and did not use it on Balaam precisely because the donkey did not comply with Balaam’s orders.
The master is not always right. Animals do much good for us, even good we may not at first comprehend. This story portrays a faithful, dedicated, hardworking long time friend in a beast of burden, a donkey. God used this lowly-to-humans animal to not only keep Balaam alive, but to humble him. Humans do not always know what is best.
Our fellow animals have great value to God and to us. They can save our lives and speak to us if we listen– and I do not mean in human words, but, by the truth of their action and the faithful, dedicated, hardworking long time friendships – and love– they give us.
Animals may not talk with human speech but they do affect our lives and even save them. There are a lot of stories about animals saving human life. True stories. I thought it would be fun to hear four short modern day stories of animals blessing humans 2, before we get to our blessings of animals:
“Winnie a [14 year old] cat saved the lives of her family when a gasoline-powered water pump in their basement caused an odorless but deadly gas to fill the house. Winnie [leaped] on her owners bed and started to jump, nudge and meow relentlessly as the house filled with fumes. Winnie’s meows were wild like screams. The couple [got up and found their] 14 year-old-son was unconscious. [But b]ecause of Winnie’s persistence, 911 was called and the family was treated and survived . . . Winnie [an elderly cat], saved their lives.” . . .
“Anette adopted Norman a blind Golden Lab from the pound. Because he was blind, Norman could only safely run free on the beach. Anette would often walk Norman along the beach. One day, as Annette and Norman were walking . . . Norman . . . hear[d] someone crying out for help.. A young girl had been swimming with her brother and got caught in the strong current. Norman swam toward the girl, and pulled her back to the shore . . . This wonderful story has been published in a children’s book called ‘Brave Norman.’” . . .
JoAnn was taking care of her daughter’s potbellied pig named Lulu. JoAnn suffered a major heart attack while she was watching Lulu. She cried for help, but no one could hear her. Lulu knew that Joann was in trouble and ran out of the house. The pig laid down in the middle of the street [to try and stop] . . . traffic. Lulu tried relentlessly to get help. Lulu would return to the house to check on JoAnn, and then return to the street searching for someone to help. Finally, someone noticed Lulu and followed her to the door. JoAnn was rushed to the hospital and she survived . . . Lulu the potbellied pig is [an] . . . animal hero.
[One summer day. . .] a three-year-old boy fell 18 feet into the gorilla enclosure at the Brookfield zoo. The child was lying unconscious when Binti Jua [one of the zoo’s gorilla’s] picked him up and protectively cradled him in her arms. Binti Jua gently carried him to the zookeeper’s door, where the child could be rescued. Binti Jua had her 17-month-old baby, Koola, clutched to her back throughout the incident. The boy spent four days in the hospital and recovered fully. 2
None of the animals in these stories could literally talk, but, each of their acts speak volumes as to the faithful friendships and care they gave humans. Balaam’s donkey may not have actually spoken but she is a vehicle by which we can hear how God works wonders through animals. The other stories we just heard evidence that these wonders through animals continue to occur and bless us. Indeed while none of the animals here today may have saved us from a known peril, their friendship and love certainly enriches our lives and speaks to us about the love within creation that can, and surely does, transcend species. It’s a love at least as old as the story of Balaam’s donkey. AMEN
* based on a sermon I first preached in 2009
1. Metzger, Bruce, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, (1993) p. 72
2. I got these stories off of a web link at http://www.squidoo.com/heroicanimals#module11183273
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