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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Ass of Balaam.
Here we shall only inquire whether it were a reality or an allegory; an imagination, or a vision of Balaam. Augustine, with the greater number of commentators, supposes it was a certain fact, and takes it literally (Qucest. in Genesis 48, 50). He discovers nothing in the whole relation more surprising than the stupidity of Balaam, who heard his ass speak to him, and who replied to it, as to a reasonable person; and adds, as his opinion, that God did not give the ass a reasonable soul, but permitted it to pronounce certain words, to reprove the prophet's covetousness. Gregory of Nyssa (in Vita Mosis) seems to think that the ass did not utter words; but that, having brayed as usual, or a little more than usual, the diviner, practised in drawing presages from the voices of beasts and of birds, easily comprehended the meaning of the ass; and that Moses, designing to ridicule this superstitious art of augury, relates the matter as if the ass really spoke articulately. (But see 2 Peter 2:16.) Maimonides asserts the whole dialogue to be but a kind of fiction and allegory, whereby Moses relates what passed only in Balaam's imagination as real history. Philo, in his life of Moses, suppresses it entirely. So most Jewish authors (not Joseph. Ant. 4:6, 3) consider it, not as a circumstance which actually took place, but as a vision, or some similar occurrence. Le Clerc solves the difficulty by saying Balaam believed in the transmigration of souls, passing from one body into another, from a man into a beast, reciprocally.; and, therefore, he was not surprised at the ass's complaint, but conversed with it as if it were rational.. Others have imagined different ways of solving the difficulties of this history. In considering this question, Mr. Taylor (in Calmet, Diet.) assumes as facts,
(1.) That Balaam was accustomed to augury and presages.
(2.) That on this occasion he would notice every event capable of such interpretation, as presages were supposed to indicate.
(3.) That he was deeply intent on the issue of his journey.
(4.) That the whole of his conduct toward Balak was calculated to represent himself as an extraordinary personage.
(5.) That the behavior of the ass did actually PREFIGURE the conduct of Balaam in the three particulars of it which are recorded. First, the ass turned aside, and went into the field, for which she was smitten, punished; reproved; so Balaam, on the first of his perverse attempts to curse Israel, was, as it were, smitten, reproved, punished, [1.] by God, [2.], by Balak. The second time the ass was more harshly treated for hurting Balaam's foot against the wall; so Balaam, for his second attempt, was, no doubt, still farther mortified. Thirdly, the ass, seeing inevitable danger, fell down and was smitten severely; in like manner, Balaam, the third time, was overruled by God to speak truth, to his own disgrace, and escaped, not without hazard of his life, from the anger of, Balak. Nevertheless, as Balaam had no sword in his hand, though he wished for one, with which to slay his ass, so Balak, notwithstanding his fury, and his seeming inclination, had no power to destroy Balaam. In short, as the ass was opposed by the angel, but was driven forward by Balaam, so Balaam was opposed by God, but was driven forward by Balak, against his better knowledge. Were we sure that Balaam wrote this narrative, and that Moses copied it, as the rabbins affirm, this view of the subject would remove the difficulties which have been raised against it. It might then be entitled "a specimen of Balaam's augury." (See BALAAM).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Ass of Balaam.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/a/ass-of-balaam.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.