Torah Loves a Wise Donkey

Is the Tanakh anthropocentric? Well, sure! It’s mostly about people. It starts with creation, then narrows its focus to humanity, and finally to one family’s story. But does Tanakh suggest that humans are the wisest creatures? Nope! It suggests that we need all the animal help we can get. Take the donkey, for example. As the Tanakh sees it, a donkey is hardly an “ass”; instead, it is a wise spiritual guide. A kind of inner GPS for humans who need help. And why not? In real life, donkeys are thoughtful, decisive, and reliable. Tanakh’s donkey stories follow a clear pattern. Each story starts with a distressed person. They’ve got a problem to solve. Maybe they aren’t sure what to do, or where to go. So they saddle up their donkey and ride. Anyone who lets the donkey guide them succeeds. Think of Abigail, who rides out to stop the outlaw (and future king) David from killing her husband. By the time she dismounts, she knows just what to say to calm David down (1 Samuel 25). Or think of the woman from Shunem. She has to find the healer (and prophet), Elisha, to save her son’s life. But she doesn’t know where Elisha is. So she saddles up her donkey and rides until she finds him (2 Kings 4). Some characters, though, resist their donkey guides. Then they run into trouble! Think, for example, of Balaam–featured this week in Parshat Balak. Normally, Balaam receives divine guidance in dreams. But, this time, his dreams are confusing. Should he accept the mission to curse the Israelites but say only what God puts in his mouth? Or should he just decline the mission altogether? Balaam decides to go, so he saddles up his donkey and rides. He does not know that a messenger angel is waiting along the way to clarify the task. Of course, his wise donkey sees the angel blocking their path. So she stops and waits. But Balaam refuses to follow his donkey’s guidance. He doesn’t want to stop; he wants to go. He gets angry at the donkey, so angry she has to talk him down. “Haven’t you always ridden me?” she asks. “Have I ever put you in danger?” As soon as Balaam remembers her reliable wisdom, his eyes open, and he, too, sees the angel (Numbers 22). Maybe you’re not really a fan of donkeys. And you’re not yet convinced that donkeys in Tanakh consistently guide people. Don’t worry–there’s lots more evidence. I go into great detail in my book Mouth of the Donkey: Re-imagining Biblical Animals. The Tanakh’s writers did focus on humans. But the writers’ landscape is filled with animals, both working and wild. And they often describe those animals with great respect. They show how deeply human life depends on animal help. Think of the raven who brings Noah daily reports on the landscape (Genesis 8:7). The locusts who gather at God’s command to bring down tyrants (Exodus 10:1-20; Isaiah 40:21-26). The lions who skip a meal when God asks them to (1 Kings 13; Daniel 6). Once you see the animals and their wisdom in this new way, you can’t unsee it. Then, each time you read Tanakh, you’ll continue to deepen your respect for the non-humans who live alongside us.
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