Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Donkeys and dream omens

The donkey is widely associated with divination. This association is observed in late-third-millennium Sumer (§2.5.1), early-second-millennium Egypt (§, late-second-millennium Ugarit (§, second-first-millennium Mesopotamia (§2.4.2), and, I would suggest, at first-millennium Deir Alla (§; cf. Num 22-24). The donkey is particularly common in dream omens (§§,, 2.4.2, 2.5.1). K. Way, Donkeys in the Biblical World (Eisenbrauns 2011), 99.

This raises the question of whether Balaam saw and heard his donkey speaking in a vision. If you combine the fact that donkeys were common in dream omens with the further fact that Balaam was a seer, that makes sense. Indeed, the text credits him with visions, night visions, and/or prophetic dreams  (Num 22:20; 24; 24:3-4,15-17). 

That would parallel the angelic apparition. In Scripture, angels appear to people in dreams and visions. It would make sense if he was in a trance state at the time. 

That's a neglected interpretation option. It's important to understand an ancient text it its cultural context. 


  1. Seems incredibly unlikely to me that this was a vision.

    The account in Numbers 22 has Balaam getting up in the morning and doing something in the real world. Saying it's a dream vision would require he isn't really traveling, or that he IS really traveling, then having a dream vision, then getting back to reality...none of which the text indicates.

    Another problem is the nature of the dream vision. Balaam would be seeing himself in his vision riding on the donkey, and seeing himself not seeing the Angel of the LORD, while he sees his donkey seeing the Angel instead. So in his vision, he's aware of the Angel, but is seeing himself from a 3rd person perspective not seeing the Angel? Or is the fact that the donkey saw the Angel in the vision something that Balaam -- despite seeing this happen in a vision -- wasn't aware of?

    Where else in Scripture do people have vivid visions of themselves from a 3rd person perspective?

    Also, I'm not sure that God coming to Balaam at night in Numbers 22 is a dream. Probably is, but then it'd still be the only dream vision described as such.

    There just doesn't seem to be any compelling reason to read this as a dream vision, and it seems to require a lot of stretching to make it fit into one.

    1. Your comment is almost entirely predicated on the false premise that I think Balaam's experience might have been a dream or night vision. I never said that. I listed three categories, dreams, visions, and night visions. We could debate whether dreams and night visions are synonymous. Be that as it may, seers can have visions when they are wide awake. It's an altered state of consciousness. Some of Ezekiel's visions were daytime visions. Ditto: John the Revelator. Isaiah may have had his inaugural vision (Isa 6) of the heavenly temple when he was in the Jerusalem temple. Zechariah had a vision of an angel when he was in the temple (Lk 1).

      Admittedly, it's sometimes difficult for readers to distinguish subjective from objective visions. The text doesn't always give sufficient clues. But that ambiguity means we can't rule out a visionary interpretation of Num 22.

    2. Regarding the third-person perspective:

      In ordinary dreams, we perceive events from a first-person perspective because our dreams are figments of the dreamer's imagination. In the nature of the case, he will perceive the dreamscape and characters therein from his own viewpoint, since his mind is the ultimate source of the dream.

      By contrast, in supernatural dreams, visions, and night visions, the ultimate source of the experience lies outside the seer or dreamer. He is an observer. God is using the seer/dreamer's imagination as a medium to experience scenes which God produces. So that distinction allows for a more detached, third-person perspective.

  2. Hardly is it "almost entirely" predicated on a false premise. There's no indication or division in the text to suggest it was an altered state of consciousness.

    And such a trance state still doesn't explain how we're told that his donkey say the angel while Balaam could not. Is the donkey having a vision? Or is Balaam having a vision of the donkey seeing something he doesn't see? It's quite a stretch to read the account that way. And what would be the point in having Balaam have a vision of his donkey seeing something invisible? It makes more sense if it's simply an account of a supernatural encounter.

    1. i) The fact that Balaam is a seer, in addition to the further fact that in the ANE, donkeys figured in divination, including dream omens, is certainly reason to make allowance for a visionary interpretation.

      ii) Another reason is Balaam's nonchalant response to the donkey. He doesn't even act surprised at the spectacle of a talking donkey. Would you be that blasé if a donkey started talking to you? If, however, he was in a trance, then that makes it easier to explain why he wasn't fazed by a talking donkey. Just like dreamers aren't ruffled by surreal, incongruous sights and incidents that happen to them in dreams.

      iii) At first, Balaam doesn't see the angel, then he does. That suggests a subjective element to the experience.

      iv) The point of the donkey's ability to discern the angel before Balaam does is to mock Balaam's reputation as a professional seer.

    2. "It makes more sense if it's simply an account of a supernatural encounter."

      Having an angel appear to you in a dream or vision is a supernatural encounter. It needn't be physical to be supernatural.

      In addition, you seem to be operating with a false dichotomy, as if Balaam can't be riding his donkey if he has a vision. But nothing precludes Balaam from having a vision while he is riding his donkey, or having a vision about his donkey while he is riding his donkey. God can cause a person to have a vision any place at any time. Indeed, if Balaam is riding his donkey, that frees him up to have a vision.