Seeing Jesus in a Talking Donkey: How to Preach Jesus from the Weird Parts of Scripture
As a youth pastor, I aimed to preach Jesus and his Gospel every week from every passage of Scripture. But, let’s be honest, sometimes the Bible is violent, weird, or even sexual. My attempts to preach good news could be drowned out by the gore of a mutilated concubine or the strangeness of a talking donkey (or, as middle-schoolers prefer to call it: “ass”). Where is Jesus in stories like these?
Now I’m no longer a youth minister but a writer with the non-profit, Spoken Gospel, trying to navigate these exact same issues for our audiences on Youtube and YouVersion. By the end of 2022, we hope to have proclaimed Jesus in over 700 literary units (so far, we’re about 250 in). If you’ve ever felt the way I have, here’s what I’ve learned so far in my mission to preach Jesus from every corner of Scripture.
Early on, I would come to a story like Balaam and his talking donkey in the book of Numbers and think, “This is weird. I need to make this palatable. Then I will move on.” But the more I’ve studied, the more I’ve realized the Bible isn’t weird, I just don’t understand the point it’s making yet. And hidden in the weirdness is normally very good news. Let me prove it.
The Bible isn’t weird, you just don’t understand it yet.
During Israel’s wandering in the wilderness Balak, a local king, grew afraid of the Israelites. So he hired Balaam, a famous prophet for hire, to curse Israel and secure his victory against them in battle.
But as Balaam rides his donkey to meet Balak, the donkey veers off the road three time because it keeps seeing an angel with a sword. Balaam, blind to the angel, brutally forces the animal back onto the road. Eventually the donkey talks and asks why he’s being beaten. God then reveals himself as the angel to Balaam, warning him to only prophecy what he tells him.
Balaam’s ass is only one of two talking critters in the Bible. And like the talking snake foreshadows a conflict and an ironic defeat (Genesis 3:16), the talking donkey foreshadows conflict and irony too. The story with the donkey and Balaam foreshadows what’s about to happen with Balaam and Balak.
The two finally meet on top of a mountain. Balak demands Balaam to curse Israel, but Balaam’s mouth is filled (as if by force) by God’s blessing of Israel (Judges 23:5). Blind to God’s presence, Balak stubbornly tries to force Balaam into blessing Israel twice more. And just like the donkey swerved away from the angel, Balaam’s curses swerve into blessings for Israel. Just like Balaam was angry with his donkey, Balak is angry at Balaam.
The story of the talking donkey isn’t weird, it’s a joke. God is mocking Israel’s enemies. The prophet Balaam is being ridden like a mule by King Balak. And Balak is too blind to see that God’s intent to bless Israel will not be stopped by him. The joke is, next to God, a mighty king and the world’s best prophet are nothing more than a couple of asses.
While Israel is sinfully disobeying him in the wilderness, God is putting to shame the principalities and powers arrayed against them. The apostle Paul talks about our salvation in the same terms (Colossians 2:15). A crucified king is foolish like a talking donkey, but God humiliates our enemies precisely when we don’t deserve it through the foolish power of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:27).
The Deliverer is in the details.
Those observations were hard work. Doing double the work in half the time is a lie. More often I’m doing twice the study at half the speed. But getting lost in the details is another path to good news.
In total, the prophet Balaam gives four oracles, or prophecies. Interestingly, each oracle matches the threats and curses of Egypt’s Pharaoh back in Exodus 1.
Pharaoh enslaved Israel because he was worried they were too numerous. But Balaam prophecies that Israel will be innumerable (Numbers 23:10). Pharaoh feared the strength of Israel and decreed ethnically-selective abortion. But Balaam compares Israel to vigorous lions (Numbers 23:24). Pharaoh was scared of losing a war to Israel and threw babies into the Nile. But Balaam prophecies Israel’s children will rise from the water and defeat her enemies (Numbers 24:7).
In one sense, the deliverer Balaam references is Moses! Moses is the child pulled from the water who will crush the head of Israel’s enemies (Numbers 24:17). But the details fit Jesus better. Balaam’s prophecies are about a rising star from Judah (Numbers 24:16). Moses was from the tribe of Levi, so he couldn’t be the star. But Jesus was. Jesus, from the tribe of Judah, fulfilled all righteousness as he was pulled from the waters of his baptism, and crushed the head not just of armies but of death and sin on the cross.
Preach a Native Gospel.
What I hope I’m demonstrating is that the deeper we go in the details, the better, more beautiful, more nuanced picture of Jesus’ good news we get. A satirical story like that of the donkey – where our enemies’ stubborn desire to curse is undone by the Word of God in the mouth of a pagan prophet – is not only not boring, it allows us to think about Jesus in fresh ways. For instance, consider this fascinating parallel: that while the New Testament Pharisees are stubbornly breathing curses at Jesus, the high priest blindly prophesies that it’s better for one man to die than for all of Israel to perish (John 11:50). The story of Jesus’ death is the ironic defeat of a stubborn enemy’s curse foreshadowed by the blessing of an accidental prophet.
I call this “preaching a native gospel:” using the images, ideas, and language of a literary unit to add texture to the Gospel story we’ve heard and preached hundreds of times.
While it might sound scandalous, I think this means we don’t always have to narrowly talk about “salvation from sin” every time we work the preaching muscle. The native gospel in Numbers 23-25 isn’t about sin and salvation, but about curses and blessings.
This approach will help your students read the book of Numbers better. It should grow their appreciation for the genius of Scripture, and the God who orchestrated the history it details. But most importantly this approach adds depth and nuance to the Gospel your students have heard a thousand times before.
In Balaam’s story we aren’t asking students to primarily reflect on their impurity in light of God’s glory, or on their need for a savior (these would be great categories for Isaiah 6). Instead, we’re inviting our students to think about the curses Satan throws their way (sin, suicidal ideations, anxious thoughts, and depressive episodes) and how Jesus turns Satan into an ass, turns his curses into jokes, and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, he blesses us instead (Colossians 2:15).