Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible

By Katherine Clay Bassard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
talking mules and
troubled hermeneutics
BLACK WOMEN'S BIBLICAL SELF-DISCLOSURES

In Numbers 22 – 24 the Gentile prophet Balaam is hired by the Moabite King Balak to curse the ancient Israelites.1 While he is supposedly gifted as a seer, Balaam's blindness is in contrast to the supernatural sight of the donkey who “saw the Angel of the Lord.” A beast of burden, subjected to physical abuse, the donkey (or mule, or ass) is the ultimate image of powerlessness in the social hierarchy. Yet it is her supernatural vision and utterance that ensures Balaam's encounter with God, an encounter that will change the direction of the narrative. Only after Balaam listens to the donkey does the Lord open his eyes to the imposing sight of the Angel standing with the drawn sword (22:31). As we follow the story to its conclusion in Numbers 24, Balaam's encounter with God on the way to the plains of Moab, made possible through the speaking donkey, ensures that he will follow God's orders. Every time he thought to curse Israel, “the Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth” (23:5), and he could only pronounce blessings. As Alter and Kermode explain, “the divine will to bless is inalterable by human manipulation” (87).

The popularity of the Balaam story in the Middle Ages stemmed from its allegorical interpretation as prophesying the birth of Jesus in a star often figured as the Virgin Mary, as noted above. In other biblical references to Balaam, in both the Old and New Testaments, the prophet did not fare so well. In Numbers 31, for example, Balaam is blamed for leading the Israelites into idolatry and a troubling war of vengeance with Midian, during which “They also killed Balaam, son of Beor, with the sword” (31:8). In the New Testament book of Jude, he is characterized similarly as a villain and associated with treachery or betrayal.2

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, references to the story of Balaam's ass took a variety of forms, from describing an actual mule, to representing unscrupulous ministers, to quoting Balaam's (misfired) prophetic discourse. Rev. Irving E. Lowery, in Life on the Old Plantation in Ante-Bellum Days (1911),

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