A narrative by Balaam’s ass
When my new little book on Jonah came out earlier this week, a budding narrative preacher was kind enough to describe it like this: ‘Jonah’s struggles are felt and brought vividly to the front of the imagination in a way I had never previously experienced. From the comic strip story I experienced in childhood… to a full 3D IMAX account with smells and all!‘ I am humbled by the description even if unsure that I can live up to it! What is true, though, is that narrative technique is intended to introduce an element of the three-dimensional to the preaching encounter. Tonight I have tried to do just that with the story of Balaam’s ass. What you read below was then followed up with one or two reflections on our (mis)use of God’s gift of language.
Recent excavations in Mesopotamia have revealed many exciting treasures. Some are gorgeous item of Jewellery – crafted by ancient hands and then burnished by the abrasive shifting sands of time. Others are ruins – of palaces, houses and streets. Amongst the most unusual is this scroll. It has sat gathering dust in a cobweb-ridden corner of a museum basement…until now. It is a scroll, dictated to a scribe, by….a donkey
I’m an ass. There we are, I’ve said it. Knowing how you bipeds love to titter, let’s just call me “bottom” and be done with it. I have no other name – my master never saw fit to give me one. So “bottom” will have to do:
Kind of a creature
My master was a prophet – or so he claimed. Supposedly he could see things which others could not see. He was gifted, apparently, with a far –seeing sight and words which echoed with heavenly wisdom. Word came afar one day from across the plains that a king had need of his skills. Some God-botherers were camped on the border it seemed, and King Balak wanted the frighteners put on them. My master was a curse for hire apparently – a curse for life more like! I rarely listen to biped conversations. I have never known them yet to benefit me. This time, though, they seemed to be very enervated – hawing and braying like dumb animals. One lot came with shiny money in their hands and asked him to go back with them. He slept, woke, refused and they left. Another lot came – more numerous and pompous than the first . This time their voices rose to fever pitch as the bargained, bartered, cajoled and whinnied. The next day, he gave in, and off we went.
Now, I don’t mind that he took no time to fit the saddle properly before leaving – it was never comfortable anyway. I don’t mind that he brought little food for the two of us – he never washes his hands before he prepares it and I can find my own. What I DO mind is that he left the house without spending ONE SECOND to kneel before the Great One and seek his counsel. I would gladly have fitted my own bridle if he would only have thought to do that. But he didn’t –we left – and the whole sorry tale began.
As we picked our way along the path there was a flash of searing light. If I’d been a horse I would have reared up on my magnificent hind legs – but mine are not magnificent, so I didn’t. There he stood – an angel; a messenger from the Great One, drawn sword raised and glinting in the light from his wings. Straight away, I veered off into the vineyard and hugged the wall, ignoring the silly man’s stick beating my back. What was a stick against that mighty sword anyway? Then the Great One’s messenger was there all over again -= at my side this time. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. I flinched away from his flashing blade, trapping my master’s hoof as I did so. Again- the dazzling one was there – right before me. By now, there was nowhere to go, and I lay down before him, as my ancestors had done at worldbreak when the Great One gave out the names. This was too much for my master. He climbed off my back, flinched as he stood on his bruised ankle, and raised his stick to beat me all over again.
That was when it happened – my lovely voice was replaced with human braying; and I spoke to him in simple words so he could understand. The dazzling one joined in, and my master saw a kind of sense.
In the days that followed he would grow as stubborn as me – digging his heels in and refusing to prophesy curses when the Great One wanted blessings. It was as if the Great One had given him voice, just like he did for me when it really mattered. Of course, whilst he was off prophesying here there and everywhere with his new chums, I was left in the royal stables with one of the servants. For a few days I could still make those ugly braying sounds, which is how I told this story.
Thankfully, now, my voice is restored and I can speak properly again. Us ‘dumb animals’ often wonder why the bipeds were given such harsh voices. Seems to me they would do better with bigger ears and smaller tongues – but I suppose the Great One knows what he is doing…