On Seeing Along and Not At
The account of Balaam's Ass (Numbers 22:28-34)is one of the most perplexing in the entire Bible for both the Bible-believing Christian and the skeptic. After all, how can we take a book seriously when it contains stories of talking donkeys? Doesn't this show that the Bible, as noted by the infamous anti-Christian Clarence Darrow, a fable not to be trusted?
The story points out the bifurcation in approaches to the Biblical text which can often lead to widely divergent views of its veracity. If one starts with some of the difficult stories like the account of Balaam's Donkey or the Serpent in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), one could to conclude that the entire Bible is nonsense because we all know from personal experience that donkeys and snakes can't talk. Isn't the only reasonable thing to do is to reject the Biblical account as unhistorical?
However, if one starts with the evidence for God's existence, reviews the evidence that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and understand that God can, and has, intervened in the world, the accounts like the one about Balaam's Donkey begin to take on a different light. Everyone knows that donkeys can't talk on their own. But, if there is a God who is real and cares about the world He created, and if there is evidence that God has acted in history, then God can speak through whatever he wishes: a donkey, a book, or even a blog like this.
C.S. Lewis made an interesting point about the difference between looking at something and looking along something in his short essay "Meditations in a Woodshed." There he stated:
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sun beam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust in it, was the most striking thing in place. Everything else was almost pitch black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.
Then I moved, said that the been fell on my eyes. Instantly than a previous picture vanished. I saw no tool shed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of the tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
Such is the case of understanding the Bible. When one tries to look at if from the outside, beginning with the assumption that there is no God, one sees talking donkeys, talking snakes, bats misidentifed as birds, and other things that the skeptic sees as subjecting the Bible to ridicule. But if you are a believer and begin your investigation of the Biblical texts with the understanding that God is real and that He can act on and in the nature He created, then the idea of talking donkeys is not all that bizarre. After all, the Bible doesn't assume that donkeys can talk, but rather says that it was God who acted when the verse begins "And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey." Now, if it Bible assumed that all donkeys were talking, then I would side with the skeptic. But where there are isolated examples of animals talking, and the text explains why the animals were talking, I don't see why we should prefer the "at" view over the "along" view.