The Jennet: A Road to Truth
The Jennet: A Road to Truth
As a generalization, animals are not a topic the Bible dwells upon: excluding the primeval serpent in the Garden of Eden, the dove from Noah’s ark, and the plagues of Egypt (frogs, lice, wild animals or flies and locusts), It is hard to recall an extensive reference given to an animal. They are not often the centerpiece in a biblical story.
Except, of course, for Balaam’s jennet (female donkey).
What is it, in the jennet’s story, which was so necessary to Balaam?
The first visit of Balak’s officials to Balaam yields no results: Balaam is completely forbidden to join the delegates or to curse Israel. He fully obeys G-D’s command and sends the king’s delegation away.
Balak is not willing to accept “No” as an answer. Thus, he sends a second delegation with more important ambassadors, yet they too cannot deviate the great sorcerer from his loyalty to the Higher Will. Nevertheless, this time G-D permits Balaam to leave with the noble couriers under firm limitations: Balaam is not allowed to operate of his own free will. He must only articulate G-D’s intention.
Balaam’s obedience is realized in a definite manner. Even if he himself clearly prefers to do the absolute opposite – i.e. to afflict and harm Israel due to his own animosity, or, in order to earn a substantial amount for his world famous magical capabilities, he does not undermine his allegiance to G-D’s ruling.
The case of the jennet can be considered meaningless in face of the rule that this warlock is consistent in his loyalty to G-D.
Furthermore, the appearance of the angel seems rather peculiar: why does it first appear before the jennet and not before Balaam? What was the angel’s purpose?
For, as the passage clearly indicates, the angel’s manifestation causes Balaam to deeply regret his unawareness of the being. If G-D did not approve of his deeds (although Balaam was granted a permission to embark) then he should return home.
The jennet sees what the powerful magician does not: in spite of the evident paradox, the animal does not rebuke its master, belittle his powers or mock his limitations. Quite the opposite: the Jennet opens its mouth only to express pain and sorrow for the blow it received. No resentment or condescension, but grief.
Balaam is not bewildered by the fact his jennet speaks and even reproaches it for its disobedience and its “criminal conduct”. He considers its actions as harmful and wishes to inflict upon it further punishment. The jennet reasserts its loyalty towards its master. Balaam confirms its devotion but yet is not sorry for striking it nor does he try to understand what has happened and why.
At this very point G-D enables Balaam to see the angel and the speaking of the jennet is completely forgotten.
Rashi1 points to the contrast between Balaam and Abraham – two cases involving donkeys: “And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.”2
According to Rashi, Abraham was so eager to execute G-D’s will that he saddled the donkey himself, very early in the morning, whilst Balaam’s hatred drove him. The sole difference being: Abraham has a donkey and Balaam, a jennet.
This could be an insignificant distinction since jennet was a regular carrying beast in those days. Furthermore, the usage of a donkey as such was very common in the Bible: aside from Abraham it is mentioned in the case Zipporah and her sons3, Achsah – Caleb ben Yefune’s daughter4, Abigail – Nabal’s wife5, Ahithophel6 and Mephibosheth – the son of Jonathan, the grandson of Saul7.
The usage of a jennet is repeated only twice: first, in the case of Balaam and second, with Saul8.
The jennets are a major theme in Saul’s story: the search for them takes a long time, until Saul begins to worry for his father: “Now the donkeys belonging to Saul’s father Kish were lost, and Kish said to his son Saul, “Take one of the servants with you and go and look for the donkeys.” So he passed through the hill country of Ephraim and through the area around Shalisha, but they did not find them. They went on into the district of Shaalim, but the donkeys were not there. Then he passed through the territory of Benjamin, but they did not find them. When they reached the district of Zuph, Saul said to the servant who was with him, “Come, let’s go back, or my father will stop thinking about the donkeys and start worrying about us. But the servant replied, “Look, in this town there is a man of God; he is highly respected, and everything he says comes true. Let’s go there now. Perhaps he will tell us what way to take.”9
The loss of the jennets brings Saul to Samuel effortlessly. Samuel also makes sure to calms Saul in the matter: “As for the donkeys you lost three days ago, do not worry about them; they have been found […].”10
Saul was a humble, simple man. At the beginning of the chapter the Bible indicates he was a “handsome […] young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.”11
His determined search for the jennets and fear of his father’s possible anxiety reveals the sensitive side of Saul’s personality.
If Moses and David were shepherds before they were appointed – a profession that testifies they had suitable qualities – Saul is also measured by his being a “jennet seeker”.
Samuel has to “force” Saul to accept the fact he will be crowned a king. Nothing in Saul’s life had prepared him to serve in this high position unlike Balaam whose reputation had been gained throughout his years as a master magician.
Balaam prior to the case of the jennet is the same Balaam he was: when Balak’s officials come to him the first time, G-D orders him “[…] Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.”12 Balaam indeed refuses to accompany them and explains it was G-D’s refusal, but he does not bother – or does not want – to mention the fact that the Israelites are to be blessed.
With the second expedition, Balaam tries again: although he clearly remembers G-D’s prohibition, he invites the important delegates to stay overnight in the hope that a different prophecy will be received in the morning.
Even after Balaam reaches Balak, he still strives – three times! – to curse Israel. His personal desire is revealed throughout and it is evident that he wishes to blaspheme, but G-D compels him not to do so. Thus, although Balaam is a powerful sorcerer, G-D’s will prevails and the curse turns into a blessing.
Against Balaam’s three failed attempts to inflict harm, there are his three failed attempts to understand his jennet’s action. The jennet’s question – ““What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”13 and its claim – “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”14 – state the obvious: Is this not bad enough that you, the mighty warlock, does not see what I, a plain, regular beast, see, you continue to disregard everything you know about me? Could you really suspect that I, your devoted jennet, will treat you unfairly?
This kind of vision does not require miracles. All it needs is simple understanding, which Balaam does not have. When the angel appears before him he falls on his face, full of remorse and express his willingness to return home. Yet, he does not do so. Instead he continues on his hateful journey, grants Balak’s wishes again and again and fervently seeks for a new way to curse Israel.
The jennet could have been Balaam’s pivotal moment: it could have made him change his mind and act differently. He faces the talking beast alone: no one hears or is aware of the incident. He could have retracted without being held accountable for his action and no one would have known. All Balaam needed to do was to see the gravity of the incident – but he did not. Balaam was angry at the jennet that continued to deflect him from the way – his way.
The jennet – just a beast – had offered him a getaway, an opportunity to reevaluate himself in light of the new circumstance. Balaam misses it. He does not change his conduct – either towards the jennet or towards Israel.
Saul’s case is entirely different: “Now Saul’s uncle asked him and his servant, “Where have you been?”
“Looking for the donkeys,” he said. “But when we saw they were not to be found, we went to Samuel.” Saul’s uncle said, “Tell me what Samuel said to you.” Saul replied, “He assured us that the donkeys had been found.” But he did not tell his uncle what Samuel had said about the kingship.”15
Saul understands that something had happened. He identifies the line that splits his life into two: from being simply the tall, handsome son of a small family he is now to be the chosen king of Israel, the leader of the people. His destiny results from the journey of the lost jennets.
Saul understands the change the jennets created for him and changes as a result.
Balaam continues to rely on his powers and witchcraft, disregarding reality, even when the proof comes – so unnaturally – from the month of a jennet.
The jennets sharpen the understanding in us that Balaam’s departure was not designed to destroy Israel – although it was his intention – but to demonstrate Israel’s strength and G-D’s profound protection of his people. Balaam does not see what the plain jennet sees and moreover – does not grasp the magnitude of the rebuke.
The cases of Balaam and Saul, he who failed and he who succeeded, demonstrates that at times the initial aim is a necessary condition though it leads to a different conclusion. If one were to know this from the beginning, one possibly would not have embarked on the quest.
Would Balaam have gone on his mission had he known that he was destined to bless Israel? Would the humble Saul reach Samuel if it were not for his father’s lost donkeys?
The true purpose of the quest is revealed looking back – not forward.
The road teaches man to know for himself the value of the destiny designed for him – if he is open and willing to understand the direction the “jennet” leads him to. A jennet is not just a beast of burden, as is the donkey which only carries loads. It symbolizes the insight needed for a meaningful future16.