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Do like the animals do: we might have an easier time keeping to the straight and narrow if we just followed our more basic instincts.

YOU'LL PROBABLY NEVER HEAR A WORD IN CHURCH about Balaam's ass, and more's the pity. Although the ass is not the only significant animal in scripture, it's the only one with a speaking part. That's more than some apostles got, so maybe it's worth our while to hear what this beast has to say.

According to the Book of Numbers, Balaam, the ass' owner, is a prophet, but not one on "our" side. Rather he is a seer of a foreign people near the Euphrates. Many foreign holy men in scripture are presented as phonies, but this fellow seems legit. He communes with God and God answers.

Balaam receives visitors who are enemies of Israel. They offer to pay him to curse the advancing tribes of Jacob. A prophet's curse is more than saying "Yo' mama" to an undesirable nation. When you are cursed by a prophet, the wrath of God is officially called into play. Famine, earthquake, bloodshed, and disease are not out of the question. Balaam replies quite sensibly: He can only say what God puts into his mouth. God, meanwhile, makes it clear that Israel is a blessed nation and cannot be cursed.

The enemies of Israel won't be rebuffed. They demand Balaam's curse. He agrees to go with them, God's charge of obedience ringing in his ears. Balaam doesn't indicate that he is considering disobedience but the promise of riches may have weakened his resolve. Along this journey his famous ass unexpectedly balks. Balaam beats the animal, but the ass has its reasons. An angel stands in the road holding a sword, and even an ass knows better than to mess with an angel. Balaam the prophet cannot see the obstacle.

The ass refuses to advance three times and is beaten each time. Finally the poor animal cries out, "Am I not your own beast, and have you not always ridden upon me until now? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way before?" Balaam acknowledges that the beast is normally obedient. Then his eyes are opened and he sees the angel for himself. Perhaps it occurs to him that God is likewise unaccustomed to his prophet contemplating disobedience and behaving like an ass.

It's a great story, neat as a pin and played for laughs. But it makes us pause to consider the steadfastness of the beast, who obeys its master until a greater authority appears. The beast and the angel both know their duty. But does the man in the middle know his as well?

Balaam's ass can be seen as a prelude to another story that begins our season of Lent. Lent opens with the temptation of Jesus in the desert, which Matthew and Luke recount with folktale-like dimensions: three temptations, followed by three scriptural exchanges between Jesus and the devil. Yet in Mark's gospel--the first to be written down--the whole episode is covered in two sentences. We are left with a lingering image: Jesus sitting among wild beasts and ministering angels in the desert. What are we to make of that?

Mark's treatment shifts the focus away from Jesus' dealings with the devil and toward the human predicament. Here we are, wedged for a lifetime between beasts and angels! Is this a reference to our lower and higher natures? To the fact that we are creatures like the beasts but called to unending life like the angels? Are we to deny our "animal" nature in favor of our "spiritual" side? Are the beasts a negative image of fleshly weakness, and the angels a symbol of our ability to transcend?

BEFORE WE JUMP TO THAT CONCLUSION, LET'S recall a few facts about angels. These celestial creatures enjoy the freedom to choose, just like mortals. Lucifer himself was an angel before he became the prince of devils. Although his story is not told in the Bible, scripture does refer to the extra-biblical sources about the fall of angels who refused their duty of obedience with those grave words: "I will not serve." Jesus later refers to "Satan and his angels," and other New Testament texts remind us that because angels could choose, not all angels chose God.

So it would be hasty for us to view our "spiritual" side as necessarily nobler than our "animal" side. It's the spiritual side that often gets us into trouble. Pride and self-righteousness are two monstrous temptations that target our higher instincts, not our carnal ones. In fact, of the sins formally called deadly--pride, greed, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony, and lust--the list balances between sins of the flesh and of the spirit. Ask the Pharisees if it was the letter of the law or its spirit that caused them hardship. Imposing limits on our behavior can be far easier than loving people without judgment.

Obviously some angels do minister God's will perfectly, and they become the messengers, guardians, and counselors of Bible fame. They also serve as deliverers of death and destruction upon occasion, so it's not always good news when you see an angel standing in the road with a sword in his hand. Balaam's ass had it right to step aside and cower down. Most biblical appearances of angels were quickly followed by the words "Be not afraid" for a reason!

Now weigh our understanding of angelic nature with the track record of biblical beasts. Compared to the angels, beasts are remarkably dependable in their relationship to God. If we have the story right, animals are not gifted with free will, and so the choice to disobey their Creator is not in them. They follow instinct as genetically directed and are otherwise inclined only by divine command.

We might envy them their easy compliance if our human willfulness did not view such a trait with disgust. Because we have been gifted with the divine characteristic of free will, we often uphold the freedom to choose as a higher value than making wise choices.

Animals are admirable in their submission to God's will. They do as they're told in story after story. Does Abraham need a ram to sacrifice in place of his son Isaac? A ram is conveniently caught in the brambles nearby. Will Jacob benefit if his mean uncle's flocks develop speckles and stripes? Every newborn turns up dappled. Are the people of Exodus tired of nothing but manna to eat? God drives a flock of quail into the camp nightly. Is God's prophet Elijah starving at the river? Not while the ravens are bringing him desert take-out.

Animals hand themselves over with selfless abandon in the Bible. Balaam's ass is the only one that talks, but Peter's fish in Matthew's gospel is the only one that pays taxes. Still another remarkable fish swallows the deliberately disobedient Jonah to keep God's prophet from drowning. Though Jonah might have made a nice meal, the fish swims a marathon to spit him out unharmed on the appropriate shore so that God's will may be done. Certain lions, kept very hungry in a den in Babylon, would likewise have preferred to munch on Daniel, but out of preference for God's command refrain from so much as a lick. God rewards the loyalty of these lions by later allowing them to devour the families of Daniel's accusers. Biblical animals, we might say, know the hand that feeds them.

THERE ARE ROLES FOR BOTH ANGELS AND BEASTS IN THE story of Tobit. Old man Tobit is blinded by bird droppings, which is not so nice; but whose idea was it for him to sleep outside next to a wall to begin with? That's a bird rest stop if ever there was one. Yet it all works to divine advantage, since young Tobias is motivated by his father's malady to go on a journey complete with guardian angel and faithful dog. Along the way he catches an obliging fish that supplies him not only with food but useful medicines in its gall, heart, and liver, as the angel explains. The fish heart and liver end up scaring away a very bad demon at a critical hour and gain Tobias a wife. The gall, turns out, is great for cataracts and cures old Tobit's blindness.

If fish parts prevent demon trouble, then consider how useful pig herds are when a legion of demons needs to be expelled. Pigs serve as a self-sacrificing waste management team in Mark's gospel (5:l-20)--which makes for some irony, as pigs are labeled unclean by Jewish standards anyway.

One might make the case that humanity would be better off if it paid more heed to its beastly side and learned a few biblical lessons from the animals. Obedience, loyalty, submission, and self-sacrifice, when practiced by the so-called dumb beasts, make the wise ones seem a little foolish by comparison. St. Francis of Assisi did not think it beneath his vocation to preach to the animals. Maybe, if we listen closely, they might return the favor and proclaim a living word to us.

ALICE CAMILLE, author of Seven Last Words, a meditation on the cross (ACTA Publications), and co-writer of the homily service Prepare the Word (TrueQuest Communications).
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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