I received the following question:

During our study of Numbers 22, we read about Balaam disobeying God. Attempting to ride his donkey where God told him not to go, the Angel blocked his way. He could not see the Angel, but the donkey could. Balaam got mad at the donkey and was hitting her. The Bible says that the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and spoke to Balaam. Here’s our problem. If my cat turned to me and spoke in clear English that she didn’t want tuna for dinner because that’s what I always gave her and she was tired of it, I’d be saying —-whoa, back the bus up, cat’s don’t communicate by speaking our language!  Why was Balaam not concerned? Instead, he carried on a complete conversation with the donkey and didn’t realize that it was the Lord speaking until he revealed the Angel standing in the way.

Did animals speak in a “language” at one time that is not recorded in the Bible? Or, because they have not sinned against God are they able to communicate differently? We know that the serpent spoke to Eve in the Garden. Was that the “norm” at the time? Or, do they truly communicate with God and we don’t have that closeness anymore?   

Balaam had, throughout the story up until this point, played “fast and loose” with the word of God. When he was given a clear message from the LORD to deliver to the messengers who came to him, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed,” he had watered the word of God down, telling the messengers only to, “Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to give me permission to go with you.” By not repeating what the LORD had said about Israel, Balaam made it appear as if there were merely some problem in his coming, which might be overcome by more money or more persuasion, which is exactly what the messengers understood him to mean, and so they came back and tried again to get from him what they wanted. Balaam went back to God, and this time received specific instructions, “If the men come to call you, rise and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you—that you shall do.” This was a rather sarcastic statement by the LORD, for Balaam had no business coming back to God after he had received the clear instruction before. As for the men coming to call him, of course that wasn’t going to happen, because Balaam had already instructed them to go off and wait for him to call them in verse 19. But, even though the messengers didn’t call him, he saddled up his donkey the next day and went with them, in total rebellion against God.

Now Balaam had not respected the word of God. Having access to God as he did was a great privilege, and yet Balaam had misused the honor, first by watering down the word of God, and then by out-and-out disobeying it. Balaam had despised the word of God, and was walking contrary to it. Thus, it is no wonder that he did not recognize the further message from God, even when it came to him in the form of a donkey talking.

Now regarding Balaam not reacting to the fact that his donkey talked, I do not think that the explanation for this need be anything as spectacular as you suggest. I would merely postulate that Balaam was a man with a violent temper. He had been stewing at his donkey, no doubt, ever since the animal first turned out of the way in verse 23. When his foot was crushed against the wall in verse 25, he became even angrier. And now, when the donkey lay down under him, he totally lost his temper. Verse 27 says Balaam’s anger was aroused, but I would suggest that this was putting it mildly. Balaam was in a killing rage, and, by his own admission, would have killed his donkey if he had had the means in his hand to do so. All he had, however, was his staff, so he was beating it as hard as he could. How foolish it would have been for him to kill his only means of transportation! Yet when one has totally lost one’s temper, logical thinking goes out the window, and the harming or destroying of the thing one is angry at seems to be the only thing that matters.

Now in the midst of this out-of-control raging of Balaam, the LORD steps in on the donkey’s behalf, and speaks to Balaam through its lips. As you say, for any normal person in his right mind or right temper, this would immediately be a thing that would produce wonder and even fear. Yet Balaam was neither in his right mind nor his right temper. He was knowingly disobeying the Lord, which one might say in itself is somewhat of an act of madness. And he was also in a killing rage, and was far from thinking normally or logically. Thus, when his donkey suddenly starts to speak to him, he thinks no more of it than the opportunity to talk back to it, and to tell it how he would like to cause its death. This is not the action of a man in his right mind, but it is the kind of thing one could expect from a man in a killing rage against this donkey.

Now the Lord speaks to Balaam a second time through the donkey, this time to recall him from his mad state and return him to reality. The donkey calmly and logically points out to Balaam its faithful service to him in the past, and Balaam, being forced to start thinking, has to admit that what the donkey says to him is true. At this point, when he has to start thinking again, it no doubt starts to occur to him that having a conversation with a donkey is a rather unusual thing, and at this point the LORD steps in and reveals to him what was really going on, and how close he had come to death. In other words, the LORD stops speaking through the donkey, and starts communicating to Balaam directly once again. The donkey was used to point out to Balaam his mad course of action, and to shame him as well. If the LORD treated him like he had treated his poor donkey, he would have been dead long since.

So I believe that Balaam’s strange reaction to his donkey talking was merely due to the fact that he had lost his temper, and was in a violent rage in which even the strangeness of an animal talking seemed inconsequential compared to his anger.

Your suggestion that animals talked at one time is something that men have contemplated regarding this passage, including C.S. Lewis, who thought the story of Adam and Eve indicated that snakes could talk at this time. But regarding the serpent in the garden, we know that this was God’s old enemy, called Satan and the Devil. The Hebrew word for serpent is “shining one,” obviously because of the effect of light on a snake’s scales. Many assume that Satan here possessed a serpent. I do not believe that this could be true. We read in the Bible of evil or unclean spirits possessing both people and animals in the New Testament gospels and Acts. Yet Lucifer is said to be a cherub in Ezekiel 28:14, and cherubim are definitely described as having bodies, unlike spirits. Thus we have no indication that they can possess anyone or anything. What it means when Satan “entered” Judas is hard to say, but it is not the same word used for demon possession. Others suggest that Satan turned himself into a snake. Yet does he really have such power? God became a man, and we count that as a great miracle. Does Satan have the power to go even further and make himself a snake? I doubt it.

I believe that, although snakes are indeed called “shining ones” in Hebrew because of the reflective properties of their scales, that in this case it is not snakes at all that is referred to but rather a name that Lucifer possessed, perhaps before he ever fell from God. Satan is called “The Shining One,” but that is a name or title given to him, and not at all an indication that he was a snake. I realize that he is spoken of figuratively as a snake in various places in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that he was literally a snake in Genesis 3 anymore than it means he will be literally a dragon in Revelation. Remember, Adam and Eve were given authority over all beasts of the field. Eve would have been more likely to reprove a snake who questioned her than listen to it. A shining, heavenly being, however, she might well listen to and be deceived.

At any rate, we know who this snake was. It was Satan. That is why it could talk. There is nothing here to make us think that creatures other than man could talk then anymore than they can talk now. So I do not believe that the donkey talking to Balaam had anything to do with animals being able to talk back then. This was the LORD acting in a miraculous way to bring His message to Balaam. Balaams’ fury, however, kept him from considering what God was saying, even when He spoke in such an unusual and spectacular way.

Did animals speak in a “language” at one time that is not recorded in the Bible? Or, because they have not sinned against God are they able to communicate differently? We know that the serpent spoke to Eve in the Garden. Was that the “norm” at the time? Or, do they truly communicate with God and we don’t have that closeness anymore?