Donkeys, Parables, and Pop Culture

When Jesus preached, he used stories. Of course we call them parables now, but Google tells me the definition of a parable is simply thus:

“Parable, noun, a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus in the Gospels.”

Yep, that’s right. Jesus told stories.

There is power in stories, which is why people have always told them. Even our parents telling us of memories and lessons from their own youth is them passing on their stories. Without these stories, we would be left completely on our own, and we know would know nothing beyond our own experience. We like telling stories and listening to them. We like being transported to lives that are not our own. But most importantly, stories allow us to experience things outside of our own lives. They teach us lessons we might never learn on our own.

Or they show us truths reflected back at ourselves like a mirror.

Despite this, growing up, I got the distinct impression while my fellow Christians thought we could be taught through stories truths about God, it was only certain kinds of stories. Stories written by Christians, for Christians, about Christian topics. You know the books I’m talking about. It’s your Left Behinds, Frank Peretti’s or Francine Rivers’ novels. Now I’m not saying those books can’t teach you about God. They certainly do. I learned a lot from those and other Christian writers. But I also learned a lot from the Jewish by birth, atheist by belief Isaac Asimov (I, Robot; Foundation), and the decidedly not Church approved J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter).

My parents never stopped or discouraged me from reading these books, but it was with the knowledge that if I was reading the book in the car on the way to church, I left it in the car when I got to church—even if I was just going to be wasting the next hour while my mother practices handbells with nothing to do but fidget in the pews.

The crazy thing to me in retrospect is that some of Jesus’ most powerful parables don’t even reference God. Stories of farmers and wheat (Matthew 13). Stories of men and their sons (Luke 15). The word “God” or even references to the religious establishment aren’t made. Yet it’s clear to everyone these stories are about God.

Which means stories don’t have to be explicitly about God to teach us something about God.

* * *

As a known Marvel fan, people often have a habit of asking me my favorite Marvel movie. I imagine they expect a certain answer, probably judging on the fact that I have a dog named Bucky and can often be found sporting a Winter Soldier hoodie. Needless to say it can be a little shocking when I answer, “Thor.” This is especially surprising to those who also love Marvel movies, since at best Thor is hailed as a “just okay” movie.

This inevitably leads to the question, “Why? How can that movie be your favorite one?”

The answer is both simple and complicated, so depending on the time I have with them it can range from anything from a simple truth “Loki is my favorite Marvel character” to the deepest truth: “God used the movie Thorto convict and change me, and since that day I have never been the same.”

It’s true, on a Saturday in May in 2012, I sat on the couch of my home crying as the movie went to its closing credits, knowing that through this merely okay movie about superheroes, God had spoken to me.

* * *

Balaam’s tale is told in the latter half of the book of Numbers—a book of the Bible that gets a bad rap because of the whole numbering everyone in Israel thing, but also has quite a few interesting tidbits. Like Balaam (Numbers 22).

Balaam was a sorcerer in Moab when the Israelites came to the Promised Land for the second time--that is after their wandering in the desert for 40 years. With their punishment over, they had the full power and authority of God behind them to reclaim the Promised Land—where people like the Moabites already lived. Needless to say as the Moabites watched the Israelites cut through other tribes like a hot knife through butter, they got a little nervous.

The king of Moab at the time—a dude named Balak—was getting a little worried the Moabites were going to be next, and after watching the Israelites kill everyone else, he decided his best bet was to call the number one sorcerer in the land: Balaam.

"Behold, a people came out of the Egypt; behold they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite of me. Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed."

--Numbers 22:5-6 (NASB)

(I like in particular that the Israelites are so mighty that Balak really only thinks a curse might slow them down and give Balak a chance—just a chance—of defeating them. By no means does he talk like this curse will end them once and for all.)

Now, Balaam despite not being an Israelite and being a sorcerer, thought God was real. Granted, he thought of God as just one of many gods or powers at work in the land—he even tried to corrupt Israelites with this later (Numbers 31:16)—but in this case, he thought it might be a good idea to ask God what he should do (Numbers 22:8).

As one might expect, God said:

“Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed"

--Numbers 22:12 (NASB)

Balaam, not being an idiot, decided to listen to God.

Unfortunately the king of Moab wasn’t taking no for an answer, so he sent more people to implore Balaam to come. Balaam responds to these people with:

Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the LORD my God.

--Numbers 22:18 (NASB)

In the Bible it seems at this point, Balaam was quite firmly in the “don’t cross God” camp, and he was just going to stay put where he was. Then that night God came to him and said:

"If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do."

--Numbers 22:20 (NASB)

So Balaam—once again not being an idiot—did what he was told. He went saddled his donkey and went with the Moabites.

Now in the very next verse (Numbers 22:22) it says that “But God was angry because he was going.” Which on my first read caused my head to turn and go “Huh? Didn’t God tell him to go?” I’m not a Bible-expert but the footnotes of my Bible say this:

God let Balaam go with Balak’s messengers, but he was angry about Balaam’s greedy attitude. Balaam claimed that he would not go against God just for the money, but his resolve was beginning to slip. His greed for wealth offered by the king blinded him so that he could not see how God was trying to stop him.

--Footnote from the Life Application Bible

Now, to me personally, that seems a little of a stretch of what the text actually says. Maybe Balaam’s will was growing weak. I’d need to seek out extra commentary on the fact. But reading through the next few passages I put forth a slightly different interpretation.

God was angry because Balaam had to go. After all, this Moabite king is trying to kill His chosen people. But He also wanted Balaam to go because He wanted Balaam to prophesy to the king of Moab, which he does in Numbers 23. However, maybe God knew that Balaam as he was right now—a sorcerer with no loyalty to God above any other “gods”—might not actually listen to Him and give His words to the king, which God wanted Balaam to do. So in order to scare the bejeezus out of him—to ensure that Balaam would in fact obey God, a strange experience happened to Balaam on his journey to the king.

God put an angel with his sword drawn—ready to kill Balaam—in his path.

Now Balaam couldn’t see this angel, but his donkey could. And the donkey rightly decided that this was not a creature she wanted to cross paths with (Numbers 22:23).

This pissed Balaam off because he couldn’t see the angel and he thought his donkey was just being stubborn. So he beat her. This repeated two more times on the journey, the angel would move, the donkey would be able to go ahead, then she would see the angel again, rightfully stop moving, and Balaam would beat her (Numbers 22:23-27).

Then something astounding happened.

And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?"

--Numbers 22:28 (NASB)

The donkey spoke.

Now, if I was Balaam the next verse would read something like “And Balaam died of shock.” But that’s not what happens. Balaam converses with his donkey. He basically accuses the donkey of making him look like a fool (Numbers 22:29). The donkey responds by pointing out she had been trustworthy all her life to him before this and had never done anything like this before, so basically he should trust her now.

Then God opens Balaam’s eyes and he’s able to see the angel, and basically realizes the donkey saved his butt. Balaam immediately repents of going to see the king and says he’ll turn back, but the angel reiterates God’s earlier message.

"Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I tell you."

--Numbers 22:35 (NASB)

And guess what? That’s exactly what Balaam does. He goes to the king and prophecies and his prophecies take up the next two chapters (Numbers 23 & 24).

God spoke to Balaam through a donkey.

God spoke to Balak through a non-Hebrew, idolatrous sorcerer.

If God can speak through an animal and sorcerer, I’m pretty sure He can speak through and use anything to get his point across.

* * *

When I share with people that a Marvel movie changed my life, they are always surprised. Even the most Christian of friends, even my pastors, have looked at me with expressions that start somewhere around “oh really?” and end at “Are you insane???”

I believe God can speak to us through anything, and sure, the average Christian would nod their head along in agreement with that statement. But in my experience with the Church, when most people say “anything” what they really mean is: the Bible, our preacher, nature, and our families. No one bats an eye when a mother talks about the truth about love she learned from her infant child (and nor should they), but when I say I learned a truth of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through a movie about pagan gods turned superheroes, people are usually skeptical at best.

Yet I was taught all my life—for good reason—the God can use anything. He can use the Bible, our preacher, nature, our families, donkeys, sorcerers, and even Marvel movies to speak to us.

And I think if the parables show us anything, it’s that sometimes we mere mortals need stories to help us understand. Because God is beyond what our brains can comprehend, but sometimes in stories we can glimpse a truth we might never have been able to find on our own.

So that’s the reason for this blog. For this series I’m calling “Modern Parables.” To explore different stories in pop culture—movies, books, musicals, TV shows, and even video games—and show how they’ve helped me understand better the Bible, my faith, and my God.

I can only hope that God can use something even more unlikely than Marvel movies and donkeys--that is me--to speak to you.