One of the latest wisecracks about Christianity is that to be a Christian you have to believe in a talking snake and a talking donkey.
Do you stutter and stammer and errrm and aahhhm about that challenge?
The critic is referring to two stories in the Old Testament.
The first is the story of the Garden of Eden where the serpent tempts Adam and Eve. So do you have to believe in a fairy tale talking snake?
This first challenge is easy enough to deal with. The story of Adam and Eve, while based in the experiences of two real people, comes down to us in the form of myth. Don’t mistake my meaning. Just because a story works as myth does not mean it is not based in historical reality.
The Garden of Eden myth is a very ancient Hebrew story passed down by word of mouth over many generations before being recorded. The story is about Satan, the prince of the fallen angels tempting Adam and Eve. The story says he is a “serpent” but that is a description of his character. It does not mean that he was literally a snake.
Think of it like this, let’s say someone named Jimmy was real sneaky and lied to one of your friends. You might say, “That Jimmy is a snake!” You might even say, “That Jimmy is a real snake. Totally!” You don’t mean he is a reptile. You mean he was being a sneaky deceiver. Likewise, when the Hebrews told the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve they indicated the character of Satan by saying he was a sneaky fellow, a manipulator, a liar, a despicable poisonous deceiver. In fact, we know from the story itself that Satan–that old serpent–was not a snake because after the temptation he was cursed to “slither on the ground” which means he was not that sort of reptile to start with.
Reducing this story to “You have to believe in a talking snake!” only shows the person’s ignorance about the antiquity of the stories and the way mythic stories were used in ancient times. The story of Adam and Eve’s temptation was told to explain how evil came into the world and how the serpent ended up as a slithering, frightful creature. They’re meant to be mythic, religious stories. They’re not meant to be taken as literal, historical reporting. The fact that some Protestant fundamentalists take them this way only shows their own sad ignorance of literary forms and the use of symbol and metaphor.
Now what about the talking donkey? Here we’re referring to an amusing story in the book of Numbers, chapter 22.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Balak is the king of the Moabites and he’s feeling threatened by the Hebrew people who have come out of Egypt and are heading for his land. So he calls on Balaam, who is a shaman, to put a curse on the Hebrews.
God tells Balaam not to do this, but he heads out to do it anyway. That’s when the Lord sends an angel to interfere, and this story ensues:
Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials.22 But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.
24 Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again.
26 Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of theLord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. 28 Then the Lordopened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
29 Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
30 The donkey said to Balaam, “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?”
“No,” he said.
31 Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.
32 The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.”
First of all we have to admit that this is one of the most entertaining stories in all of Scripture. The comic element is delightful with the proud prophet and the poor dumb donkey.
No doubt this story would have been told with great hilarity amongst the Hebrews.
As such it is a folk tale. It is no doubt based on a historical story of a Gentile shaman who had a misbehaving donkey. The tale was passed down from one generation to another in oral form. In this process did one of the storytellers, for extra color, add in the bit about the donkey actually talking? Could be. Funny stories about wise talking animals are pretty commonplace. In the folk tales, like Aesop’s fables, the animals talk and make a point the humans can’t otherwise see. Same in this story.
However, what about animals talking to people? We must remember that this is a very ancient story from a primitive culture. Many primitive cultures have tales of animals communicating with people–especially with shamans. Do they actually talk with the shaman or does he communicate with them in some other extrasensory manner? That’s what they claim–or at least that is what they claim in their ancient folk tales. Maybe animals communicating with humans is not simply a folk tale.
Then again, you could simply say, “Hey. It’s a miracle. Believe it or not. Take it or leave it.”
Then again, let me suggest another idea which readers may find even more entertaining and intriguing. It’s the story of the time a bird spoke to me.
Here’s what happened: I was walking along to church one evening and as I was walking I was praying. I was therefore in a somewhat altered state of consciousness. I was praying about an appointment I had that evening to help with a healing service for a women with a blood disease and I doubted that I could do this. As I walked along a bird hopped along the hedge next to me and it was chirping. As the bird chirped I heard in my head a Bible reference–it had the same rhythm and pitch in my head as the bird chirping. It was as if the bird was saying, “Mark 8:44, Mark 8:44” When I got to the church I opened the Bible and Mark 8:44 was the verse in which Jesus heals a woman with an issue of blood. The bird didn’t talk to me, but in my mind I heard the bird talk to me and it gave the right message!
So did the donkey talk to Balaam? The story says he was a shaman–so presumably he was familiar with being an an altered state of consciousness. Did he hear the donkey speak to him the way I heard the bird speak to me? If so, the miracle was not in the donkey actually talking, but that Balaam perceived her to be talking.
This opens up a curious way to consider miracles. How much of the miracle is a real physical miracle and how much of it is our perception of the miraculous?
Let’s take the miracle of the sun at Fatima, for example. We know the sun did not spin and plunge to earth otherwise the earth would have been burnt up because we know the sun is very large and hot and the earth would have been consumed by the fire.
However, hundreds of people said they saw this happen. Therefore the miracle was in what they perceived, not in what actually, literally happened. BUT! something physical did happen because their clothes were wet because of the thunderstorm that preceded the miracle of the sun and after the miracle their clothes were suddenly dry. There was something physical and something which was a matter of altered consciousness or altered perception.
Did Balaam’s donkey talk? You can take the folk tale solution if you like and believe that someone simply added that entertaining detail to the story in the re-telling over the years, and there would be nothing wrong with that interpretation. The Bible contains different literary forms and we can allow for a colorful folk tale.
Or you could say, (as I believe) that there was a miracle. Balaam perceived the donkey to be talking to him and was convinced of it–even though the donkey did not literally develop a larynx and mental functions capable of speech.
The problem with so many critics of Christianity is that they blame us for being literal and stupid when in fact they are the ones who are taking the stories literally. Their approach is well, just dumb.
These are people who would read the line “My love is like a red, red rose” and say, “Yeah, well that’s dumb because your girlfriend doesn’t really have petals and thorns!”