Barnaby and Balaam’s ass

A reflection for one of our Devotions for the Dog Lovers’ Souls, based on a reading from Numbers 22.

If any of you have ever seen the show or the movie “Chicago,” surely you’ll remember the song “Cell Block Tango.”  Six of the residents of the Cook County Jail explain to the audience, in monologues that interrupt the singing and dancing, how they ended up in prison.  One of the women describes this annoying habit of gun-popping that her husband had.  One day, she says, she comes home after a long day, looking for a little sympathy, and her husband was just lying on the couch, drinking a beer and popping his gum.  So she says to him, “You pop that gum one more time…” and he did.  So, says this woman, “I took the shotgun off the wall and I fired two warning shots…into his head.”

Cue the chorus:  he had it coming.

The dark humor of that monologue, of course, is that he didn’t really have it coming.  But we all know what it feels like to be driven to the breaking point by anxiety, stress, frustration, or lack of control.  And I suspect we all know what it’s like to actually break down, and completely overreact to something innocent.

My dog, I’m sorry to say, has witnessed or sometimes experienced more than one of these ugly moments from me.  We have definitely had the “If you squeak that squeaky toy one more time…” incidents, usually while I’m on an important phone call.  I have overreacted to my dog just doing what all dogs do, and usually the worst part of those moments is that afterwards, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I just lashed out at a creature that has absolutely no sense of what he did wrong.  It’s ironic that it takes absolute innocence to bring out the absolute worst in me.

“Balaam and the angel,” by Gustav Jaeger, 1836. Wikimedia Commons.

The story we just read from Numbers is undeniably weird. Balaam is a foreign seer who’s been hired by the Moabite king to come and curse Israel, since that tribe is threatening to overrun his land.  Balaam politely asks the God of Israel what he thinks before he agrees, and God tells him not to go to Moab, because Israel is blessed.  Balaam therefore declines the invitation and his commission.  But the Moabite king just sends more messengers and more money, and Balaam asks again, and this time God tells him to go, but do and say no more than God tells him.  But no sooner is Balaam on the road than God’s anger is kindled against him, and God sends an angel to stand in his way and block his passage.

To be honest, I can’t make sense of this God.  This God gives Balaam permission to go to Moab, but then strikes out vindictively when Balaam takes him at his word.  This is an unpredictable, undependable God who inspires fear instead of trust.  This is, in fact, an abusive God, who lashes out at Balaam with just as little cause—or less!—than Balaam has when he lashes out at his donkey.

I do experience God in this text, but to me the divine is not reflected in the angel, but in the donkey, the one who responds to violence not with violence, but with a cry for justice.  “Have I been in the habit of treating you in this way?” the donkey inquires of Balaam, and it is only when Balaam says “No” that his eyes are opened, and he can see the angel.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

How often do we lash out at God, blame God for steering us wrong, or become frustrated when God doesn’t grant us the thing for which we pray?  God walks with us, bearing the burden of our sin, and has every cause to ask us, when we are angry or grieving, “Have I been in the habit of treating you in this way?”

“No,” we would be drawn to answer, because the God we worship in Jesus Christ is the God who so wanted to be close to us, to walk with us, to bear our burdens, that God became flesh and ultimately died for us.  God is faithful and gracious, even—especially—when we are not.

I believe that dogs must be one of God’s very favorite acts of creation, if only because they so clearly reflect the nature of God’s fidelity and graciousness.  It’s no wonder that “Fido” is the Latin word for faithful.  Barnaby has never held my lashing out against him, and because of that, he gifts to me one of the clearest reflections I know of God’s amazing grace.


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