One of the classic television programs of the 1950’s featured a typical rural, mid-Western American family with a loving and intelligent collie named Lassie. Lassie was particularly adept at communicating where his boy-master Timmy could be found whenever he was in danger (like falling down a well). Lassie’s barks and movements were easily interpretable and would always lead to a rescue. Of course, this is television fantasy. But it is not so far from the truth. By observing animals, human beings can, for example, locate water. Finches always flock near a water source. And wild pigeons will always fly towards the nearest water source as dusk approaches.
Many pet-owners will swear that they can understand their pets. They sense when their dogs are sad or sorry depending on the tone of the whimper. They know when their pets are tail-wagging happy or satisfied. Dog and cat owners alike will swear that when Fido or Tiger lie on their backs and expose their belly they are asking for a belly rub. Pet owners respond to their animal companions as if they could talk.
Given this state of affairs, the case of Bilaam’s talking ass should not appear so strange at all. Unlike the Rabbis of the Mishnah who declared that the talking mule was built into the fabric of creation (Avot 5:6), Maimonides asserts that the entire episode was a dream sequence played out in the mind of Bilaam (Guide of the Perplexed, Book 1, Chapter 61). The Mishnah attempts to regularize the supernatural, making it a intended part of nature, and Maimonides denies any possible violation of the nature humans experience. But neither approach is necessary.
When the ass asks Bilaam (Numbers 22:28): “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” the ass was not really “talking” at all but it was Bilaam who interpreted it as such. Bilaam came to the same realization the ass points out. Straying from the path and hurting Billaam was extraordinary for this otherwise loyal animal. Bilaam was compelled to conclude that some exceptional and mysterious power influenced the animal’s behavior. And he immediately associated the ass’ action with his defiance of God’s instructions. Brought to his senses, Bilaam was now prepared to proceed on his way.