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What Balaam’s ass said

January 12, 2012

Last year, coached by master ceramic artist, Jeanne Drevas, I sculpted a sundial for Barbara’s herb garden at Campicello. What follows, below, is my commentary, with photos, on the Biblical scenes and text depicted on the sundial.

I wrote it for a Christmas greeting a year ago, and I thought to post it this year for Epiphany (a. k. a. Three Kings Day) January 6–the “sacred history” to which these scenes directly relate. As a celebration of the New Year, the message is one of hope, whatever dire threats–like king Herod’s vow of destruction–are out there.

The moral of the story is a theology and an ethic rolled into one—even one sentence.

Here is the story behind the sundial.

Two Biblical stories are depicted on the four sides of the capital. The first two sides show Balaam, staring blankly, divining rod in hand, astride his nameless ass. He is blind to what the balking ass sees just around the corner: the angel of the Lord with raised sword to block the pathway between two vineyard walls! The story is found in Numbers 22. Thereafter come the oracles in which Balaam, a pagan soothsayer, sets out to curse but nevertheless, inexplicably, blesses the Israelites.

The storey tells that when this ass lies down in the pathway, Balaam is enraged and mercilessly beats her. The ass protests, “What have I done unto thee, that thou has smitten me these three times?” When her plea for mercy and justice finally move Balaam, “he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.” (See Numbers 22: 28, 31) Notably it is not the angel with the raised sword that moves Balaam to see the error of his ways, but the protest of his faithful servant, the inno0cent ass. Then his eyes are opened to see the angel.

The other Biblical story, shown on the other two sides of the capital, depicts Mary with the infant Jesus on another ass. They are led by Joseph on their “flight into Egypt” (see Matthew 2: 14). This ass is happy, and flies along with wings and wheels on her feet. I have taken these designs from two capitals, magnificently carved in stone, which I saw some years ago in the Romanesque basilica of Saint Andoche (12th century) in Saulieu, Burgundy, France. Photographs of the capitals were found in the Library of Congress.

Why would a pagan soothsayer of dubious reputation be given such prominence in a Christian church, along side the Holy Family? Balaam was understood as prefiguring the magi who predicted the birth of the Christ-child—meaning messiah, an anointed ruler—leading to King Herod’s vow to slay all infants in the land. When an angel of the Lord warns them in a dream of Herod’s decree, Mary and Joseph flee with the infant Jesus.

The motto on the face of the sundial is from the book of Micah, where the prophet reminds the Israelites of king “Balak’s question” and “what Balaam answered him.” Then follows the famous passage, apparently Micah’s take, as imagined centuries later, on Balaam’s answer:

“He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (See Micah 6: 3-8)

The passage begins with words of divine pathos: “Oh, my people, what have I done unto thee? And wherein have I wearied thee? Testify against me”—words that are strikingly similar in tone and import to the ass’s plea and protest addressed to Balaam. God speaks through the ass, the humble and abused servant. God pleads and protests.

Finally, a personal word. You do not have to know exactly what justice is in order to do justly, nor know exactly what forgiveness is or love is in order to love mercy. You do not need to know who or even whether God is, in order not to walk arrogantly but to walk humbly. If you do so, or even strive to do so, then so far as I know you are walking with your God. –GKB

P.S. The arm shadow-imaged in the last photo belongs, of course, to the photographer, putting himself indelibly in the picture. –gkb

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2012 1:56 pm

    Other than Balaam’s Ass, humans, angels, God and Satan, the only creature who talks in the Bible is the SNAKE in the Garden of Eden.

    A great reminder, if you don’t want to make an “ass” of yourself, don’t listen to the snake.”

    But then some modernists say, “The snake was the great liberator. Pointing the way to full humanity and all the evil and good that comes with it.

    And the loving words than Mark Twain wrote for Adam on the death of Eve, “Where she was, there was Eden.”

  2. Diana permalink
    January 12, 2012 4:08 pm

    Well, I couldn’t find the song with the actual “heehaw!” in it, but this little diddy illustrates some of your points well! And diddiful!

  3. Kathy Converse permalink
    January 15, 2012 12:06 pm

    Thanks yet again Kim for a reminder about what constitutes a mindful way to be present in the world. (Not what you were aiming for? Ah well. Minds work in funny ways, especially mine.) It’s easy to get caught up in the burdens of responsibility (great or small as they may be) and forget that humility is, in truth, being grateful to be in this place at this time. Or, even more to the point, celebrate another day of loving!

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