When Animals Talk Back


Bella in Fred and Marilyn Miller’s Kitchen

When Animals Talk Back

This week Jerry and I attended a Dialogue Group that, improbably, brings together Jews who are largely liberal with evangelical Christians who are largely conservative. They are sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Bucks County Christian Coalition. They dine at somebody’s home, and sometimes dispute — at other times, share — their views.

The discussion topic this time was Biblical. There’s a tale told in Numbers 22-24 where a non-Israelite diviner or seer by the name of Balaam gets a request from a Moabite king to stop the Israelites, whose migration out of Egypt has progressed since the Exodus to the point where they now stand on the borders of the Moabite kingdom. Balaam is asked to stop them by getting God to curse them.

Every one of us has encountered ill will and we know that it has some power to hurt us. Though not particularly superstitious, all the same I am assuming that full-fledged cursing, from an accredited guy who traffics in other-worldly vibrations, will hurt more.

Balaam is reluctant to do it, since God has visited him in the night and discouraged the idea. But caught between the carrots and the sticks of the Moabite king, he girds up his loins and sets forth on his donkey, planning to cuss up a storm.

Anyway, I haven’t all the twists and turns of the plot in my head, but the main event is that Balaam’s donkey sees God’s angel barring the way — turn how they will — and, rather than take another step forward, digs in his donkey heels. To make him go, Balaam beats him until finally the donkey talks back, reproaching Balaam for abusing a faithful helper who has done right by him all these years. The donkey is not being stubborn. He makes clear that an angel is blocking their path. Eventually, Balaam sees it too and then discovers that he is unable to voice the expected curses. Blessings come out of his surprised mouth instead. This was the interesting story we were being asked to discuss in the Dialogue Group.

When it came my turn, I said that, although nowadays we are expected to take things like talking donkeys metaphorically, I take the story pretty literally.

Why? Well, first of all, I’m a pretty literal girl. I never take things metaphorically or symbolically if there’s a literal way to take them. I try not to regard anything as mysterious if there’s a way to take it plain and straight up. As the late Leo Bronstein used to say,

the mystery is in the mystification.

It’s not that there are no mysteries in life. But respect the language. Let’s not use up the word on situations that aren’t that mysterious.

I have a friend who is instinctively loved by horses. Horses she doesn’t know will trot across the field to nuzzle her. Yet it’s clear to her – and the horses will telegraph it in advance – that they’ll throw her if she tries to mount them. And they do!

If my friend can distinguish what a horse she meets for the first time is saying, how could one fail to understand what a donkey one has ridden for years is saying?

Anyway, the discussion went round the circle till it came to one speaker, Leon, who said that God’s Presence is in the whole creation and animals have soul enough to feel it. As he expanded on this opinion, the ultra-cute little dog, a shih tzu, who belonged to our hosts trotted into the middle of the rug where we could all see her. There she began to roll around joyously. I swear to you, in all my days I have never seen a dog – never seen any animal – act that way or look so blissful.

It was a special kind of bliss. Not the doggy kind produced by the return of a loved playmate. Not the kind associated with some fun activity like splashing in a pond or chasing a ball. Not the satisfaction of a relished treat, like a favorite food. No this was sui generis, a kind unique to itself.

It was metaphysical ecstasy. It was immersion in the thought being expressed by the speaker as he described God’s everywhere Presence – including in animal souls. When the next speaker went to a different topic, the little dog straightened up, trotted off and started acting like a dog again.

Meanwhile – I don’t know how many others “got it” – but the dog had made it amazingly, wonderfully, nonmysteriously clear that the most savvy interpretation of Numbers 22-24 was that

the donkey talked!

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to When Animals Talk Back

  1. Abigail says:

    Thanks Nancy for noticing it too! The amazing moment. Talk about the problem of interpreting a dense text? Just ask the family dog!

  2. Nancy Ceperley says:

    Bella’s ecstatic roll momentarily stole the show while illustrating Leon’s point. It was am unexpected highlight.
    Thanks for reporting and reminding us of this, Abigail.

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