The story of Bilam and his miraculous talking donkey, described in Bemidbar 22, is one of the more colorful episodes in Tanakh, intriguing the reader with its many puzzles. How can a donkey speak? Why could the donkey see the angel while Bilam could not? And, most importantly, what was the purpose of the whole incident? The two paintings portrayed here, Lastman's Balaam and the Ass1 and Balaam and God's Messenger both illustrate the scene, but differ in their conception of each of the central characters. The varying portrayals reflect different possible answers to the above questions.
Lastman's painting focuses on the threesome of the donkey, Bilam, and the angel. Both Bilam and the angel stand with arms raised, ready to strike. Bilam, though, seems oblivious to the celestial being. Instead, his eyes widen in surprise at his open-mouthed donkey. Behind him, two youths stand in the shadows, peering at the angel, apparently seeing what Bilam does not. In the more distant background, several other men, perhaps the rest of the Moabite entourage, wait with their horses under a tree.
This image is a much more bare composition, depicting little more than the three central characters of the story. On the left, Bilam stands next to his donkey, his arm posed to strike. The donkey does not look at him, but rather stares straight ahead at the sword-bearing angel. In contrast to Lastman's heavenly figure, this messenger of God is not depicted as a winged being, but as an ordinary male.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
The Accompanying Men
While Lastman depicts two servants alongside Bilam and several more men waiting in the background, the unknown artist chooses to omit these figures. Was Bilam alone when the angel appeared, or were there others around? The text explicitly states that Bilam was accompanied by two servants when the angel stood in his path. However, these servants play no role afterwards, and the verses make no mention of the other Moabite men. This leaves ambiguity as to whether others witnessed the miraculous donkey and the angel's message,2 and if so, how it impacted them.3
A Talking Donkey?
While the unknown artist depicts a quite ordinary looking donkey, Lastman portrays an animated animal, seemingly aware of his surroundings, and attempting to communicate with his master. The difference relates to one of the central question emerging from the story: How is one to understand the donkey's speech? While many accept it as a miracle, and some assert that it was simply a dream,4 others try to explain it as a more natural phenomenon. Shadal suggests that the donkey brayed in a way that communicated a message to his master, while R. Saadia contends that it was only an illusion in which the angel's speech appeared to be coming from the donkey's mouth.5
In Lastman's image, the donkey seems to elicit a shocked response on the part of Bilam, whose eyes bulge in surprise, an expression totally absent from the second image. How did the Biblical Bilam react when his donkey opened her mouth? Somewhat surprisingly, he seems to take it in stride and expresses no wonder at all! This is an additional factor which may lead some commentators to explain that the whole episode was a prophetic dream or view the speech as a natural phenomenon.6
Angel or Man?
Lastman portrays the angel as a winged figure, clearly meant to be some sort of heavenly being whereas the unknown artist depicts him in a much more human form. Can the Biblical text support both depictions? This depends on how one understands the phrase "מַלְאַךְ ה'", a term which can refer either to celestial beings or simply to messengers.7 In this case, the angel's ability to simultaneously be visible to one creature while invisible to another might point to a more Divine being. Alternatively, perhaps the messenger's ordinary human form8 is what led Bilam not to notice him. Moreover, identifying the messenger as an angel raises another question - why would God make a miracle to allow an animal to see a Divine being?9