Biblical Stories for Children:
Balaam's Talking Donkey
The Angel and the Donkey
By Katherine Paterson
Paterson takes her story from an incident reported in the Hebrew Bible (Numbers
22-24). In the city of Pethor, a powerful soothsayer named Balaam rides on his
faithful donkey to bless the worthy or curse the unworthy, all for a proper fee.
When the king of Moab learns that Moses and the Israelites are defeating nearby
neighbors, the king sends for Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam is willing until
an angel of G-d warns him off, but when offered a house full of gold and silver,
Balaam reconsiders. Only the intervention of his loyal donkey saves Balaam from
the angel's wrath, and when G-d puts blessings for the Israelites into Balaam's
mouth, the king knows he is doomed. The telling is lengthy, but Paterson has done
a fine job of shaping the story so that its most appealing elements are in the forefront
for a juvenile audience. Illustrator Koshkin has used traditional Assyrian, Israelite,
and Egyptian motifs to excellent effect, though several of the pictures are
repetitious. Executed in watercolor, tempera, and gouache, the artwork is
almost incandescent, reflecting the mood of the story. Paterson's author's note
will be extremely useful to adults and can serve as an introduction to biblical writings.
The story of Balaam's ass is a comic item found in the Old Testament, here invested with great solemnity and dread. Balaam, the greedy soothsayer, has been asked by Balak, king of Moab, to lay a curse on his Israelite neighbors. An angel visits Balaam's dreams to warn him off--the Israelites are being watched over by a higher power--but he sets out for Moab anyway, with visions of his reward still in his head. Balaam's ass saves his life by dodging the angel's fiery sword, and Balaam winds up cursing Balak in words that God puts in his mouth. Paterson (A Midnight Clear) makes her adaptation fluid and briskly paced; Koshkin's illustrations are lovely, swarming with energy and color. Of particular interest is the afterword, which offers a brief overview of biblical writers and comments on the distinctiveness of Balaam's story.