Words From The Wild

Special to the Jewish Week
Friday, October 2, 2009

We know animals can’t speak in language, yet talking dogs are a perennial staple of the best seller lists. Animals are not like us, yet humans still desire to have a connection with them, to
communicate across species. Repeatedly, in the Bible, humans seem to need animals to express what might otherwise be unsaid.

In the many places that they appear in the Hebrew Bible, animals appear to be yet another tool of God, to uncover parts of ourselves and the world around us. At the beginning of Genesis 3, the snake is the conduit to critical information. The snake’s speech to Eve seems to draw out something that is within her. She has a desire for knowledge—to have her eyes opened—of which she hadn’t been aware until the crafty animal calls out to her. Genesis Rabbah 20:11 makes a linguistic connection between Eve’s name, Hava, and the Aramaic word for snake, hiviah, having Adam say that “The snake was your snake and you were my snake.” If we continue this sense of the verse, that as Eve was a product of Adam, the snake is in some way a product of Eve. The snake, expressing desires that she cannot, is an aspect of Eve herself.

Fortunately animals in the Hebrew Bible speak to men as well as to women. This folkloristic element of talking animals recurs in the story of the prophet Balaam in Numbers 22. Balaam is ready to do the job of mercenary prophet for Balak, king of Moab, until his donkey speaks up.

The donkey stops moving because she sees an angel of the Lord standing with a drawn sword in front of her. Her master beats her to get her to move; she remains motionless. Finally she lies down to avoid the angel, and “The Lord opened the donkey’s mouth” (Numbers 22:28). She says to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me three times?” Balaam, incensed, replies that if he had a sword he would kill her. In fact, it is the donkey that is saving him from the unseen sword of the angel. Finally God uncovers Balaam’s eyes (Numbers 22:31) and he sees the angel. The donkey has been used as a vehicle of sight by someone who is a professional seer, who the midrash suggests is in fact a greater prophet than Moses, with the ability to speak to God all the time (Numbers Rabbah 14:20). The biting irony of the prophet out of control of his own vision culminates at the story’s climax when Balaam, unable to complete the task for which he was hired, is instead moved to bless the Israelites when he sees their encampment (Numbers 24:1). Comically, a donkey is the vehicle to a clearer vision for this gifted prophet.

Jonah, another prophet defeated by an animal, believes it possible to flee the task God has set for him. Much like Balaam, he misunderstands that he has the ability to deliver an important message. Jonah’s animal does not need to speak; the changes in Jonah take place inside, literally and figuratively. The fish merely swallows Jonah and spits him out, both times at the command of the Lord (Jonah 3:1, 11). While Jonah is in the fish’s “inner parts,” he calls to God and declares, “What I have vowed, I will fulfill” (Jonah 2:10). After this declaration of intent to fulfill God’s mission for him, he is released. Though the fish doesn’t speak, it is Jonah’s residency within this animal that is the occasion for him to express a sense of understanding of himself and his mission.

An animal need not be alive to provide a lesson for a biblical character. For Samson, it is a lion’s carcass and the honey produced by bees within it that provide an opening for his first act of self-
expression. Samson, as a youth, has killed a lion. When he returns to the spot a year later, he observes a swarm of bees in the skeleton (Judges 14). He harvests the honey, feeds it to his parents and goes to marry his first wife. At the wedding feast, Samson propounds a riddle, “Out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong came something sweet”(Judges 14:14). This conundrum cannot be solved, without knowledge of Samson’s life and deeds. In “Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson,” the Israeli writer David Grossman calls Samson’s act a kind of artistic self-expression. Samson is conveying who he is: both fiercely strong, able to kill a lion with his bare hands, yet tender and sweet within, needing and desiring love and comfort. Samson can’t express his feelings directly, yet through the medium of the bees and the lion he can proclaim publicly, and have others speak on his behalf, the response to the puzzling riddle.

In these stories, the distance between the animal and the human collapses—the snake and Eve are separate beings, Balaam sits on his donkey, Jonah resides in the innards of the fish and Samson finally sees the lion’s carcass and honey as a surrogate for himself. We know animals can’t speak, and still we remain fascinated by the possibility. Biblical animals, both in language and action, when behaving realistically as well as impossibly, guide humans to new knowledge and expression. Noah sends the dove and the raven out of the ark to ascertain whether the flood has truly abated (Genesis 8:6–12). It is the moment when his connection to the dove has been severed that he learns what it is he needs to know, that there is dry land once again. The dove—like the snake, donkey, fish and lion’s carcass—leads Noah to a new life, one not possible without its truthful guidance.


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