The Prophet Is A Creature, Not A Microphone: Thinking Through Heschel’s Philosophy of Prophecy in the Story of Balaam’s Ass

donkey annie spratt.jpg

This week’s Torah portion is Balak, the portion with Balaam’s ass.

Balaam, a sorcerer from the land of the Moabites, is sent to curse the Israelites from moving into their land.

God tells Balaam not to do this; Balaam goes forth anyway. God sends angels to Balaam to tell him not to continue; however, only Balaam’s donkey is able to see them. Balaam whips his donkey three times.

Finally, in Numbers 22:29-30 (from the Jewish Study Bible):

Then the LORD opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You
have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I
been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

God enables the mouth of Balaam’s ass to open. What does the creature say? Does it say “God keeps sending angels, you fool! Stop it!” No. It says “Please, stop. Why are you doing this to me? I usually don’t behave like this — can’t you see something is wrong?”

I am currently writing my dissertation on the theology and philosophy of Abraham Joshua Heschel. One of Heschel’s famous lines from philosophy of biblical prophecy, The Prophets, is “The prophet is a person, not a microphone” (Heschel, The Prophets, x).

By this, Heschel means that the biblical prophets do not simply transmit a message that God gives from on high. The subjectivity of the prophet matters: the way the prophet tells the message depends on their cultural background, predispositions, and even particular sensations and thoughts happening in the moment. A starving prophet would have a different tone than a healthy, sated prophet.

Heschel goes even farther than this in The Prophets. The prophet is not just projecting a static matrix of identity markers which result in the unique message they give. No, the prophet is part of a creative process working with and alongside God. The prophet is part of the prophetic process.

Extraordinarily, here the prophet is here not a person yet is still not simply a microphone!

The donkey, when enabled to speak, does not simply parrot God’s words. No, the words out of her mouth (snout?) do not point to the ass’s relationship with God (as a prophet, as one who can see the angels) but with Balaam: Haven’t I been a good donkey for you? Why don’t you trust me?

Our relationships to people– our orientations towards places, objects, even concepts– change what kind of message we give, prophet or not.



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