It doesn’t get much wilder than this in the Book of Wilderness – a talking donkey, a prophetic drama, and the début appearance of one of Western Mythology’s favorites – Satan himself. But you wouldn’t know if from reading any of the English translations of the Bible, where the Lord of Darkness is consistently referred to as ‘the adversary’. To be fair, and with respect to all English translators – this is a valid literal translation of an obscure Hebrew word, but nevertheless, the concept of obstruction on the way towards fulfilling one’s mission in life pops up in this week’s Torah Episode ‘Balak’ – somehow lost (or covered up) in translation.
The book of Wilderness, chapter 22, tells of Balaam, the Prophet of Midyan, a hired gun in the hands of the King of Maob, eager to curse the People Israel. Balaam refuses to cooperate, but at night, while dreaming, he is ordered by God to accompany the messengers of the King and to await further instructions. Balaam, obedient, sets out and quietly rides his donkey on verse 21, when the following happens in verse 22:
“But YHWH’s anger flared up because he was going, so YHWH’s messenger stationed himself in the way as an adversary to him.” This is the Fox translation, while the Stone Artscroll replaces ‘messenger’ with ‘angel’ and ‘adversary’ with ‘impede’: “G-d’s wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of HASHEM stood on the road to impede him.’
The word for ‘messenger’ is ‘Malach’ is often translated as either Angelic being OR human messenger, but the word for ‘adversary’ is unique – ‘Satan’, to be later identified as the being also known as the ‘Angel of Death’.
In Hebrew, Satan is derived from the root meaning “to oppose”, “to be an adversary” or “to act as an adversary”. The image is paradoxical and startling: A mysterious being is blocking the path of a prophet who is sent on this journey by the very Deity that now summons the obstacle – the Satanic. It seems that Satan, in this early incarnation, is an integral, antagonistic part of God. Perhaps, psychologically, this Satan represents a part of the Whole, of Life itself – an allegorical representation of conflicting ‘obstacles’ in one’s life. This type of obstacle, however, has a message to deliver – it’s a roadblock that may seem like an adversary but is actually an important road sign, possibly a blessing in disguise.
Interestingly, it is the donkey (a female), and not the prophet, who recognizes this obstacle, and stubbornly refuses to move on: Satan is standing in a very narrow path, brandishing a drawn sword. The irony of a seeing donkey and a blind visionary has been interpreted by mystical commentaries to represent the dialectics between body and soul, intuition and intellect, matter and spirit. Balaam and his ass are a metaphor for the human journey – conflicted, challenged, confused , traveling a narrow path sometimes strewn with unseen obstacles. Later on in history and myth this condition will become known as ‘Satan’, a very complex and dark concept, but for now it is simply an invisible force blocking on one’s path. Sound familiar? Remember the last time you met IT on your path?
Balaam didn’t see it at first, but finally, when the ass speaks, he gets it, opens his eyes, hears the message: Go on your path, but obey your conscious, your moral code.
And that’s exactly what he does, turning curse into blessing.
Confused? Welcome to Jewish mythology and to the Book of Wilderness, where the wild things are, and where secrets and great truths hide, as they always do, inside fables, on the road to prophecy. No wonder most English translations remove Satan from this story, it’s complicated enough..