As kids, most of us learned some moral and practical life lessons from the quaint animal stories of Aesop’s Fables or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We’ve grown accustomed to the idea of talking animals – not a bad thing in itself – but I do sometimes ask why humans are so fascinated with animals who talk and act like us.
Maybe they remind us how important it is to be connected to the world of nature. Maybe we wonder what they would tell us about ourselves if they could give us feedback. (Hmm. My dog has been eavesdropping on me for years. He knows all my secrets. I shudder to think how many treats it would cost me to keep him quiet….)
In any case, we humans are pretty adept at personifying animals in literature and art.
Folklore and Culture
The folklore of many different cultures almost always features talking animals, and American folklore is no exception: Bre’er Rabbit, the Three Little Pigs, Billy Goats Gruff, to name a few. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Talking animals are literally everywhere in our modern entertainment culture. Need a short list?
- Classic cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Snoopy (he doesn’t talk but he has quite the person-ality);
- Advertisements like Tony the Tiger and the Geico Gecko (one of the most creative pieces of graphic art in history, I believe);
- Sesame Street characters like Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy;
- TV characters like Dr. Doolittle’s animals, and of course, the funny Mr. Ed, the talking horse (I’m dating myself, I know);
- Interminable Disney characters starting with Mickey Mouse and company;
- Pixar animations; in fact, certain Pixar films such as Ratatouille, Zootopia, and The Secret Life of Pets consist entirely of talking animals.
Yes, those fuzzy, cute little talking animals are humorous and fascinating…until they aren’t.
Which brings us to the Bible. It is full of animals, but only three of them in the whole Bible actually speak, and there’s a not-so-entertaining reason for that, as we’ll see below.
We know that angels often interact with humans in the Bible, but we sort of expect angels to have the gift of speech because they are messengers. They have to talk!
Animals, on the other hand, cannot use human speech. They communicate in many subtle and humorous ways, without a doubt, but they don’t speak in human language because their minds don’t work that way.
Yet, the three highly unusual incidents of speaking animals in the Bible show them performing the same function as angels: they are messengers. In these cases, they serve as warning signals – like bright flares in the night sky – that life is about to come to a screeching halt if the person they’re talking to doesn’t obey God.
The basic message of all three is this: “Wake up! You’re about to die.”
Now, that’s more fascinating than any animation. The other interesting fact is that two of the three incidents act like bookends to the Bible, as they appear in the first and last books. Again, fascinating!
The Three Talking Animals of Scripture
The three loquacious biblical animals are the Serpent in Genesis, the Donkey in Numbers, and the Eagle in Revelation. I didn’t say all the talkers were good animals, did I? Let’s look at them in their order in the Bible.
The Snake in the Grass (Genesis 3:1-5)
We start with a question of how this event even happened. Did the evil angel (Satan) who spoke to Eve in the Garden simply take on a snake-like form, or did he actually demonically possess a real snake and speak to Eve through its mouth?
It’s a point the greatest theologians haven’t been able to figure out, so it’s not something we have to worry about. What we should be concerned about, however, is the question of why. Why did Eve allow herself to be drawn into a conversation with a talking snake?
Even if she was innocent and knew nothing of danger or betrayal, she must have sensed something was wrong. Her pure soul (her consciousness) would not have remained unaffected by the very first encounter with an evil being.
This of course was confirmed by the words of the snake, which represented everything that could possibly be wrong in human speech and its uses.
- They were seductive (“The snake was the most cunning of all the animals…”);
- And skeptical (“Did God really tell you…?”);
- And deceitful (“You certainly will not die!”)
Gosh, he could be easily mistaken for the modern mainstream media.
Eve, unfortunately, took the bait when she made the fatal error of engaging in a conversation with a serpent. The rest is history.
And don’t you wonder what old Adam was doing while his wife was having a chat with a dark, slimy creature in Paradise? Sitting around idle while evil attacks your loved ones is the mortal failing of men through the ages, and we can thank Adam for that.
We certainly know the long-term effect of that unfortunate event: spiritual death (which the Tradition calls Original Sin). There are two take-aways from this incident:
- The Warning: the red flags should have been waving wildly in Adam and Eve’s minds when the talking snake approached. Despite the fact that they lived in in a world that had never seen death or even danger, God had already warned them: “Surely you will die.” And the talking animal was very literally the symbol of that. “Red flags” in the mind and heart are there for a reason.
- The Spiritual Lesson: don’t talk to or even associate with snake-like creatures in real life. They only bring death.
Balaam’s Donkey (Numbers 22:22-40)
The few verses about the talking Donkey are immersed in a long sequence of events in the Book of Numbers about a sorcerer named Balaam. The seer was summoned by the pagan King of Moab to curse the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land.
The biblical account of this highly unusual situation shows an angel and an animal actually working together to deliver a divine message.
As Balaam was riding his donkey on the way to carry out his curse, the animal saw an angel standing in the way, so she stopped and refused to go forward. This happened three times, and Balaam, who didn’t see the angel (not much of a “seer” was he?), beat the donkey each time for not going forward.
Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she asked Balaam, “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?…Am I not your donkey, on which you have always ridden until now? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way before?”
I detect a bit of Semitic sarcasm here!
In short, the donkey was warning Balaam that danger lay ahead, and since she had always been a faithful servant, he should have taken her at her word. Balaam didn’t heed the warning, so he had to deal with a fierce angel (with a sword, I might add.)
Lucky for Balaam, the angel stopped him from carrying out his planned malediction and turned that curse into a blessing of Israel instead.
- The Warning: God sometimes sends people we love and trust to warn us of danger ahead because we are blind to it. We could dismiss their simple warnings as the braying of a donkey, or we could listen to them. At the very least, we should pause and consider their perspective.
- The Spiritual Lesson: Angels sometimes block us from doing something wrong, and the only way we will get the message is to listen to the homey wisdom of someone who has served us faithfully and would do nothing to hurt us. If we obey, we get the blessing. If not, we usually reap disaster.
The Bearer of Bad News (Revelation 8:13)
It would be easy to gloss over the single verse of Revelation that shows an eagle flying through the heavens crying out, “Woe! Woe! Woe!” (the Latin in the image below says, Vae! Vae! Vae!) but it’s a critical incident in the Bible. In this case, the most majestic member of the avian kingdom has been tasked with announcing the absolute urgency of repentance before God puts an end to the wickedness of the world:
Bamberg Apocalypse Manuscript, 11th C.
Then I looked again and heard an eagle flying high overhead cry out in a loud voice, “Woe! Woe! Woe! to the inhabitants of the earth from the rest of the trumpet blasts that the three angels are about to blow!”
It’s a rather important message. The “inhabitants of the earth” are us, and we had better wake up when we hear that voice (remember, it’s a prediction about our future.)
Was this bird an angel or an actual bird? Like the serpent in the Garden, he could possibly be an angel appearing in eagle form, or he could be a good angel taking possession of a mighty bird of nature. Either way, it’s immaterial.
His message is one that goes out to all humanity at the final hour: “Wake up! Repent! You’re about to die.”
- The Warning: Throughout Revelation, God gives humanity numerous chances to repent of sin (via trumpets, plagues, bowls of wrath) before He ends it all. He does the same for each one of us during the course of our earthly lives: “Woes” are there for a reason.
- The Spiritual Lesson: Eagle faces are very stern-looking, and we could mistake their stern call to repentance for judgment. It’s not. A harsh warning, rather, is meant to save us from the worst possible type of judgment, which comes upon those who persevere in sin.
In God’s Plan
The three talking animals in scripture are an interesting array of divine truths in visible and audible form:
- One is evil and crawls on his belly. There is nothing good about him. God sometimes uses evil to wake us up. When you hear his voice, run.
- Another is a humble servant of humanity, who is the image of the sacrificial friend who has nothing to gain in helping us get to heaven.
- The final one is a symbol of the Church: a mighty, majestic messenger in the heavens whose voice simply can’t be ignored. He serves as a last resort.
All of them have different ways of telling us that we should take the salvation of our souls seriously. And while talking animals in the entertainment world are usually pretty cute and fun, don’t get overly enamored of Hollywood’s versions of them.
We’re better off sticking with God’s versions – they point us to the type of joy that never ends.
There are not many times when we need course correction in our lives, but everyone goes astray from time to time and can benefit from a little warning.
When we are the receiver of warnings, it’s good to pay attention to them. Stop your forward momentum on that path you wish to travel and evaluate them very carefully according to what we’ve said above. If the source is evil, then you are being shown what the future may hold.
When we are the giver of warnings, we must pray for courage. It is not an easy task because it always brings us into conflict with another. At times like that we must pray for divine guidance and above all, pray to the guardian angel of the person who will receive the warning – and the angel will help them see the light.
Serpent: Olive Titus, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Balaam: Wikimedia: The Bible and its story (1908).
Eagle: Bamberg State Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.