The position of the earth on its annual journey around the sun is currently bringing the part of the heavens into view which I believe forms the basis for the fascinating ancient scriptural incident of Balaam and his ass (or donkey).
The account of Balaam is found in chapters 22 through 24 of the Old Testament Book of Numbers, and it involves a number of important themes, chief among them the theme of blessing versus cursing.
The story of Balaam appears to receive little focus from those devoted to a literalistic reading of the scriptures these days, as it poses some fairly significant difficulties to those who approach the text as so.
One of these predominant difficulties is during the climax of the story, in which Balaam’s donkey turns around and speaks to him to complain about his treatment of her. Balaam answers right back to the donkey – as if it is natural to be accosted by one’s mount while out for a ride. The two engage in conversation.
As we will see, this is not the greatest difficulty in the text. The greatest difficulty is that God appears to become angry with Balaam even after he explicitly tells him to go ahead and travel to Moab.
However, once past the initial reluctance to examine this episode in the ancient scriptures, ‘Balaam and the Ass’ deals with important themes. It is a powerful example of the use of celestial metaphor in human myth, to convey spiritual knowledge; for Bible stories use the system of celestial metaphor found in the mythology of other cultures around the globe.
This common celestial foundation unites the world’s ancient and sacred traditions and mythologies. If, however, they are forced into a literal and historical framework, the same myths can be used to divide the world’s different spiritual traditions, or to excuse the persecution of one group at the expense of another (as indeed the message of the story of Balaam has been used, in some cases).
Forcing the ancient scriptures into a literalistic-historical framework can thus cause us to miss their beautiful message altogether, or to distort the messages into meaning the opposite of what is intended.
Thus, in examining this particular story – of Balaam and his donkey being confronted by an angel – we are led, by use of its celestial foundations, to an understanding of this larger pattern. For the literal interpretation can obscure or distort the potentially intended message.
Seeing that it has a celestial metaphor at its core shows us that ‘Balaam and the Ass’ is almost certainly not relating an event from literal earthly human history, which leads us to ask what it might mean, as an esoteric metaphor or allegory.
The story of Balaam begins in Numbers (chapter 22):
- 1 And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plain of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.
- 2 And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.
- 3 And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.
- 4 And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time.
- 5 He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, “Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face [literally "the eye"] of the earth, and they abide over against me:
- 6 Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land: for I wot that he whom thou belssest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed”.
The messengers from Balak come to Balaam and convey the message, but God consults Balaam and tells him (verse 12) to not go with them or curse the people, "…For they are blessed."
Disappointed, Balak sends more princes to Balaam – even more honorable than the first messengers – and offers not only great honor, but also any reward he wishes if he agrees to come.
God then visits Balaam at night and tells him that if the messengers ask him to go with them, he should rise up and go, but only say the word that he gives to him (verse 20).
This brings us to the most famous part of the story (Numbers chapter 22):
- 22 And God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.
- 23 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.
- 24 But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side.
- 25 And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again.
- 26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
- 27 And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
- 28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, “What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?”
- 29 And Balaam said unto the ass, “Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee”.
- 30 And the ass said unto Balaam, “Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? Was I ever won’t to do so unto thee?” And he said, “Nay”.
- 31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
The angel then informs Balaam that had it not been for the fact that the ass perceived the presence of the angel, the angel would have slain him. Balaam offers to go home, but the angel tells him to continue, repeating the previous admonition (verse 20) – that Balaam is only to speak what is given to him by God.
So Balaam joins Balak, who takes him "up into the high places of Baal" (verse 41). Balaam instructs Balak to have seven altars prepared for seven bulls and seven rams, which are made into a burnt offering (Numbers 23: 1 – 6). But when the time comes – in which Balak expects Balaam to pronounce a great curse – Balaam announces that he cannot curse what God has not cursed, and concludes with words of blessing (23: 7 – 12).
Balak is upset, but Balaam notes what he had said from the start when first approached by Balak’s messengers – that he could only say what was given to him by God.
Balak refuses to give up, suggesting that they try another location, where seven altars are again constructed for seven bulls and seven rams. But the LORD meets Balaam and tells him exactly what to say, resulting in a blessing even more eloquent than before (this time replete with celestial imagery, particularly of a great lion). Balak is not happy about this and asks Balaam if he can say nothing if he’s not going to pronounce a curse, but Balaam explains that he must say only what the LORD tells him to say (23: 25 – 26).
Balak decides to try one more time; seven more altars are built, and with similar results. This time the blessing is, however, even more elaborate, dominating the first part of Numbers 24 (verses 5 – 9). Balaam falls into a trance, in which his eyes are opened and endowed with a vision of the Almighty (Numbers 24: 4).
Balak then tells Balaam to go home, but Balaam asks him if he would like to know more, and goes into another trance to give more predictions – all of which I believe have to do with the celestial realms and have spiritual meaning for life on earth – but could be (and often are) misinterpreted as literal predictions. After delivering this message, Balaam returns to his place (Numbers 24: 25).
Now, how can we be almost certain that this event, preserved in ancient scripture, is allegorical and not literal-historical?
Setting aside the fact that donkeys cannot actually carry conversations with humans as Balaam’s ass is described as doing, there are abundant clues that indicate the exact set of astronomical constellations that are potentially involved.
The best place to start is with Balaam himself. The specific detail – that he has his foot crushed by his donkey’s efforts to avoid the awe-inducing presence of the angel (Numbers 22: 25) – gives us our first clue as to his identity, and it is a crucial one. There is one specific constellation that appears to have a severely twisted foot, and is currently nearly straight overhead or even a little past the zenith of their arc across the sky during the ‘prime-time’ viewing hours after the sun goes down: the constellation Perseus.
Below is a star diagram looking generally south and east, in which I have drawn the outline of the constellation Perseus (who plays Balaam), and several of the accompanying constellations surrounding it that may also play a role. I have noted the location of the foot that was injured (ouch – that looks pretty bad):
Now, if we’re correct in identifying Balaam with Perseus (primarily on the basis of the crushed foot in the story, although there is plenty of other corroborating evidence that we will find shortly), then we need to find out which constellation is playing the role of Balaam’s mistreated beast of burden in the story: the ass.
It just so happens that the zodiac constellation of Taurus – the Bull – is found just beneath the figure of Perseus. This story has not been passed through history as the tale of ‘Balaam’s bull’ but of ‘Balaam’s ass’, so how can we assert that Taurus is playing the role of an ass in this story?
As you can see from the diagram above (and the labeled diagram below, both of which indicate the outline formed by the brightest stars of the constellation Taurus using orange lines), the zodiacal constellation of the Bull consists primarily of the brilliant V-shaped Hyades. There are also two stars further out above each of the ‘prongs’ of the ‘V’, which enable us to trace a long line in our imagination from the top of the Hyades, to the ends of two mighty bullhorns.
These ‘horns’ could also be envisioned as the ears of an ass.
Looking once more at the stars that make up the constellation Taurus, it is easy to understand why the formulators of the world’s ancient Star Myths often chose to envision this outline as a long-eared ass:
In the diagram, I’ve indicated the location of the V-shaped Hyades; if you look directly to the ‘left’ of the ‘V’ you can see the two stars that form the tips of the ‘horns’ (if playing the role of the Bull), or the tips of the ‘ears’ (if playing the role of an ass, as in the story of Balaam).
There is also plenty of evidence from other myths that help to confirm that our interpretation of the story of Balaam is on the right track.
Perhaps the most powerful confirmatory evidence comes from elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures themselves, for the V-shaped Hyades features prominently in another Star Myth, which I have outlined and discussed in some detail: the Samson cycle of myths.
In the story of Samson, Samson’s chosen weapon for slaying thousands of Philistines is the famous ‘jawbone of an ass,’ which doesn’t make sense if the story is taken as literal history. Perhaps Samson might use such an implement in a hurry for one or two opponents, but it hardly seems likely that he would continue to employ it against literally a thousand: surely he would decide to pick up one of the enemy’s weapons after slaying a few who had swords or spears? (Unless all of his opponents were using jawbones as weapons that day, which is unlikely).
The account is recorded in the Scroll of Judges chapter 15, verse 15. I’ve explained in previous writings and in a video that the story of Samson is clearly not intended to be understood literally, but to convey powerful esoteric truths regarding our experience in this physical, incarnate life (Samson is not a literal-historic character but instead representative of the incarnation of each and every human soul; in a very real sense, the story of Samson is about aspects of yourself).
The understanding that Samson’s jawbone-weapon is actually a group of stars – that this jawbone is, in fact, the very specific V-shaped formation of the Hyades – was one of my first breakthroughs in realizing the stories in the Bible are built upon the same celestial foundation that underlies most other myths found in virtually every culture and every corner of our planet. This conclusion is explained by Hertha von Dechend and Giorgio de Santillana in their groundbreaking 1969 text Hamlet’s Mill, in which they present evidence that jawbone-weapons are described in myths from the Americas the Pacific Islands, and that they signify the Hyades, which are located above the constellation Orion, who can be seen ‘reaching out’ towards them (as Samson is described as "putting forth his hand" to grasp the jawbone in the Book of Judges). You can see a few stars of Orion peeking above the horizon in the star-diagrams presented here.
If the Hyades can function as a jawbone-weapon, and if that jawbone is described as ‘the jawbone of an ass’ rather than ‘the jawbone of a bull’ (as we might expect, since the Hyades are in Taurus), then this is strong evidence to confirm the proposition that Taurus is functioning as the ass in the story of Balaam.
Interestingly enough, as can be seen from the included diagrams, Perseus is reaching, with one arm, in the direction of another key constellation; the beautiful maiden Andromeda, who Perseus rescues in the Greek myth based upon these same stars. In a moment, we will see that Andromeda is playing the role of the powerful angel in this Old Testament story, but first let us briefly note another important piece of confirmatory evidence from a Greek myth, which also involves the theme of an ass’s ears: the story of King Midas.
In the story of Midas, Midas reaches out towards his daughter (played, I believe, by the same constellation Andromeda who plays the heroine in the story of Perseus). It is noteworthy that Midas is given an ass’s ears as a sign of his foolishness. That this myth not only includes Perseus and Andromeda, but also features an ass’s ears, is further indication that Taurus is, in some cases, manifested as an ass rather than as a bull.
Our identification of Balaam with Perseus and of the donkey with Taurus seems, therefore, to have a fair amount of evidence to support it.
In the scriptural text, an angel blocks Balaam’s path, and "[stands] in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side." (Numbers 22: 24).
Andromeda is indeed positioned between Perseus and the Great Square of Pegasus, touching one corner of the Square. If the Square represents the vineyards that are mentioned in verse 24, then she has a wall on "this side" of her, and a wall on "that side" of her. In fact, I believe that this is what the scriptures want us to understand (it is common for Star Myths to contain this kind of super-abundant evidence, pointing us towards a fairly clear understanding of which constellations they represent).
Let’s also take a look at verse 22, where the angel is first mentioned. In this verse, Perseus is travelling with "his two servants." Just beneath the Great Square of Pegasus is one of the notable ‘dual constellations’ of the zodiacal wheel: Pisces. I would argue that the twin fishes of Pisces are Balaam’s ‘two servants’, travelling along the road with him (‘the road’ signifying the zodiacal pathway through the heavens up from Taurus – to Aries – to Pisces – to Aquarius).
In fact, I have previously outlined another important Biblical Star Myth in which Andromeda plays the role of an intercepting angel: the story of Abraham and Isaac. In this story, Perseus plays Abraham, who is about to sacrifice his son, and Andromeda plays the angel who stays his hand and points the way to the substitute: the Ram of Aries (located ‘below’ Andromeda).
In fact, the images below illustrate the story of Abraham and Isaac that was published in the 1860s, which (whether intentionally or not) depicts the characters as they are arranged in the night sky. Abraham stands with his arms out like Perseus; the angel flies, with outstretched arms, in the place that Andromeda is found in the heavens; and the Ram is trapped in the thicket, right where Aries is seen in the sky.
The same nineteenth-century illustration with the additional outlines of the constellations that I believe form the basis of the celestial allegory is shown below, so that the similarities can be seen more clearly:
Let’s have a pictorial look at the analysis thus far:
All in all, the amount of details included in the scriptural account provide overwhelming evidence that the story of Balaam is a celestial allegory, and that it specifically involves the region of the heavens containing the constellations Perseus, Taurus, Andromeda, Pisces and the Great Square. To hold that these celestial correspondences are ‘merely coincidental’, and that the story is supposed to be understood as a literal account of someone named Balaam (who happens to have a literal conversation with his human-speaking donkey after his foot is crushed by the presence of an angel, who is blocking their path), seems to be an unlikely hypothesis, because the texts themselves provide us with abundant evidence that they want to be read as celestial metaphor.
As for the construction of seven altars for seven burnt offerings, which Balaam requests to have built each time Balak takes him up to a high place. The number seven is fraught with many layers of significance and may be present in the story because of another aspect of its numerical and symbolical import. A strong argument can be made, however – that the presence of ‘seven altars’ in this story (a detail repeated over and over) is yet one more textual clue regarding the celestial origin of this episode.
Found just beneath the twisted foot of the constellation Perseus is one of the most beautiful celestial formations in the heavens: the brilliant Pleiades. The importance of the Pleiades to cultures around the world is well known, and has been explored in numerous essays I have written for my blog over the years: see, for instance,
More could also be written about the importance of the Pleiades in other cultures (such as across the Pacific Islands, from Hawai’i to Aotearoa).
The Pleiades is a dazzling cluster of bright and beautiful stars, which is unmistakable once you know how to locate it in the sky. One good way to find the Pleiades is to use the constellation Perseus and follow the line of his longer leg. Another is to follow the line of Orion’s belt ‘up and to the right’ (in the opposite direction from the star Sirius, which is ‘down and to the left’ along the line of Orion’s belt).
While the number of stars in the Pleiades cluster that are visible to the naked eye under good conditions number more than seven, the Pleiades, in many cultures of the world, are either described as ‘Seven Sisters’, or are related to the number seven (the brightest of the Pleiades are six in number, and there are stories in some cultures’ myths about the ‘missing sister’).
Given this solid connection between the Pleiades and the number seven, and because the Pleiades are located very near to Perseus (Balaam) and are in fact technically part of Taurus (the ass), the seven altars are most likely a reference to the Pleiades.
This possibility gains further traction with the fact that the altars are the site of burnt offerings – very appropriate for a cluster of glowing stars.
Additionally, the burnt offerings themselves are described as offerings of bulls and rams – almost certainly, therefore, in reference to two zodiac constellations in this part of the sky: Taurus the Bull and Aries the Ram.
Below is the familiar diagram of the Perseus/Andromeda region of the sky, with a few final labels added to round out the details we have discovered in our analysis of this Star Myth:
All of this celestial detail makes a very strong case – that the incident of ‘Balaam and the Ass’ is entirely celestial in nature, and that its message is thus allegorical and not literal-historical.
But what does this all mean? That, of course, is open to interpretation, but many of my previous writings have cited the assertion of Alvin Boyd Kuhn – that the ancient myths are not about fabulous kings, powerful warriors, or enlightened sages and mystics, but about the experience of each and every human soul in this incarnate life (see for instance here, here and here). In an important 1936 lecture called The Stable and the Manger, Kuhn explains:
The one actor in every portrayal, in every scene, is the human soul. The Bible is the drama of our history here and now; and it is not apprehended in its full force and applicability until every reader discerns himself [or herself] to be the central figure in it!
We do not, therefore, have to try to imagine an external literal-historical figure named Balaam having a conversation with his donkey – the story is not really about anyone named Balaam at all! It is about each and every one of us – respectively.
We will, therefore, have trouble discovering the moral of the story if we see the text as being about a literal-historical figure named Balaam. In fact, doing so risks inverting the esoteric message entirely.
To understand what the story of Balaam is intended to convey (or at least part of what it is intended to convey, for it has many layers of profound meaning), we must see that the specific part of the heavens which we have been examining in our analysis is very significant – due to the sun’s rising in the sign of Aries – during the spring equinox – during the Age of Aries – during which many ancient myths (and especially Biblical myths in the Hebrew scriptures) are set.
The spring equinox is the point of ‘crossing upwards’ into the ‘upper half’ of the year, when hours of daylight begin to dominate hours of darkness, after the winter months in which darkness dominates day. The autumnal or fall equinox, of course, is just the opposite: it is the point of ‘crossing downwards’ into the ‘lower half’ of the year. The story of Balaam is about the upwards-crossing point (at Aries, at the beginning of spring).
The constant interplay – between the ‘lower half’ and the ‘upper half’ of the year, and between the forces of ‘darkness’ and the forces of ‘light’ – have been allegorized globally, in ancient myths, as a great struggle or battle. Previously published analyses of mine, like that of the Bhagavad Gita, and of the Mahabharata, have discussed the evidence for such an assertion. There is abundant evidence that the stories of the Trojan War in the Iliad, as well as the crossing of the Red Sea in the Old Testament, depict this interplay.
The myths are not only about the natural cycles of the year, but can also be shown definitively to have used the great cycles to convey knowledge about spiritual truths. In other words, the myths use the most majestic physical models conceivable, like the mighty cycles of the heavens; the turning of the stars through the night; the progression of the zodiacal signs and of the planets throughout the year; the interplay of the seasons and of the sun’s path from equinox to solstice and back; the phases of the moon; the longer cycles of planetary conjunctions; and even the titanic precessional mechanism that grinds out the ages over the course of thousands of years. All are employed to convey truths about invisible matters.
The ‘upper’ half of the year is mythologically and metaphorically associated with the invisible realm of spirit, and with the spiritual and divine aspect in each and every incarnate human being. The ‘lower’ half of the year is antithetically associated with the physical, material, more animal, and corporeal nature of humanity, into which we are plunged upon incarnation.
I believe that the story of Balaam is designed as a metaphor to convey this overarching theme. The contrast between Balaam and the ass and between the children of Israel and the Moabites relate to this struggle, which we face respectively, in this incarnate life.
The use of constellations from the region of Aries the Ram, located at the ‘crossing upwards’ point of the spring equinox, means that this story is about blessing – about elevating spirit, rather than it sinking down into bestiality and cursing.
But Balak wants to invert the process – he wants to hire Balaam to curse instead of bless.
Balaam illustrates this inversion with his own behavior whilst on the road – by behaving more like a beast than his donkey.
The angel, representative of the invisible realm (and indeed invisible to Balaam until his eyes are opened), opposes Balaam when he appears to consider cooperating with the King of Moab. He grows angrier, more violent, and more brutal with the animal until the ass, with her just questions, appears to be at least as human as he is.
She is more in touch with the spiritual realm than he is, and she saves him from destruction even though he beats her for it.
Balaam is clearly representative of our human condition, which helps us to understand one of the aspects of the scriptural passage that gives literalist readers major difficulties – the fact that God tells Balaam to go along with the messengers of the king of Moab, before sending the angel to oppose him (literalist interpreters often try to construe some kind of culpable motive to Balaam in his going along, even though he has just been told in a dream to do so).
If Balaam is representative of an aspect of our soul’s condition in this incarnate life, then our entry into incarnation is akin to "going into the kingdom of Moab", which is for our own good, and in accordance with the divine will. We therefore descend into this life from the realm of spirit for our own benefit. But our mission here is not to become brutal, not to become violent, not to become bestial, but rather to bless and to uplift and to reconnect with that upper half of our nature – our spiritual and divine True Self.
When this allegorical system is understood, the story of ‘Balaam and the Ass’ begins to make sense in a way that it does not when we try to force a literal reading. For it is a story of hope and of the dignity and divinity inherent in every human being. We are all a combination of the physical and of the spiritual, but the spiritual will, after all, eventually and inevitably triumph, no matter how ugly the physical circumstances and situations may become, and no matter how our own spiritual blindness often leads us to do stupid and self-destructive things.
When ‘Balaam and the Ass’ is understood as esoteric and allegorical, it applies to each and every person, teaching us to uplift the spiritual within ourselves, and in others.
But when the story is read as literal and historical, its message becomes distorted, because it can mistakably convey a message that uplifts some groups and puts down others.
In fact, in externalizing the text and reading it literally, conclusions that are ‘180 degrees out’ from the allegorical interpretation can be drawn; a ‘physical’ message, so to speak, rather than a spiritual one.
On learning, on the other hand, of the overwhelming evidence – that the text describes the motions of the stars – it becomes clear that the literal and historical reading, (which is already difficult to maintain in light of the incidents in this particular episode) is almost certainly not the intended message of the ancient text.
The same exercise can be performed using virtually every other story in the Biblical scriptures (both the Old and New Testaments), and virtually every other myth and sacred story in the world, leaving us with what I believe are several inescapable conclusions, being:
That we are all connected,
That we are all primarily spiritual and that the external and the physical should not be used to divide us from one another,
That we should pay attention to the invisible realm (as Balaam learned ‘the hard way’ in the story, we also generally ‘learn the hard way’ in this life),
That we should bless and not curse,
That we should lift up and otherwise draw forward the divine spark in others and, as much as possible, in the part of the cosmos that we can impact around us (by planting gardens, opposing the degrading treatment of animals, and opposing the pollution of the air and land and water around us),
That the side of uplifting will ultimately and inevitably win out; that those who curse, debase and brutalize may appear powerful, but ultimately, in the end, are not.