The Free Will of Balaam's Ass

Naive readers often claim that story tellers should just summarize the point they want to make in a few sentences rather than dress it up in a story where the reader has to do the work of extracting meaning. The answer to that is that most of the time writers are doing other things than making particular points. They are describing the customs of a society or giving you a sense of a particular character or showing how dialogue advances or impedes people understanding one another. They are rarely making philosophical points and the ones who do, like Saul Bellow or other writers of the midcentury, will simply pause in the story to tell the reader what is on his or her mind. For the most part, writers will use their learning to give their descriptions greater detail rather than the other way around, use the detail to help make an abstract point. That was certainly true of Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, “Joseph and His Brothers”. Mann was steeped in all the Biblical scholarship of his time and that allowed him to create a story where the reader is enveloped in the ritualistic culture of the ancient Middle East and sees striking characters in actions detailed enough so that the reader gets a sense of how their minds work and the reader can draw from that the observation that in some ways all people whatever the age think alike while also thinking differently. That moral is drawn by the reader as a way to organize the material in hand rather than the purpose of the author, which is to describe what life is like. But there are exceptions, times when authors are indeed trying to give you a handle on a philosophical question. One of these is the story of Balaam and his ass, told in the Book of Numbers 21-23, where the author seems intent on resolving a philosophical dilemma, which is the nature of free will, even though, for the most part, the Old Testament is not given over to metaphysical speculation but, rather, avoids it.

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