Proof That Donkeys Can Talk!
Dan Barker on Animal Vocalization
by "Beamer"

In a certain Skeptical newsletter in 1997 there is an interesting account of a debate between Dan Barker and Walter Kaiser. Their subject was "God and the Bible: Fact or Fable?" The tone for this debate was set by Barker thusly:

Just to be certain what we were debating, I looked up the word fable in the dictionary. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the primary definition involves talking animals. Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary gives "fable, n. 1. a fictitious narrative intended to teach some moral truth or precept, in which animals and sometimes inanimate objects are represented as speakers and actors." The other dictionaries agree.
Not all stories with talking animals are fables (only moral tales), and not all fables contain talking animals (so even without them, the Bible could still be a fable); but there is an assumption in the dictionary definitions that conforms to common knowledge: animals do not speak human language. If there is any evidence that the Bible is a fable, or contains fables, then the presence of talking animals would certainly be a part of such evidence.

In light of this, Barker chose to heave ho on two Biblical stories: the snake in the Garden of Eden, and Balaam's talking donkey. Let's pick up the debate with Kaiser at this point and intersperse comments:

Barker: Do you believe there was a talking snake?...
Kaiser: I don't think you understand what Genesis 3 is talking about. I'm surprised at your understanding .
Barker: But just tell me: did a snake speak human language? Yes or no?

Kaiser at this point gave an interpretation that concluded that a literal snake was not in view. Barker presents at the end of his article the opinion of another Hebraist who disputes Kaiser. For my part, I'm going to stick with an actual snake and let Barker hang himself on that basis.

Barker: So this was the Devil, Satan talking?
Kaiser: I think it is.
Barker: You mean the red dragon with the seven heads and the ten horns and all that? That's who was talking in the garden?
Kaiser: No. First of all, stick to the text here, in Genesis, what it claims. Don't mish-mash and go from one to the other and therefore confuse it.
Barker: Don't take it in context?

Yes, Dan, don't. The cite in question is from Revelation, of the apocalyptic genre, where indeed unreal images are the norm. Genesis and Numbers are straight narrative format. But after this, Revelation gets lost in the shuffle, and so, after more explanation from Kaiser:

Barker: If you're right about this--I don't think you are, but if you are--does the god you believe in, is he capable of causing an animal to speak human language? Can he do that? Did Balaam's ass speak human language to Balaam?
Kaiser: Uh, you're asking me what God is capable of, and God is capable of everything except contradicting himself.
Barker: So, he could cause an animal--he could cause Balaam's ass to speak to Balaam. Do you believe that a donkey spoke human language?
Kaiser: God can't make ropes with one end.
Barker: But I'm asking about talking donkeys. Can God cause a donkey to speak?
Kaiser: We have--I just wrote an article on an archaeological find of that particular episode, from the 9th century B. C., with Balaam, son of Beor, and it's from a schoolboy copy's text, and yes, they talk about the fact that this was a most unusual event in which God spoke through the mouth of an animal.
Barker: So did the animal speak human language, yes or no?
Kaiser: You heard me, sure. Yes.

Whew! Only took three tries for Dan to get the point. But anyways:

Barker: Okay, so you believe. So, you believe in the dictionary definition of "fable," then, right? A story which has talking animals is a fable.
Kaiser: Now you are confusing two things, because in the definition of a fable, you do have a[n] animal speaking, but that's not your only criteria for what constitutes a fable. Fables are a part of figure of speech. We use figures of speech: "You hit the ceiling," but I don't look for you on the ceiling. You do various kinds of things that are in terms of figures of speech, and you must allow that also to be operative in ancient language as well as modern language.
Barker: So, the Bible contains a lot of allegory with pretending speaking animals, which, to me--that's a fable. Animals who are pretending to speak, or that you are- -
Kaiser: Those were your words: "lot of allegory." Now you're putting a value judgment on that, and your value judgment is clouding your ability to do rational thought. I thought you were a rationalist. Now you're becoming an emotionalist. (laughs)

At this point Barker has essentially lost. Kaiser has made the point that a theistic paradigm admits such possibilities. Barker can hardly deny this, and so he changes the subject to take a sideswipe at theism and miracles:

Barker: This morning, when I was driving up here, I stopped to get gas. I went in to get a coffee break, and as I was going into the little shop--
Kaiser: Yeah.
Barker:...this cat came up to me and spoke to me in human language, and said, "Stay away from the tuna sandwiches." Do you believe that? Do you believe that happened to me?
Kaiser: I don't know your cats that well. (laughing)
Barker: But do you believe that that happened to me?
Kaiser: Uh, I have my doubts about it.
Barker: Why?
Kaiser: I need more evidence.
Barker: Why would you doubt that a cat could speak?
Kaiser: Because, we need evidence; that's why.

At this point time was called, which is rather a shame, because I would like to have had a few words with Barker myself. Dan has never peeped to us about articles, but here's how I would have responded:

Barker: This morning, when I was driving up here, I stopped to get gas. I went in to get a coffee break, and as I was going into the little shop--
Beamer: Yeah.
Barker:...this cat came up to me and spoke to me in human language, and said, "Stay away from the tuna sandwiches." Do you believe that? Do you believe that happened to me?
Beamer: No.
Barker: Why?
Beamer: Because, Mr. Barker, according to your own testimony you are a congenital liar. You lied to family and friends about being an apostate from Christianity, for months at a time, no less. Why should we trust you when you say you've been speaking to cats? Also, it is clear from your work, and from your uncritical acceptance of unqualified sources like Herbert Cutner, that you have an inflated view of your own abilities, and are perhaps delusional. Your past history belies any likelihood that a cat spoke to you. Whereas, the Bible is confirmed by archaeological, textual, and historical evidence that you don't have a clue about. I would need another witness at least in order to even set the ground for believing that cat spoke to you. Then again, had you told me that the cat warned you against egotism, I might be inclined to believe you on your own.

Dan tells us that in the first part of the debate, "I opened the Bible and read about an ass that didn't know when to stop talking..." Funny, I did the same thing when I opened the sixth issue of that Skeptical newsletter....