Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

The Prophet Balaam

The Prophet Balaam and the Donkey

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669). Musée Cognacq-Jay. Paris. 1626

The Israelites moved from Oboth to Iye-Abarim in the desert. From there they travelled to the gorge of Zead. They camped on the other side of the Amon. Here began the territory of the Amorites. They went to Beer, a place with a well. Then they continued to Mattanah, to Nahaliel, to Barmoth and from there to the valley that opened into the land of the Moabites. The Israelites had to give battle to Sihon, king of the Amorites for this king would not allow them to pass through his country. Israel conquered the Amorite towns and occupied the Amorite territory. The Israelites then put down their camp in the plains of Moab, beyond the Jordan and opposite Jericho G38 .

At that time the king of the Moabites was Balak, son of Zippor. The Moabites were afraid of the Israelites. Balak send messengers to summon Balaam, son of Beor, who lived at Pethor in the territory of the Amawites. Balak wanted to ask Balaam to come and curse the Israelites so that he would be able to defeat them and drive them out of his country. The elder of Moab and the elders of Midian thus went to Balaam. Balaam asked them to stay over the night. During the ensuing night God said to Balaam that he should not go with them to Jericho. God said not to curse the Israelites. The elders went back, whereupon Balak sent other messengers again to Balaam. He promised much silver and gold this time. Balaam asked the messengers to stay for the night. During the night God appeared once more to Balaam, but this time God said to get up and to go with the Moabites, but to do only what God would tell Balaam to do. So Balaam got up, saddled his donkey and went with the chiefs of Moab.

But Yahweh was angered. He sent his angel to take stand in the road and block the way. Balaam’s donkey saw the angel standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. The donkey turned off the road and went into the open country. Balaam struck his donkey to get her back onto the road. The angel of Yahweh then went further and positioned on a narrow path among the vineyards, with walls on the left and the right. The donkey again saw Yahweh’s angel and scraped against the wall. The donkey scraped also Balaam’s foot against the wall, so Balaam struck the donkey again. But Balaam and the donkey passed the angel. The angel then went a little further and stood now in a place so narrow that there was no room to pass on either side. The donkey stopped and lay down under Balaam. Balaam now flew into a very rage and he struck the donkey once more. Yahweh gave the donkey the power to talk and the donkey reproached Balaam for having struck her because she had worked for Balaam all her life and Balaam had mounted her often. When the donkey asked whether she had ever behaved this way, Balaam had to answer ‘No’.

Yahweh then opened Balaam’s eyes and now the Prophet also saw the angel of Yahweh standing in the middle of the road with a drawn sword in his hand. Balaam then regretted to have struck the donkey, for if the donkey had gone on, Balaam would have been dead. Balaam proposed to the angel to turn back, but the angel said to go on but to only tell what Yahweh told him to tell.

Balaam went to Balak and after having made many offerings to Yahweh, he prophesied that Moab would fall to Israel. And Balaam refused to curse Israel; he left and went home G38 .

We know that the ‘Prophet Balaam and the Donkey’ is a painting by Rembrandt, but it doesn’t look like one. There is no black or very dark background; there are plants on the lower right so that the painter tried to show some decoration of nature; there is no striking contrast of light and darkness; there is no static depiction of figures but a very energetic representation; and we lack Rembrandt’s lead white palpable paint strokes. And yet, the picture is painted in ochre, red, orange, very broken white hues; all importance is given to the figures; after all there is almost no background but a few brown rocks that are hardly discernible from the scene of the figures and clouds in an unrecognisable sky; there is no blue colour in the painting and in the details of Balaam’s face and in the tortured donkey’s vividness we sense a great master.

‘The Prophet Balaam and the Donkey’ is truly a picture by Rembrandt, but it is one of the very first paintings of the Dutch master, made when he was a mere twenty years old. The theme and its composition was not yet his. He used an example of his teacher Pieter Lastman. G89. But Rembrandt added extraordinary dynamic and life, a feature of his youth and of his early works.

The 'Balaam and his Donkey’ is one of the very few pictures in which Rembrandt made a try at a landscape background. He was not very successful at that. He did put darker toned mountain rocks behind Balaam and the Moabites, but painted this in colours that differed not so much from the other colours of the scene, so that it is really difficult at first sight to discern the details. He did not yet really know how to create and open, deep view on space. But for the sense of volume of the figures, feeling for space is almost absent from the picture. There are no trees, no bushes, and the only ornament of nature that Rembrandt tried to depict are some low plants in the right lower corner; the dark colours he used there almost hide that part of the painting.

Rembrandt showed the moment at the third appearance of the angel of God. The donkey laid her down under the Prophet. Balaam strikes the donkey once more with his stick, but also the angel readies to strike. Behind the Prophet are the Moabite chiefs arrogantly wondering whatever happens before them, why Balaam is acting so strangely.

Rembrandt painted as a twenty-year old new painter a very dynamic scene since the donkey, Balaam and the angel are in full action. This is not a contemplative painting aimed at being a reflection on life, but the depiction of an event. So he drew the head of the donkey, Balaam’s body and the figure of the angel in oblique directions, always a characteristic of motion. The vividness and ostentatious show of action and emotions is very Baroque, very seventeenth century, but not really very Rembrandt. In his earlier pictures however, the painter made pictures like he saw from other great examples of Baroque, and overly show of emotion in exaggerated gestures is one of the major features of this period. But Rembrandt was also a master at that style. Look at the spirit in Balaam’s face, Balaam’s force since with bare arms he raises the wooden stick. Look at the donkey’s open muzzle. The viewer instinctively and immediately feels the pain and the obstinacy of the animal, which looks at the threatening angel of God. The angel also is in full movement, with magnificent open wings that make him more dangerous and imposing, and the angel also brandishes its sword in a moment of striking.

The young Rembrandt was already a master of colour. Apparently he had already chosen not to use blue and green. His hues in this picture are very warm and very rich in their variety of tones, tints and shades. The picture overall is in a very harmonious, warm mood. There is the rich red in Balaam’s cloak and the pale yellow-white in the angel’s robe are colours that would stay with Rembrandt until his death. Rembrandt was a master in creating volume with little means and that also can be seen in the donkey and in the dress of Balaam. Balaam wears a wealthy brocaded robe in golden and red colours and these are simply splendidly rendered. Its chiaroscuro shows a somewhat set, elder man and a bellied Balaam.

Balaam is dressed in oriental robes and he wears a turban, but in the donkey’s saddlebag we discover papers of the Torah. Rembrandt thus understood something very important from the Bible story. Moses’ Exodus led the Jews out of Egypt. But some Jews must have remained in Canaan from before the departure to Egypt, many centuries before. In very rare stories such as ‘Balaam and Balak’, the Bible admits that holy men that could prophesy by Yahweh were already or were since always in Canaan. So, Rembrandt painted an oriental Prophet and not necessarily one that would look like a poorer Jew. Balaam seems for Rembrandt to have been a respected citizen of Canaan and a holy man that could be called in by the local, non-Jewish chieftains.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.