Beneath the massive tympanum sculpture of the Last Judgment at the cathedral of Saint Lazare at Autun in Burgundy is a capital representing the Old Testament account of the prophet Balaam.
The episode of Balaam and the Ass is told in the book of Numbers in chapters 22-4. Moses is leading the Chosen People out of Egypt and has reached the lands of the Moabites and Midianites whose king Balak is anxious at seeing the Israelites enter his lands.
In order to prevent them he calls for Balaam, an Aramite soothsayer with the intention of placing a curse on the Israelites. The elders of the Moabites and Midianites are despatched with “rewards of divination”, to persuade Balaam to come. During the night, Balaam receives a visitation from God who forbids him to curse his Chosen Race. The elders return to Balak with the word of Balaam’s refusal. Once more Balak sends his elders to persuade the soothsayer with the promise of even greater rewards. On this occasion, Balaam ignores God’s order and sets out for the land of Moab on an ass.
This story can also be seen on several Spanish churches, notably on the left side of the south transept entrance to the cathedral of Santa Eulalia at Jaca, where it faces a capital depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac on the opposite side.
Along the journey, Balaam is unable to see when an angel appears with a sword barring the way. The ass, however can and to Balaam frustration, refuses to go forward.
This occurs three times after which the ass, given the power of speech, proclaims that there is reason in his refusal to carry his master on. Balaam’s eyes are now opened for him to see the angel barring the way and he kneels, face to the ground.
The angel advises Balaam to continue on his way but to do his bidding only. When Balaam arrives at Moab, the king takes him to a high place overlooking the Israelites. Balaam tells Balak to build seven altars and on each to make a burnt offering of a bullock and a ram. However, when the time is come for Balaam to perform his curse he is obliged to speak the word of God and cannot pronounce the hoped for malediction.
This is repeated three times and on each occasion, Balaam gives Balak a prophetic parable which proclaims Israel as God’s Chosen Race and their future triumph.
The final prophecy declares that a Star would come from the hand of Jacob and a Sceptre rise out of Israel. The Sceptre would destroy Israel’s enemies and the Star would be one “that shall have dominion”.
The juxtaposition of the capitals of Balaam and the Sacrifice of Isaac on the south porch at Jaca is worthy of note. Both of these Old Testament stories contain narratives seen to link prophecies of the future coming of Christ with the historical progress of God’s Chosen People. The Hebrews of the Old Testament were now become the Christians of medieval Europe.
In the case of the story of Balaam the future appearance of Christ is represented by the star issuing from the hand of Jacob, the father of David whose descendant was Christ. The Sceptre promised in Balaam’s final prophecy was symbolic of God’s undertaking to accord victory to his Chosen People and conflict between the Hebrews and Moabites was superimposed onto the Christian conflict with the Moors. Balaam’s failure to fulfil king Balak’s wish to curse the Hebrews a sign of God’s continuing promise to protect his Chosen.