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Can horses count and does it matter?

Balaam's donkey could count. Credit: JohnBWilson/Flickr/Creative Commons

Credit: JohnBWilson/Flickr/Creative Commons

I have always wondered what is going on in my dog’s mind other than the obvious – did I leave the cupboard door open to the garbage can?

In 2008, Dr Claudia Uller from the University of Essex in Essex, England was speaking at the British Psychological Society conference in Dublin, Ireland when she announced that horses can count.

She came to this conclusion based on a study she conducted along with Jennifer Lewis on 13 horses from Colchester, England.

In the study, they had several buckets in which they placed either three apples or two apples. They only used plastic apples to eliminate the possibility that smell affected the results.

They found in their testing that 11 of the 13 horses consistently chose the buckets with the most apples.

In a second test they had buckets containing either two equally sized small apples or one large apple that was double the size of the two smaller apples, making them equal in amount.

Ten of the 12 horses consistently chose the two apple containers over the pails with just one.

These tests showed that horses understood two was greater than one and three was greater than two. Uller concluded that horses can count and they are smarter than previously thought.

This leads us to one of the more puzzling accounts in the Old Testament involving the prophet Balaam.

We don’t know much about Balaam other than he was considered a prophet by the Canaanites. We also know from the story recorded in Numbers 22, that Balaam consulted with Jehovah.

The story starts out with Balak, the King of Moab, wanting to pay Balaam to curse Israel so that Moab could defeat Israel in battle. Balaam declined when God said Israel was blessed.

But when Balak upped the ante with a bigger bribe, Balaam was tempted and though upset God allowed Balaam to go but under the condition he would only prophesy the words God gave the prophet.

With that, Balaam headed out on his donkey to rendezvous with the Moabite King.

However, God sent an angel to block the prophet’s passage. When Balaam’s donkey saw the angel, it immediately stopped. Still not seeing the angel, Balaam urged his donkey forward causing it to finally fall to her knees.

Angered by the balking, Balaam began to beat the donkey.

Then a very unusual thing happened — the donkey spoke to Balaam:

“What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? …Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” (Numbers 22:29a, 30a NASV)

After this happened, Balaam saw the Angel of the Lord and understood how serious God was about only prophesying God’s message over Israel.

I have always been puzzled by the words the donkey spoke. Did the donkey just speak words given by God or did God give it the ability to verbalize what it was actually thinking?

Most believe that God simply spoke through the donkey.

But notice how the donkey said Balaam had hit her “three times.”  If Uller’s study is correct, donkeys can probably count.


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