Root (khamor): חֲמוֹר
Root (athon): אָתוֹן
Sounds like: kha’more and ah’tohn.
So those who know me well know that I have an affinity for donkey’s. My three favourite animals are cats (I live with three of them), skunks (we go way back), and donkeys. I have a little donkey figurine that stands in front of my television and it reminds me that I have a right, and a duty, to study theology.
A few years ago I was researching schools of theology and I came across one in particular that wouldn’t allow me to learn because I was a woman. Not one to accept things at face value, I questioned the president of that institution and made some cases for God’s use of strong women leaders in the Bible. His response:
Yes, God used a Donkey as His advocate in one instance, but that does not mean that He wants to use a donkey at all times.
Now I may be an ass for saying so, but it seemed to me that his excuse for refusing to teach women was pretty lousy. God can use anyone and anything to bring His Kingdom forward. He may not use them all the time, just like He may not use men all the time, but He does use them. And I, as a woman, have every right to learn and be an instrument of God as anyone else. Donkeys have now become emblematic to me… a reminder that I have the right to learn, and I am worthy of learning.
The Job of a Donkey
In the Tanakh (Old Testament) donkeys were used primarily as a form of transportation. A passage in Zechariah identified animal forms of transportation that were at risk of plague, at the time:
…So also like this plague will be the plague on the horse, the mule, the camel, the donkey [w-ha-kha’mor] and all the cattle that will be in those camps.
Donkeys, as well as mules, horses, camel and oxen had a job to do, and they were well equipped to do it in ancient Israel. Yeshua (Jesus) likely rode on all of these animals at one time or another, but only one animal on that list was directly mentioned in His story. The donkey was Yeshua’s animal escort as he entered Jerusalem during the week of Passover.
Today many are celebrating “Palm Sunday”, recalling the time when Yeshua entered Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, and the people welcomed Him as the Messiah, shouting, “blessed is He who comes in the name of YHWH [the LORD].”
It was a triumphal entry… with happiness and hopeful shouting… and great feeling of joy which permeated the crowd. But by the end of the week there would be a radical change in mood. Yeshua would be sacrificed on the Roman cross. Instead of hopeful shouts of praise, there were jeers; instead of happiness, there was mourning; and, depending on who it was, either sorrow or hatred rippled through the crowd.
Yeshua’s triumphal entry would lead to his victorious demise. But before He could enter Jerusalem, He needed something to ride in on:
(See also Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, John 12:12-19)
When He [Jesus] approached Bethphage and Bethany, near the mount that is called Olivet, He sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you; there, as you enter, you will find a colt tied on which no one yet has ever sat; untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of it.’” So those who were sent went away and found it just as He had told them.
As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
They said, “The Lord has need of it.”
Surprisingly the owner had no more questions to ask after this. He (assuming it was a he) just let two strangers take away his possession… his donkey which the Lord needed. The Gospel writer, Matthew, was quick to point out that this moment was prophesied in the Old Testament:
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold your King is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
The prophet that Matthew referred to was Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey [khamor], even on a colt [ayir], the foal [ben: son] of a donkey [a’tohnot].
This passage from Zechariah has three different words for donkey: khamor (male donkey), ayir (colt: young, uncastrated, male donkey) and atohn (female donkey). It is also considered to be one of the prime prophecies about the Messiah: the King endowed with Salvation would enter Jerusalem with triumphal shouting!
After the two disciples retrieved the colt…
…They brought it to Jesus, and they threw their coats on the colt and put Jesus on it. As He was going, they were spreading their coats on the road. As soon as He was approaching, near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles which they had seen, shouting:
“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of YHWH [the LORD]; peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.” But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!”
Yeshua knew Zechariah’s prophecy of triumphant shouting and rejoicing had to be fulfilled, and there was no stopping its fulfillment. If humans didn’t shout, the stones would have to.
Donkeys and the Sons of Jacob
But long before Yeshua rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, just before Passover, donkeys had a fairly interesting presence in the Tanakh.
When Jacob prophesied about his twelve sons only four animals were mentioned, in comparison to his sons: Judah was like a lion, Issachar was like a donkey, Dan was like a serpent, and Benjamin was like a wolf.
Issachar was the son directly compared to a male donkey:
“Issachar is a strong donkey [khamor garem], lying down between the sheepfolds. When he saw that a resting place was good and that the land was pleasant, he bowed his shoulder to bear burdens, and became a slave at forced labour.”
This is what a donkey does… he sees goodness, he bears the burden, and carries the load. But donkeys were more than just forms of transportation. Farmers today often use donkeys as guardians in fields with sheep or cows. They are highly protective and will kick and balk at anything that threatens those that they care for. It is not an easy life, but donkeys are strong, loyal, territorial, and protective.
Jacob’s son, Judah, was compared to a Lion, but he was also to have an interesting connection to a donkey:
“Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, and as a lion, who dares rouse him up?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. He ties his foal [irow] to the vine, and his donkey’s colt [beni a’tohnoh] to the choice vine…”
King David and the Messianic line comes from the tribe of Judah. This prophecy of the female donkey’s colt and the choice vine appears to have a connection to the Zechariah prophecy and Yeshua’s claim: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
The kingship of Judah was connected to the choice vine (the Messiah) and, as odd as it seems, a donkey would be an integral part of that story.
Tale of the Speaking Female Donkey
One of the more curious accounts of a donkey can be found in the book of Numbers:
So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey [et a’tonoh] and went with the leaders of Moab.
But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of YHWH took his stand in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding on his donkey [al a’tonoh] and his two servants were with him. When the donkey [ha-atohn] saw the angel of YHWH standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand, the donkey [ha-atohn] turned off from the way and went into the field; but Balaam struck the donkey [et ha-atohn] to turn her back into the way.
Again the Angel of YHWH stood in Balaam’s path and Balaam’s donkey, which was a female, tried to protect her rider:
Then the angel of YHWH stood in a narrow path of the vineyards, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side. When the donkey [ha-atohn] saw the angel of YHWH, she pressed herself to the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he struck her again.
A third time the Angel of YHWH stood in Balaam’s way, in a place that could not be avoided:
The angel of YHWH went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn to the right hand or the left. When the donkey [ha-atohn] saw the angel of YHWH, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam was angry and struck the donkey [et ha-atohn] with his stick.
Finally the donkey laid down under Balaam, and after her third beating, YHWH opened her mouth:
And YHWH opened the mouth of the donkey [ha-atohn], and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Then Balaam said to the donkey [la-atohn], “Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.”
The donkey [ha-atohn] said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey [a’tohn’ka] on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?”
And he said, “No.”
Then YHWH opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of YHWH standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground. The angel of YHWH said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey [et a’tohn’ka] these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me. But the donkey [ha-atohn] saw me and turned aside from me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, I would surely have killed you just now, and let her live.”
Balaam said to the angel of YHWH, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I will turn back.”
But the angel of YHWH said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I tell you.” So Balaam went along with the leaders of Balak.
Note that YHWH opened the mouth of the donkey to talk, but as soon as YHWH opened the eyes of Balaam, the donkey stopped talking. Sometimes it takes that much of an impossibility to shake up human understanding. For Balaam, he never got it until YHWH opened his eyes for him.
Balaam’s donkey is only one of two animals that speak in the Bible. The serpent also spoke to Eve [Chava]. But whereas the serpent tried to confuse Eve with words, Balaam’s female donkey only questioned why he would hit her, when she was merely trying to protect him. The serpent used words to deceive, the donkey used words to highlight her loyalty and obedience. There is a vast difference between the two.
The Donkey and Victory
The story of Balaam’s talking donkey, in the Torah, perhaps resonated with Samson as he picked up the jawbone of a recently deceased donkey to defeat his enemies. The jawbone may have been a quick reminder of the obedient talking donkey who halted at the sight of the Angel of YHWH. The obedient donkey recognized the authority of YHWH, just as the Philistines would come to recognize the authority of YHWH through the power of Samson.
When he [Samson] came to Lehi, the Philistines shouted as they met him. And the Spirit of YHWH came upon him mightily so that the ropes that were on his arms were as flax that is burned with fire, and his bonds dropped from his hands. He found a fresh jawbone of a donkey [khamor], so he reached out and took it and killed a thousand men with it. Then Samson said, “With the jawbone of a donkey [ha-khamor], heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of a donkey [ha-khamor] I have killed a thousand men.”
Samson’s jawbone weapon came from a male donkey, and the talking donkey was female, but both were victorious with the strength of the Spirit of YHWH. Victory and donkeys had a connection. Deborah’s victory song included donkeys:
Judges 5:3, 9-10
“Hear, O kings; give ear, O rulers! I—to YHWH, I will sing, I will sing praise to YHWH, the God of Israel…
…My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel, the volunteers among the people; bless YHWH! You who ride on white donkeys [a’tohnot], you who sit on rich carpets, and you who travel on the road—sing!”
Do not neglect the Donkey
Donkeys were clearly an important possession to have and they were to be cared for at all cost:
“You shall not see your countryman’s ox or his sheep straying away, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly bring them back to your countryman. If your countryman is not near you, or if you do not know him, then you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall remain with you until your countryman looks for it; then you shall restore it to him. Thus you shall do with his donkey [la-kha’morow], and you shall do the same with his garment, and you shall do likewise with anything lost by your countryman, which he has lost and you have found. You are not allowed to neglect them. You shall not see your countryman’s donkey [khamor] or his ox fallen down on the way, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly help him to raise them up.”
People had a responsibility to protect a neighbour’s animals, and other possessions, if they could not do it themselves.
This need to protect animals was instinctive. In the very beginning humans were charged to be the rulers and protectors of animals and plants of the earth (Genesis 1:26-31). Humans have understood, from the dawn of time, how important animals are to our livelihood. It should not be surprising, then, that the story of the first anointing of a human Jewish king began with a search for lost donkeys:
1 Samuel 9:3-5
Now the donkeys [ha-a’tohnot] of Kish, Saul’s father, were lost. So Kish said to his son Saul, “Take now with you one of the servants, and arise, go search for the donkeys [ha-a’tohnot].”
He passed through the hill country of Ephraim and passed through the land of Shalishah, but they did not find them. Then they passed through the land of Shaalim, but they were not there. Then he passed through the land of the Benjamites, but they did not find them. When they came to the land of Zuph, Saul said to his servant who was with him, “Come, and let us return, or else my father will cease to be concerned about the donkeys [ha-a’tohnot] and will become anxious for us.”
During their searching the servant overheard of a seer, or prophet, that might be able to help them, and so they searched for Samuel the seer:
1 Samuel 9:17-20
When Samuel saw Saul, YHWH said to him, “Behold, the man of whom I spoke to you! This one shall rule over My people.”
Then Saul approached Samuel in the gate and said, “Please tell me where the seer’s house is.”
Samuel answered Saul and said, “I am the seer. Go up before me to the high place, for you shall eat with me today; and in the morning I will let you go, and will tell you all that is on your mind. As for your donkeys [w-la-a’tohnot] which were lost three days ago, do not set your mind on them, for they have been found. And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father’s household?”
On the third day the donkeys were found and Samuel had found the new king of the Jewish people. Saul had not expected to be anointed as king, but in searching for the lost, he was found. Lost donkeys brought him to his fate, but could the man who lost the donkeys lead the sheep?
1 Samuel 10:1-2
Then Samuel took the flask of oil, poured it on his head, kissed him and said, “Has not YHWH anointed you a ruler over His inheritance? When you go from me today, then you will find two men close to Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say to you, ‘The donkeys [ha-a’tohnot] which you went to look for have been found. Now behold, your father has ceased to be concerned about the donkeys [ha-a’tohnot] and is anxious for you, saying, “What shall I do about my son?”’
Rachel’s tomb was on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where Yeshua (Jesus) would be born. Here Saul met the two men who would announce the finding of the donkeys and the concern Saul’s father had for him. Death and birth, lost and found, are concepts that surround Bethlehem… and “What shall I do about my son?” is a refrain that YHWH Himself may have asked.
The Humble Donkey
Donkeys have this stubborn yet submissive quality which makes them the perfect animal to accompany the humble. Yeshua was the Messianic King, but he chose to ride on a donkey, not a great stallion. David, in his humility, faced king Saul on a donkey.
Saul, as king, had lost his way. He was terrorized by evil spirits and his advisors suggested music to soothe his tormented soul.
1 Samuel 16:17-22
So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me now a man who can play well and bring him to me.”
Then one of the young men said, “Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is a skillful musician, a mighty man of valour, a warrior, one prudent in speech, and a handsome man; and YHWH is with him.”
So Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David who is with the flock.”
Jesse took a donkey [kha’mor] loaded with bread and a jug of wine and a young goat, and sent them to Saul by David his son. Then David came to Saul and attended him; and Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armour bearer. Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David now stand before me, for he has found favour in my sight.”
David came to Saul on a donkey, and it was a triumphal entry of sorts. David was celebrated as a musician and welcomed into Saul’s service, but unbeknownst to Saul, David would replace him as king.
This is not so different from Yeshua’s triumphal entry. He would be celebrated and welcomed into Jerusalem, but unbeknownst to the population, Yeshua would become the forever King of the Earth in a most unprecedented way. And this forever King would choose a humble, loyal, donkey to lead Him into Jerusalem, to begin the fulfillment of his vow.
The Donkey is Redeemed
Donkeys were considered unclean animals according to Jewish laws. They were never to be eaten. When the people of Samaria were under siege by the Syrians, they were at the brink of starvation. In their desperation, donkeys heads and dove dung were sold for food, and the people even resorted to cannibalism (2 Kings 6:24-31). Eating donkey was equivalent to eating excrement; it was deplorable, and not far removed from eating human flesh.
Donkeys appeared to have special significance to God. All first born of every creature were to be sacrificed to YHWH, but there was a special dispensation for donkeys.
Exodus 13:11-13 (see also Exodus 34:19-20)
“Now when YHWH brings you to the land of the Canaanite, as He swore to you and to your fathers, and gives it to you, you shall devote to YHWH the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to YHWH. But every first offspring of a donkey [kha’mor] you shall redeem with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.”
There was no sacrificial death needed to be fulfilled by man or donkey… the lamb would redeem them. Both were unclean without the lamb’s sacrifice.
Yeshua, during the week of Passover, took on the role of the sacrificial lamb… the lamb that needed to be slaughtered for the unclean. The donkey was the unclean animal that was redeemed by the lamb, making it the perfect animal to carry the final sacrificial lamb, the Lamb of God, to the Temple at Jerusalem.
Saul was the first king of the Jewish people and searching for donkeys brought him to his anointing; on the flip side, Yeshua, the final King of the all the people was brought into Jerusalem, on a donkey, to be anointed on the cross. With His crown of thorns and royal robes (Mark 15:17-18) Yeshua was lifted up onto the cross to redeem every human who sought redemption. He didn’t have to search for donkeys, a donkey took Him there.
The redeemed donkey, a humble and devoted animal of burden, delivered Yeshua to His trial and His death. But it was the burden which Yeshua placed upon Himself, that saved us all.
Next week: Blameless