Another Bible animal
The donkey is the most-mentioned animal in the Bible, the majority in the Old Testament. The common domestic donkey is chamor in Hebrew. The female is athone and the foal, ayir. The wild donkey is seen almost as a different species, in Hebrew, peré.
The domestic donkey was the common mode of transport in ancient Eurasia, as it adapted to many different terrains, was more sure-footed than a horse, less specialist than a camel, easier to feed than both. They were common in rural and urban environments, and almost everyone knew how to ride them, load them with goods, and look after them.
The wild donkey on the other hand was known for its speed, uncontrollability and sexual energy. Jeremiah compares Israel’s lust for idols to the wild female donkey in heat, and Ezekiel mentions lustful Egyptians who are hung like donkeys.
The domestic donkey is the animal partner in many famous biblical events: the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), the prophecy of Balaam, the encounter of David and Abigail, and the story of the anonymous man of God from Judah in 1Kings 13, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The prophecy of Isaiah begins with the words, “The ox recognises its owner, the donkey knows where its master puts its food, but Israel does not recognise me.” The faithfulness of the animal is contrasted with the faithlessness of human beings.
With that background, the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 is not surprising.
“Look, your king is coming to you, vindicated and victorious, humble and seated on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey. He will banish the chariots from Israel and the horses from Jerusalem….he will proclaim peace to the nations.”
The donkey has become a symbol of the ordinary, the down-to-earth, the modest. This king is not a great conqueror, but a creator of peace, who will remove the means of mutually assured destruction from the land, and create peace with the gentile nations. You cannot appear conventionally majestic riding on a donkey.
Doubtless that’s why Jesus chose to fulfil this prophecy; it fitted his view of a kingship which was not an imposition from above but a rising to shared power of the ordinary and disregarded in the justice of God. The donkey is not simply humble; in its willingness to serve it can be stubborn, and conscious of its rights. In the story of the prophet Balaam the donkey challenges its enraged master, demanding to know why it has been beaten, when in fact it has saved him from harm. Jesus too knew how to challenge the careless arrogance of those in power.
The wonderful poem of Francis Jammes may overplay the donkey’s gentleness, but otherwise it describes desirable donkeyhood very well.
When I must come to you, O my God, I pray
It be some dusty-roaded holiday,
And even as in my travels here below,
I beg to choose by what road I shall go
To Paradise, where the clear stars shine by day.
I’ll take my walking-stick and go my way,
And to my friends the donkeys I shall say,
“I am Francis Jammes, and I’m going to Paradise,
For there is no hell in the land of the loving God.”
And I’ll say to them: “Come, sweet friends of the blue skies,
Poor creatures who with a flap of the ears or a nod
Of the head shake off the buffets, the bees, the flies …”
Let me come with these donkeys, Lord, into your land,
These beasts who bow their heads so gently, and stand
With their small feet joined together in a fashion
Utterly gentle, asking your compassion.
I shall arrive, followed by their thousands of ears,
Followed by those with baskets at their flanks,
By those who lug the carts of mountebanks
Or loads of feather-dusters and kitchen-wares,
By those with humps of battered water-cans,
By bottle-shaped she-asses who halt and stumble,
By those tricked out in little pantaloons
To cover their wet, blue galls where flies assemble
In whirling swarms, making a drunken hum.
Dear God, let it be with these donkeys that I come,
And let it be that angels lead us in peace
To leafy streams where cherries tremble in air,
Sleek as the laughing flesh of girls; and there
In that haven of souls let it be that, leaning above
Your divine waters, I shall resemble these donkeys,
Whose humble and sweet poverty will appear
Clear in the clearness of your eternal love.