Donkey, ass

Wild donkeys, photo by Fred Hsu, available through Creative CommonsWild donkeys or asses were commonly domesticated in Bible times since they were strong, if stubborn, beasts of burden. Consequently, they are often mentioned in the Bible. ‘Springs… give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst' (Psalms 104:11).

The story of Balaam's ass

The most dramatic story in the Old Testament involving a donkey is that of Balaam, a man who was alleged to have supernatural powers. The King of Midian asked Balaam to curse his neighbours, the Israelites, who were taking possession of nearby territories. When Balaam and his donkey set out to do this, an angel appeared on the road, sent by God to stop him. Balaam could not see the angel, but his donkey could. Scared by the angel, the donkey turned off the road, and Balaam beat her. The next time the donkey saw the angel, in a narrow path between vineyards, she started, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall, and so, was beaten again. The third time the angel appeared, the donkey lay down! When Balaam started to beat her again, the donkey spoke. ‘What have I done to make you beat me three times?' asked the donkey. Then Balaam's eyes were opened and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword. Consequently, Balaam blessed the Israelites as God directed him to do, much to the King of Midian's anger (Numbers 22:1-6; Numbers 22:21-35; Numbers 23:11-12).

Donkeys and the nativity

A donkey or ass can be found in many pictures of the nativity (birth of Jesus) although its presence is not actually recorded in the New Testament accounts. However, it may have been assumed that a Mary on a donkeydonkey was there because Luke's account of the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:4-7), tells of how Mary, who was heavily pregnant, had to travel with Joseph (the carpenter) to Bethlehem for the census. She probably travelled on a donkey. It also seems likely that later, when Joseph had to flee to Egypt with Mary and the infant Jesus to escape King Herod's murderous intentions (Matthew 2:13-14), mother and baby would have ridden on their donkey.

In addition, the presence of an ass, together with an ox, which has also been commonly included in nativity scenes, was regarded as fulfilling Old Testament prophecy, specifically, ‘The ox hath known his owner, and the ass his master's crib' (Isaiah 1:3). When the baby, Jesus, was born, the New Testament accounts mention that Mary wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Consequently, many artists show the nativity scene in a stable, with the donkey and other animals nearby.

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on a donkey

Jesus' use of a donkey to ride into Jerusalem, a week before his crucifixion, had particular symbolic significance. As Jesus rode into the city, people welcomed him with loud shouts and waved palm branches. To ride on a donkey signified coming in peace, whereas many of Jesus' followers had hoped that he would lead them to overcome the Romans and liberate them from their occupation (Luke 24:19-21). This symbolic event served to reinforce what Jesus had told his disciples:

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Matthew 20:25-28).

Moreover, this entry of Jesus into Jerusalem fulfilled one of the prophecies about the coming Messiah found in the Old Testament:

'Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey' (Zechariah 9:9).

This prophecy was believed to have been very precisely fulfilled, since Jesus had sent two of his disciples to borrow a donkey and her unbroken colt for him to ride upon (Matthew 21:1-3).

The donkey in literature

G K Chesterton, in his poem The Donkey, evokes both the donkey's lowly status and its special moment as it carried Jesus into Jerusalem.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

Related topics

Big ideas: Messiah, Christ, Jesus

Other cultural references

Chesterton's The Donkey

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.