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The Donkey

Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Loyalty

Stephen Broyles
Donkey line-up in an Egyptian painting.


In the tradition of the West we know the donkey as a slow, dull, foolish creature. Aesop tells the fable about the lion and the donkey who went hunting together. They found a cave full of wild goats, and while the donkey went inside and brayed his head off to frighten them, the lion stood at the mouth of the cave and nabbed them one by one as they came out. After the lion had caught the goats, the donkey asked his friend if he had not fought bravely. The lion answered impressively, “Why, I would have been frightened myself, if I had not known that you were a donkey!”

But this fable comes from Europe. Did the East share the same sentiments toward the donkey as the West? The answer is both yes and no. The Sumerians, an ancient Mesopotamian people, had any number of proverbs about various animals. In these the donkey was good-naturedly portrayed as a slow, blockish creature. One saying observes, “The donkey eats its own bedding!” and another, “My donkey was not destined to run quickly, he was destined to bray!” (Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Company, Inc.; Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959], 132.) In these sayings the Sumerians regarded the donkey much as the Europeans did centuries later.

But when we turn to the Hebrew literature, we do not find such jokes about the donkey. Rather the animal is known for its strength and its loyalty to its master (Genesis 49:14; Numbers 22:30). Indeed, the ruler of Shechem in the time of Jacob was named Hamor, the Semitic word for donkey. To call the man Hamor apparently did not create the same effect in ancient society as calling a man Eeyore—or worse—in our own society.

The donkey, not the horse, was ordinarily used for riding. It was ridden with a saddle and often with a bit (Numbers 22:21; Proverbs 26:3). It was ridden by all classes of people: by Abraham, by Balaam the seer from Mesopotamia, by women and children, and by king David’s household (Genesis 22:3; Numbers 22:21; Exodus 4:20; 2 Samuel 16:2).

As a work animal, the donkey carried burdens and pulled the plow (Genesis 42:26; Isaiah 30:24). When Jacob’s sons went to Egypt to buy food, they brought the grain back on pack asses (Genesis 42:26). Later in the story, Joseph sent a caravan of ten donkeys laden with “the good things of Egypt” and ten laden with grain, bread, and other provisions (Genesis 45:23). In an Egyptian tomb dating around 1890 b.c. we find a painting of such a donkey caravan, although the two little donkeys in the picture do not make much of a caravan. The painting depicts Semitic men, women, and children traveling on foot while their donkeys carry baggage and two more children.

By later Jewish times there are indications that the donkey was regarded as a lowly beast. The Wisdom of Sirach says, “Fodder and a stick and burdens for an ass; bread and discipline and work for a servant” (33:24). We note, too, that Rabbi Judah declares donkey-drivers scalawags:


Ass-drivers are most of them wicked, camel-drivers are most of them proper folk, sailors are most of them saintly, the best among physicians is destined for Gehenna, and the most seemly among butchers is a partner of Amalek.
(Mishnah Kiddushin 4.14)


In any case, Zechariah portrayed Israel’s future king coming not on a horse, the beast of war, but “humble and riding on an ass” (Zechariah 9:90).

The animal known to us as the donkey is called by at least three names in Hebrew. Athon is the she-donkey and appears in the Bible about thirty-five times, mostly in the story about Balaam and his donkey (Numbers 22) and in the story about the lost donkeys of Saul’s father (1 Samuel 9). The name ayir is infrequent. It is generally thought to refer to the animal’s young. The most common name (about 100 times) is hamor. Possibly the word means “the reddish animal.” Spanish burro is similarly derived from Greek purros, red. The word hamor is, however, enough like the sound of a donkey that I wonder if it is imitative. Pronounce it aloud a few times with a falling inflection and strong emphasis on the initial laryngeal, and you will see what I mean.


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