Many of us have seen movies with donkeys as sidekicks to cartoon characters. Some of these donkeys are pranksters and able to speak — sometimes in sarcastic fashion.
Did you know that there is a talking donkey in the Bible?
Beasts of burden
Donkeys are always a beast of burden in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Abraham used a donkey to carry wood for the sacrifice of Isaac. As King David prepared to die, he ordered that his son Solomon should mount the king’s own mule — the offspring of a horse and donkey — and be taken to be anointed as king of Israel (1 Kgs 1:32-34).
The prophecy of Zechariah that was fulfilled when Jesus rode into Jerusalem specifically speaks of the Messiah riding a donkey: “Exult greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold: your king is coming to you, a just savior is he, humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zec 9:9).
Christian tradition tells us that Mary rode a donkey on her way to Bethlehem and on the Flight into Egypt. And Nativity scenes always have a donkey — not just because of Mary, but because of the prophet Isaiah. In the very beginning of his long book in the Old Testament, Isaiah relates a vision in which the Lord God says, “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger …” (1:3). This is seen as a prophecy of the Christ Child’s manger.
In the Bible, donkeys also carry supplies and trade goods, or plow fields (Is 30:24). When Jesus told the Good Samaritan parable, he mentioned the Samaritan putting the injured man on his own donkey.
Donkeys seem to have been so important in biblical history that the Ten Commandments warn against coveting your neighbor’s donkeys (Ex 20:17, along with your neighbor’s ox, slaves and wife).
Samson used the “jawbone of an ass” to slay 1,000 Philistines (Jgs 15:16). Even Israel’s first king, Saul, worked with donkeys. When we first see him, Saul is searching for the lost donkeys belonging to his father, Kish (1 Sam 9).
Perhaps Kish had used those donkeys the way donkeys are still used today — with herds of sheep, as guard donkeys able to warn the shepherds in enough time to make a difference.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs of the province of Ontario, Canada, suggests the use of donkeys as guard animals. The ministry notes that donkeys use sight and sound to spot predators, and that sheep instinctively hide behind donkeys. “The donkeys’ loud brays and quick pursuit will scare away predators and may also alert the shepherd. In most instances donkeys will confront and chase dogs or coyotes out of the pasture. If the canines do not retreat quickly the donkeys will attack them by rising up on their hind legs and striking with both front feet.”
A donkey’s keen sight may be behind the story of the talking donkey in the Bible. We find the story in the Book of Numbers, chapter 22. In it, the Moabites implore the prophet Balaam to come to Moab and curse the Israelites, who have camped outside of the city of Jericho.
Balaam does not want to go, since the Lord God has told him not to. But, for some reason, God seems to change his mind and orders Balaam to go along with the princes from Moab.
Riding along with two servants, Balaam doesn’t see the danger ahead of him.
There, an angel with a sword blocks his path. The she-donkey Balaam is riding sees the danger and turns aside. Balaam, angry at her, beats the donkey. But she refuses to go on — turning aside, pressing Balaam’s leg against a wall. He becomes even more angry. Finally, the donkey lies down, refusing to move. Balaam beats the donkey more.
Suddenly, God gives the donkey speech: “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?” she ask.s
Balaam, apparently not noticing how odd a talking donkey is, says that he is angry she is disobeying him. He even says he would kill her “if I only had a sword at hand.”
The donkey answers him, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have always ridden until now? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way before?” It is a gentle reproach, considering his threats.
And then God lets Balaam see the angel. The angel tells the prophet that he would have killed Balaam had he gone farther, “though I would have spared her,” meaning the donkey.
Needless to say, Balaam doesn’t curse the Israelites. He went home, on his faithful donkey.
There is another story about a faithful donkey and Holy Week that is upon us. While not in the Bible, it has become a traditional story.
It says that the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday continued to follow him that entire week. When Jesus was led to the cross, the donkey followed and stood in the cross’ shadow, its head bowed in sorrow. This, the story goes, is why donkeys have a cross–shaped marking (now called a “dorsal stripe”) in their fur to this day.
While the story may be fanciful, the stripes across donkeys’ shoulders are real. These dorsal stripes are a genetic trait that donkeys share with zebras, some horses and various wild asses, such as the Turkmenian kulan of central Asia.
Whether or not donkeys can talk, they certainly have a few stories to tell in Christian history.
Sources: The Jerusalem Post; Bibletools.org; Catholic Encyclopedia; fisheaters.com; jewishtreats.org; livescience.com; Australian Broadcasting Corporation at abc.net.au; toledovisitation.org; Aleteia.org; and Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural affairs at omafra.gov.on.ca