The lowly donkey has been used to represent Christ who, like the symbolic donkey, was both meek and mild. The donkey carried the material burdens of the poor, while Christ humbled Himself, and took on a life of poverty, in order to carry the heavy burden of man's sins. The donkey represents many of the characteristics of the self-abasing Christ: patience, courage, gentleness, peace, and humility.
Because Christ rode upon a donkey during His infancy and during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the donkey has been honored with the nickname "Christophore" or "Christ-Bearer." During the early days of Christianity, the teachers of the Gospel sometimes received the same nickname as the donkey to show that they carried the teaching of Christ and assumed His attitude of humility, poverty, and patience. The desert fathers were represented by the wild donkey whose hoof is invulnerable to the poison of the various biting and stinging animals found there. However, if the religious lost their fervor, their incompetence, foolishness, and moral lassitude were represented by an ass.
The donkey is frequently seen in pictures of the holy family during their travels to Bethlehem and Egypt. The ass and the ox are painted in scenes of the stable at Bethlehem to show that although humans did not recognize their king, these, the least of God's creatures worshiped Him at His birth. Isaiah foretells this scene when he writes, "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: 'I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me; the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider'" (Is 1:2-3). Some people believe the donkey in the manger represents the Gentiles, while the ox stands for the Jews.
The donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is symbolic of the spiritual kingdom of God. Zechariah prophesies, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey" (Zec 9:9). The Messiah riding upon a donkey offers forgiveness and peace with God, whereas Christ mounted upon a horse implies judgment and war.
In French, Italian, and Spanish legends, the donkey Christ rode into Jerusalem was given the image of the cross to wear on its back and shoulders as a reward for its service. Hungarians add that this image was made by Christ's blood during His crucifixion as it spurted upon the donkey's back. The Irish, familiar with the striped donkey, believed Jesus's donkey was unruly and its stripes came from the lashes He was obliged to give it.
The donkey is well known for its stubbornness. Israel was compared to the wild donkey because of their obstinance (Hosea 8:9). The character of Abraham's son, Ishmael, was like that of a wild donkey: "He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers" (Gen 16:12 NIV) The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar was "driven from the sons of men" to live among the wild donkeys until he acknowledged that "the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses" (Dan 5:21).
In time, the donkey became a symbol of those reluctant to believe the Gospel story including St. Thomas, the Doubter, who said, "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe" (John 20:24-25). St. Anthony of Padua, losing his patience with an unbeliever, declared that it would be easier to get a wild ass to worship the Sacrament than to convince him of the truth. To the surprise of the people, a wild ass did approach the Sacrament and kneel worshipfully before it. Many who saw this miracle converted and the kneeling donkey became an attribute of this saint.
In the Bible, Samson killed a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass (Judg 15:15). And Balaam, unable to see the Angel of the LORD standing in his path, beat his donkey for turning aside to avoid it. "Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?'" (Num 22:23-28; 2 Pet 2:16).
The law of Moses contained many rules regulating the treatment of asses. One law forbid Israelites to covet their neighbors' donkeys (Exo 20:17; Deu 5:21). Among other rules, if a donkey was seen straying from his master, or lying in the road under heavy burden, even its master's enemy was obliged to assist it (Exo 21:33; 22:4, 9-10; 23:4-5; Deu 22:3-4, 10). In addition, the donkey was to enjoy a Sabbath rest (Exo 23:12; Deu 5:14).
In spite of his usefulness, the donkey often shared the same fate of its master in war - that of being slaughtered along with the rest of the livestock (Exo 9:3; Deu 28:31; Josh 6:21; 7:24; Judg 6:4; 1 Sam 8:16; 15:3; 22:19; Zec 14:15). Aside from firstborn human sons, the firstborn of the donkey was the only creature which was allowed to be ransomed rather than sacrificed upon the altar of the Lord. This was because the donkey was an unclean creature. It could not be placed on the altar. If it was not ransomed, its neck had to be broken (Ex 13:13; 34:19-20). Although the Israelites never sacrificed asses, a few other nations did. Therefore, the donkey, especially when pictured with a solar symbol, can signify a sacrificial victim. To be "buried with the burial of a donkey" was no burial at all (Jer 22:18-19). It meant to be dragged outside the gates and left for the scavengers to do their work.
In Israel and other early kingdoms,the donkey provided transportation for the poor and the nobility. White donkeys were especially prized. In the Song of Deborah, the wealthy are referred to as those who "ride on white donkeys" (Judg 5:10). To have many donkeys was a sign of wealth (Gen 12:16; 24:35; 30:43; 32:5, 15; Job 1:3; 42:12). In India and China, the donkey was an acceptable vehicle for deities, princes, and heroes.
In many countries, the red donkey is thought to be the incarnation of evil spirits and of Satan. According to early Egyptian beliefs, the red ass was a dangerous entity, feared not only in this life but in the underworld also. To call someone a "red donkey" implies that they are demonic and dangerous. Some people believe the scarlet beast which carries the mother of harlots in the Apocalypse is a red ass (Rev 17:1-8).
In many regions, musician donkeys were drawn or carved playing harps, lyres, and other instruments. They may have represented absurdity, especially that spiritual absurdity known as human pride and willfulness.
In most cases symbolism was not kind to the donkey. The ass was made the image of stupidity, laziness, stubbornness, and lasciviousness. Ancient Greeks and Romans associated it with drunkenness and Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine. It was linked to fornication and the sex organs. The lust of Ephraim for idols was compared to that of a wild donkey in heat (Jer 2:24). In spite of its baser connotations, the donkey became the emblem of the United States' Democratic Party in 1828 because their candidate, Andrew Jackson bore the nickname "Jackass" with good humor. Generally, female or young donkeys are symbols of the donkey's fairer qualities, while males represent the baser characteristics just mentioned.
Base or not, the Lord provides springs in the desert to water all His creatures, including the wild ass (Psa 104:11). Job points out that the raiding bands of Bedouins, Sabeans, and Chaldeans who had plundered him were fed by God's wilderness just as surely as the innocent wild donkeys were (Job 24:5). He also informs his friends that he has as much right to complain as a donkey which has no grass to eat; after all, humans are feeling creatures like the donkey and not stones (Job 6:5, 12).
The patriarch, Jacob, mentioned donkeys when he blessed his children. He prophesied that Judah's vineyards would be so flourishing that his descendants could hitch their donkeys to the healthy vines rather than trees (Gen 49:11). Issachar was said to be "a strong donkey, lying down between two burdens" (Gen 49:14). An overloaded donkey will simply lie down in the road. The two burdens of Issachar are said to be those of farming and of the tribute they preferred to pay the inhabitants of Canaan instead of driving them out.
Unless otherwise stated all scripture quotes are from the NKJV Bible.
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© 1997 by Suzetta Tucker
To cite this page:
Tucker, Suzetta. "ChristStory Donkey Page." ChristStory Christian Bestiary. 1997. http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/legend01/donkey.htm ().