“Behold your King is coming to you, gentle and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” Matthew 21:5/Zech 9:9 Several years ago, there was a young man preparing for his Bar Mitzvah in Israel. His rabbi was teaching him the Torah in preparation for this event when suddenly the boy was curious- “What about the donkey?”.
He asked, “Rabbi, the Torah says “donkey”…that our Messiah will come riding on a donkey; how can that be likely today?”
The rabbi sputtered and glossed over the “donkey” saying “it is really a word similar to the word we have today meaning “material”; it just means he could come on something, so it could be a plane or a car.” The soon-to-be 13 year old was not satisfied and he asked about the donkey…to God, Himself. Flash forward and he is a messianic Jewish pastor, who believes in Jesus the Messiah…who came “riding on a donkey”.
I have always wondered about the donkey myself. It began as a child who loved animals, why did Jesus ride on a young donkey? Poor baby donkey! Why wouldn’t he choose an older, bigger donkey? The things we are taught about the Bible when we are children…or even when we first hear the stories, seems to be how we remember them. It is funny how wrong our perceptions can be, yet we never even realize it. I don’t know about you, but for years I just took it at face value and never asked. Like my donkey disturbance, there are things I wonder about in the Bible, but I never really asked anyone about it. It is not until new light is shed that we can understand the Bible story better. This happened to me and my baby donkey.
In my Biblical Hebrew class, we discover weekly the difference a word can make. Knowing the original Hebrew language has made a major difference in the depth of my understanding God’s Word. Hebrew has layers of meaning…and so does the Bible. Take the story of Jesus’s famous Triumphal Entry;when he rides into Jerusalem. You probably remember the people waving palm fronds, and shouting “Hosanna!” and that Jesus was riding a donkey. Do you remember the “foal” or “colt”part?
Did you ever feel sorry for the donkey? Well, first of all, donkeys are built to carry people way larger than it appears they can; they truly are “beasts of burden”. They are meant to carry something that would weigh a human down. Secondly, just because it was the “colt of a donkey” and one “on wich no one has ever sat”(Luke 19:30 NAS), does NOT mean it wasn’t old enough to ride. Jesus was not being mean to an animal. So just as I am chilling out on my “baby donkey” issue, I find out something that gets me so excited again….this time in a good way. The donkey“kicker” is when you realize that this wasn’t any ol’ doneky but it was an “ayir ben atone”. This is a Hebrew cognate for a certain donkey used for a certain purpose.
This Hebrew terminology appears first in Genesis 49:11 in a very early prophecy of Jacob about the coming Messiah: In the messianic era the grapes will be “Until Shiloh comes …He ties his foal to a vine, the donkey’s colt, (“ayir ben atone”) to the choice vine.” So fruitful that one could simply tie their donkey to a vine…without concern the donkey would eat the entire thing. Now, if anyone knows donkeys, that IS luxuriant! The profoundly significant part is they type of donkey; the “ayir ben atone”. This same donkey is mentioned again in the prophetic Zechariah 9:9 “Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold your king is coming to you; …humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey (an ayir ben atone). Then we see the donkey appear again, yep, this specific type, in Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11;1-10, Luke 19:28-38, and in John 12:12-16. This time he is carrying the Messiah. It’s called “terminological convergence”; where all these donkeys come together in a herd…in a message to be “heard”.
The “ayir ben atone” was a donkey used specifically to ratify a covenant.
In an ancient text from Mari, dating back to the 18th century B.C., a situation is depicted where a suzerain has sent his lieutenant to supervise one of these covenant ratification ceremonies. In it this specific type of doneky is cited. This particular donkey was stipulated for use in this covenant. The shedding of the blood of the ‘ayir ben atone” made the covenant real. This particular donkey symbolized that not only was the covenant in effect, but so was the curse that would overtake anyone who ever broke it. This was the covenant donkey. The prophets said the Messaih would ride this very donkey one day; and when he did, their true salvation had come. Jesus rode the covenant donkey…symbolizing the shedding of His blood to make an everlasting new covenant with us.
It has been there the entire time. I just never saw it. I don’t know that I was even looking.
You can bet I’m looking now! And I am asking questions. I am so excited to read anew these “old” prophesies and see what I can see. Right down to the donkey, they are telling us that our Messiah has always been coming. Because they knew the details, God’s people should have known He came. It is because they were blinded that we Gentiles even got a shot. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could share the details with one of them today? What do the Prophets tell us about when He will come again? Will you join me in looking, now? Are you going to “ASSk” more questions? I sure hope so. Consider it a game of “Pin the tail on the donkey” but with no blindfold!
Prayer: Mighty God who provides a way for me to be free of sin and death! Savior and lord who carries my burdens that are too heavy for me, open my eyes, Lord so that I may see You in Your Word. Open my ears that I may hear the clues to knowing You better. Help me to be an inquisitive child who comes to my all-knowing Father and asks to know more. And help me to be enthusiastic about how amazing and alive your Word is; and may I share it with someone who needs that life this week. Amen.
Footnote: To learn more you can download incredible lectures from Dr. Meredith G. Kline from his course on the prophets given at Westminster Seminary California. My info came from his grandaughter who enlightened us about the donkey in“Basics of Biblical Hebrew” by Van Pelt and Pratico, pp. 192-193.