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eTeacherBiblical Official Newsletter
Issue #131 - 07/13
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Eli Dahan

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She-asses in the Hebrew Bible

I was with my children at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo recently and my daughter spent about half an hour looking at the donkey-חֲמוֹר- and the she-ass-אָתוֹן. Our visit to the donkeys intrigued me, especially the she-ass, so I decided to do some extra research this week on this particular animal. This seemed even more relevant after a participant in the Biblical Hebrew webinar asked me to explain the she-ass in Zechariah. So clearly, this week’s newsletter is going to be all about donkeys!

Balaam and She-ass

The Hebrew Bible dedicates three chapters to a character called Balaam, a  foreign prophet (some suggested a magician) who was instructed to curse the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land. Initially he wasn't willing to curse them at all, but along the way, God commanded Balaam to do so, so he took his she-ass and went on his way to confront the Israelites.

While he was walking with the she-ass, she saw three times, in three different places, an angel of God. Every time the she-ass saw the angel that represented God, she ran away, attempting to avoid the angel. Let's look at the text and see what happened at the third encounter with the angel:

 

"When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam was angry and struck the donkey with his stick. And 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?” Then Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.”(Numbers 22:27-30)

"וַתֵּרֶא הָאָתוֹן אֶת-מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה וַתִּרְבַּץ תַּחַת בִּלְעָם; וַיִּחַר-אַף בִּלְעָם וַיַּךְ אֶת-הָאָתוֹן בַּמַּקֵּל.  וַיִּפְתַּח יְהוָה אֶת-פִּי הָאָתוֹן; וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים.  וַיֹּאמֶר בִּלְעָם לָאָתוֹן כִּי הִתְעַלַּלְתְּ בִּי; לוּ יֶשׁ-חֶרֶב בְּיָדִי כִּי עַתָּה הֲרַגְתִּיךְ.   וַתֹּאמֶר הָאָתוֹן אֶל-בִּלְעָם, הֲלוֹא אָנֹכִי אֲתֹנְךָ אֲשֶׁר-רָכַבְתָּ עָלַי מֵעוֹדְךָ עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה--הַהַסְכֵּן הִסְכַּנְתִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְךָ כֹּה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא."

This passage reminded me of the end of the book Animal Farm by Geroge Orwell, when it seems unclear between characters which one is an animal and which one is human. In our story it's clear that Balaam is quite a brute, while the she-ass displays more humanity than her owner. Without reason, Balaam abuses the animal, while also paying no attention to the Angel of the Lord on his way, while the she-ass did! This story reflects the sad reality of the brutish side that can an aspect of human character. The voice of the she-ass is the voice of common sense, another human characteristic that seemed lost to her master.

The second famous story with she-asses is related to Saul , the first King of the Israelites, who became King when the she-asses of his father we lost, as written:

"Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, were lost. So Kish said to his son Saul, “Take now with you one of the servants, and arise, go search for the donkeys."(1 Samuel 9:3)

"וַתֹּאבַדְנָה הָאֲתֹנוֹת לְקִישׁ אֲבִי שָׁאוּל; וַיֹּאמֶר קִישׁ אֶל-שָׁאוּל בְּנוֹ קַח-נָא אִתְּךָ אֶת-אַחַד מֵהַנְּעָרִים וְקוּם לֵךְ בַּקֵּשׁ אֶת-הָאֲתֹנֹת."

Saul and Samuel

The disappearance of the she-asses prompted Saul to head off on his journey where he met Samuel, who later anointed him as king. I find it fascinating that the other noted characters play smaller roles in the creation of this meeting- the young servant and the daughters that drew water.

The last she-ass for today is the mother of the foal. The most commonly known foal in Judaism is often described as a white one, namely, the animal that the Messiah will ride upon when they enter Jerusalem. The she-ass here is just the mother, as written:

 

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, Odaughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you ; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey."(Zec. 9:9)

"גִּילִי מְאֹד בַּת-צִיּוֹן הָרִיעִי בַּת יְרוּשָׁלִַם הִנֵּה מַלְכֵּךְ יָבוֹא לָךְ צַדִּיק וְנוֹשָׁע הוּא; עָנִי וְרֹכֵב עַל-חֲמוֹר וְעַל-עַיִר בֶּן-אֲתֹנוֹת."

Today we have seen the she-ass in the Hebrew Bible play three different roles:the human one, the royal one and the biological one. Are there more animals mentioned in the Bible that you would like me to research? I thoroughly enjoyed this task, so don't hesitate to ask for more!

Have a blessed week,

Eli

 
Main phrases of the post + transcription + translation

English

Transliteration

Hebrew

Foal

'ayir

עַיִר

Your king

malkēch

מַלְכֵּךְ

The she-asses

Hā'ătōnōt

הָאֲתֹנֹת

Three

šālōš

שָׁלֹשׁ

Angel

Malach

מַלְאַךְ

If

לוּ

Donkey

chămôr

חֲמוֹר

 
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