Torah Metaphors: The Donkey in Scripture

Dedicated to Greg Smith a.k.a.: “The Parrot”



Hundreds of thousands of people have heard the well known comedian Bill Maher ask: “You don’t really believe a snake can talk, do you? Recently, I have been engaged in a dialogue with Greg Smith, a person who not only believes a snake can talk, but believes Balaam’s donkey actually talked as well….

Okay, fair enough, after all the New Testament speaks a great deal about the need for faith, so I guess that this can be interpreted to mean: “faith that the Old and New Testaments are literally true”. Be that as it may, I offered to write an article for Greg explaining what I thought a donkey represented in scripture. Actually, I am not really writing it for Greg; I am taking most of the material out of my book: “The Misunderstanding: An Introduction to Metaphors, Images and Symbols Found in the Old and New Testaments”. Nevertheless, I have added a few things here and there…

Donkeys in Scripture

In Richard III one of the better known lines from Shakespeare is recited on a battlefield when King Richard, in a desperate attempt to escape, cries out: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.” In the Old Testament a similar situation developed when Absalom, after failing to over-throw his father King David, attempted to flee the battlefield. Unlike King Richard, however, Absalom chose to make his escape on a donkey. Unfortunately for him, the donkey led him under a tree and his head got caught in some of the branches. While he was helplessly hanging there David’s soldiers drew their swords and killed him, despite David’s orders not to harm Absalom.

In previous articles in this series we discussed that a tree is a source of knowledge and that when Joseph interpreted the dream of the wine steward in prison he said that a branch was equal to a day and a basket of bread. We then went on show that a day was a source of knowledge and that, even in modern times, people like to say “I learn something new every day”. Furthermore, we discussed that, based on the story of the Tree of knowledge of good and evil, a branch can be described as a source of fruit and on the holy day of Shavout fruit is compared to the word of God. (In addition to this, in the New Testament Jesus said that he was like a vine and his disciples were like branches. He also said a false prophet was like a tree which produced bad fruit).

Accordingly, what we can see from the story of Absalom then is that his head represents a source of knowledge and the donkey led him to a tree whose branches unseated him, so to speak, from the back of the donkey. In other words: Absalom’s beliefs came into conflict with the teachings represented by the tree and he was rendered helpless and with no base of support for his ideas. The tree in question was an oak tree, traditionally associated with strength. It is my personal opinion that when the Bible speaks of strength, it is a reference to intellectual strength; hence Samson was a great scholar, not a muscle man.

Probably the most famous donkey in the Old Testament is the one ridden by Balaam the prophet in the book of Numbers. While on the way to curse the Children of Israel, Balaam and his donkey passed between two vineyards. Standing in their way was an angel with a drawn sword, but only the donkey was able see him. In an attempt to save his master, the donkey turned from the path and crushed Balaam’s foot against a stone wall. Balaam, totally oblivious to the angel’s presence, began to hit the donkey and it was at this point when the donkey began to speak. So, once again we can see that all the images used in this story are already familiar to us and the story appears to be referring to the internal conflict that Balaam is experiencing in regards to following either the will of men or the will of God. Furthermore, in my opinion, the beating of the donkey which produces speech should be seen in a similar light as the stone Moses hit to produce water, since we explained that water is a metaphor for explanations and Moses compared his words to a heavy rainfall.

What is important in this story is that he his traveling “between” two vineyards. This we explained in previous articles was a metaphor for a religious school and “the Vineyard” was the name the teachers used to describe “Yavne” which was a famous religious school from the second temple period. (In the New Testament there are numerous parables about vineyards).

A stone is always a metaphor for the word of God since the Ten Commandments were written in stone. In the Torah commentary Beresheit, we mentioned that the snake lost the use of his feet and we also mentioned that in the punishment of Eve she was told that her descendants would try to crush the head of the snake, while the snake would attempt to bite their heels. Our conclusion was that each was attempting to destroy the others source of knowledge and therefore a foot was the way holiness passed into the body from the school of the earth; hence, Moses was commanded to remove his sandals near the burning bush…

Thus the donkey crushing the foot of Balaam against the wall of the vineyard is a metaphoric image suggesting that the donkey was attempting to bring Balaam’s attention to the laws of God and so he might become aware of the presence the angel (i.e. the messenger of God).

In the New Testament a donkey was placed outside the city for Jesus. He then mounted the animal and entered into Jerusalem to cheering crowds, similar to the way Solomon entered Jerusalem after he was anointed king by the prophet Nathan and the priest Zadok. Jesus, however, was never anointed with olive oil, thus, technically speaking, he cannot be described as a messiah. Naturally, one could argue that donkeys are animals known for their ability to travel in mountainous terrain like that of the land of Canaan, much better than a horse can. Nevertheless, the Hebrew word for youth can also be translated as “the voice of a donkey”. Before fighting Goliath, David was described by King Saul as looking like a youth. In addition to this, when Abraham traveled to Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac he was accompanied by two youths and Balaam the prophet, who we just mentioned, was also accompanied by two youths. Thus once again, this number two reflects the internal conflict both men were undergoing as they attempted to fulfill the word of God.

Later, in a different story, tribes loyal to the family of King Saul were fighting the tribes loyal to King David of Hebron. During one of the pauses in hostilities the armies met around a pool of water. Each side selected twelve youths to fight a war by proxy and all twenty four of them died by simultaneously plunging their swords into each other’s bowels. Since the root cause of the fighting was the jealousy between the house of Saul and the house of David, it is easy to see why the number twelve was selected. Furthermore, the pool of water represents a source of explanations and the fact that the word youths is used instead of soldiers, indicates that this was a struggle to see which royal family spoke for God. Here it should be pointed out that the Pharisee Paul of Tarsus said in his writings that a sword represents the spirit of inquiry. Thus the “war of proxy” fought around a pool of water, clearly shows that, by trying to disprove the religious beliefs of each other, both groups wound up destroying themselves. We have just mentioned that Moses compared his words to a heavy rainfall and in other articles we showed that Naphtali, as the second son of the servant of the second wife of Jacob, should be associated with the number twelve. We also noted that the name Naphtali was given to him to describe the jealous conflict between Rachel and Leah.

Another reference to a donkey is the father of Shechem, the man who raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah, whose was named in Hebrew was Hamor. The name Shechem means shoulder and Hamor means donkey. Both men and their entire family were killed by Jacob and his sons. Almost five hundred years later, however, we are told in the book of Judges that a man named Amimelech attempted to take over the city of Shechem after killing the seventy sons of Gideon on a single stone. Since it is highly unlikely that Gideon actually had seventy sons, what we can see then is that Amimelech, took the word of God, as symbolized by the single stone, and used it to destroy the teachings of Gideon’s family represented by the number seventy (In future Torah commentaries, we shall discuss that Jacob entered into Egypt with seventy souls and that God transferred some of the spirit placed in Moses to seventy leaders of the community, who then functioned as judges. Hence the number seventy should always be associated with teachers of the law).

Later, when trying to rally the people to defend themselves against Amimelech, one of the leaders cried out that they should remember Hamor, the father of their clan. Here I would also like to mention that the Hebrew word for city also means son of a donkey, so the name the city of Shechem could be translated as the shoulders of the son of the donkey which is the exact translation of the title: Shechem son of Hamor. We have repeatedly discussed that a son is a metaphor for a word, thus the term: “Son of God”, found in the Book of Exodus, is a reference to the fact that the Israelites were the custodians of God’s word. Since ancient cites were usually associated with religious beliefs, for example: “fallen, fallen is Babylon ….”, the term “son of a donkey”, which is the alternative meaning of the Hebrew word for “city”, would be a reference to a religious teaching.

In addition, since we have already discussed the symbolic significance of stones and the number seventy, so it should be very clear that all these stories are based on metaphors. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise to learn that Amimelech would eventually die when a woman threw a grinding stone used for wheat from the city wall and hit him in the head. To avoid the shame of being killed by a woman, he asked the youth who carried his armor to kill him with a sword.

As already pointed out, in the Old Testament animals are not simply animals and in the New Testament Jesus confirms this by referring to one gentile woman as a dog. Since we have shown that a messiah is a source of enlightenment, King Solomon entering into the city on the back of a donkey implies that the donkey represents a means by which enlightenment shall reach the people. Another interpretation could be that the donkey represents the foundation of messianic teachings. Since a messiah can be a king or a priest, these clearly represent messengers of God, similar to an angel. This then suggests that a donkey represents the medium by which messages from God will arrive.

Other examples in the Old Testament of donkeys are when Joseph sent wheat to his father from Egypt on the backs of donkeys and when the Syrian general Naaman took dirt from the land of Israel on the backs of two donkeys when he returned home. We have mentioned many times in other articles that the rabbis have for centuries have described the Torah as the bread of life and that the land of Israel is a metaphor for a religious school (the name Israel means “straight to God”).

The most important reference to a donkey, however, can be found in the tenth commandment, which warns the Israelites not to covet their neighbor’s donkey. Nevertheless, it should also not be forgotten that Saul, before he was anointed king, was on a mission, so to speak, to find his father’s donkeys. Since Saul eventually would meet Samuel the seer as a result of this search, this reinforces the connection between donkeys and communications from God. Thus Samson, using the jawbone of a donkey, slayed one thousand Philistine soldiers. The location of this battle is at a place called Lehi, which means the hill of the jawbone. Soldiers should always be seen as religious scholars, hence, immediately after escaping the slavery of Egypt, the Israelites were described as soldiers in the Torah. Thus, killing Philistine soldiers with the jawbone of a donkey seems to suggest that a higher level of teachings sent by God was used to put down the new age of Philistine thought which was threatening overwhelm the Israelites (the number one thousand should always be associated with an age).

After this feat, Samson then called out to God and was provided with water that flowed up from the earth indicating it was not rainwater. Thus the mouth of the donkey is indeed associated with teachings from a higher level of understanding, yet not too high. This is why the donkey is only the base of support of the messiah, not the ultimate objective. Clearly then, when the tenth commandment speaks of not coveting either another man’s donkey or his wife this has something to do with seeking knowledge from God. With the reference to a donkey, the Israelites are being warned not to seek messages from foreign prophets and we already noted that a man’s wife represents a spiritual medium.

Also in regards to the donkey, the Old Testament expressly forbids plowing with a donkey and an ox yoked together. In the story of Samson’s riddle, he clearly uses plowing as a metaphor for seeking knowledge and the heifer is the intellectual force behind this quest. What this then implies is that a donkey should be associated with seeking knowledge from heaven, while an ox or a heifer should be associated with seeking knowledge from the earth. Reinforcing this idea is that the preceding line in the passage forbids planting crops in a vineyard, implying then that a cow should be associated with the study of the law, while a donkey should be associated with the priesthood. Another image that also infers that donkeys symbolize communications with God is that Moses walked back to Egypt, while his wife Zipporah and his son sat on a donkey. Since we earlier commented that the name Zipporah means female bird and the Hebrew words for sky and heaven are the same, this appears to confirm our conclusion that she was a powerful spiritual medium.

In conclusion: the donkey of Balaam both speaks and carries the prophet on his back. This suggests it represents “a voice” as well as a base of support for God’s messengers. Furthermore, we mentioned that “a youth” in Hebrew also means “the voice of the donkey” and David is first described as a youth. Since David will eventually be the author of many of the psalms in the Bible this suggests a connection between the donkey and the voice of God. Hence the prohibition in the commandment to crave a man’s donkey is a reference to seeking out foreign God’s. Finally, after the donkey speaks, Balaam is able “to see” the angel. Even in modern times, seeing is associated with understanding and an angel is always described as a messenger of God. Prior to the talking incident, Balaam had been confused by contradictory messages he had received from God, represented by the two vineyards and the two youths accompanying him. Accordingly, the voice of the donkey makes it possible for one to focus on as well as to understand God’s words….

About the Author
Dror Ben Ami has studied English and Comparative Literature at Georgetown University, George Washington University and the University of Haifa. Building on research begun almost forty years ago, Mr. Ben Ami has written a complete commentary on Biblical Law (i.e. the Hebrew Torah) and is currently working on a complete commentary of the four gospels. Living in Israel since 1980, Mr. Ben Ami brings a unique perspective to scripture, answering many questions that few people have the background, or the knowledge, to even ask....