Thursday, October 28, 2010
The Preacher’s Corner
Male donkey is a jack, female is a jenny — then there’s a hinny
Riding on the streets and highways of Marshall County these days, it seems as if every pickup truck is pulling one of those two-wheeled trailers. Some of them carry hay, others a riding lawn mower. Occasionally you see them loaded with household possessions as people move from one home to another. Everybody seems to be going somewhere.
Then there are the big RVs with the owner’s auto tethered behind. The other day I saw an RV as big as a boxcar with a pickup truck connected, and in the bed of the pickup was a golf cart! Watching people is one of my great amusements. Do we really have to travel with everything we own?
In Bible times, the donkey was the pickup truck of its day. The camel functioned as the “18-wheeler,” but for small loads going farm to market, or for trotting around town, nothing was better than a donkey, and all over the world you can still see these humble beasts performing this function.
The best-known donkey in the Bible is, in fact, not in the story at all. I refer to Mary and Joseph as they went down to Bethlehem. The paintings show Mary riding and Joseph walking in front, holding a rope attached to the little beast’s bridle. There are even “donkey carols” that the little children sing.
But search the Christmas stories in the gospels all you like and the donkey isn’t there. It is just that their use was so universal, the little donkey’s presence on that highway can just be safely assumed. The one thing that would likely have differed from the traditional pictures, however, is that, given the status of women in those days, it is likely that Joseph would have been the rider, and poor Mary, “great with child,” would have been the pedestrian!
The donkey does appear in the story of the Good Samaritan, who when he saw the wounded traveler lying on the side of the road, “he set him upon his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him” (Luke 10:34).
In the Bible the donkey is usually called an ass. According to Wikipedia, “The donkey or ass, Equus africanus asinus, is a domesticated member of the Equidae, or horse family.” This name indicates the fact that the animals were first domesticated in Africa.
A male donkey or ass is called a jack, and the female a jenny. A mule is the offspring of a jack and a mare, a female horse. The much rarer successful mating of a male horse and a female donkey produces a hinny.
The donkey is usually docile and obedient, but they can be high-tempered, as reflected in the prophecy of the Book of Genesis before the birth of Ishmael, “He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him,” as well as the use of the term in slang down to the present day. I still cringe when I think of the origin of the traditional wedding recessional by Mendelssohn, which was first composed as incidental music for the performances of Shakespeare’s “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream,” — the scene where the character Bottom is turned into an ass, and all the attendant merriment connected with that occurrence!
But the most interesting appearance of a donkey in the Bible is the story of Balaam and his ass in Numbers 22. Here is a passage that strains the commitment of Biblical literalists to the utmost, but as the story was told it made its point with great humor to those who heard it of old. Balaam was a prophet who was enlisted by the enemies of Israel to curse the Hebrews, but in fidelity to God blessed his people. But on one occasion Balaam was apparently tempted to curse the Hebrews and we are told that the Lord used his donkey to rebuke him! Here is the account from the Revised Standard Version.
“Balaam rose in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. But God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the ass, to turn her into the road. And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall, and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck her again.
“When the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’ And Balaam said to the ass, ‘Because you have made sport of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.’ And the ass said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?’ And he said, ‘No.’
“And the angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Why have you struck your ass these three times? Behold, I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me; and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have slain you and let her live.’”
I have a page from one of the earliest printed English Bibles that John Bobb framed for me. It contains this story. I keep it to remind me that a preacher can be tempted to say things contrary to God’s will. It was the little donkey who knew best. It is a humbling thought, but I think there is a truth in this old story.
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