Is there anything more ridiculous among beasts of burden than a donkey? They are hardly the picture of a noble animal. On the contrary, they are loud, obnoxious, stubborn, homely (not exactly ugly, but certainly not beautiful), and they smell bad. It is no coincidence that William Shakespeare places a donkey’s head on the foolishly self-confident Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Neither is it a coincidence that in The Adventures of Pinocchio Carlo Collodi chose to transform foolish boys into donkeys. Walt Disney offered a simple explanation of this process in his 1940 film version of Pinocchio: “Give a bad boy enough rope, and he’ll soon make a jackass of himself.” And then there is the companion of the ogre Shrek: the carefree, friendly, and unbearably annoying Donkey, brought to life by the vocal talents of Eddie Murphy. In the second film of the Shrek series Donkey is changed into a white stallion, but the change is only outward. Inside he is still the same Donkey: kindhearted, loyal, and eager to please, but seldom aware of the chaos that follows him at every step.
With such a pedigree it is a wonder that donkeys receive favorable attention in Scripture. In fact, the lowly donkey and the lamb are the only animals mentioned by name in God’s instructions on how to remember the Exodus.
To set the context, consider what has just happened: Egypt has resisted the Lord God, Creator of the universe, and suffered the consequences. Exodus 10:1-13:16 presents the climax of the great deliverance story. Egypt’s god-king, Pharaoh, wavers between repentance and resistance, hedging the conditions on which he will let the Hebrew people go into the desert to worship the Lord with offerings and sacrifices. He stiffens his neck against God as the plague of Locusts destroys Egypt’s agricultural economy, and the plague of Darkness drains the last shred of courage from the Egyptian people. Then the Lord brings the final plague, and in the Death of the firstborn the Angel of the Lord destroys Egypt’s hopes for the future.
It is a tragedy of incalculable proportions. If it had been the loss of an entire population, as at Sodom or at Pompeii, then no one would be left to mourn the dead. If it were the loss of an entire army, such as Napoleon’s Grande Armée in Russia in 1812, or Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, at least some memory of honor would assuage the grief over the young and old men who breathed their last on behalf of their nation. And if it were the loss of national sovereignty, as in the Nazi occupation of Poland, then the people would unite in bitter resolve to rid the land of oppressors and postpone mourning until the offenses had been avenged.
But how does a nation mourn when no household is spared grievous loss? Imagine Egypt on that horrible night. In one house a young woman goes to bed as the happy wife of a strong warrior and mother of a fine son, but awakens at midnight to find that she is a childless widow. In the home next door an elderly couple hear her cries, and add cries of their own when they see one of their two sons and both of their granddaughters lifeless on their beds. In the stables outside livestock bellow as calves, lambs, kids, colts, puppies, and kittens instantly become cold, breathless corpses. The scene is repeated a million times and more, in each household from the Mediterranean shores to the cataracts of the Nile, bringing about exactly what God had said:
Moses said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘About midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well. Moreover, there shall be a great cry in all the land of Egypt, such as there has not been before and such as shall never be again.’” . . . Now it came about at midnight that the Lord struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of cattle. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no home where there was not someone dead. (Exodus 11:4-6, 12:29-30 NASB)
Truly redemption is an unpleasant, painful process. That, too, is something God said about Israel, His redeemed people:
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place. Since you are precious in My sight, since you are honored and I love you, I will give other men in your place and other peoples in exchange for your life. (Isaiah 43:3-4 NASB)
The cost of redemption is borne not only by the one who does the redeeming, but by the redeemed as well. That is the point behind YHVH’s instructions to observe the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread throughout our generations as a permanent (eternal) ordinance (Exodus 12:14-17). The memorial is to recall not only what the Lord had done in delivering our ancestors from bondage, but the incalculable cost He paid for them in the lives of Egypt’s firstborn. For that reason the Lord gave instructions for another series of transactions to take place throughout each generation:
Now when the Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanite, as He swore to you and to your fathers, and gives it to you, you shall devote to the Lord the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to the Lord. But every first offspring of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What is this?” then you shall say to him, “With a powerful hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. It came about, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the Lord killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to the Lord the males, the first offspring of every womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.” So it shall serve as a sign on your hand and as phylacteries on your forehead, for with a powerful hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:11-16 NASB, emphasis added)
If Egypt’s firstborn were the price of Israel’s redemption, then Israel’s firstborn would bear the cost in service to the Lord. We learn later that YHVH accepted the tribe of Levi as a substitute for all the firstborn males (Numbers 18:1-7). Indeed, His redemption is all about substitutes. Ultimately His own Firstborn would lay down His life as a substitute for the entire world, but that would come later. At the instant of deliverance from Egypt, our fathers and mothers needed to know something of the cost involved, and the obligation they themselves had undertaken by accepting God’s offer of redemption. That was why He required of them their own firstborn, both of men and of beasts.
It is a peculiar thing that the only beasts mentioned in the instructions about redemption are donkeys and lambs, and that they are mentioned in the same breath as the firstborn sons. Why does the Lord mention only donkeys among the beasts as being eligible for redemption? It is understandable why the clean beasts are not redeemable; they would become candidates for sacrificial offerings and portions for the priests and Levites. But what of the horses, camels, dogs, and other domestic animals? Surely they held value as beasts of burden and in other ways. Could they not be redeemed? Indeed they could, as the Lord later specified (Numbers 18:15). Yet there is something special about donkeys that set them on the same plane with human beings in this particular sense.
Consider for a moment what this transaction entails. The firstborn belongs to the Lord, meaning that whether it is man or beast, they come into the Lord’s special service. We see how that worked in I Samuel 1. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, vowed to give to the Lord her firstborn if He would open her womb so she could have children. As a small child Samuel was presented to Eli the High Priest, and from that point on never left the holy service. Other infant firstborn sons were also presented to the Lord, but at the same time their parents presented the price of redemption so that they could remain in the family. That transaction is recorded in some detail for one particular family about 1,500 years after the Exodus:
And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24 NASB; see also Leviticus 12:1-8)
From the very beginning, Yeshua’s life was all about redemption. But before He could redeem the world, His own commandments required that He Himself be redeemed as the firstborn of Mary and Joseph.
But what of the donkeys? Why were these humble beasts of burden so important as to merit special mention in the Exodus instructions of redemption? Perhaps because donkeys, like human beings, are stubborn and obnoxious. There is good reason that the ancient English term for this beast, “ass”, has acquired a meaning so vulgar as to be banned from polite conversation. A person who acts like a donkey is banned from polite society. He is unsuitable for anything but the most demeaning and degrading of roles. And why not? He cannot help himself; he acts that way because he knows no better and has no desire to learn.
Such is a donkey among beasts. And here is the paradox: The firstborn of the donkey belongs to the Lord because He expended blood to purchase it. Yet it is an unclean beast and thus unacceptable for His service. It can still be of good use elsewhere, and thus the answer is to provide to the Lord another substitute – indeed, the only acceptable substitute: a perfect lamb. When the exchange is made, the family that owns the donkey may retain it for their service for its entire life, and thus the beast will fulfill its God-ordained purpose.
There is an alternative, of course. If the owner of the donkey is mean-spirited enough, he may deny the Lord His portion by refusing the lamb. Yet in doing so he denies himself the use of the donkey, and he denies the donkey of life. Either way, an innocent life ends without mercy. The taking of one life heralds the beginning of another even as it warms the heart of the Creator and meets real needs as the portion given to the Lord’s special servants. The taking of the other life is senseless slaughter, inflicted needlessly by one who clings viciously to the little he thinks he may call his own, magnifying his worth in his own eyes by denying the worth of one who cannot speak or act in its own defense. Truly he is a murderer, seeking only to steal, kill, and destroy.
Is the picture now clear? The donkey is not equal to the human in this regard; it is the human. The stubborn, stiff-necked beast is yet precious to the Lord, but it cannot come near on its own. Not only is it unclean, it is owned by a vicious master that seeks only to slay it. If the Lamb does not redeem it, the only thing left for it is death. And then the transaction happens. If we have any doubt that Yeshua is the Lamb, consider this sign fulfilled just before His ultimate act of redemption:
When they had approached Jerusalem and had come to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold your King is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” The disciples went and did just as Jesus had instructed them, and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their coats on them; and He sat on the coats. Most of the crowd spread their coats in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in the road. The crowds going ahead of Him, and those who followed, were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:1-9 NASB)
He redeemed our fathers from Egypt, and He redeemed us from sin. In time He will complete His work by an astounding transformation that will make us forever acceptable in His sight:
“But as for you, O Jacob My servant, do not fear, nor be dismayed, O Israel! For, see, I am going to save you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity; and Jacob will return and be undisturbed and secure, with no one making him tremble. O Jacob My servant, do not fear,” declares the Lord, “For I am with you. For I will make a full end of all the nations where I have driven you, yet I will not make a full end of you; but I will correct you properly and by no means leave you unpunished.” (Jeremiah 46:27-28 NASB)
This is the promise we have yet to see Him fulfill. Like all the processes of the Lord, it will be neither fast nor cheap, nor painless, but the result will be very, very good.