Ass


Origin.

The ass is derived from the N African Wild Ass (Equus asinus) which once existed in several races from Somalia through the Libyan desert to Morocco. Three of these races survived into the Rom. period: one in NW Africa; another in Nubia, between the Nile River and Red Sea; the third in Somalia. The first of these is extinct and the second prob. so; the third is now protected and just survives. Ancient Egyp. evidence suggests that the ass may have been used first in Libya, but its main development was in the Nile Valley, and the Nubian race is prob. its main ancestor. Its domestication began at least in early Dynastic period (early third millennium b.c.) and perhaps many centuries earlier than that. It is listed as being sent from Libya as tribute, and illustrated on panels c. 2650 b.c. As happened with other species also, domestication prob. was attempted in several different areas, with subsequent mixing of the stock.

Description and uses.

Gray and brown are the most common body colors, but there are true albinos, with no shoulder stripe, black, piebald and skewbald. A few varieties may lack the vertical stripe on the shoulder, but most have both this and the clearly marked line along the back. The widespread legend that this stripe, forming a cross, dates from the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem is pure fancy; it is inherited from the wild ancestor. Donkeys have now developed into many varieties, some as large as a thoroughbred horse, with others smaller than Shetland ponies. The home of the Nubian Wild Ass is semidesert mountain, so that it is both sure-footed and able to manage on poor forage. In contrast the horse came from grassy plains, so it needs easier going and better food. For this reason the horse never replaced the ass in hill country or even around the desert edge, and for many centuries the ass has been the basic transport of poorer people, both nomadic and settled. Asses carried the loads and, at least for part of the journey, the women and children; the men seldom rode. In this way an average of twenty m. a day could be maintained. The donkey spread slowly across Europe and did not reach Britain until c. 10th cent. a.d.; although donkeys may still be seen widely in western Europe they are used for serious working in only a few areas, including Ireland.

History of ass in Palestine and Mesopotamia.

The ass first appears in the Biblical record at Genesis 12:16 among the gifts that Pharaoh gave Abram, but this was not Abram’s first meeting with an ass. The spread into Asia may have been slow, but there are records from Tell Duweir and Jericho of early third millennium b.c., and soon after this from all over Pal. and Syria. It is still uncertain when and where the ass reached Mesopotamia. Tablets from Chagar Bazar, c. 1800 b.c., list three different breeds and their rations, which proves it had been there for some time. This is important for it concerns Abram and his journey from Ur to Canaan, c. 1800 b.c. The first part would have been made up of the Euphrates or Tigris Valley to Harran, lying in the watershed between them. The stage across Syria to Pal. includes large stretches of near desert, which could not possibly be crossed by a large family party without the use of transport animals. Until camels came into service shortly afterward (see Camel), pack asses were used for these desert crossings.

Importance to Hebrews.

The capacity to survive in hard, rough country made the ass esp. valuable in E Mediterranean lands. It had a range of uses, including grinding corn by using the grindstone (Matt 24:41), and pulling simple plows; the OT gives no real evidence for the ass pulling any wheeled vehicle. Isaiah 21:7 “chariot of asses” (KJV) is tr. “troop of asses” (ASV) and “riders on asses” (RSV). One of the latter seems more likely. Even a light wooden plow was more than one animal could manage efficiently and, since many households owned only one ass, it was—and still is—usual to harness an ox and an ass together. This was forbidden by Mosaic law (Deut 22:10) perhaps primarily for its moral lesson, but it was also humane, for these two have different gaits and do not work comfortably in a common yoke. Like all members of the horse tribe the ass was unclean for meat under Mosaic law, for it has single hoofs and is not a ruminant. It is thus a measure of the people’s desperation that an ass’s head was sold for eighty shekels (thirty-two ounces) of silver when Ben-hadad besieged Samaria (2 Kings 6:25).

Significance in Biblical narrative.


Bibliography

C. W. Hume, The Status of Animals in the Christian Religion (1956); F. E. Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals (1963) ch. 15.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(chamowr or chamor, compare Arabic chamar, apparently connected with Arabic root ’achmar, "red," but referred by some to root hamal, "to carry"; also, but less commonly, both in Hebrew and in Arabic, ’athon, Arabic ’atan, used in Arabic only of the females; pereh, or pere’, and `aradh, or `arodh, Arabic ’ard, "wild ass," and also `ayir, Arabic `air, "a young" or "wild ass").

1. Names:

The name `arodh (Job 39:5) is rare; onos (Mt 21:2).

2. Meaning:

(1) Chamor is derived from the root which means, in all probability, "to carry a burden" (see Furst, Handworterbuch, ch-m-r ii), or "heap up." While no analogies are contained in the Old Testament this root occurs in New Hebrew. The Aramaic chamer, means "to make a ruin-heap" (from which the noun chamor, "a heap," used in Jud 15:16 in a play of words: "With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of an ass have I smitten a thousand men"). The root may also mean "to be red." In this case the nominal form chamor may have been derived from the reddish-brown skin of a certain type of the ass.

(2) ’Athon, Assyrian ’atanu and Aramaic ’atana’, is derived from ’atha’ "to come," "go," etc. (Furst suggests that it may be derived from ’athan, Aramaic `adhan, "to be slender," "docile," etc.); ’athonoth tsechoroth, "red-white asses" (Jud 5:10) designates a better breed.

(3) `Ayir, Arabic `airu ("male ass") used of the young and vigorous animal, is derived from the root `-y-r, "to go away," "escape through swiftness" (Hommel, Namen der Saugethiere, 121-23). This name is used as a parallel to beni ’athono (Ge 49:11) and as a compound of `ayir pere’ (Job 11:12), "a wild ass’s colt."

(4) Pere’, "wild ass," is derived from the root which means "to run," suggestive of the animal’s swiftness. (5) `Arodh, is, in all probability, an Aramaic loan-word for the Hebrew pere’. The Targum uses `arodha’ and `aradha’.

3. Uses:

From the references to these various names in the Old Testament it is clear that

(1) chamor was used for riding purposes:

(a) by men (2Sa 16:2,23; 19:26; 1Ki 2:40; 13:13,23,24,27);



4. As a Domestic Animal:

Besides the use of the ass in agriculture and riding it was employed in the caravans of commerce, and sent even upon long expeditions through the desert. The ass is and always has been one of the most common domestic animals. It is a much more important animal in Bible lands than in England and America. The humblest peasant owned his own ass. It is associated throughout the Bible with peaceful pursuits (Ge 42:26 f; 22:3; 1Sa 16:20; 2Sa 19:26; Ne 13:15), whereas the horse is referred to in connection with war and armies. Reference is also made to the use of the flesh of the ass in time of famine (2Ki 6:25). The origin of the ass like that of most domestic animals is lost in antiquity and it cannot be confidently stated from what species of wild ass it was derived. There are three races of wild asses in Asia, one of which is found in Syria, but they may all be referred to one species, Equus hemionus. The African species is East asinus, and good authorities consider our domestic asses to have descended from this, and to have been introduced at an early period into the entire Orient. The Sulaib Arabs of the Syrian desert, who have no horses, have a famous breed of swift and hardy gray asses which they assert they cross at intervals with the wild asses of the desert. It is not unlikely that domestic asses like dogs are the result of crosses with more than one wild species.

As a domestic animal it preceded the horse, which was first introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos about 1800 BC. See Horse.

5. Figurative Uses in the Old Testament:

(1) chamorr garem, "an ass of strong bones," is used metaphorically of Issachar (Ge 49:14); besar chamor, "the genital organ of an ass," is used in contempt (Eze 23:20); qebhurath chamor, "the burial of an ass," is applied to ignominious treatment of a corpse (Jer 22:19); chamor is used as a symbol of peace and humility (2Sa 19:26). Zechariah speaks of the future Messiah as "lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass" (Zec 9:9; compare Mt 21:5,7).

(2) Pere’ is used as a symbol of wildness (Ho 8:9), and pere’ ’adham, `a wild ass of man’ (Ge 16:12), referring to Ishmael, designates a free nomad. In Job the name pere’ is applied to the desert dwellers (Job 24:5). Jeremiah employs this name as a symbol of lust. He compares Israel’s love of idolatry to the lust of the wild ass (Jer 2:24).

6. Wider Use in Literature:

The ass (’athon) figures prominently in the Balaam story (Nu 22; 2Pe 2:16. See Gray, ICC, "Numbers," at the place). It is interesting to note that Apion charged the Jews that they "placed an ass’s head in their holy place," affirming that "this was discovered when Antiochus Epiphanes spoiled our temple, and found that ass’s head there made of gold, and worth a great deal of money." Josephus, refuting this absurdity, states that the Roman conquerors of Judea found nothing in the temple "but what was agreeable to the strictest piety." He goes on to say: "Apion ought to have had a regard to these facts. .... As for us Jews, we ascribe no honor or power to asses, as do the Egyptians to crocodiles and asps. .... Asses are the same with us which they are with other wise men; namely, creatures that bear the burdens that we lay upon them" (Apion, II, 7).

LITERATURE. G. A. Smith, Jerusalem, I, 307 ff; Gesenius’ and Furst’s Lexicons to the Old Testament; articles in Encyclopedia Biblica and HDB.

See also

  • Animals