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
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 (
Significance in Biblical narrative.
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").
The name `arodh (
(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
(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" (
(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 (
(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’.
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 (
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 (
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 (
(2) Pere’ is used as a symbol of wildness (
6. Wider Use in Literature:
The ass (’athon) figures prominently in the Balaam story (
LITERATURE. G. A. Smith, Jerusalem, I, 307 ff; Gesenius’ and Furst’s Lexicons to the Old Testament; articles in Encyclopedia Biblica and HDB.