K.C. Way, Donkeys in the Biblical World: Ceremony and Symbol

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Way, Kenneth C., Donkeys in the Biblical World: Ceremony and Symbol (History, Archaeology, and Culture of the Levant, 2; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011). Pp. xvi + 272. Hardcover. US $49.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-213-6.

This revised Hebrew Union College dissertation (supervised by Nili S. Fox who also wrote a brief foreword, pp. ix–x) represents a comprehensive discussion of donkeys in the biblical world (defined within the limits of the Bronze and Iron ages, p. 2) and seeks to integrate both textual and archaeological data. It is the second volume of a new Eisenbrauns series edited by Jeffrey A. Blakely and K. Lawson Younger, and it follows a volume dealing with horses and chariotry in monarchic Israel.[1] As the title suggests, Way is primarily interested in understanding the role of donkeys in the religious and symbolic universe of people living in the first two millennia b.c.e. The study is divided into five parts that deal with methodology, ancient Near Eastern texts, Near Eastern archaeology, biblical literature, and a synthesis regarding the symbolic significance of donkeys. The volume also includes a helpful appendix discussing equid terminology in seven ancient languages (pp. 205–207); it concludes with an extensive bibliography (pp. 208–259) as well as two indices (modern authors and biblical references). Each chapter begins with a detailed and helpful table of contents, as in the case of lexica or dictionary entries. For the reader, this provides quick access to more specific information contained in the chapter and keeps the initial table of contents concise and manageable.

Way's introductory chapter contains some features that are characteristic of dissertations. Besides discussing the focus and contribution of the study, the chapter also reviews the history of scholarship, focusing particularly on donkeys in the Mari texts and on equid burials, and highlighting specific problems and prospects. The author laments the lack of focused studies of donkeys that pay attention to their ceremonial and symbolic functions. He mentions overlooked texts that provide relevant information (pp. 9–10) and decries the common lack of interaction between scholars focusing on the texts and scholars focusing on the material culture—an issue that is largely caused by the increasing scholarly specialization and the relatively compartmentalized nature of our disciplines (e.g., while ASOR and SBL usually meet in the same city, they normally do not provide intentional cooperation between working sections or consultations going beyond personal initiatives). Way's methodology seeks to elaborate an “integrated and balanced approach” (p. 17) that takes into consideration multiple strands of data, including textual, iconographical, archaeological, and comparative. Surprisingly, as can already be seen from the main table of contents, Way includes iconography within the field of archaeology. While this is an option, it may not represent the best decision, inasmuch as recent publications dealing with iconography have made a strong case for its relative independence. Iconography is probably better considered an equal partner to texts and archaeology, especially as it combines aspects from the material culture with deliberate communication strategies.[2] In the last section of the first chapter, the author introduces the roles of animals in ancient Israel and biblical literature, including their role in religion. Way profiles a number of animals that also involve symbolic or ceremonial aspects, including the camel, dog, lion, and serpent, and notes the literary characterization of animals—particularly in prophetic texts.[3]

Chapter 2 discusses the donkey in ANE texts, including Egyptian, Ugaritic, Aramaic, Hittite, Akkadian, and Sumerian sources. Way underlines the selectiveness of the texts (p. 28); he also includes at times other equids or even other animals, especially when they occur in close association with the donkey. This long chapter is a treasure trove for those looking for a convenient collection of comparative textual data referring to equids and, like the rest of the volume, is well documented. The author summarizes his findings in 21 affirmations and qualifies each according to its use and occurrence in different languages and contexts. The broad spectrum of the donkey's standing in different regions and at different times is inevitable. For instance, while the donkey functions as the bearer of impurity in Hittite ritual (pp. 100–101), in an Egyptian text (and possibly also in one text from Ugarit) it can function as a divine equine (p. 101). While this is a great collection of relevant data, its systemic usefulness for Way's specific interest is questionable considering the wide range of meanings associated with donkeys. Furthermore, I have been wondering about Way's rather broad definition of donkey, which—at times—seems to include hybrids such as the mule or the hinney (see, e.g., Way's discussion on pp. 82–86), while at other times the texts refer only to donkeys in the technical sense. This wide angle lens tends to blur differences.

Chapter 3 represents a significant investment of time by the author. Way reviews relevant archaeological data that suggest the deliberate deposition of donkey remains in Egypt (8 sites), the Levant (11 sites), Syria (5 sites), Mesopotamia (9 sites), as well as brief references to burials outside the Fertile Crescent (even though most of these burials actually involved equids in general, rather than donkeys in particular). The majority of the archaeological remains are dated to the Bronze Age, with some overlap of IA I material from Syria-Palestine. Way classifies the data in five general categories based on geography (e.g., association with human graves or with walls), and concludes that there is “no question that the donkey held a special status in the ceremonial practices of the ancient Near East” (p. 158).

Chapter 4 discusses the donkey in biblical literature, which in Way's case involves predominantly the Hebrew Bible. After an introduction about issues of terminology, the author revisits ten of the categories already described in the summary of chapter 2. He discusses in more detail the Shechem tradition (Gen 33:18–34:31; Josh 24:32; Judg 8:33–9:57) involving an individual named חֲמוֹר. Way suggests that the name may simultaneously indicate a personal name and also allude to treaty or covenant activity (p. 176). I would resonate with this “less-assured” interpretation. Other biblical passages dealt with in some detail include the redemption of the firstborn male donkey (Exod 13:13; 34:20), Balaam's donkey episode (Num 22:22–35), the anonymous man of God from Judah (1 Kgs 13), and the reference to donkey burials in Jer 22:19. Way's lexical analysis focuses upon the semantic domain of the donkey and represents a helpful contribution to biblical semantics. The limited list of biblical passages employing the donkey in a ceremonial or symbolical way underlines the significantly distinct use of the animal within the worldview and religion of Israel as compared to its neighbors. However, one must also take into account that both the extrabiblical textual data as well as the archaeological data cover two millennia and, thus, involve a significantly longer period than the biblical textual data.

Way's final chapter contains a summary and synthesis. Regarding the symbolic significance of donkeys, the author isolates three key parameters: characterizations, associations, and functions. While the donkey was used in scapegoat rituals in Hittite religion and appeared in sacrificial contexts in other ANE texts, it never functions in these ways within the biblical texts.

Way has provided an extremely useful summary of relevant data that will provide a matrix for future studies looking at specific animals and their relations to humans in the biblical world. While the author spends some time in his introduction highlighting the importance of iconography (as part of the larger material culture), he does not include significant discussion of ANE images bearing on the topic. Presumably, this is a limitation that should be rectified in future studies of the topic. A brief look at larger monumental and miniature art will highlight the abundance of images for the topic.[4] Further material can be found in the standard collection of stamp seals and elsewhere. However, notwithstanding these critical observations, Way's contribution to the relationship between humans and animals within the context of culture and religion is significant and deserves a careful read. I am looking forward to similar future contributions that are truly comparative and multi-disciplinary.

Gerald A. Klingbeil, Andrews University

[1] Deborah O'Daniel Cantrell, The Horsemen of Israel: Horses and Chariotry in Monarchic Israel (Ninth-Eighth Centuries B.C.E.) (History, Archaeology, and Culture, 1; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011). reference

[2] Cf. the case I made for paying equal attention to texts, images, and archaeology in “Methods and Daily Life: Understanding the Use of Animals in Daily Life in a Multi-Disciplinary Framework,” in R. Averbeck, D. B. Weisberg, and M. W. Chavalas (eds.), Life and Culture in the Ancient Near East (Bethesda, MD: CDL, 2003), 401–13. reference

[3] Cf. similar observations in my forthcoming “Animal Imagery,” in J. G. McConville and M. J. Boda (eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012). reference

[4] As can already be seen, for instance, from a quick search of the BODO database at www.bible-orient.museum.ch/bodo. reference