“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” Luke 2:1-5
Although it’s reasonable to assume, the Bible does not specifically say Mary rode from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a donkey. It simply states that they went. The 80-mile trip would have taken them anywhere from four days to a week, depending on how fast they were able to travel.
Donkeys were the common “car” of Joseph and Mary’s day. They were also employed in the fields because they were hard-working. However, according to Jewish law, the donkey is the considered the “ultimate impure animal” because it is both non-ruminant (stomachs have only one compartment) and has non-cloven hooves.
Making matters worse for the donkey, the animal was also the symbol of Ra, the Egyptian sun god.
In Israel, you truly can’t get much lower than a donkey.
But a closer look at donkeys in the Bible reveals a fascinating fact. Donkeys are the only impure animal subject to the consecration laws relating to the first born.
“After the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your ancestors, you are to give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the Lord. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons.” Exodus 13:11-13
Why is the unclean donkey specifically redeemed by the blood of a lamb?
To gain a better understanding, we have to travel back to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt.
Read what Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene writes on the subject:
“The promiscuous climate of Egypt is synonymous with that of the donkey…The [Hebrew] word chamor [donkey] is the symbol of chomor, materialism, of unbridled indulgence in animalistic, physical desires unchecked or governed by the intellect to give it direction form and purpose.”
He goes on to explain:
“…the Jewish nation in Egypt descended to a spiritual low – down to the forty-ninth level of spiritual impurity. Almost at the point of no return, nevertheless they were not ‘irredeemable.’”
“…Their sanctity came to the fore in their ‘redemption’ from Egypt wherein they revoked their ‘materialistic’ donkey-like status upon becoming the chosen nation…”
Did you catch that? The donkey serves as a reminder of our utter depravity (uncleanness) and redemption. We are never beyond God’s reach!
With this extraordinary historical reference, it’s certainly an interesting thought to consider this ordinary animal transporting Mary and her unborn son, Jesus, the Lamb of God, to Bethlehem.
Equally – if not more remarkable – is this fact: Some 33 years later, the humble donkey would again play an integral role, as Jesus’ chosen mode of transportation through the streets of Jerusalem just prior to his crucifixion on a Roman cross. On that cross, Christ’s final redemptive work would be done – redeeming us when we were “almost at the point of no return.”
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…donkeys and all!
Heavenly Father, I am utterly stunned. You leave little love notes for us all over creation if we are willing to look a little deeper. Although Matthew and Luke did not write it into the Christmas story, thank you for the redemptive message of the donkey this Christmas. It is the perfect reminder today – for me – of the true purpose of Christmas. Amen.
Ironing it Out:
The Rabbi’s description of what the donkey represented sure hits close to home at this time of year when we over-indulge and focus more on the material things than Jesus. Take a moment today to ask for – and receive – God’s forgiveness, and thank him for his ultimate mission on earth – our redemption.
What are some ways your family has found to reduce focus on the material and refocus on the eternal significance of Christmas?