Beast of burden and wild animal to KJV but translated, “donkey” in most modern translations. Six different Hebrew words and two Greek words lie behind the English translations. 1. ‘athon is a female animal used for riding (Genesis 49:11;
2 Kings 4:22) and as a beast of burden (Genesis 45:23). Saul's father lost his female asses (1 Samuel 9:3). This indicated loss of pride and prestige, for asses were apparently the riding animals for leaders and for the nobility (compare
Judges 12:14; see below on ayir). Warriors rode female asses (Judges 5:10). Wealthy persons owned numbers of asses (Genesis 12:16;
1 Chronicles 27:30;
Job 1:3). They grazed the grasslands for food (Job 1:14). God used a talking ass to teach a prophet a lesson in obedience (Numbers 22:1). Zechariah pictured the Messiah as riding on “a colt the foal of an ass” (‘athon), thus emphasizing the animal was a purebred ass and not a crossbred mule (Zechariah 9:9).
2. Chamor is the male ass, probably a reddish color according to the basic meaning of the Hebrew term. The original homeland of the ass (equus asinus) was probably Africa. It was both a riding animal (Genesis 22:3) and a beast of burden (Genesis 42:26), which could be used for plowing (Deuteronomy 22:10, which forbids yoking an ass with an ox). For his hard work Issachar was pictured as a donkey (Genesis 49:14). An ass was valuable enough that the first born ass had to be ritually redeemed through sacrifice of a lamb (Exodus 13:13;
Exodus 34:20) or by killing the newborn ass. In extreme famine conditions people would go so far as to pay astronomical prices for the head of an ass which they could eat (2 Kings 6:25). The ass was used to illustrate rampant sexual lust (Ezekiel 23:20). A donkey's burial was an unceremonious dumping on the garbage heap for the vultures and scavengers to eat up (Jeremiah 22:19). The rich possessed herds of donkeys (Genesis 24:35;
Genesis 30:43) though the Egyptian farmers suffering under the famine also had asses to bring to Joseph in exchange for food (Genesis 47:17; compare
Exodus 20:17). The Messiah would ride on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9), the animal of the nobility in days when Israel did not have a king. The animal contrasted to the horse used in the kings' military exploits after Solomon's time (1 Kings 10:26) in violation of
Deuteronomy 17:16. The picture in
Zechariah 9:1 thus joins the humble suffering servant and the royal Messiah.
3. Ayir refers to the stallion or young, vigorous male ass. These were apparently riding animals reserved for nobility (Judges 10:4;
Zechariah 9:9). Isaiah described an unusual caravan on the way to Egypt including young donkeys and camels. The older donkeys would have been the more usual caravan members (Isaiah 30:6). Nomads in the desert often led caravans of donkeys and camels loaded with wares to sell. The day of God's salvation would include luxurious food for the donkeys who pulled the plows (Isaiah 30:24). The young wild ass can also be called yir (Job 11:12).
4. Arad and arod refers to the wild ass (asinus hemippus) that God created for freedom in the wilderness rather than to do slave labor for humans (Job 39:5). Such animals explore mountain pastures for food (Job 39:8).
5. Pere' is a wild donkey or onager which some Bible students identify with the zebra, but no evidence exists for zebras in Palestine. The Hebrew in
Genesis 16:12 calls Ishmael “a wild ass of a man” (NRSV; see NIV; TEV; NAS), because he would live in opposition to all other people. The wild donkey was known for its braying and for eating grass (Job 6:5). Such a wild animal can never be human (Job 11:12; compare various translations). It lives in the wilderness searching for food and helpless before the cold and rain (Job 24:5-8; compare
Job 39:5). Without pastures, it breathes its last dying gasp (Jeremiah 14:6). They ventured into cities only when the cities were forsaken ruins (Isaiah 32:14). God had created them to be accustomed to life in the Judean wilderness (Jeremiah 2:24), where they freely pursued natural instincts and lusts. (Compare
6. Onarion refers to a small donkey and appears only in
John 12:14 to show the promise of
Zechariah 9:9 was being fulfilled.
7. Onos can refer either to a male or female donkey.
John 12:15 sees the ass as the parent of the colt on which Jesus rode, while
Matthew 21:2 sees both an ass and a colt involved. These animals were kept in stalls and watered as a natural part of peasant life (Luke 13:15). They could easily get loose and fall into a pit (Luke 14:5). Jesus showed care for the animals which stricter Jews were prone to let lie in pits in order to obey religious rules.
8. Hupozugion literally means, “one under a yoke.” This is Matthew's term for the parent of the “foal of an ass” predicted in
Zechariah 9:9 (Matthew 21:5). Peter used the term to refer to the animal which spoke to Balaam (2 Peter 2:16).
The precise difference in meaning of the various words for “ass” is not always evident to modern Bible students, though the differences were surely clear to the original writers and readers.