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Donkeys in the Biblical World: Ceremony and Symbol.

Donkeys in the Biblical World: Ceremony and Symbol. By KENNETH C. WAY. History, Archaeology, and Culture of the Levant, vol. 2. Winona Lake, Ind.: EISENBRAUNS, 2011. Pp. xvi + 272, maps. $49.50.

This book can be considered as "everything you ever wanted to know about donkeys in the ancient Near East." Actually, while treating the topic of donkeys, the author also deals with other equids, such as onagers, horses, and hybrids. The book contains copious textual and archaeological information on the topic and its interpretation. One can say that "no stone is left unturned" when it comes to the subject of this volume.

The book originated as a doctoral dissertation prompted by the 1992 uncovering of an intact donkey burial at the entrance to a Middle Bronze Age temple complex at Tel Haror, Israel. The author examines the vast and diverse corpus of texts from the various ancient cultures: Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Hittite, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Biblical. He presents related archaeological data from Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Syria, and Iraq.

The information is presented in four chapters followed by a fifth containing a synthesis and by an appendix of "Equid Terminology," a bibliography stretching over fifty-one pages, an index of authors, and an index of scripture. Each chapter is divided into numbered sections and subsections, a system that allows easy cross-reference, especially when the author is making connections between items appearing in this book in different locations.

The first chapter, "Introduction," under the sub-section "Focus and Contribution" (1.1), lays out the purpose of this study: "... to explicate the role of donkeys in the symbolism and ceremonies of the biblical world. This requires an analysis of the relevant archaeological and textual materials from the ancient Near East as well as a fresh look at the biblical passages that may (or may not) depict donkeys in a similar manner." This leads first to a review of "History of Scholarship" (1.2), which is subdivided into a quick review of the Mari texts (1.2.1) and equid burials (1.2.2) from Tell el-Ajjul, Lachish, Jericho, etc. The expected contributions of this book are presented in the next section, "Problems and Prospects" (1.3), where the author lists the type of ancient Near Eastern texts (1.3.1) that will be examined, the archaeological evidence and the methodology of analysis (1.3.2), and the biblical texts to be studied (1.3.3) for examination of "similar beliefs or practices regarding donkeys that were present in Bronze Age Canaan."

The "Scope and Limitations" (1.4) as well as the description of "Methodology" (1.5) follow and the chapter ends with a brief survey of some "Animals in the Biblical World" (1.6), that include "Selected Animal Profiles" (1.6.3), such as camel (, dog (, lion (16.3.3), and serpent ( The reason for this section is explained in the sub-section "Animals in Biblical Literature" (1.6.4.), where the author suggests that biblical references to animals "... seem to depict animals as participants or actors in the stories" and that "... this motif ... is evident with regard to donkeys and mules ..." in certain passages. Every chapter ends with a summary in which some of the points presented earlier are reviewed. The division into sub-sections and these summaries help the reader follow the presentation of the data and their interpretation.

Chapter 2, "The Donkey in Ancient Near Eastern Texts," contains a detailed review of references to the donkey in Egyptian sources (2.1) from the Middle Kingdom ( to the Hellenistic-Roman Period ( and then a special investigation of Seth and the donkey (2.1.2) that contains a treatment of the Hyksos ceremony ( of donkey burial and a brief discussion of late rumors of donkey worship ( in the Hellenistic-Roman period. This is followed by examination of Northwest Semitic sources (2.2), including Ugaritic (2.2.1) and Aramaic (2.2.2), followed by consideration of Hittite sources (2.3), Akkadian sources (2.4), and Sumerian sources (2.5). Among the Hittite material are discussed the bestiality laws (2.3.1) and "Scapegoat" rituals (2.3.2), while the Akkadian sources include a discussion of Mari (2.4.1) and divinatory (2.4.2) texts, as well as animal fables (2.4.3).

Chapter 3, "The Donkey in Near Eastern Archaeology," presents most of the evidence available for equid burials, focusing, whenever possible, on donkey remains. Each section and subsection includes descriptions of the actual finds and interpretation of the evidence. The chapter contains burials from Egypt (3.1), Israel-Palestine (3.2), Syria (3.3), Iraq (3.4), and other places (3.5). In addition, the chapter has an historical summary (3.6) and interpretations (3.7) of donkey burials related (3.7.1) and unrelated (3.7.2) to human graves, donkey burials beneath walls (3.7.3), in a temple complex (3.7.4), and in a special tomb beside a temple (3.7.5). In this chapter, the author presents in a very meticulous way almost all the archaeological data available.

Chapter 4, "The Donkey in Biblical Literature," is a compilation of all the biblical instances where the donkey is mentioned, accompanied by interpretation of many of the references as to their meanings in the biblical context and in the general Near Eastern milieu. The chapter opens with the introduction of terminology (4.1) used to refer to the donkey. This includes 'awn (4.1.1), hamor (4.1.2), 'ayir (4.1.3), and pered (4.1.4). Following is a review of previous observations (4.2) concerning the donkey as a beast of burden (4.2.1), a licentious animal (4.2.2), a stubborn or lazy animal (4.2.3), in association with divination (4.2.4), with the lion (4.2.5), with value (4.2.6), with weak or sick people (4.2.7), with socioeconomic status (4.2.8), with death (4.2.9), and serving as food in extreme circumstances (4.2.10). An important part of this chapter is related to the Shechem tradition (4.3), which includes presentation of the biblical data (4.3.1) and its interpretations (4.3.2). Other biblical topics related to the donkey are also presented in a similar manner; these include Balaam's jenny (4.5), the man of God from Judah (4.6), and the issue of donkey burial as mentioned in Jeremiah 22:19 (4.7).

The last chapter, "Synthesis," incorporates much of the chapter summaries and explicates the significance of donkeys in the symbolism and ceremonies of the biblical world. In spite of the fact that this is an exhaustive work, the author suggests that this study can be enhanced by new discoveries and by the study of equid burials from the Aegean. Additionally, he recommends studies on specific animals, especially in connection with equids in general and donkeys in particular.

In conclusion, I cannot overemphasize how much this work has contributed to the study of the donkey in the cultures of the biblical world. One might disagree with a particular interpretation or argue its merit, but the presentation of the evidence, textual and physical, is the most important service provided by this volume and the author should be congratulated and thanked for that.


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Author:Borowski, Oded
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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