IVP - Strangely Dim - What Do We Do with a Donkey or Two?

September 25, 2008

What Do We Do with a Donkey or Two?

The next installment in our Fortnight of Donkey Tales . . .

We're nearing the end of our first week of
Donkey Tales, so I feel it's time we had a heart-to-heart about an important topic: meat.

I've noticed that people have strong and varying opinions about this these days; some of you are drooling on your forks already, while others of you are starting your "Eat More Vegetables" chant and grabbing your picket signs from the corners of your kitchen. Here's where I stand on this delicate topic: I do eat meat but--before you vegetable-purists stop reading--not that often.

I have, on and off, considered giving up meat altogether. For one thing, it's expensive. Especially out here in the Chicago area. Not only is there no such thing as a free lunch; here there's not even any such thing as a cheap chicken. Furthermore, I know that massive consumption of meat taxes national and international resources. And, though "Saving the Animals" is not on the top of my list as far as urgent world needs--I do care about the chickens and turkeys. I don't want poor, harmless poultry to suffer so that I can have a nice dinner.

With that said, I haven't yet said "Goodbye turkey, hello tofu," because the truth is, I really like chicken and turkey. Especially turkey, and especially at Thanksgiving, or wrapped up with mustard, cheese and apple slices. Mmmmmm. And the rest of the truth is, I haven't gotten around to acquiring the taste for tofu yet (though I'm still open to trying). So although I almost always take a veggie burger to a barbecue, I'm still firmly planted in the meat-eater category.

I much prefer white meat to red meat, but throughout my life I've tried a number of different kinds of meat, fixed a number of different ways: sausage, ham, pork, beef, chicken, lamb, reindeer, Canadian bacon and, in rare instances, an undeterminable meat. But to my knowledge, I've never eaten donkey. It seems there are some things our Likewise mascot just isn't generally good for.

It was true in the Israelites' day too. The donkey, while certainly useful, was not good for everything. Here are the instructions Moses gave the Israelites from the Lord just after the Passover in Egypt:

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 forefathers, 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)


According to this passage, the donkey seems to be the only animal the Israelites could own but not sacrifice. (There were, of course, a list of "unclean" animals that they weren't allowed to own or touch, much less sacrifice. See Leviticus for details.) Why would that be?

Old Testament scholars aren't sure. Alan Cole, in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary on Exodus, speculates a few possibilities. One is simply that the stench of burning donkey meat and milk might have been considered offensive. (I will not be attempting to prove or disprove his theory on that one.) The other possibilities, however, all have to do with other cultures' views of donkeys at the time. Some other people groups did sacrifice donkeys. Others viewed them as sacred. Still others revered the donkey specifically as a symbol of fertility.

Though the Lord's reason for singling out the donkey is unclear, his message was clear: don't burn the donkey. Substitute a lamb or break the colt's neck.

It all sounds a little odd to us today, but see what comes next in Exodus 13:

In days to come, when your son asks you, "What does this mean?" say to him, "With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons. And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand." (vv. 14-16)


The Lord's instructions were intentional and specific because he wanted the Israelites' very way of life--their everyday activities--to help them remember what he had done for them and to help them be holy. By saving them, he set them apart as his people, called to glorify his name to all the nations. And part of the "glorify God" plan was living distinctly, differently from the nations around them: sacrificing to one God, eating and not eating certain foods, celebrating particular festivals, and using what they had--including donkeys--in different ways than others did, all to show how great the one true God is.

Today, thankfully, we don't have to sacrifice our meat; we can simply choose to grill the beef or fight for the cows. But as Christians, we're still a people set apart. We're still called to do different things than others with what we have--donkeys, dollars, dinners, whatever--that we might continually remember what God has rescued us from and show others who he is and how great he is.

Whether or not you're a meat-eater, I don't advise eating donkey. I don't recommend burning it or breaking its neck either. But whatever you do with your "donkeys," seek to use them in a way that displays God's goodness and grace.

(NOTE: No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog.)

Posted by Lisa Rieck at September 25, 2008 9:18 AM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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