One approach to understanding the animal(s) in Zechariah 9:9 is to look at the semantic range of the terms for the animals. In his paper, Donkey Domain: Zechariah 9:9 and Lexical Semantics, Kenneth C. Way examines four Biblical terms, three found in Zechariah 9:9, חמור, עיר, אתנו and a fourth found in Zechariah 14:15, פרד. He illustrates the overlap of the four as follows:
Since a donkey can be bred with a horse, Way believes בן in the phrase בן־אתנות is not meant to describe a foal (בן) of a donkey/she-ass (אתנו). Rather, it indicates the animal is a purebred of a אתנו. Then Zechariah 9:9 would describe a single animal, a donkey, חמור, but not any donkey, specifically a "jackass" עיר and not any jackass, specifically a בן־אתנות, that is, a purebred jackass.
This leads Way to conclude Zechariah's vision places emphasis on the purity of the animal:
The purity of the royal mount may in fact be the primary focus of the prophecy in Zech. 9:9. Just as the hybrid was inappropriate for Amorite treaty ratification rituals in the Mari texts, so the פרד is inappropriate in this eschatological passage, which employs covenant terminology (see Zech. 9:11, "the blood of your covenant"). Zion's king comes not on the usual royal means of transportation associated with military conquest in Zech. 9:10 (רכב and סוס). Rather, Zion's king comes on a "purebred jackass," which is a royal mount that is associated with peace (see Zech. 9:10: "He will speak שלום [šālôm] to the nations") rather than elitism or conquest.
This analysis has merit given the accounts of the entry in Mark and Luke (see below). However, to the extent the phrase describes a single purebred donkey, a בן־אתנות, then the preceding terms חמור and עיר are capable of losing specificity. That is, if חמור must be qualified as בן־אתנות to mean a purebred animal, the term embraces all other animals and may be understood generically, as the LXX translator(s) ὑποζύγιον, beast of burden shows. Second, Way's conclusion would be "iron clad" if the terms were given as an uninterrupted asyndetism. They are not. Both the Hebrew חמור ועל־עיר בן־אתנות and the Greek ὑποζύγιον καὶ πῶλον νέον "interrupt" the flow and in so doing interject ambiguity. To arrive at a single donkey, the additions must be taken as explicative. Yet if the word was omitted, the meaning would clearly be as Way concludes. Logically, then the addition does not explain; it adds ambiguity to what otherwise would be a succinct identification of a single donkey.
The Purebred Donkey
The perspective of purity in Zechariah not only has has semantic merit, it may be implied from the instructions Jesus gave, as found in both Mark and Luke's narratives:
and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat... (Mark 11:2 ESV)
saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. (Luke 19:30)
Way recognizes a purity from breeding. Jesus' instruction (which itself is prophetic) points to a different type of purity: no man has sat on it. Seen in this light the phrase בן־אתנות is ambiguous. It may be a purebred jackass; it may also be a young jackass, on which no one has sat, or it may be pure in both ways (i.e. "pristine" see addendum). If Zechariah is read with this Gospel detail in mind, then the text could refer to two different donkeys (חמור) or beasts of burden, a עיר and a young (בן) אתנו. It takes only a little imagination to envision a very young donkey which would be found with its mother also present.
Identifying The King
The purity of the animal is important because it carries Zion's eschatological king. As Ehud Ben Zvi states, Zechariah 9:9 was understood as speaking to the coming of the Messiah:
This image of the ideal future king (Messiah) has been very influential in Jewish tradition, and has influenced the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels (see introduction).
[Introduction] Many ancient readers found in Zechariah numerous references to messianic times. As expected, some early Christian readers understood them in Christological terms (see for instance, Mark 14.27 and Zech. 13.7; Matt. 27.9 and Zech. 11.12-13; John 19.37 and Zech. 12.10; John 12.15 and Zech. 9.9). Rabbinic Judaism interpreted many of these texts in relation to a messianic time still to come (e.g. Zech. 3.8; 6.12 in the Targum; in relation to Zech. 6.12 see Num. Rab. 18.21;for Zech. 9.9 see Gen. Rab. 56.2, 98.9; and for Zech. 12.10 as pointing to the Messiah from the House of Joseph, see b. Sukkah 52a.
Once Zechariah 9:9 is understood in this light, another perspective comes under consideration: the identity of this king. Anyone who observed an event seen as fulfilling Zechariah 9:9, would also believe the person on the donkey was the Davidic king. Zechariah does not state this; rather the reader brings this information into Zechariah's vision from other texts. One of the earliest passages speaking of this figure is in Genesis:
8 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father's sons shall bow down before you.
9 Judah is a lion's cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;[a]
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
11 Binding his foal to the vine
and his donkey's colt to the choice vine,
he has washed his garments in wine
and his vesture in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes are darker than wine,
and his teeth whiter than milk. (Genesis 49)
[a] Genesis 49:10 By a slight revocalization; a slight emendation yields (compare Septuagint, Syriac, Targum) until he comes to whom it belongs; Hebrew until Shiloh comes, or until he comes to Shiloh
In commenting on 49:10, Jon D. Levenson states:
verse 10 has traditionally been viewed as a messianic prophecy in both Jewish and Christian traditions. Some commentators, beginning as early as the Aramaic translation known as Targum Onkelos, read the word rendered here as tribute...to him as "his due" (Heb "shelo"): God shall uphold His promise to Judah even till the royal figure comes to claim the dominion that is his due. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, considers it possible to retain the traditional wording , "Shiloh," in place of "shai loh" (tribute...to him). Reading shall come in the sense of "shall come down," like the setting sun (in Lev. 22.7, the verb is translated "sets"), he connects this verse to Ps. 78, which reports that God "forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh," "did choose his tribe of Judah" and "David, His servant" (vv. 60, 68, 70; see 1 Sam 3.19-4.22; Jer. 7.12-15).
He also notes a connection between verse 11 and Zechariah:
The images suggest preternatural fertility, prosperity, and vigor. According to Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, an Italian commentator of the 16th century, the messianic king rides an ass rather than a horse because it is God who wages the wars by which he comes to rule, "and he will become king in peace" (cf. Zech. 4.6b; 9:9)
The same terms used in Zechariah were first used by Jacob to describe two donkey's belonging to Judah:
- a foal, עיר which is bound to the vine
- a donkey's colt, בני אתנו which is bound to the choice vine
Zechariah's animals, the עיר rendered in Genesis as "foal" and the בני אתנו, rendered as a donkey's colt, were first spoken of by Jacob as possessed by Judah. This connection is more than a passing reference: בני אתנו is found only in Genesis 49:10 and Zechariah 9:9. In Jacob's vision, this animal is distinct from the first since it is tied to the choice vine. Seen in the light of Genesis, Zechariah should be understood as describing the Davidic king in possession of the two donkeys Jacob envisioned.
Mark, Luke, and John
All four accounts of Jesus' arrival at Jerusalem include His coming either seated or mounted
8on an animal. Mark (11:1-11) and Luke (19:29-44) identify it as a colt, πῶλον, a word whose only NT use is in the entry narratives. According to the lexicon, this term describes any young animal and when used without indication of age, it is specifically a horse.
9Since neither Mark or Luke make any reference to age or to Zechariah, there are only three ways to say the animal they describe was not a horse:
- Know Zechariah's prophecy and assume it is being fulfilled.
- Believe the animal had yet to be ridden and attribute that to being young.
- Rely on Matthew's and/or John's account which state the animal was a donkey.
From a lexical perspective, Jesus' use of πῶλον can be seen as alluding to Zechariah (either the Hebrew or the LXX, πῶλον νέον). That is, the purity of the animal is the focal point, but it is youth which is the evidence of purity. Applying Way's analysis, the disciples found a donkey, specifically a pure colt of a jackass. However, as there is no certainty of the colt's parents, the nature of purity is no man had yet sat on it.
John identifies the animal as a donkey and cites the prophetic element of Jesus' arrival:
12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!” 16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. (John 12)
John's description of the animal is unique: the hapax legomenon, ὀνάριον. Yet the likely meaning, of young donkey
10would be consistent with the LXX's πῶλον νέον. However, after stating Jesus sat on the ὀνάριον, John "mismatches" the donkey carrying the king by saying your king is sitting on a donkey's colt (πῶλον ὄνου). It is this second term which precisely identifies Mark and Luke's πῶλον as a ὄνου, but this was accomplished only by identifying it differently, πῶλον ὄνου, from the ὀνάριονin Jesus was on, and it disagrees with the LXX.
Lastly, here is Matthew's account:
1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey (ὄνον) tied, and a colt (πῶλον) with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5 “Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. (Matthew 21)
Matthew reports Jesus saying the disciples would find two animals, a donkey and a colt. The disciples then bring these two animals, which are both donkeys, to Jesus. Matthew says "the prophet" was fulfilled when Jesus received the two donkeys. In fact, once Jesus takes possession, Jacob's prophecy was fulfilled (cf. John 15:1, 5). Jesus then mounts the colt, the animal which had not been sat on, as Mark and Luke state, and the colt was specifically a donkey as John states. The second donkey, likely the colt's mother follows.
Much has been made about Matthew's "riding" on "them" as if Jesus was performing a circus act. Yet Matthew places the fulfillment citation when Jesus received the two donkeys, and it simple to see either he chose to conflate Genesis 49:11 and Zechariah 9:9 or interpreted Zechariah in the light of Jacob's prophecy. Or, as some scholars note, they brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them is ambiguous as "them" could mean Jesus sat on the cloaks.
Finally, while often criticized as being ignorant of the Hebrew texts, Matthew's asyndeton, πῶλον υἱὸν ὑποζυγίου, effectively embraces both the Hebrew purebred donkey which could be found in Zechariah and the other type of purity Jesus describes.
The Hebrew text of Zechariah is difficult and may be seen as describing a single donkey. At the same time, the interrupted asyndeton found in both the Hebrew and Greek interject ambiguity into what would otherwise be a description of a single donkey. Additionally, the intertextuality of Jacob's prophecy and a Davidic Messiah, would result in understanding the purpose of the ambiguity is to expand the vision to include two donkeys, a very young colt and his mother.
None of the Gospel accounts is free of problems. Only when all four are considered collectively can one be said to describe an event fulfilling Scripture.
Mark and Luke fail to fully identify the colt, πῶλον, which means they depicted Jesus entering Jerusalem riding a horse, exactly how anyone who is not Jewish would expect a king to enter. When Matthew's two animals are considered, the omission of the other animal, likely the colt's mother, was purposeful to create that type of royal entry. At the same time, the detail which they add (the colt had never been sat upon) raise the question as to why that is important, and that leads the reader to better understand the purity in Zechariah's בן־אתנות, without actually citing the prophecy.
John calls the animal Jesus sat on ὀνάριον, a young donkey, avoiding the ambiguity inherent in Mark and Luke's πῶλον. Then states the prophecy was not the animal on which Jesus sat, but Mark and Luke's πῶλον, specifically a πῶλον ὄνου. This raises the question as to why John would literally create a word to describe the animal Jesus sat on rather than use the animal he cites in the prophecy. Regardless of motive, the literary effect is to place two different animals in the narrative, in agreement with Matthew. John's language may be purposefully ambiguous as he often is, or simply to present a narrative which is in general harmony with the other three.
In terms of Zechariah, John's primary focus is on 12:10 (cf. 19:37) where he accurately conveys the Hebrew text.
13This may account for what appears to be the contradictory statement he appends to the entry prophecy: His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him (12:16). "These things" go beyond the entry. They include Zechariah 12:10, who some interpreted as speaking of a Messiah from the House of Joseph.
14John wants the reader to know Zechariah spoke of one Davidic Messiah, who is Jesus. He rode in on a young donkey fulfilling 9:9 and was pierced fulfilling 12:10.
Matthew identifies two donkeys, but he places the emphasis of fulfillment (and so Jacob's vision) when Jesus receives the donkeys. Therefore, the disciples brought two donkeys to Jesus and the one He sat one was the young colt on which no man had previously sat. This scenario points out an additionally ambiguity in how Zechariah 9:9 describes the donkey. If there was a single donkey on which the King sat, and if that donkey was a purebred colt on which no one had sat because it was still very young, then the colt's mother would be with the colt. A semantic exercise to narrow down the animal to a single purebred donkey, cannot exclude age and must consider a young donkey may still be with his mother.
Addendum - The Mari Texts
Way draws from the Mari texts:
The Mari texts frequently refer to treaty making in terms of donkey dispatch (hayaram qatālum), and they occasionally employ the phrase mār atānim to specify the preferred animal for treaty ratification rituals (se A.1056:9-10; A.2226:17; ARM 2.37:11). In all these examples from Mari and the Bible, the phrase is employed as a clarification of the term עיר (= hayarum in Amorite/Mari texts). Since עיר may be used of both a male donkey and a male hybrid (see below), it is presumably necessary to qualify עיר as either the "offspring of an אתנו" (i.e., a donkey) or the offspring of a סוסה (sûsâ)" (i.e., a mule). When עיר is qualified as the "offspring of an אתנו, the עיר takes on the narrower sense of a "purebred male donkey."
If a purebred animal was deemed necessary, it is also reasonable to expect the animal to be "unused." An elderly donkey, even if a purebred would be less of a gift for sacrifice than a young one. Perhaps "pristine," both purebred and never been used, would be a better way to understand the type of donkey in the ritual. The best evidence a donkey was pristine would if it was very young, and if accompanied by its mother, its breeding would also be shown. In other words, a young donkey would be used, but the mother would also be present partly out of necessity to accompany the young animal, and in part to prove it was purebred.
In fact, the Mari texts show the foal of a she-ass was sacrificed as part of the treaty ritual, often after the animals initially offered were deemed unacceptable.
16So the Gospel detail, likely sheds additional light on the custom.
There is no mention of Zechariah's donkey being sacrificed, and the donkey is considered to be unclean and unacceptable as food for a sacrificial meal. But there is a parallelism in Zechariah's picture and the custom of using a donkey to ratify a treaty. The Gospel indicates it was the King who was offered to make peace between God and man. So where the Mari describe a custom a king to bring a pristine donkey to a meal to ratify a treaty, the Gospel describes a pristine donkey bringing the King who will offer Himself.
- Kenneth C. Way, “Donkey Domain: Zechariah 9:9 and Lexical Semantics,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 129, No. 1 (Spring 2010), p. 113
- Ibid., p. 114
- Ehud Ben Zvi, The Jewish Study Bible, Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 1259
- Ibid., p. 1250
- Jon D. Levenson, The Jewish Study Bible, Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 97
- Matthew sat upon ἐπεκάθισεν; Mark and John sat ἐκάθισεν; Luke put ἐπεβίβασαν. Riding is implied but never stated.
- Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University Chicago Press, 2000, p. 900
- Ibid., p. 710
- "John's quotation of Zechariah 9:9 differs from both the Hebrew and the LXX...possibly he rewrote the difficult words simply and clearly, caring more for the sense that for the verbal accuracy." C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St John, S.P.C.K., 1962, pp. 348-349.
- David Instone-Brewer, "The Two Asses of Zechariah 9:9 in Matthew 21", Tyndale Bulletin 54 (2003) 87-97; see p. 97.
- Barrett, p. 454
- For example, b. Sukkah 52a.
- Way, pp, 107-108
- Abraham Malamat, "A Note on the Ritual of Treaty Making in Mari and the Bible," Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 45, No. 4 (1995), pp. 226, 227