The Politics of the King’s Donkey—Luke 19:28-40 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The donkey plays a surprisingly significant role in the history of Israel’s kingdom. Entering into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, Jesus performs a symbolic action that manifests his true identity and the character of his kingdom.

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, explaining the title of his celebrated novel Fifth Business, invented a quotation that he attributed to the Danish playwright Thomas Overskou: ‘Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.’ Perhaps one of the most surprising candidates for which one could defend such a designation in Scripture is the donkey.

For such a lowly beast of burden, it is surprising to see how unobtrusively significant a role the donkey plays in the history of Israel’s kingdom. While it seldom occupies the centre of the narrative frame, it is a ubiquitous yet inconspicuous presence at pivotal historical moments in the kingdom’s establishment and a supporting actor in prophesies concerning it. At times it serves to reveal or highlight the identities and destinies of key protagonists; at others it precipitates or plays a part in setting in motion key events.

In Genesis 49:10-11, Jacob prophesies concerning the tribe of Judah:

10 The sceptre shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and the obedience of the peoples is his.
11 Binding his foal to the vine
and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine,
he washes his garments in wine
and his robe in the blood of grapes;

Later, in 1 Samuel 9, the story of Saul’s rise to the throne of Israel is set in motion by the wandering donkeys of his father, Kish. Saul’s quest to locate the lost donkeys leads him to the prophet Samuel, who anoints him with oil and lists a series of signs that will confirm his message to Saul as he journeys back: he will be met by two men declaring that the donkeys have been found, three men will greet him bearing young goats, loaves of bread, and a skin of wine, and he will encounter a group of prophets playing musical instruments and prophesying, at which point the Spirit of the Lord would come upon him and he would prophesy and be transformed as a person (1 Samuel 10:1-9). This startling episode comes full circle as Saul returns home to a conversation with his uncle about the lost donkeys (1 Samuel 10:14-16).

In a narrative wink to the alert reader, the three signs that befell Saul are subtly and subversively alluded to in 1 Samuel 16:20: ‘Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul.’ The Spirit-anointed David then played music on his harp for King Saul, delivering him from the distressing spirit that afflicted him (16:23). The young lad David, secretly designated the successor to the throne, comes bearing the signs of the kingdom, signalling his destiny and establishing an ironic juxtaposition with King Saul, from whose fingers the kingdom is slipping.

The association of donkeys and mules with rule and kingship, which we first witness in Genesis 49, is further evidenced in the book of Judges (5:10; 10:4; 12:14) and later in passages such as 1 Samuel 16:1-2 where, as David escapes from Jerusalem after his son Absalom’s coup, Ziba brings two donkeys for the king’s household to ride upon. In an ironic twist, Absalom the pretender ends up hung from a terebinth tree by his long hair when his mule goes beneath it. The association is perhaps most markedly seen in 1 Kings 1:28-40. In that chapter, in the fraught situation of disputed royal succession as David’s death drew near, Solomon is decisively distinguished as the true heir to the throne through a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on King David’s own mule.

The donkey or mule, the king’s steed, is associated with peaceful rule, while the horse was an animal of war. A different sort of ‘triumphal entry’ occurs in the case of Jehu, who is secretly anointed by Elisha, and rides, as Jesus would later do, on a carpet of people’s garments (2 Kings 9:1-13). Jehu, however, is not a meek ruler riding on a donkey, but a furious and bloody charioteer and horseman, who kills Joram of Israel and Ahaziah of Judah (9:14-29), who tramples Jezebel under his horses’ feet as he enters Jezreel (9:30-37), and who ‘cleanses’ the temple of Baal in the most sanguinary of manners (10:18-28).

When the prophet Zechariah foretells the coming of a new king to restore the people’s fortunes, he is identified by his riding of a ‘colt, the foal of a donkey,’ and his mode of rule distinguished from that of the warmongering regents with their royal chargers:

9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

The words of this prophecy sound a pregnant note, powerfully reverberating in the resonating chamber of the history we have cursorily surveyed. It recalls the blessing of Jacob over his son Judah and some of the most glorious and tragic episodes in Israel’s uneven history. This coming King is the true bearer of Judah’s sceptre. He is the one who will establish the kingdom, the greater than Saul and the Son of David. He will realize the unfulfilled promise of Solomon, who fell short of his name and calling to be the Prince of Peace. His coming will not be like that of the bellicose Jehu: the chariot and the horse and the conflicts to which they belong will be cut off and the nations will be granted a gentle word of peace.

Jesus was a master of symbolic action and the significance of his triumphal entry and the events surrounding it are rich and multi-layered.[1] As in Luke 22:7-13, where he sends Peter and John to make preparations for their celebration of the Passover, in Luke 19:28-34 Jesus gives two disciples specific and miraculously predictive instructions concerning the people, objects, and events that will meet them on their mission, and the unusual ways that the people they will encounter will behave towards them. This is all reminiscent of the Prophet Samuel’s declarations to Saul in 1 Samuel 10.

Indeed, the signs of the establishment of the kingdom and of Saul as king given by Samuel correlate remarkably with the signs that Jesus gives to his disciples in Luke:

  1. Saul encounters two men who declare that Saul’s father’s donkeys have been found (1 Samuel 10:2). Two disciples obtain a donkey according to Jesus’ prediction and instructions (Luke 19:29-34).
  2. Saul meets three men going up to Bethel carrying goats, loaves of bread, and a skin of wine, who freely give Saul two loaves (1 Samuel 10:3-4). Peter and John meet a man bearing a water pitcher on the day when the Passover sacrifice (a lamb or a goat) was killed. He leads them up to a house, whose master freely provides them with an upper room for the sacrificial feast, where Jesus gives his disciples bread and wine (Luke 22:7-20). This sign seems to be intermixed with the earlier surprising events that befell Saul on his journey in 1 Samuel 9: meeting women bearing water (verse 11), being directed to the site of a sacrificial meal with the prophet in the high place who bestows a special meal portion prophetically set aside for the unannounced guest (verse 22-24), speaking with the prophet in the top of the house (verse 25), and having a kingdom bestowed upon him (1 Samuel 10:1; cf. Luke 22:24-30).
  3. The Spirit of the Lord comes upon Saul and he becomes a new man and prophesies (1 Samuel 10:6). The disciples are instructed to tarry in Jerusalem, where the Spirit of God will come upon them, they will receive power for their mission, and prophesy (Luke 24:49).

In giving these signs and in travelling into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus enacts the establishment of a new kingdom. As in the case of Saul, this is a kingdom that comes through a series of bewildering surprises and remarkable private signs, puncturing illusions of human control and power with indications of divine grace and orchestration. The triumphal entry manifests the coming and the character of the kingdom of God. It reveals the fulfilment of the story of Israel’s kingdom and the realization of the old promises. It reveals a kingdom that does not arrive through human power or design, but as a quiet wonder and gift of divine ordering. It reveals a king who is quite unlike the warring kings of the nations. Against this divine kingdom, all human kingdoms can be seen for what they are, their penultimacy and injustices exposed by the light of this humble royal advent.

This is a kingdom that comes, not with the din and clamour of armies, their fearful fanfares, and their terrible instruments of war, but as the astonishing and wonderful unravelling of a divinely wrought eucatastrophe. The rule of God is brought near, not with the snorting and stamping of royal stallions, or with the thunderous rumbling of tanks, but in a lowly Messiah borne on the back of a humble colt, the joyful promises and songs of the prophets before him, the fullness of God’s blessing in his train.


[1] Jesus is like the ark entering into Jerusalem, his disciples like David removing their garments in celebration as they go before him, the rebuking Pharisees playing the part of Michal (cf. 2 Samuel 6:12-23). Jesus’ geographical movements are another example. Within this and the succeeding chapters, we see a series of movements between the Mount of Olives and the Temple precincts (19:37; 21:37; 22:39; 23:33[?]; 24:50). Jesus resides on the Mount of Olives, delivers his eschatological discourse on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3), travels out to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, and then ascends from the Mount of Olives (it is more doubtful that he was crucified or buried on the Mount of Olives, but there are a few suggestive narrative and typological details). Jesus enacts the glory of God leaving the city of Jerusalem in judgment and relocating to the mountain on the east side of the city, the Mount of Olives (Ezekiel 11:23). As the rejected Messiah, he walks in the footsteps of his father David as he fled Jerusalem following Absalom’s coup, crossing the brook Kidron and ascending the Mount of Olives (2 Samuel 15:23, 30; cf. John 18:1; Luke 22:39). The Mount of Olives was a site charged with apocalyptic expectation on account of Zechariah 14:4-5 and we know that some later Jewish texts associated this prophecy with the account of resurrection in Ezekiel 37. Charlene McAfee Moss, The Zechariah Tradition and the Gospel of Matthew (Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 199-200, 213.

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