Saul and the Donkeys

I Samuel 9:1-6, 15-17, 10:14-16

What do donkeys have to do with Kings?  

Here in Chapters 9 and 10, we have the story of the anointing of Saul as the first King of Israel, chosen to bring together the twelve tribes under one rule so that they might be strengthened as a people and finally know peace from their enemies.  

And we also have the story of Saul, the dutiful son out looking for his Dad’s lost donkeys. 

What do donkeys have to do with Kings?

Well, on one level, this story of a farm boy who goes looking for lost donkeys and comes back a King is very much like our story of Arthur, page to Sir Kay, who went looking for a weapon for his master and in pulling a sword out of a stone, revealed himself to be the lost son of Uther Pendragon and heir to the British throne.  Both stories are designed to assure us that these kings didn’t seek power for their own sake; it was thrust upon them.  This fact is especially important in Saul’s case because not everyone in Israel was comfortable with the idea of establishing a monarchy.  There were some who were saying, “The tribal confederacy was good enough for our grandparents; I don’t see why we need to change.”  There was a lot of arguing among the Israelites as to whether kings would be good for them or bad from them so the biblical writer tries to assure the people that Saul had not become King because he actively was seeking glory or power; he was just a simple man out looking for some stray donkeys when God surprised him with a crown.  Even after Samuel anoints Saul as King, the Bible tells us that Saul was so humble he acted as if nothing had changed. 

“This is all well and good,” he says to Samuel, wiping the oil of anointing out of his eyes, “but I’ve got to find those donkeys before something happens to them.”  Later, when Saul returns home, he even neglects to say, “Oh, by the way, Dad, while I was out, they made me King.”  Instead, his only words to his family are, “We found the donkeys.”

Saul was truly a humble man, a man of the people, a man of the land, who cared more about the animals in his care than about his elevation to a throne. 

The biblical writers emphasize Saul’s concern about the fate of his donkeys for the same reason that our media often obsesses over Presidential dogs.  When Barak Obama was elected President, he famously told the nation that he had promised his girls that if he was elected they’d get a dog and so immediately after his inauguration, the media became consumed with speculation over what kind of dog the Obamas would get.  When they finally welcomed a young Portuguese Water Dog into the White House, Bo became an instant celebrity joining a long list of famous White House dogs: Barney, George W. and Laura Bush’s Scottish Terrier; Buddy the Clinton’s Lab; Millie, George and Barbara Bush’s Springer Spaniel, and a long line of Presidential dogs and pets going back 150 years.  As a side note, the only dog to serve under two separate administrations was a Springer Spaniel: one of Millie’s puppies, Spot, born in the George H. Bush White House, returned to the White House with George W. Bush in 2001.  Springer Spaniels are clearly presidential material.  

We tell stories of Presidential pets to humanize those people in power over us.  They can’t be so different from us, we think, if they too like to feed their dog popcorn or cuddle in front of the TV with a Beagle.  Moreover, we believe that a person’s relationship to their animals or to the way they treat animals in general can tell us something about the character of that person.  When the Bible tells its readers that Saul refused to give up his search for the lost donkeys even after being anointed King, it is saying, “Here is a modest, responsible, and compassionate man.  If you can trust him to look after his donkeys, you can trust him to take care of you.”

The lost donkeys of Saul may be the first donkeys associated with a King of Israel but they are not the last.  Donkeys become an important symbol of the monarchy throughout the Old Testament.  When Solomon becomes King, he demonstrates his fidelity to his father David by riding David’s donkey into Jerusalem.  In contrast, when David’s other son Absalom tries to steal the throne, his donkey runs under a tree catching Absalom’s head in the tree’s branches.  He is pulled off the donkey and soon executed for treason.  Absalom had no right to rule and so no right to ride the donkey symbolizing the throne.  Centuries later, when the Jews are living under foreign rule, the prophet Zechariah proclaims hope saying, “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”  Perhaps you recognize this passage because it is Zechariah’s words that we read on Palm Sunday when Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem.  Jesus’ choice to enter on donkey-back rather than on foot was a deliberate one; he knew the power of that symbolism.  He knew that when the people saw him riding on a donkey, they would think, “Here is our King.” 

We have crowns and scepters and thrones to symbolize the monarchy; the Bible had donkeys, but this brings us in a circle back to my original question, “Why?  What do donkeys have to do with Kings?” and more importantly, “What does any of this have to do with us?”

We tell stories about people and their animals because we believe that a person’s relationship to their animals tells us something about the character of the person themselves, and when it comes to riding donkeys this is unarguably true.  Although today, most horse trainers would reject the notion of “breaking a horse,” for quite a bit of human history, training a horse meant exerting control over the animal, showing the horse who is boss, and literally reining it in.  A King riding a horse was likely to be a man used to taking control; a man who towered over others, whose restless snorting steed channeled the restless snorting spirit of its rider.  On the other hand, a man riding a donkey wasn’t going anywhere quickly, and bullying that donkey wouldn’t help.  One website I consulted said, “Donkeys can be a pleasure to ride as long as you aren’t in a hurry and don’t attempt to push them out of their comfort zone.”  Anyone who tries to subdue a donkey by breaking it to his or her will will end up thrown in the dirt by a donkey who has its own opinion on the matter.  Instead, in riding a donkey, the website advises, “You must give your long-eared friend time to mull things over — and never rush him…. The two of you must build a relationship.”  Though today, we have come to believe that this is also the best way to break a horse, in Biblical times, a man on a horse was a man of dominant will, controlling, and in charge, while a man on a donkey was a man of patience, who necessarily understood compromise and the importance of nurturing relationships.   

So when a ruler rode a donkey, he or she was proclaiming to the people, “You have no reason to fear me for I am a person of peace and I will rule in peace.”

Today’s psychological studies support the truth behind that symbolism.  In 2010, an Anti-Animal-Abuse Task Force in Baltimore discovered that “in homes where there was domestic violence or physical abuse of children, the incidence of animal cruelty was close to 90 percent…..”  One member of the task force, Randall Lockwood said, “I’ve spent a lot of time looking at what links things like animal cruelty and child abuse and domestic violence.  And one of the things is the need for power and control. Animal abuse is basically a power-and-control crime.” (New York Times, June 13, 2010)

While not all kings who rode horses were abusive, a king who rode a donkey was symbolically saying to his people, “I do not need to demonstrate my power over this animal.  I do not need to always be in control.  I am comfortable with my own humanness and will not use my throne to satisfy my own needs but will use it for peace.” 

This is what donkeys have to do with Kings, and what does it have to do with us?

The Bible tells us over and over again that peace comes not from controlling others and dominating those around us but from giving others around us the space to, as the donkey trainer said, “mull things over and build a relationship with them.”  When Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, he was proclaiming that the way of his gospel would call us to listen to people’s needs, to welcome people into relationship at the table, one that would put down the sword and turn the other cheek, and refuse to judge, dominate, or exert control over our neighbors.  We hear that gospel and say that we will embrace it, but as soon as we feel frightened or anxious, we chuck Jesus’s words and run right back to saddle up our war horses.  We want to follow Christ but deep down inside of us, we are afraid that if we give up control, we will never win.  Deep down inside of us we really just don’t believe that there is victory in the plodding donkey’s walk of peace.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the crowds cheered for the gospel he proclaimed but they could not sustain their belief in his words, in his way, and soon they gave into their doubts and fears and shouted for his death on the cross. 

We, however, follow not just the teachings of Jesus but we follow the risen Christ.  God demonstrated to us that nothing can defeat the power of the gospel and in three days, Christ rose again to persist in his path toward peace.  His disciples renewed their commitment to his way and learned finally how to let go of their need for power over others and trust in his gospel of compassion for others.  God calls us too to patient persistence, to humility and gentleness, to the nurturing of relationships, and to faith that this is the way to peace.

A writer by the name of Killinger told a story that I have read to you before that I keep on my computer for times when I get discouraged and want to climb onto my high horse.   He says, “In the days of the great western cattle rancher, “a little donkey sometimes would be harnessed to a wild steed. Bucking and raging, convulsing like drunken sailors, the two would be turned loose like Laurel and Hardy to proceed out onto the desert range. They could be seen disappearing over the horizon, the great steed dragging that little donkey along and throwing him about like a bag of cream puffs.  They might be gone for days, but eventually they would come back.  The little donkey would be seen first, trotting back across the horizon, leading the submissive steed in tow.  Somewhere out there on the rim of the world, that steed would become exhausted from trying to get rid of the donkey, and in that moment, the donkey would take mastery and become the leader. 

“And that,” Killinger writes, “is the way it is with [God’s] kingdom and its heroes, isn’t it? The battle is to the determined, not to the outraged; to the committed, not to those who are merely dramatic.”

The battle is to those who follow Christ’s way, willing to humbly ride on that plodding but determined donkey, all the way to peace.