As we return once again to the book of Exodus, we see the Israelites suffering in bondage under Pharaoh and the Egyptians. We are reminded of Moses’ perilous birth and how he grew up in the royal palace only to flee for his life after committing what he understood to be an act of justice. Moses is 40 years old at this point in the story when he takes Tziporah, daughter of Yitro, as his wife and spends the next 40 years tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert of Midian. Only now, at the age of 80, does Moses encounter God at the burning bush, where he is commanded to lead the people of Israel out of bondage. At this point of the narrative, we read:
So Moshe took his wife and sons, mounted them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt … (Ex. 4:20)
While this translation surely reflects the simple meaning of the text, this seemingly mundane detail of the narrative has a long and colorful history of interpretation.
The Talmud (Bab. Megilah 9a) tells the story of 72 elders, commissioned by Ptolemy the King, who translated the Torah into Greek. This is not the Septuagint Version that we have in many ancient manuscripts, but rather a legendary reflection that survives only in multiple Talmudic quotations. Our verse above, Exodus 4:20, is a good example of all of these wise men independently translating a word or term the same way: instead of “ass” or “donkey” representing the word “hamor” in the Hebrew, every one of them translated hamor as “nosei b’nai adam” or “people mover,” most probably with the intention of “camel.”
It is helpful to know that all 15 of the “changes” that are reported in the Talmud in the name of these 72 elders are apologetic in nature. For instance, the first words of the Torah, b’reishit bara elohim, were reportedly translated “Elohim created in the beginning,” apparently in order to prevent someone from claiming that a God named B’reishit created Elohim. Or at the end of the first story of creation, instead of “And God completed the work on the seventh day … and rested on the seventh day,” the elders translated “And God completed the work on the sixth day … and rested on the seventh day,” in order not to give the impression that God had created on the seventh day as well. So in this case, we must also assume that—at least in the eyes of the Talmud—someone might misinterpret our text in some way.
We find a plausible explanation of what we are told in the Talmud in the commentary of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (11th-12th century, Spain), who says that it would seem undignified to the Greek-speaking population of Egypt in the 2nd century BCE for Moshe’s wife and children to return to Egypt upon an animal as lowly as a donkey. Ezra adds, by the way, that Gershom was just a small boy and Eliezer a baby, so there was room for Moshe’s wife and sons upon the same animal.
The elders may have had yet another reason to apologize, having to do with the ancient anti-Semitic claim that we Jews are really ass-worshipers. The 1st century CE Jewish Historian Josephus wrote an entire book dedicated to refuting these types of misunderstanding, or perhaps misrepresentation, of Judaism. This book, Against Apion, includes a short passage in which Josephus quotes Greek authors who say:
Within this sanctuary Apion has the effrontery to assert that the Jews kept an ass’s head, worshipping that animal and deeming it worthy of the deepest reverence … This was discovered when Antiochus Epiphanes spoiled our temple, and found that ass’s head there made of gold, and worth a great deal of money. (Against Apion 2:80).
Other ancient Greco-Roman authors maintained similar claims: Tacitus tells us that Moses followed a herd of wild asses who led him to water in the desert, while Diodorus states that in the Jerusalem Temple, Antiochus Epiphanes found an image carved into stone, of a bearded man—Moses—seated on an ass (cf. notes LCL, The Life, Against Apion, p. 324-325). Interestingly, these claims were later made about the early Christians as well.
Interpreters took yet another fascinating path when dealing with this donkey in our tradition. based on earlier rabbinic tradition, Rashi (11th century, France) comments:
“mounted them on the donkey” – on that particular donkey, the same donkey which was mounted by Avraham on his way to the akeidah (the binding of his son, Yitzhak), which is the same donkey that will be mounted in the future by the Mashiah (Messiah)…
From a grammatical point of view, the Hebrew, when using the letter hey in al hahamor, most probably means that it was Moshe’s donkey, not THE donkey—possibly referring to the same donkey present in other biblical stories. But of course, when it comes to rabbinic midrash, that really doesn’t matter, and so, in this way, the animal takes on a mythological quality.
When looking back on our texts, we are always sensitive about what others might say about us, perhaps misunderstanding, perhaps intentionally misinterpreting. And while we should be careful to some degree, we should also not get too anxious about these things, since in the end, we will be able to tell the story ourselves in a way that best represents what we think.
We always knew—and, with time, so did the rest of the world—that our theology was far more complex and sophisticated than others often presented it. This week’s reading might teach us to be a bit more relaxed regarding what others say about us, or at least to be patient while we wait for the truth to emerge.
One more lesson this donkey might teach us: even the greatest of our leaders, Avraham and Moshe, as well as that leader Mashiah, the Messiah, who some of us believe will never come, all ride upon the humblest of animals. What matters is not how the headliners arrive on the scene, but what they have to teach us.