authority and power

On Donkeys and Horses


I would like to return to a quote from Psalm 147:10, the wider significance of which may not be apparent. In my most recent post, I reflected on the contrast between the Psalmist’s assertion concerning God’s lack of delight in the strength of a horse, and God’s probable appreciation for the beauty of the same.

But what lies behind that stark observation by the Psalmist? The answer may be found in many images from within the Bible, and can most readily be seen in the dramatic story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

As James Tissot vividly portrays the moment, Jesus enters Jerusalem to acclaim and praise, riding on a donkey rather than a horse. At that time, many armed and horse-mounted Roman soldiers entered and left this city as they did to and from many others across the Empire. But not the Prince of Peace, who arrived without earthly weapons upon a humble beast of burden.

This is in keeping with a significant body of biblical imagery where horses are associated with military and / or government power. A most dramatic example is found in the story of the Israelites escaping from Egypt, pursued by “the chariots of Pharaoh and his army.” Exodus, in a passage often termed ‘The Song of Moses,’ gives voice to Israel’s joyful recollection about the event: “I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted; the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea.”

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey is not only a historical recollection; it also provides a legendary association with the unique physical markings of that animal. Donkeys have two perpendicular stripes on their backs, one running from the neck to the tail, and the other forming a cross as it runs down over the shoulders.

Hence, the poetic observation that the one who entered Jerusalem riding on a cross was lifted above it on a cross. The one who refused to enter the city posing as a challenge to military authority, was himself subject to its power and in its most brutal form. So, the one who arrived possessing spiritual authority chose not to act with worldly power. He was then subject to a military power whose authority was compromised.

As I have previously suggested, horses have provided an image of beauty through a long history of their portrayal in various art forms. Yet, those magnificent animals have an even longer history of association with military might and conquest, and the subjugation of peoples less prepared to defend themselves. Consider how the historically recent introduction of the horse transformed the lives of native American peoples and their community relations with others. Yet, the humble donkey (or burro or ass), more diminutive in stature, and which so readily bears our burdens, has a beauty of its own. Though sometimes less deferential to human guidance than many horses, a donkey’s physical presence is less likely to be intimidating despite its demonstrable strength and endurance.