The Time a Fish and a Donkey Taught Us To Be Kindhearted

Is it not sad that the dull donkey should be more grateful to his masters than we are? The 11th installment in our series on the World of the Bible.

By David Lazarus | | Topics: World of the Bible
A man sits against a wall in Jerusalem with his trusty donkey. Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90

“Go to the sea and cast a hook and take up the fish that comes up; when you have opened his mouth you will find a piece of money; take that and give to them for me and for you.” (Matt. 17:27)

There were different ways of fishing on the Sea of Galilee, not unlike those of the ancient Egyptians and other ancient Middle Easterners. Normally to catch fish fishermen would use nets, though in this case when only one fish had to be caught for personal use, a rod, line and fishing hook were preferred, which increased the wonder of the miracle that it was the “first fish that comes up” and no more than the exact amount needed.

Egyptian wall painting showing local fishermen using rods. Photo: Public domain

The coin Jesus and Peter needed for the tax collectors was the regular payment for the maintenance of the Temple (Exod. 30:13) which was a half-shekel per person. The full amount for Peter and Jesus that was found in the fish was one shekel, or a Tyrian stater (the word used in the Greek original and translated “piece of money”). For more on the Temple tax see Profits and Perils of the Kingdom of God – World of the Bible Part 9

It is illuminating to consider that in this episode Jesus performs a miracle in order to press home the point that they should not upset the tax collectors, those known to carry on illicit transactions for their own profit. He explains to Simon Peter that He is doing this so that “we (Jesus and Peter) might not offend them” (the tax collectors), and God does not perform wonders of this dimension unless there is a very good reason to get His point across.

In the previous pericope (Mt. 15:14) we find Jesus offending the religious leaders without a second thought, and is careful to explain to His disciples that they too don’t need to worry about offending them. “Ignore them,” he tells his followers.

When explaining why both Peter and himself do not need to pay the Temple tax out of their own pocket (though it is significant that it did come from fishing their regular source of income) Jesus says that “the sons (of a king) are exempt.” Here He is introducing the idea that Peter, and by association all the disciples, are sons of God, the King of the Universe. He explains this in private to Peter perhaps to make sure they don’t offend the tax collectors by pridefully promoting themselves that they are exempt from the tax because of their special relationship with God. In other words, of course, pay your dues because we do support the work of the Temple, even though we are the sons of the very One for whom the sanctuary was built.

On the other hand, Jesus had no problem letting the religious leaders know that He did have a unique relationship with His Father (Luke 22:70). Those of us simple folk ought take heart.

And He went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace. (Matt. 20:3)

The “marketplace” (in Greek agora, in Latin forum) was the central square of most cities of Greece and Italy at the time. These served as places for commerce and trade, but also for pubic assemblies, and of course for loiterers, beggars, as well as people seeking work.

The oval forum and the Cardo Maximus of Jerash, Jordan. Wikicommons

The Romans built the forum at strategic points along the main street of the city (cardo). The illustration above shows one of the best-preserved marketplaces in the region from the city of Jerash just beyond the Jordan dating to around 200-300 AD. Contrary to some earlier designs, here it is oval shaped acting almost like a roundabout in the middle of the main street. The Ionic columns along the edges supported a portico or roof with shops, taverns and other services, and provided the workmen looking for jobs shade while waiting for someone to come along and hire them for a day’s labor.

Jesus told the parable of the laborers working in the vineyard in “Judea beyond the Jordan” (Mt. 19:1), which Jesus crossed on His way from Galilee to Jerusalem, that is not far from Jerash.

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent out two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt beside her. Untie them and bring them to Me” (Mt. 21:1-2).

Leaving the Jewish region beyond the Jordan, Jesus passed through Jericho from the east and up the mountainous Judean desert reaching the Mount of Olives and Bethphage, the village remembered as the starting point of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where He is welcomed in the City of the Great King by adoring crowds spreading palm branches along the ground before Him and His donkey proclaiming, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (Jn. 12:13).

In preparation for His entry into Jerusalem two disciples were sent to bring a donkey for their Lord. The riding animals of antiquity were the camel, horse and donkey. The donkey appears earlier in the patriarchal period famously when Abraham leads his son to the top of Mount Moriah. Abraham is following the customs of Semitic dignitaries riding his donkey while his son Isaac and his two servants (or, according to Jewish tradition, his servant Eliezer and other son Ishmael) walk beside him (as in Gen. 22:3). Among the reliefs discovered in Sinai is this illustration of a traveler riding on a donkey which is led by a servant while a second follows behind with a stick. Both servants are carrying spears. The rider is carrying what appears to be an ax in his left hand and a staff in his right. In another scene from the stele from Serabit el Khadim in the Sinai mines, the rider’s son is seen walking along behind the donkey.

Illustration of man riding donkey taken from a stele in Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai mines. Public domain

Though Jesus had traveled to Jerusalem numerous times to observe the feasts, His final entry into Jerusalem had a unique significance. He was triumphantly arriving as a humble King of Shalom. Historically, entering a city on a donkey signified entry in peace, rather than a conquering king arriving on a horse, as we find the Messiah coming back in the Book of Revelations.

The horse was more suitable for war and for covering long distances quickly. For the purpose of a triumphal entry in the crowded streets of ancient Jerusalem, a donkey was a much better choice. It is slower, less dangerous, and allows for the people to get much closer to the rider without being endangered.

“Behold O Jerusalem of Zion, the King comes unto you meek and lowly riding upon a donkey.” Most people have it in their minds that the meekness and the lowliness was the donkey, but that is not so. The donkey was a royal steed in the Old Testament. Remember when Absalom usurped the kingdom from his father, David, the first thing he did was to go get his royal donkey and ride through the streets of the city. When it says He comes meek and lowly, the idea is He comes in peace with no military support.

A man sits against a wall in Jerusalem with his trusty donkey. Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90

The donkey bred in Israel, Eguus asinus, is a sturdy breed and far more intelligent and tamer than is usually thought. He is very gentle and patient and does not get angry even when he has a very heavy load to carry. Though he seems dull, he loves his master, and will sometimes find him and run to him even when he is in a crowd of men.

God says, in the Bible, “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s manger; but Israel does not know, my people do not consider.” Is it not a sad thing that the dull donkey should be more grateful to his master than we are?

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