Acceptable animals to sacrifice (and why donkeys don’t make the list)

  • Question 115, from SD, United Kingdom

    This answer is sponsored by star in a jar

    I have a question about Exodus chapter 34, verse 20. Why doesn’t God want first-born donkeys as a sacrifice? I can understand why he’d want us to redeem our first-born son, but donkeys…?

    Exodus chapter 34 recounts God making a new covenant with the Israelite people after the Ten Commandments were inscribed on new stone tablets. Exodus chapter 32, verse 19 records that the original stone tablets were smashed by Moses when he returned to the Israelite camp and saw the people worshipping an idol in the shape of a golden calf.

    The covenant in Exodus chapter 34 is a reaction to the Israelite idolatry. Verses 31 and 14 contain a command to destroy the idols of other races; verse 17 explicitly states “Do not make cast idols.” As part of this campaign against apostasy, all the first-born are to be given over to Yahweh (verse 19), except for donkeys and children.

    Children were sacrificed in religious rites of the cultures surrounding the Israelites and so this explicit command not to sacrifice children is an important way of distinguishing between worship of Yahweh and worship of idols.

    This injunction is an almost word-for-word repetition of Exodus chapter 13, verse 13, where the reason for sacrificing the first-born is to remember the deliverance of the Israelite first-born sons on Passover night (Exodus chapter 12, verse 29).

    Animals that were sacrificed as an act of worship were generally then eaten, either by the priests, or by the family who offered the animal for sacrifice. The main function of sacrifice in the region of Arabia (where the events of Exodus are located) was to drain the blood, which was thought to contain the life of the animal. Once this was done, and token parts of the animal were burned on the altar, the meat was eaten.

    In a nomadic society where meat was a luxury, this meant important meals were sacred events too. The consumption of the sacrificed meat also strengthened the bond between the god it was sacrificed to and the worshippers. This connection between those who eat the flesh and the god to whom it was sacrificed has, of course, been taken into Christianity through the practice of communion (also known as Mass; Eucharist; the Lord’s Supper), with ‘bread’ replacing meat.

    Although donkeys are not mentioned by name on the prohibited list of food in Leviticus chapter 11, it may be that there was a general aversion to eating donkey meat. Donkeys were useful as pack animals, and were used in farming (Deuteronomy chapter 22, verse 10). In Numbers chapter 18, verse 15, the priests are ordered to redeem every firstborn male of unclean animals. Only oxen, goats and sheep were to be sacrificed and eaten (verses 17-18).

    If a donkey was not redeemed it’s neck was to be broken. This was to underline that as a firstborn male it belonged to Yahweh. Presumably this command was given to ensure that people did offer the lamb instead (or the money mentioned in Numbers chapter 18). The order is simple – pay Yahweh his due or lose the use of the donkey.

    Thanks for your question, SD

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