Donkeys get little respect in this world, but ancient civilizations depended heavily on the stubby beasts of burden. The earliest evidence of horses being used in the ancient Near East is from around 2000 BCE, in tombs where horses were buried along with chariots, apparently for the deceased to use in roaming the afterworld.
Domesticated camels don’t appear in the archaeological record until the Iron Age, hundreds of years after Abraham. Later writers familiar with camels assumed that Abraham would have used them, and retrojected them into patriarchal stories.
Donkeys go back much further. A recent study of donkey burials in the city of Gath, along with other known donkey burials from the Early Bronze Age, is a reminder that donkeys were the key to international trade across the Middle East at least 6,000 years ago.
Most Bible readers know of Gath (Tel es-Safi) as the hometown of Goliath and one of the Philistines’ five major cities (along with Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gaza) during the time of Israel’s early monarchy. The Philistines did not arrive until the early Iron Age, however, during the 12th century, BCE. Prior to that Gath was controlled, at different times, by indigenous Canaanites or by the powerful Egyptians.
The donkey burials in question date to about 2700 BCE, during the Early Bronze Age, when the city was occupied by people who sometimes followed an ancient tradition of burying a sacrificial animal in a shallow grave beneath their homes as a foundation offering. The practice indicates a belief that such offerings would placate the gods and provide some sort of protection for their homes.
It must have been a strong belief, given that it inspired actions that could have left a significant odor in the house for some time. Maybe the ancients thought that if your house stunk bad enough, trouble-making lesser gods would stay away.
The Philistine burials, by the way, appear to offer the first evidence of bits being used to control the animals. According to an article in PLOS ONE, wear on the rear molars of one donkey was consistent with the use of a relatively soft bit, like rope or wood. Ancient art from Mesopotamia indicates that, prior to the introduction of bits, donkeys were led by ropes attached to nose rings.
The presence of donkeys being used as foundation sacrifices indicates their importance to the ancients. Trade between Egypt, Canaan, Phoenicia, and Mesopotamia would have been minuscule at best without them.
It was donkeys who carried the load in the ancient world, even long after horses and camels were introduced. A lengthy list of people returning from the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE says that they brought with them 736 horses, 245 mules, and 435 camels — but 6,720 donkeys (Ezra 2:66-67).
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem for his “triumphal entry,” he didn’t ride a mighty horse, but a young donkey (Matt. 21:5).
Don’t disrespect the donkey.