What Was the Donkey Doing in Its Master’s Crib?

A few days ago, I was reading Joel Hoffman’s post on Isaiah 1:3 at God Didn’t Say That and something he wrote called my attention.

First, let me cite the Biblical text:

“The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3 NRSV).

In his study of this text Joel wrote: “When I read ‘children…cribs,’ I naturally think of, well, children and cribs, that is, children and where they are kept.”

The reason Joel’s statement called my attention was a situation that occurred in Long Island several days ago.

A New York woman was visiting family in Long Island when her daughter awoke crying in the middle of the night. The mother rushed to her daughter’s room and to her surprise she found a snake in her daughter’s crib. Neither the woman, nor her family, nor the officers with the department of animal control knew from where the snake came.

This brings me to the Isaiah text: If the donkey knows its master’s crib, how did the donkey get to the baby’s crib?

The question is rhetorical, of course, because the problem with the question arises due to an unfortunate translation of the NRSV. But the NRSV is not alone in talking about a crib. Several translations, including the KJV, the ESV, the NJB, and the TNK translate the word ‘ēbûs as “crib.” The word is better translated as “feeding-trough” (HCSB).

The word “crib” comes from the Old English word “cribb” which means “manger” or “stall.” But the word “crib” does not mean that to many people today. As Joel said, whenever the word “crib” appears people will think of children and their beds, that is, the place where children sleep.

In his oracle to Israel, Isaiah was comparing the unfaithfulness of Israel toward their God with the faithfulness of animals toward their owners. The NET version paraphrases Isaiah 1:3 as follows: “An ox recognizes its owner, a donkey recognizes where its owner puts its food; but Israel does not recognize me, my people do not understand.”

Isaiah’s words are spoken in the context of a covenant violation. The appeal to heavens and earth in verse 1 is a call to the witness of the covenant to hear the case God brings against his people. The word “know” is also related to the covenant as its refers to Israel’s relationship with the Lord which was established at Sinai. If brute animals knew their masters and where their food was set, Israel should know better.

The use of the word “crib” by the NRSV and other translations is not without precedent. The allusion to the crib, to the ox, and to the donkey (or the ass, since these days polite people refrain from using the word “ass” in conversation), may be a veiled reference to the manger scene at the occasion when the Christ child was placed on a crib. The view that the ox and the ass were present at the birth of Christ is taken from the gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, v. 14:

“On the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ holy Mary went out from the cave, and went into a stable and put her child in a manger, and an ox and ass worshipped him. Then was fulfilled that which was said through the prophet Isaiah: ‘The ox knows his owner and the ass his master’s crib.’”

The interpretation that says that Isaiah 1:3 contains a Messianic prophecy is not derived from a historical understanding of the text. This Messianic interpretation reflects the efforts of the early church to find Christ, his birth and his mission, predicted in the texts of the Old Testament. In his commentary on Isaiah 1-12 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977), p. 182, Hans Wildberger wrote:

“Parenthetically, the pious and harmless belief that the ox and ass worshiped Christ in the manger provided [John] Calvin with another occasion for anti-Papist polemic: “they have falsely alleged that the oxen and asses in the stall worship Christ when he was born; by which they show themselves to be egregious asses.”

In light of the confusion the word “crib” creates in the minds of many readers, it is best to adopt the translation offered by the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB): “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s feeding-trough, but Israel does not know; My people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3 HCSB).

If you accept the translation proposed by the HCSB, you have to dismiss the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 1:3.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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8 Responses to What Was the Donkey Doing in Its Master’s Crib?

  1. Anonymous says:

    >Hello Professor, Interestingly, I was just reading:CHRYS. Surely if He had so willed it, He might have come moving the heavens, making the earth to shake, and shooting forth His thunderbolts; but such was not the way of His going forth; His desire was not to destroy, but to save; and to trample upon human pride from its very birth, therefore He is not only man, but a poor man, and has chosen a poor mother, who had not even a cradle where she might lay her new born Child; as it follows, and she laid him in the manger. BEDE; He is confined in the narrow space of a rude manger, whose seat is the heavens, that He may give us ample room in the joys of His heavenly kingdom. He Who is the bread of Angels is laid down in a manger, that He might feast us, as it were the sacred animals, with the bread of His flesh. CYRIL; He finds man in his corrupt affections become like the beasts that perish, and therefore He is laid in the manger, in the place of food, that we changing the life of beasts, might be brought to the knowledge that befits man, partaking not of hay, but of the heavenly bread, the life-giving body … BEDE; The infancy of the Savior was impressed upon us, both by frequent heraldings of Angels and testimonies of Evangelists, that we might be the more deeply penetrated in our hearts by what has been done for us. And we may observe, that the sign given us of the newborn Savior was, that He would be found not clothed in Tyrian purple, but wrapped in poor swaddling clothes, not laying on gilded couches, but in a manger. MAXIMUS; But if perhaps the swaddling clothes are mean in your eyes, admire the Angels singing praises together. If you despise the manger, raise your eyes a little, and behold the new star in heaven proclaiming to the world the Lord’s nativity. If you believe the mean things, believe also the mighty. If you dispute about those which betoken His lowliness, look with reverence on what is high and heavenly.From the Catena Aurea on Luke Pax,John

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  2. >John,Thank you for this information. There is no question that Mary wrapped Jesus in cloths and placed him in a manger,for this is what the gospel of Luke says (Luke 2:7).I do no think, however, that Isaiah 1:3 is a Messianic prophecy announcing the the ox and the ass would be there at the manger.Claude Mariottini

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  3. Tim says:

    >For South Islanders of NZ a "crib" is a holiday place, equivalent of a North Island "bach", less smart than a "beach house", but more permanent than a tent 😉 But I still wonder what the animals are doing 🙂

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  4. >Tim,It is amazing how words change from place to place. I wonder how South Islanders would understand the word "crib" in Isaiah 1:3.Is it possible that the donkey was trying to see if his master was in the crib? :)Claude Mariottini

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  5. Anonymous says:

    >Hello Professor,I actually only posted the above because of the coincidence in timing and subject. In it's historical context I would agree with you conclusions. On the other hand, the Church has never confined itself to just the historical understanding of scripture. If it did, it would have to jettison a lot of messianic texts. Including this rather dubious and un-canonical one. Pax,John

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  6. >The interpretation that says that Isaiah 1:3 contains a Messianic prophecy is not derived from a historical understanding of the text.I agree, but:If you accept the translation proposed by the HCSB [and by me, that evus should be "feeding trough"], you have to dismiss the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 1:3.I'm not sure. The Greek for evus ("crib," or, in today's English, "feeding trough") and for "manger" is fatne. I don't know where infants slept 2,000 years ago. Were there specialized cribs (as I use the word) as there are now? Were children commonly put in any convenient small open box with sides? (Luke 2:7 may suggest so.) And even if there were specialized cribs, the word may have been the same for both.-Joel

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  7. >Joel,I don't know where most infants slept 2,000 ago, but I can almost say with certainty that most of them did not sleep in feeding troughs.Claude Mariottini

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  8. Pingback: Cats and Dogs in the Old Testament | Claude Mariottini - Professor of Old Testament

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