The book of the prophet Isaiah begins with a divine accusation in which God calls on heavens and the earth to be witnesses of the charges God is bringing against his people. God compares the people of Israel with rebellious children who reject the love of a caring father. In his accusation, God compares the people with domesticated animals who recognize who provides for them.
However, there is something interesting in Isaiah 1:3 that needs some consideration. First, let me cite the biblical text:
Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand (Isaiah 1:2-3).
Today, the reference to children and crib in verses 2 and 3 brings to mind literal children and cribs, that is, children and the place where children sleep, in their cribs. The reason the words of the prophet Isaiah called my attention was a situation that occurred in Brentwood, New York several years 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. Today, 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 2 is a call to the witnesses 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. In the past, 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), was seen by some commentators as 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.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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