| hundred years ago education focused on a well-rounded general schooling. People who could afford any type of education studied Latin and perhaps Greek, history, literature, and mathematics.
Fast-forward 100-plus years to 2009, and education has undergone a dramatic change. Today’s well-educated are specialists. This tendency to specialize occurs at all levels of education, ultimately leading to higher and higher barriers between disciplines. While many scholars call for more integration and the proverbial “look over the fence,” this seems to be easier said than done.
If you have made it through this introduction and are still wondering about the mule and its link to biblical history you are in good shape for the remainder of this article, which will be looking over the fence to integrate research from several academic disciplines.1 The hope is that this article will help you see your Bible in a new light.
To begin, let us backtrack a little and look at some of the important developments in biblical studies.
Biblical History Under Attack
Following the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, scholars began to shake off the shackles of church-controlled educational supervision, and science began to reign. When Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, he not only challenged existing biological and zoological wisdom, but implicitly questioned the biblical Creation record contained in Genesis 1 and 2. This was soon picked up in other academic disciplines, and historians and biblical scholars developed models and hypotheses that denied and challenged the biblical Creation.2
Following World War II, critical scholars had reached some sort of consensus regarding the (un)historical nature of Creation and turned their attention to the patriarchal period, in turn challenging the reality of this biblical period.3
Through the next three decades the pace of questioning different biblical periods (and key characters) quickened, and by the 1970s many (though not all!) archaeologists, historians, and biblical scholars had rid the Bible of the Exodus event as well as the settlement period when Israel reached Canaan. All these events were considered devoid of any historical reality and were interpreted only theologically or ideologically.
David and Solomon: Did They Ever Exist?
Similar to Greek monumental structures with their imposing pillars and columns, early biblical history up to the tenth century B.C. (or what archaeologists call the beginning of Iron Age II) had lost its supporting pillows and had been downgraded to the categories of myth, ideology, or fantasy.
Hands-on evidence in the form of Israelite archeological remains did seem at least to keep the United Monarchy under David and Solomon and the later divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah “historical.” Then in 1996 Israel Finkelstein, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University in Israel and an imposing figure in current archaeological scholarship, published a key article in an academic journal, challenging the accepted consensus of dating particular ceramic forms to the tenth century B.C. and argued to lower the chronology of these strata to the ninth century (or the time of Ahab).4 Even though many archaeologists did not agree with Finkelstein’s conclusions and challenged his method, a significant number of biblical scholars and historians pounced on his suggestion and concluded that the United Monarchy could only be fiction and that David and Solomon never really existed.5
Another large chunk of the Bible was relegated to the realm of myths and legends. For the average thinking Christian, this development proved challenging as it suggested that more of the Book that is foundational to the Christian faith and practice was not really trustworthy. How could one accept the message of the Bible on faith when the biblical authors did not even exist? Perhaps we can find some answers to this profound question by turning to the very ordinary mule.
Mules and Bones
When reading Scripture we often tend to overlook the mundane and focus on the transcendental and extraordinary. The mule definitely fits the first category, considering the bad press it has received in contemporary lingua. “Stubborn as a mule” is one of the nicer expressions that we use in English and other Western languages. Since mules are a cross of a horse with a donkey (and are zoologically described either as “mule” [father is a donkey] or “hinny” [father is a horse]), they cannot reproduce and are hybrids.
Beginning in the late 1960s archaeologists began to look beyond architectural and pottery remains and pay closer attention to the bones and small faunal remains (such as grains, wood, ash, pollen, etc.) that could be found in the ground. Instead of just concentrating on rulers, kings, and palaces, this focus on the mundane opened up important windows to understand the past more wholistically. What was the diet of people living in the time of the judges? What kind of climate did they have? What kind of animals did they keep? Similar to modern identity thieves, archaeologists got very excited when they found garbage pits in which kitchen refuse and discarded utensils were dumped, since these remains told so many important stories—though obviously not the entire story, considering the fact that modern archaeological digs excavate only a small section of an ancient site.
Depending on their size and form, bone fragments are not always easily identified. However, in spite of these obvious drawbacks paleozoological data (another fancy way of speaking about ancient bones) tell us important stories, especially if linked to biblical and extrabiblical texts and ancient images.
The Mule in the Bible
There are two Hebrew words in the Old Testament indicating mule/hinny with a total of 17 occurrences. If we plot their usage on a timeline, it is immediately clear that most references to this animal come from the time of David, Solomon, and the early kings of the divided monarchy (such as Ahab), pointing to the tenth and early ninth century B.C., which locates us squarely in the contested biblical time period.
If we look at the use of the mule in the stories of David, Solomon, and the early part of the divided monarchy we realize that it was an important indicator of social status. Remember Absalom—in his unsuccessful bid for the throne—is caught on a mule (2 Sam. 18:9). The king’s sons are all provided with mules as their preferred means of transport (2 Sam. 13:29). During the coronation of David, food is transported by mules and camels—both very costly animals—in order to emphasize the importance of the event for the Davidic dynasty (1 Chron. 12:40). Solomon is put upon the hinny of King David when he is crowned (1 Kings 1:33, 38, 44); and when “all the world” comes to pay homage to his wisdom, they bring among the choicest presents—you guessed right—mules (1 Kings 10:25; 2 Chron. 9:24).
A century later, Ahab demands of his captain Obadiah that he water the royal horses and mules—during a time of extreme drought (1 Kings 18:5), a fact that highlights both the desperate situation as well as social realities in Israel. While mules were always considered a costly item (in the lists in Ezekiel 27:14 and in Ezra 2:66 they occur right after the horses and before the camels), it would seem that they were more common and also frequently utilized as pack animals during later centuries. This was most likely a result of improved breeding techniques and (perhaps) even a slacking of biblical breeding laws (Lev. 19:19).
Now we step back a bit and look at the larger picture emerging from the literature of the ancient Near East regarding mules.
The Mule in the Ancient Near East
What made a mule so special in the tenth century B.C. (or earlier) in the ancient Near East, while in modern times it is often connected to insults in colloquial language? First, since mules were hybrids and in light of the prohibition of Leviticus 19:19, they were most likely not bred in Israel itself. This raised the price of a mule considerably, because it was imported ware and could not be “copied” locally. Second, mules, being hybrids, were not only very costly but also could not reproduce. In a sense, the mule was “dead capital,” a toy or means of transport for the rich and powerful, similar to the Mercedes, BMWs, or Porsches in the twenty-first century. (These are wonderful cars—as a German I need to say that—but one can get from A to B in a less expensive car as well.) Third, zoologists tell us that mules are extremely hardy and sure-footed, combining the faster speed of a horse with the pulling capacity of a donkey. They truly were the 4x4 SUVs of their times—fancy, gleaming, expensive, but rugged.
It is interesting to get a quick “market update” about the value of mules in the ancient Near East. Beginning in the third millennium B.C. within Sumerian texts, the price of a mule ranged from 20-30 shekels, or seven times the amount paid for an ordinary donkey. In the Syrian city-state of Ebla the average price was 60 shekels, with the highest bid ever recorded for a mule reaching a staggering 300 shekels. Hittite records show that while the price of an ox was 10 shekels and that of a horse 20 shekels, for a mule one had to put down 60 shekels.
In an intriguing letter by a court official to Zimri-Lim, king of the ancient kingdom of Mari (around the time of the patriarchs moving into Egypt) in northern Mesopotamia, the king is reprimanded to—please—use a mule instead of the common horse, as his social position demanded6 (see sidebar, page 18).
The picture changes in later centuries in which mule remains are more frequent in the archaeological record and images and text references suggest that the mule was more of a mainline animal, used primarily for pulling wagons or transporting burdens. This is in line with the biblical data.
Ancient Near Eastern images reflect a similar picture. Neo-Assyrian reliefs (coming from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.) show images of mules drawing wagons or carrying heavy loads. So how do these ancient finds and pictures help us in our quest for the historical David and Solomon?
Bringing It All Together
If the biblical texts describing David and Solomon were really written during or after the exile, as many Bible interpreters would surmise, describing not historical reality, but rather ideological or theological readings of the past, how is it possible that these unknown authors were able to use (with a nearly miraculous ability) the correct social symbols and status markers that were in use 500-plus years prior to their own time? To put it into more modern terms: would you be able to write a story of the 1500s as if the story were written in the 1500s, knowing what the different status symbols were, what they cost, and how their social value and price changed over the following 300 years? Of course, this would not be the main thrust of your story, but all this correct historical data would just be background information; and remember, you could not have access to any historical data. How could anybody, without using reference books, Wikipedia, or Google, know that mules were not just sure-footed transport animals but rather the exclusive marker of social status of royalty and blue-blooded individuals?
The obvious answer to this would be: impossible. It seems to require more faith in the lucky capacity of these anonymous authors than sticking to the picture of the biblical record, describing the often slow but continuous development of a regional power whose influence grew during the reign of its founder, David, and his son, Solomon. Interestingly enough, it was close to the time of the publication of Finkelstein’s piece that Israeli archaeologist Avram Biran discovered an Aramaic stele during the excavations of the biblical town of Dan, dated to the ninth century B.C. (or roughly 100 years after the death of David), that contained for the first time a reference to the “house of David.”7
Thus, it would seem that the stubborn mule, digging in his status-loaded heels, has helped us not to lose sight of David and Solomon’s tenth century B.C. This in turn, underlines the historical authenticity of the Bible that challenges us not only to recognize this veracity, but also deal with its truth claim individually and personally—up close, and very personal.
1Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Methods and Daily Life in the Ancient Near East. Understanding the Use of Animals in Daily Life in a Multi-Disciplinary Framework,” in Richard Averbeck, Mark W. Chavalas, and David B. Weisberg, eds., Life and Culture in the Ancient Near East (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 2003), pp. 401–433; idem, “‘Man’s Other Best Friend’: The Interaction of Equids and Man in Daily Life in Iron Age II Palestine as Seen in Texts, Artifacts, and Images,” Ugarit-Forschungen 35 (2003 ): pp. 259–290.
2A readable and helpful introduction to the key issues can be found in Elmer A. Martens, “The History of Religion, Biblical Theology, and Exegesis,” in Craig C. Broyles, ed., Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), pp. 177–199.
3John van Seters (University of North Carolina) and Thomas Thompson (now retired from the University of Copenhagen) are two scholars who played a major role in challenging the veracity of the
biblical text and particularly the patriarchal period.
4Israel Finkelstein, “The Archaeology of the United Monarchy: An Alternative View,” Levant 28 (1996): pp. 177-187.
5A spate of monographs about David have been published over
the past decade. See Baruch Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); M. J. Steussy, David: Biblical Portraits of Power, Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1999);
or (in German) Johannes Neumann, Der historische David. Legende und Wirklichkeit in der Geschichte Israels und Judas von der Frühzeit bis zur Dynastie Omri (Radebeul: Johannes Neumann, 1997).
6J. M. Sasson, “Official Correspondence From the Mari Archives,”
in his Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995), p. 1204.
7Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh, “An Aramaic Stele Fragment From Tel Dan,” Israel Exploration Journal 43.2-3 (1993): pp. 81-98.
Gerald A. Klingbeil, D.Litt., is an associate editor of the Adventist Review, who enjoys digging up dirt that highlights the important interaction between scripture and the surrounding ancient cultures.