Posted in theology

Donkey milk? Yes, donkey milk.

By Elizabeth Prata

EPrata photo

There are a lot of animals, plants, and activities in the Bible that I have little knowledge about. It was fun learning the process for creating purple dye from murex shells. Or the process of plucking reeds growing along the Nile to make into linen garments. And what was it about the sweet onions that the Wandering Hebrews complained that they missed them so much? I wrote about that one some years ago.

I’ve been thinking about donkeys. Ever since I read in Charles Swindoll’s book on Job in the Bible that a delicacy of the day was donkey milk. Wait, wut? And that was ALL he said about it! I’m intrigued, Mr. Swindoll, intrigued.

The other day I saw a meme on Twitter, of a hypothetical conversation between God and an Angel. God remarks on the slew of people these days drinking almond milk. The angel says the people are getting milk from almonds now. God says I sent them like 8 animals to get milk from! The angel replies, “They don’t like that milk”.

I’ve often mused on the strangeness of getting milk from almonds. It makes a funny imaginative picture in my mind, milking an almond. Of course I know that’s not how they get almond milk, it’s a totally different process, but it still gives me a chuckle.

Donkey milk. What’s up with that? First I looked up donkeys. Donkeys are mentioned in Old Testament 133 times.

Genesis (20)
Exodus (12)
Numbers (16)
Deuteronomy (6)
Joshua (4)
Judges (12)
1 Samuel (16)
2 Samuel (4)
1 Kings (7)
2 Kings (5)
1 Chronicles (3)
2 Chronicles (1)
Ezra (1)
Nehemiah (2)
Job (8)
Psalm (1)
Proverbs (1)
Isaiah (6)
Jeremiah (3)
Ezekiel (1)
Daniel (1)
Hosea (1)
Zechariah (2)

And in the New Testament 7 times.
Matthew (3)
Luke (1)
John (2)
2 Peter (1)

In Genesis 32:15 female donkeys (called a jenny/jennies) are mentioned. When Jacob was preparing to reunite with Esau, unsure of the reception he’d receive, he collected his best milk animals to give his brother, in case Esau was still intent on killing Jacob.

Then he selected from what he had with him a present for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. (Genesis 32:13-15).

Donkeys are first mentioned in Genesis 12:16. It was when Abram met Pharaoh and Pharaoh liked the look of Sarai and took her, believing as per Abram that she was Abram’s sister, not his wife. Pharaoh gave Abram some gifts in exchange for Sarai, including male donkeys and female donkeys.

Wild donkeys are good hunters, aggressive if challenged, defend themselves with hard kicks, and are perfectly suited to the desert. They can go without water for days, and have acute vision, hearing, and smell.

Further, wild donkeys have been found to be great well diggers in the desert! (wild horses too). NatGeo writes,

As described in a paper published April 29 in the journal Science, the animals use their hooves to dig more than six feet deep to reach groundwater for themselves, in turn creating oases that serve as a boon to wildlife.

It makes sense, then, that donkeys were domesticated. By 4000 BC the tribes living in what we now call Saudi Arabia had them in flocks. They were used on farms and in caravans as beasts of burden. The cave paintings in Egypt’s Beni Hasan, estimated to have been drawn at about 1890 BC, depict one such caravan.

What are the animals the Bible people actually got milk from?

1 Samuel 6:10 – cow. Goat (Proverbs 27:27). Camel (Genesis 32:15). Sheep (Isaiah 7:21-22 . And…donkey. Donkey milk was the BEST milk.

A female donkey is a jenny. She produces 1 liter per day of delicious milk. Why was donkey milk such a delicacy? First of all, donkey milk most closely resembles human breast milk. This is highly convenient for nursing.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports, In the last few decades, there has been a renewed interest in donkeys by the scientific community involved in the recovery of biodiversity, in the rescue of some donkey breeds that have become almost extinct, and in the rediscovery of donkey milk. In addition, due to the increase in food allergies, attention has been focused on the need for a “natural” milk with a good taste, which could be used in some childhood illnesses such as allergy to cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA). Donkey milk is very similar to human milk, especially in terms of its protein profile and lactose content.

It’s not only nutritious and delicious, but it’s medicinal too. USDA says,

The high content of lysozyme in this milk favors selective action against pathogenic microorganisms. In addition, the mineral content (such as calcium) and liposoluble vitamins make it an excellent nutraceutical product.” A neutraceutical product is a pharmaceutical alternative which claims physiological benefits. A drug substitute.

Donkey with pack saddle unchanged from Incan times, Papallacta, Ecuador. EPrata photo

There is a project going on now in Tuscany Italy to create a supply chain of donkey milk. The early results of that project were reported:

Donkey milk was characterised by high lactose content, low caseins, low fat, higher levels of unsaturated fatty acids compared to ruminant milks. Unsaturated fatty acids and omega 3 fatty acids in particular have become known for their beneficial health effect, which is favourable for human diet. These characteristics make it suitable for infants and children affected by food intolerance/allergies to bovine milk proteins and multiple food allergies as well as for adults with dyslipidemias. It is also recommended to prevent cardiovascular diseases.

The ancients knew it was medicinal. The National Library of Medicine reports, “Hippocrates (460–370 BC.), the father of medicine, was the first to describe the medicinal virtues of donkey milk. He prescribed donkey milk for numerous ailments, such as liver problems, edemas, nosebleeds, poisonings, infectious diseases, the healing of sores, and fevers.

Further, we read that In Roman times, donkey milk was used as a universal remedy: Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD), in his encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia, has widely described its health benefits. In particular, Pliny writes about 54 medicinal uses of donkey milk, ranging from its use as an anti-venom or as a relief for external irritations (itching) to the use of it in a pomade (ointment) for the eyes. He states that donkey milk is the most effective as a medicine, followed by cow’s milk, and then goat’s milk. (Source).

I wonder if donkey milk was prescribed for Paul’s problem with his eyes…

So far we learn that donkey milk has great food properties, super medicinal qualities, and, now we turn to cosmetics. Ancient documents record that Cleopatra, Nero’s wife Poppea, Emperor Claudius’ wife Messalina, and Paolina Bonaparte (Napolean’s sister) used to bathe in donkey milk or otherwise use it to keep their skin looking supple and unblemished. Masks of donkey-milk soaked bread slices would be placed over the face. It helped eliminate wrinkles, it was said by Pliny the Elder. Riddle: If a jenny yields a liter a day, how many jennies does it take to fill a bathtub every day? Upwards of 700.

We note that Job initially had 500 female donkeys (Job 1:3). By the end, the LORD had doubled them and Job finished with a thousand female donkeys (Job 42:12). Maybe Mrs. Job liked to bathe in donkey milk or put donkey milk-soaked bread slices on her face, lol.

In any case, donkeys are a valuable animal. They served our Bible forbears well and they serve us well today. Donkey milk. It does a body good. (For those of an age, this was a long-lasting milk tagline to a series of commercials in the 1980s. It must’ve been effective. I still remember it 40 years later!)

Screen shot from 1980s ad campaign for milk with my added word: donkey!

I’d like to finish with a praise to the Lord. He created every star, planet, land mass, plant, bird, creeping thing, and every animal in just 6 days. As I wrote last week about the wondrous properties for humans in barnacles and horseshoe crabs, the lowly donkey also has some properties which are terrific benefit to humans.

The Lord gave us the common grace of the world. He gave us a charge to work the garden and subdue it. Though the cursed ground now temporarily makes that difficult, He still is an amazing Sovereign who gave us wonderful plants and animals to help us complete that charge. God is great.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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