"I have not Taken a Donkey!"
When Moshe hears the complaint of Dathan and Abiram he turns to God (Numbers 16:15):
וַיִּחַר לְמֹשֶׁה, מְאֹד, וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל יְהוָה אַל-תֵּפֶן אֶל-מִנְחָתָם לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם, נָשָׂאתִי, וְלֹא הֲרֵעֹתִי, אֶת אַחַד מֵהֶם.
Moses was much aggrieved and he said to the Lord,“Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.”
Rashi, bothered by why Moses specifically points out—of all things—that he never stole anyone’s donkey, makes the following suggestion:
לא חמור אחד מהם נשאתי – לא חמורו של אחד מהם נטלתי. אפילו כשהלכתי ממדין למצרים והרכבתי את אשתי ואת בני על החמור, והיה לי ליטול אותו החמור משלהם, לא נטלתי אלא משלי.
I have not taken a donkey from a single one of them – I did not take a donkey from any one of them. Even when I went from Midian to Egypt, and I placed my wife and sons on a donkey to ride, and I should have taken that donkey from their property, I took only from my own property (Tanchuma Korach 7, Num. Rabbah 10).
Although this is a creative answer, it seems quite a stretch for Moses to bring this detail up now.
A totally different understanding of the verse is suggested by the Septuagint, which reads “I have not taken what was desired from one of them.” The Septuagint is reading the word as חמד hamud, “desirable object” instead of חמור chamor, “donkey.” Although this solves the problem at hand, nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that this is the correct or original reading of the text. The reason is because there is a clear parallel in a different part of Tanach where yet another leader makes it a point to state that he never stole anyone’s donkey.
Samuel in defense of his administration (1 Samuel 12:3), states:
הִנְנִי עֲנוּ בִי נֶגֶד יְהוָה וְנֶגֶד מְשִׁיחוֹ אֶת-שׁוֹר מִי לָקַחְתִּי וַחֲמוֹר מִי לָקַחְתִּי וְאֶת-מִי עָשַׁקְתִּי אֶת-מִירַצּוֹתִי וּמִיַּד-מִי לָקַחְתִּי כֹפֶר וְאַעְלִים עֵינַי בּוֹ וְאָשִׁיב לָכֶם.
Here I am! Testify against me, in the presence of the Lord and in the presence of His anointed one: Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to look the other way? I will return it to you.
In this case there is no Septuagintal variant. It would seem from this that stating one’s innocence of theft, including and especially theft of donkeys, is a literary trope of leaders who feel they have been accused.
This same trope appears in Ancient Near Eastern writing as well. In the El- Amarana letters (280 21-24) for instance, Shuwardata a king of an unspecified realm in southern Palestine, perhaps Qiltu or Gath, sends the following letter to Pharaoh:
To the king, my lord, my sun, say: message from Shuwardata, your servant, the ground for your feet. At the feet of the king my lord and my sun, seven and seven times I throw myself. The king my lord has permitted us to make war against Qiltu, and I have made war: it is saved for me, my city has been restored to me. Why ever did Abdi-Heba write to the men of Qiltu: “Take silver and be my followers!”? Let the king my lord know that Abdi-Heba took my city from my hands. Further, the king my lord ask if I have taken from him one man or one cow or one ass, he is right! Further, Lab’aya is dead who took our cities, but here is Abdi-Heba who is a second Lab’aya, and takes our cities. May the king think of his servant regarding this fact. I will do nothing until the king responds with a word to his servant!
Apparently, the Torah and the Navi are making use of a claim of innocence typical of the rhetorical strategy of Ancient Near Eastern monarchs who want to make clear that they have acted as benign rulers and not exploitatively.
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June 16, 2014
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