Eagle vs. Donkey: How Will the Messiah Arrive?

“But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

Through the ages, a subject of much discussion and controversy has been over the two traditions of Jewish thought describing the style in which the Messiah will arrive.

The first concept appears in Zechariah 9:9, which describes the appearance of the Messiah on a donkey: “Your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The second concept, taken from Exodus 19:4, understands the miraculous arrival of the Messiah on “eagle’s wings.” In addition, the concept of Messiah as “a son of man came with the clouds of heaven…” (Daniel 7:13) is ephemeral and transcendent.

These two concepts seem to be at odds. However, Torah sages say that both are possible.

The central rabbinical text known as the Talmud teaches that the manner in which the Messiah will appear is dependent on our actions (Sanhedrin 98:A). If we are deserving, if our actions are deemed meritorious by God, the messiah will come dressed in splendor and glory. If our actions are less worthy, he will arrive accompanied by the smell of sweat and labor.

The Hebrew word for donkey, chamor (חמור), is also the term for material, chomer (חומר). The concept of the messiah riding a chamor is understood as a process oriented, material version of the messiah, more in line with what Jewish tradition refers to as Moshiach ben Yosef, the Messiah from the House of Joseph.

This involves physically restoring the land, rebuilding the Third Temple and restoring the rule of God and the Bible. The process of a final redemption brought about in this matter implies hard work and pushing forward slowly until we arrive to a new messianic reality with very few surprises.

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The arrival of the messiah on the wings of eagles represents a process initiated from above, a divinely inspired and almost instantaneous transformation of existence as we suddenly descend into the new messianic reality.

The Exodus from Egypt was a case of redemption on the wings of eagles. It was a non-stop display of God’s will, where even the sea was not allowed to remain unchanged by the process and had to bend itself to God’s will. It was an unnatural, supernatural process. The Exodus illustrates in so many ways that redemption can preclude nature. Even sustenance was provided from above. In  a strange twist, coming into the Promised Land was a return to natural processes, a lower level of spirituality, that involved wars being fought, as opposed to relying on miraculous victories brought about by God. The land was farmed and the Temple was built, one stone at a time.

A discussion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) discusses the verse in Zechariah 9:9. “The Persian King Shevor, asked Shmuel, ‘Why doesn’t your Messiah come riding on a horse? If he lacks one, I’ll be glad to provide him with one of my fast horses!’ In response to the ridicule of the king, Shmuel answers: ‘Do you have a horse that has a hundred shades of color’?” This could be hinting that the mundane process leading up to Messiah could be just as wonderful and awe-inspiring as an instantly delivered, divine process, depending on how you look at it.

Yeminite Jews en route to Israel from Yemen in Operation Wings of Eagles, also known as Operation Magic Carpet. (Photo: Wiki Commons)
Yeminite Jews en route to Israel from Yemen in Operation Wings of Eagles, also known as Operation Magic Carpet. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

The messianic concept of arriving on eagle’s wings has also served as inspiration to modern day Israel. In June 1949, the newly established country launched an operation to bring Yemen’s threatened community of Jews to Israel. British and American transport planes made over 380 flights from Aden in a secret operation that saved 49,000 Jews.

At first, there was some concern that the Yemenites, coming from an undeveloped country, would be reluctant to board the airplanes. To the pilots’ chagrin, they enthusiastically boarded the airplanes and sat calmly during the flight after their rabbis explained that the airplanes were like eagles.

The planes had come to fulfill the prophecy of taking them to the Promised Land on the “Wings of Eagles”, which was the official name of the operation.

Today, we are living in a time where Jews are returning to Israel in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. The ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth are one step in the larger Messianic process.