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March 17, 2012 by William H. Scarle, Jr.

The distance between the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha at Bethany and Jerusalem was about two miles.  The name Bethany derives from the Hebrew meaning “house of figs.”  It is located just over the ridge of the Mount of Olives to the east.  Between Bethany and Jerusalem is the little village of Bethphage which marked the outer limits of the Holy City.

The walk between Bethany and Jerusalem is an easy one.  It is mostly downhill.  The Mount of Olives is quite steep.  It always took me twice as long to walk from the Lions Gate of Jerusalem to Bethany as to walk back.  Also, there were two crowds of pilgrims involved in the Palm Sunday procession.  There were those who had come to the area around the home of Lazarus to camp out for the night because they knew Jesus was staying there.  There were others who came out from Jerusalem to meet Jesus on his way into the city.  So, as Mark describes the scene (11:9), there was a crowd of greeters in front and behind Jesus as he made his way toward the city.

The waving of the palm branches (the lulav) and the singing of the “Hosanna” from Psalm 118:25-26 is usually reserved for the celebration of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall of the year.  “Hosanna” means “O Lord save us.”  It is a cry for Messiah to deliver Israel, and a celebration for the coming of the end of history and the Day of the Lord.   It is clear that the crowds surrounding Jesus had this kind of deliverance in mind as they marched with their hoped for king into the city.

Jesus could not have left Bethany early on Sunday.  He had had a restful Sabbath, and Mark (11:11) tells us that when he arrived at the temple he entered, but did not stay long because it was “already late.”  It would have been an easy walk, and he certainly did not need a donkey.  An understanding of the geography points out that Jesus’ had a specific reason for requesting the donkey.

Jesus is very much aware of the prophecy of Zachariah 9:9ff.  Zachariah announces the coming of Israel’s king riding on a donkey, not a war horse.  He comes proclaiming “peace to the nations.”  The “nations” (Hebrew – goim) are the non-Jewish nations.  This would certainly include Rome.  He tries to give a signal in the midst of the enthusiasm of the crowd that he will not be doing what they want and expect.  The sign is certainly lost even on the Disciples until following the resurrection.

Incidentally, the poetic parallelism in which the Zachariah prophecy is written causes some awkward translation into Greek.  Zachariah says, “Riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Zachariah is not talking about two animals, but is simply using a parallel phrase typical of Hebrew poetic form.  Greek has no such construction, nor does English.  This has caused some misunderstanding for readers not familiar with Hebrew style.

Following a brief visit to the Temple Jesus climbs the hill again for a night of rest with his friends at Bethany.  Monday will be an eventful day.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at