Thirty Sons, Thirty Donkeys, Thirty Towns

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Written by Jerald Johnson – General Superintendent Emeritus, Church of the Nazarene, Meridian, Idaho, USA

Judg. 10:3-5

What would you like your relatives to carve on your tombstone? That you had done something heroic? That you had outlived your enemies? Perhaps carve a cross or a fish on the granite so that visitors would know  you were a Christian?

How would you feel if your survivors carved on your burial monument that you had 30 sons who rode 30 donkeys and controlled 30 towns? That’s a pretty long epitaph. What if they shortened it to read: Go Ride a Horse?

There is an Old Testament story of a man for whom this could have been his life history carved in granite.

His name was Jair (JAY-ear). He led Israel for 22 years. I’ve already told you everything else we know about him. He had 30 sons who rode 30 donkeys and controlled 30 towns. This is the biography of a leader and the 22-year history of a nation. It is not just any nation. These are God’s chosen people. These are the ones He led out of Egypt when the Pharaoh didn’t want them to leave, and into Canaan when no one wanted them to enter.

To Jair’s credit one must accept the significance of donkeys instead of horses. Donkeys were animals of peace; horses, animals of war.

Apparently it was a period of peace, a time of relative prosperity, at least for the 30 sons. Not only did they have their donkeys, but they had their towns. This meant taxes would be collected, the sons well cared for. Everything was under control.

Two questions, however, come to mind.

The first is: Was it really a period of peace, or did they avoid significant issues?

Second: Was the prosperity based on a false economy that would come back to haunt them later?

The setting, its implications, and particularly the two questions need to be applied to our day.

Before we get very far, however, a third question arises out of the other two: Should those sons have been riding horses instead of donkeys?

1. A Reluctance to Interrupt

Did Jair have a tendency to avoid issues of real significance? We know the occupation of the Promised Land had not been fully completed. The record speaks of enemies in the land prior to and following chapter 10. This leads us to conclude that Israel had enemies during the 22-year reign of Jair. Yet the enemies were not challenged during all those years.

Was it then 22 years of infiltration; 22 years of modifying their mission; 22 years of weakening of the will to resist?

Let’s see how the Bible reads following Jair’s death.

“The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines… The Israelites forsook the Lord and no longer served him” (Judg. 10:6).

All of this is recorded in the verse that follows the record of Jair’s death.

It is not likely that all of a sudden, the nation turned away from God and became evil. It is much more reasonable to believe that the evil resulted from trends that had been present during the 22 preceding years.

Do you suppose they thought if they ignored evil in its infancy, it would fade away like a bad dream when dawn arrived? The fact was, a cancer was eating away the vital life of the nation.

Jair could boast of having sired 30 sons, who were capable of straddling the backs of 30 donkeys, while controlling 30 towns. Apparently it did not occur to him that future historians might have been able to write of  30 sons, 30 donkeys, and 60 towns, Or 90 Or 120 – If it were not for his reluctance To interrupt established routines.

Prior to Jair’s reign we read of challenge, bloodshed, loss of life, and great risk-taking. Back up two chapters and read of Gideon. Before that you’ll find the story of Deborah, the prophetess, and Othniel, the younger brother of Caleb. and, of course, Caleb himself. Earlier there was the great man, Joshua. And prior to that his mentor, Moses. Where was leadership that would inspire a nation to greatness during this period? One could assume the people needed a rest. But dare they rest? Furthermore, this generation had not done anything from which they needed a rest.

Thirty sons were riding 30 donkeys, controlling 30 towns; doing about all they could handle or, more likely, all they wanted to handle. Thirty sons meant leadership would not be shared. Thirty donkeys meant basic needs for 30 sons had been met. And 30 towns suggests that 30 sons had 30 places to stable their donkeys.

Twenty-two years came and went. They were 22 years of nepotism and favoritism, 22 years of comfort and ease. They were also 22 years of no courage and no vision. The final irony is this: history insists on giving 30 donkeys equal billing with 30 sons.

So what? Is that the question you are tempted to ask? What do 30 sons who rode 30 donkeys and controlled 30 towns have to do with me? Let’s see if we can find out.

This scriptural reference speaks to the value we place on the role of leadership in the work of the church. Few would deny the need to underscore the significance of strong leadership. Every level of church life calls for our best. Yet, we must not give first-rate loyalty to third-rate causes. Are our leaders, both clergy and lay, facing up to issues of crucial importance? Or, is there reluctance to interrupt the routine?

The church is constantly facing Enemies of the faith. The organization may appear to be intact With the machinery well oiled, Programs in place, And many goals being reached. In short – 30 towns Are well-controlled. Yet, theological and ethical forces Could be subtly and quietly Eroding the foundations On which the church is built. History overflows with illustrations That the best and the strongest Are not immune to such attacks.

How tempting it is To avoid confrontation. For the sake of peace and harmony We may defer action. Or worse still, Convince ourselves That leadership is not needed, Or perhaps not wanted.

When we do that, we are like Jair. We set a time bomb That will destroy the faith, And the faithful, In future generations.

We have been fortunate. Our church has been served By an excellent group Of pastors and evangelists. They are the finest in the land. They have presented the only effective antidote To sin, worldliness, And compromise— Clear-cut, precise Preaching on holiness As a second work of grace. If our leaders do not preach it, Then one must conclude They do not demand it either. When we hear of those who shockingly violate church standards,  We must look to the pulpit. There will always be errant sheep, But for the most part Flocks follow their shepherds. This does not mean Our shepherds have strayed From the paths of holy living. But it may imply A temptation to evade reality, To settle for a fragile peace And a false harmony Resulting from A failure to preach The truth of holiness clearly.

Those of us who minister Must be aware Lest we fall into The Jair and 30 sons trap. We may avoid controversy. Everything may seemingly be under Control. But our decisions, Or lack of action, May leave future generations With unanswerable problems. 

If preaching has been the sign Of strong church leadership in days gone by, Is it not fair to conclude That preaching should be the hallmark Of today’s leadership? The standard of holiness— the standard God used to inspire His church into existence, Which has given the church clarity, Meaning, distinction, and mission— Must be proclaimed Clearly, distinctly, And biblically. All it would take Is 22 years of riding donkeys (or Oldsmobiles, or Buick, or airplanes), 22 years of concentrating on control, Raising money And amassing good statistics In place of Basic spiritual matters, And our epitaph would read Very much like Jair’s. Donkeys of peace And administrative control May have to be exchanged for Horses of battle.

2. Results of a Refusal to Interrupt

Our second concern might be termed A pseudoeconomy. Astute people have observed that Where nations have strayed From basic spiritual values, They have been affected economically As well as politically. If this is true of a nation, Could it not also be true of the church? It usually begins with a false assumption That increased budget assessments Will solve all problems. This preoccupation with financial control Tends to dissipate the energy Needed to proclaim Spiritual truth. Success is measured More by dollars and cents Than by evangelistic outreach And spiritual growth.

It is tempting to conclude That financial giving Reflects basic spiritual commitment. All of us agree that growth in a church, As well as growth In a church member’s spiritual life, Does indeed run parallel To the depth of one’s stewardship, Or concept of stewardship. There is scriptural support For this observation.

Yet there are inherent dangers.

The tendency has been To relate the church’s growth potential To its income potential. Necessary outreach is neglected Because money is not available.

A review of pioneer evangelism Forces us to admit That the church’s Greatest periods of expansion Were periods of limited financial Resources.

When the routine is uninterrupted, The present 30-son, 30-donkey, 30-town program May be maintained, But the world’s great spiritual needs  Are ignored. In fact, The 30 sons of Jair And their control of 30 towns May well have reflected a false economy.

With no outreach, No stretching of faith and vision With the accompanying necessary Sacrifices, There may be soon a shriveling Of 30 donkeys And 30 towns To 29 donkeys And 29 towns. One need only Study the graphs Of churches and districts, Denominations for that matter, To discover the inevitable result. When the maintenance of present operations Becomes the goal Instead of outreach to win others, It will not be long before The sense of mission is lost, And the church Will move backward instead of Forward.

3. The Routine Interrupted

An alternate title For this message was “Ride a Horse.” When we remember that horses Were animals of war, One wonders if those 30 sons Should not have saddled up their horses Rather than their donkeys. Jair and his sons Chose to avoid conflict In the interest of self-preservation. In the process They sacrificed a nation, Leaving for themselves Such an uneventful, unfruitful Period in history That the record of 22 years Could be summed up In just three short Bible verses.

Sometimes the demands of leadership Place emotional, physical, And spiritual stress On those in charge. How easy it would be To close our eyes To influences that distract us From our original mission as a church. There is the subtle encroachment Of spiritual elitism, Which can lead a congregation Into emotionalism Without the scriptural foundations Of a solid hymnology.

Strangely enough, Such elitism often leans toward The use of an excessive number Of theologically shallow Sing-along choruses.

There is the choice To deprive our people Of a biblically sound Study curriculum In Sunday School Classes. The result is clear: Material that is biblically incorrect Inflicts more damage To the Body of Christ.

Second Kings records the effort of King Jehu To put Israel on the right track. God applauded him for his success. He didn’t go far enough, however, And for that reason God intervened. One sentence explains God’s solution:

“In those days The Lord began to reduce the size of Israel” (2 Kings 10:32)

The same could happen to us If we wait for crises to happen Before we look to, and for, The right kind of leaders. How much better to face issues now, Give direction to the church, And not be content with The false satisfaction Of wanting to serve out our terms With no unusual demands placed upon us.

Indeed, The 30-sons, 30-donkeys, 30-towns syndrome Is attractive, But it dare not be our style.

Perhaps one could make the observation That things are really going quite well for us At the present time. We have our problems; But we also seem to control our problems. Donkeys are available; But so are the horses!

We dare not think only of ourselves, Our position, our comfort. We must be alerted To dangerous trends. We need a ministry That is qualified and effective. And we need preaching to be strong, Forceful, biblical, And challenging. Not only ministerial leaders, But lay leaders as well, Need to trade their donkeys for horses And make a united contribution To our church. We cannot afford To lose sight of our mission.

We must not wait until the church Is in crisis And then wake up to the challenge. With Jair it was too late. When the nation was in crisis, He was already dead and buried. He sired his sons, Rode his donkeys, Controlled his towns, And accepted ease Rather than respond To a call to action.

For the sake of future generations We must leave a church As spiritually healthy As the church our fathers left us.

In some respects The church is in process of change. Some changes are necessary. But there are some things That must not change. Times like these call for  Strong, decisive spiritual leadership.

Jair was a manager And apparently a good one. This brings to mind an ad Placed in the Wall Street Journal By United Technologies Corporation Of Hartford, Conn.

It read as follows: “People don’t want to be managed. They want to be led. Whoever heard of a world manager? World leader, yes. Educational leader. Political Leader. Religious leader. Scout Leader. Community Leader. Labor Leader. Business Leader. They lead. They don’t manage. The carrot always wins over the stick. Ask your horse. You can lead your horse to water, But you can’t manage him to drink. If you want to manage somebody, Manage yourself. Do that well And you’ll be ready To stop managing. And start leading.”


The Routine of 30 sons, 30 donkeys, And 30 towns Demands interruption. We have steeds to mount, Victories to win, A place in history to fill.

The Old Testament records the story Of yet another king Who refused to interrupt his routine On behalf of the future of his kingdom.

Hezekiah compromised his position to the enemy, Prompting Isaiah the prophet to say, “The time will surely come When everything in your palace. And all that your fathers Have stored up until this day, Will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, Says the Lord. And some of your descendants, Your own flesh and blood, That will be born to you, Will be taken away, And they will become eunuchs In the palace of the king of Babylon” (2 Kings 20:17-18)

It is the response of Hezekiah That is so alarming: “‘ The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,’ Hezekiah replied. For he thought, ‘Will there not be any peace and security In my lifetime?’ “(v. 19).

What irresponsibility! Let us not be so complacent Let us recognize that The future is as important as the present. And if it requires special diligence To determine our history, Let us commit ourselves To the task.

Thirty sons, 30 donkeys, 30 towns. We died and were buried. This must not be the brief record Of our years of service. To the contrary, Let us prepare To assure this generation As well as future ones Of our willingness To fulfill our role now In the service of the church.

What would you like your relatives To carve on your tombstone?



Reprinted with permission from Nazarene Publishing House from “Thirty Sons, Thirty Donkeys, Thirty Towns: Is This Any Way to Run a Church?” by Jerald D. Johnson, 1982.

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