The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

Animals in the Bible and Christian Tradition

Working Paper

June 1, 2011

Dr. Stephen Chapman

Duke Divinity School

Old Testament

1. land animals are created on the sixth day, just like human beings (Gen 1:24-26); water and air animals are blessed by God and charged to “be fruitful and multiply,” just like human beings (Gen 1:22, 28; the absence of a similar notice for land animals suggests that they are somehow included in the blessing/charge given to human beings in Gen 1:28-30 at the conclusion of the sixth day); land and air animals (but not plant life) are created “out of the ground” (Gen 2:19) and are conceived as possessing the same “breath of life” (Gen 1:30 = soul?) as people (Gen 2:7); Gen 1 and Hos 2:18 differentiate between animate beings and trees/mountains/plants.

2. OT traditions do distinguish human beings from animals (Ps 8), granting human beings a special dignity in comparison with other creatures (“image of God,” Gen 1:26-28), but these traditions also set human beings within creation and in relation to other creatures.

3. meat-eating/killing is not a part of God’s original intention in the garden (Gen 1:29-30), but a concession to human sinfulness (Gen 8:21; 9:2-3). Although slaughter is eventually permitted, it is nevertheless severely restricted, both in terms of procedure (killing must minimize suffering and be removed from the center of communal life) and its objects (only certain animals are considered “clean” and therefore available for ritual slaughter). The eschaton is once more envisioned as without killing/predation (Isa 2:4; 11:7; Hos 2:20).

4. whatever the precise meaning of “subdue” and “dominion” (Gen 1:26, 28), “subdue” applies only to the land and probably means something like “occupy” or “work” (in the sense of agriculture, parallel to Gen 2:15); at any rate “dominion” cannot entail killing since human beings are vegetarians in the garden; human beings are not depicted in the Genesis narrative as irresponsible despots: humans are also told to “till and keep” the garden (Gen 2:15); animals were potential partners for Adam (Gen 2:18-20); life in the garden was vegetarian for both human beings and animals (Gen 1:29-30); Noah’s righteousness/blamelessness (Gen 6:9, 22) consisted in preserving animal as well as human life (Gen 8:1, 17-18). 2 Sam 12 portrays a ewe lamb as a pet/companion animal.

5. animals share responsibility for creation: the snake in the garden is also given a punishment (Gen 3:14-15); “all flesh” becomes corrupted over time (Gen 6:12-13); cf. oxen are held responsible for their goring (Exod 21:28-29; an extension of the commandment against killing to animals?).

6. animals are explicitly said to be “covenant” partners with God and Noah’s family (5X for emphasis: Gen 9:10, 12, 15, 16, 17); sabbath rest also applies to livestock (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:14; cf. Exod 23:12).

7. animals sometimes serve as divine agents: lion eats disobedient prophet (1 Kgs 13:24); ravens feed Elijah (1 Kgs 17:6); fish swallows Jonah (Jon 1:17; God also appoints a plant and a worm to correct the wayward prophet); lions don’t hurt Daniel (Dan 6).

8. animals sometimes even perceive the divine better than people do: see, above all, the story of Balaam’s donkey (Num 22:21-35); human beings can learn things, even about God, from animals: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you…” (Job 12:7-10); animals can also repent (Jon 3:5-8).

9. animals as worthy of respect under law: “you shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it” (Deut 22:4 = animals must be helped, even those belonging to one’s enemy; cf. Exod 23:5); “if you come on a bird’s nest…you shall not take the mother with the young” (Deut 22:6-7 = a cruel and unsustainable practice to take the mother bird together with her young); “you shall not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together” (Deut 22:10 = unfair to the weaker animal); don’t muzzle an ox treading out grain (Deut 25:4 = cruel for the ox to see the grain but not be able to eat any). Cf. Deut 20:19-20, fruit trees are not to be used for siege works.

10. animals and people are depicted as sharing a common situation before God: “my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals” (Jer 7:20); “For the fate of humans and animals is the same; as the one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals” (Eccl 3:19-21); “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord” (Ps 36:7)

11. animals are an essential part of the final culmination (eschaton) of God’s plan for creation (= the peaceable kingdom): “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals…and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land: (Hos 2:20); “the wolf shall live with the lamb…and the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isa 11:6-7; cf. 65:25); Joel 2:21-29, “all flesh” will receive Holy Spirit. Cf. Job 5:22-23.

12. animals can be images of spiritual moods or even of God: “Oh that I had wings like a dove!” (Ps 55:6-8); “they shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion” (Hos 11:10); “how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exod 19:4). Animals can also be metaphors for human enemies (= those with whom we need to be reconciled): Ps 10:9; 17:12; 22:12-13, 16, 21; 58:4-6; 118:12; 140:3.

13. human beings bear responsibility toward animals: “the righteous know the needs of their animals” (Prov 12:10).

14. animals have their own dignity before God: “Look at Behemoth [the hippo], which I made just as I made you…It is the first of the great acts of God—only its Maker can approach it with the sword” (Job 40:15-19). Animals praise God on their own: Ps 148:7-10; Ps 150.

15. God cares for animals directly: “every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills; I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine” (Ps 50: 10-12); cf. Ps 104:21; Ps 145:16; Ps 147:9.

New Testament

1. Jesus is introduced as one who lives in harmony with wild animals—the inaugurator of eschatological peace, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Mk 1:13 = Jesus as davidic Messiah); this vision is also expressed in Jesus’ birth in a manger (Lk 2:7, 16) and the announcement of his birth to shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks” (Lk 2:8).

2. Jesus is confessed as Lord, not only over the hearts of believers or the Church, but over all nature; he stills the storm (Mk 4:35-41); every knee bends “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:6-11).

3. animals are viewed as exemplary objects of divine concern and images of God: “consider the ravens…God feeds them” (Lk 12:24); “the Spirit of God descending like a dove” (Matthew 3:16); “five sparrows” (Lk 12:6); “not one sparrow” (Matt 10:29-31); cf. Matt 6:25-33 (birds of the air, lilies of the field).

4. all creation as in need of deliverance: “we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Rom 8:22); God sustains all things (Acts 17:24-25; Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:3).

5. Jesus’ significance not limited to human beings but cosmic: “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10); “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:20)

Christian Tradition

1. the saints as holy friends to animals: Jerome and the lion, The Voyage of Brendan, St Francis (companionship, not domination).

2. animals as perennial figures in Christian art: painting, sculpture, church architecture, hymnody.

3. animals as symbols of the divine “blueprint” (esp. as in the “bestiary”).

4. animals as liturgical participants (blessing of the animals, etc.).