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God and Animals

The Bible and the Treatment of Animals

By John W. Loftus
 
The following is to be considered a bonus chapter referred by me in two of my chapters. Due to word limit considerations it could not be included in the book itself.
 
Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong articulates the part of the Darwinian problem of evil that I'll attempt to deal with here, in these words: “Human beings were not created in the image of some external deity; we developed out of the evolutionary soup as part of the fabric of life itself. DNA evidence today demonstrates that we are kin not only to apes, but to cabbages. We are part of an emerging life force sharing a common environment with every other living thing. No creature can dominate the world, as those called Homo sapiens have sought to do, because all life is radically interdependent.” [Sins of the Scripture, p. 65]. We now realize that all animals are considered interconnected with each other in an ecosystem favorable for the rise of human beings where we are all dependent on each other. Given Darwinian evolutionary biology we now see an obligation to keep species from becoming extinct, as far as is possible. We must now care about all animals on the planet to help maintain this favorable ecosystem. And this new awareness is at odds with what we find in the Bible itself.
 
In this chapter I'll take a good look at what the Bible says about the treatment of animals. Like most any topic we find in the Bible from abortion to war, there will be inconsistencies and contradictory emphases within its pages, since the books compiled into the canonical Bible were written by different people at different periods of time, and even edited along the way with inserted comments by pseudonymous authors up until the canon for each testament was declared closed. So we can expect to find inconsistencies within the Bible when it comes to the proper treatment of animals as well. And this is what we find. Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan are probably today’s most important Christian voices in support of a new respectful animal theology, having written a number of books on the topic. They admit that “what is clear, and what can be asserted confidently…is that…there are alternative, initially plausible and yet mutually inconsistent ways of interpreting the holy scriptures, some of which supports humanistic interpretations of the values nature holds, others not.” [Animals and Christianity: A Book of Readings (New York: Crossroad Pub., Co., 1988), p. xii-xiii). Indeed, that is par for the course.

In what follows I’ll admit there are passages that speak warmly of animals and of our human obligation to treat them well. These pericopes exist. There are not many of them. But we need to keep them in perspective by placing them within the larger context of the whole of holy writ. We need to understand the over-all thrust of what the canonical writings say about human beings, their relationship to their God, and toward animals. We need to place those texts into that whole context. There are always minority voices in any political party or religious grouping. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find minority voices concerning the treatment of animals in the Biblical texts and in the church down through the centuries, and we do. But that’s what they are. Keep this in mind. They are minority voices.

Christians today are resurrecting these minority voices by placing an emphasis on them as if they were “plain as day” to the people of old. They’re not. Christians have done the same thing with regard to texts that are anti-Semitic, chavinist, pro-slavery, pro-war, pro-death penalty, and anti-homosexuality. Bishop John Shelby Spong has documented some of these kinds of Biblical texts and how they were used by the Christian believers down through the centuries in his book, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). As history has moved on so also has our sense of morality. With this newer heightened sense of morality Christians have been forced time after time after time to look for these minority voices in the texts of the Bible and in the theologians of the past. But doing this won’t exonerate the Bible from the majority voices that are to be blamed for the horrendous treatment of animals down through the ages.
We need to ask ourselves what the people in the biblical era would have thought about the treatment of animals in their day, not ours.

So my challenges as we look at these texts are twofold. My first challenge is to ask what best explains the fact that Christians must continually seek out these minority voices in the past to defend what they believe? My claim is that the Bible was predominately written and compiled by anthropocentric barbaric men of the past who saw their relationship to the universe and their world in a self-centered patriarchal manner. They saw themselves as patriarchs ruling over nature, over other nations, over their families, over their slaves and over their animals. Just as women and slaves and children were regarded pretty much as chattel (property), so also were their animals. By contrast, the Christian claim is that God revealed to men the essential truth about himself, the world, other nations, their families, their slaves and their animals. This claim of theirs will be tested in this present chapter. If God revealed the essential truth about everything then how can the Christian explain the passages in the Bible which clearly don’t support such a claim? I will maintain the Christian claim is indefensible in light of the new paradigm of Darwinian biology and the new awareness of the need for the rights of animals.

Since I don’t think my first challenge can be adequately met, my second challenge follows on its heels. Why didn’t God reveal the truth about the intrinsic worth of everything from the environment, to other races of people, to women and to animals from the very start? With regard to the sufferings of animals, why didn’t God tell believers in his book that animals felt pain and that they deserve to be treated with respect with dignity? Why didn’t God dictate several laws to the Israelites against animal cruelty? If God exists and has any foresight at all, and if it’s true that God knows human beings are “wicked,” then why didn’t he do this? If he had done so there would be no biblical justification for any kind of animal cruelty. Lacking this justification his faithful followers wouldn’t do it, or at least, they wouldn’t openly do so with a clear conscience. And such practices wouldn’t have gained any official church blessing. My explanation for this lack of divine guidance is because there is no divine being to be found in the Judeo-Christian religion. It is a man made religion, period.

So let’s look at the Biblical texts according to how they have been understood prior to the rise of Darwinian evolutionary biology, the rise of Biblical Criticism and our heightened sense of civilized morality found in democratic loving societies. The reason for doing so is because it would become uncharacteristic of a perfectly good God to wait until the 19th century for these texts to be understood properly. For he would have known believers could not understand what he really wanted them to think and to do prior to that time. And so he would be found misleading believers that it was okay to be cruel to animals up until such time that they understood the minority voices found in his so-called word. For Christians to object that it might not have been necessary for God to reveal the truth in this manner is the subject of chapter seven in this book, "What We've Got Here is a Failure to Communicate."

Creation and the Dominion Mandate.

In Genesis chapter one there are six successive creative days represented. The first three days prepare the earth for the populations that will inhabit it in the last three days. Mankind is created last. After creating the world God declares it all “good.” Good for what purpose? Good for whom? Of humans alone is it said are made in God’s “image” and to humans alone was given what has been called the “Dominion Mandate” over the earth to rule and subdue it. We are to multiply and fill the earth, like some of the other created things, but we are also told to “subdue it" and have "dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

It is quite clear from reading this text that mankind was the apex, the crown jewel, or the pinnacle of creation. Evangelical Ronald B. Allen sums this up in these words: "The biblical view starts with the assertion that the eternal God has created man, the most significant of all his created works." “Man is not only God’s creation, but the pinnacle of his creative effort…man is distinct, the high point of God’s creative work, the apex of his handicraft. The progression of the created things in Genesis 1 is climatic; all of God’s created work culminated in his fashioning of man.” ["Man, Doctrine of" Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. H. D. McDonald, another evangelical, concurs when he wrote: “The impression that the Genesis account gives is that man was the special focus of God's creative purpose…All the previous acts of God are presented more in the nature of a continuous series…Then God said, ‘Let us make man.’ Then--when? When the cosmic order was finished, when the earth was ready to sustain man. Thus while man stands before God in a relationship of created dependence, he has also the status of a unique and special personhood in relation to God." ["Man, Doctrine of." Evangelical Dictionary of Theology]. Other scholars concur: "The Genesis account of creation accords to man a supreme place in the cosmos." ["Man," New Bible Dictionary]; "...the creation of humanity is surely accented as the climactic achievement of God’s creative activity." [The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1:1166)].

It is argued that other passages say otherwise. Some have argued that along with Psalms 8; Psalms 144:3, and the ending of Job that man is insignificant. But insignificant compared to what? Human beings are insignificant compared to God alone, but this says nothing against the idea that human beings are the apex of God's creation. It’s entirely consistent for mankind to be the reason for creation and at the same time for God to be so above us that the Psalmist can wonder why God even bothers with us at all.

The world was created for human beings. It was a “good” world, for us. And God tells us what we are to do with the rest of creation.  We are to subdue it and have dominion over it, something reiterated in Genesis 9:1-3 and Psalm 8. When we look at the Hebrew words for “subdue” and “dominion” we see just what God wanted from us. The Hebrew word for subdue is כָּבַשׁ and it’s a very harsh word which literally means “to trample on.” According to an authoritative Lexicon it means to “tread down, beat or make a path, subdue; 1. bring into bondage, 2. (late) subdue, force. [Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon]. We see this word used in Zechariah 9:15 of Israel trampling on the weapons of her enemies. In Jeremiah 34:11 it’s used of slave owners taking back released slaves and subduing them again. The word “subjugate” would be an appropriate word for what this word means, and doing this demanded force. The same word is used by king Ahasuerus who was angered at what he considered Haman’s attempted sexual assault (”subduing”) of Queen Esther, in Esther 7:8. It’s also the derivative word for the word “footstool.” What God said was for us to make the rest of creation a footstool for our own purposes.

The word “dominion” doesn’t fare any better. It has a similar meaning to the word "subdue" except that it also includes the idea of chastisement. This is no benign way to rule over nature. It meant to “master” over someone, especially when he or she refused to be subdued. It’s used of King Solomon’s overseers who forced his laborers to build the Temple in I Kings 9:23. It’s used in Isaiah 14:2 describing the time when the Israelites defeated her oppressors and subdued them. Either one of these words was enough to convey the harshness of this man-given lordship over the earth, but because both words are used together, they are meant to confer upon mankind a dictatorial and domineering rule over nature.

Roderick Nash, a history and environmental studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, sums it up in these words: “The image is that of a conqueror placing his foot on the neck of a defeated enemy, exerting absolute domination. Both Hebrew words are also used to identify the process of enslavement. It follows that the Christian tradition could understand Genesis 1:28 as a divine commandment to conquer every part of nature and make it humankind’s slave.” [The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 90]. John Shelby Spong agrees by claiming the Genesis 1:26-28 text “set the stage for seeing the earth as the enemy of human beings.” [Sins of the Scripture, p. 49]. As such, the Christian attitude that was derived from it is “anti-earth.” [Ibid., p. 55].

In 1967 professor Lynn White Jr. laid the blame for our present ecological crisis upon Christian understandings of the Biblical desacralization of nature in an essay titled, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” [Science 155: 1203-1207]. Of the Genesis creation account White argued that Christians believe “God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes.” And he charged that: “Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” He wrote: “Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man's relation to nature…Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation, viewed as the “Bible” of the animal liberation movement, soon followed on the heels of this essay which supported his claims.

Several Christian scholars have objected to this interpretation of the Genesis creation text. Even though Biblical Scholar John C. L. Gibson admits that "dominion" and "subdue" were “autocratic, imperialist verbs.” [Genesis, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), p. 80], he goes on to argue that “what professor White is describing, though a very real Christianity, is a debased and adulterated Christianity.” Gibson claims that “these verses in Genesis could not possibly have been taken by their first hearers to suggest that ‘man’ could do what he liked with God’s creation.” Accordingly, “‘Man’ is God’s representative on earth, his ambassador, and possesses no intrinsic rights or privileges beyond those conferred on him by his divine master, to whom moreover he has to render account.” [Genesis, p. 79-81]. Gordon Wenham, the Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the College of St. Paul and St. Mary in Cheltenham, England, concurs. He claims that although man rules over the world, he “rules the world on God’s behalf,” and as such, in this text “mankind is here commissioned to rule nature as a benevolent king, acting as God’s representative over them and therefore treating them in the same way as God who created them. This is of course no license for the unbridled exploitation of nature.” [Genesis 1-15, p. 33]. Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, documented several responses to Lynn White’s thesis. His claim is that these responses “can fairly be said to have refuted it over and again.” He even wrote his own chapter length response to it. [See chapter 7, “Human Authority in Creation" in God and the Crisis of Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 131].

I find it puzzling that these Christian scholars dispute what seems quite evident from the text itself, even if it can reasonably be said other factors were involved. While we must grant that the dominion mandate cannot mean humans can do anything we want to nature, including animals, the words used are extremely harsh ones when compared to our sensibilities toward animals today. How can someone “trample upon” a slave or a sheep beneficently? Saying this is an oxymoron.

These Christian scholars claim that our God given dominion mandate over the world should be compared and contrasted with how God rules over the world. We are not God. Instead we are God’s viceroys. So we don’t have the same rights that God has to create “evil” or “calamity” (Isaiah 45:7), nor do we have the same rights to kill at will because we didn’t create life in the first place (Job 1:21). We are caretakers who have been given a stewardship, they claim. But even if our role is to be described as they argue, Marti Kheel, a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, argues: “Whether as dominators or as caretakers, humans still occupy the hierarchical position of managers of the rest of the natural world. I find the idea of a God who, through divine act of nepotism, selects a ‘chosen species’ to manage the rest of the natural world deeply disturbing, and at odds with my feelings of kinship with the rest of nature.” [Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), p. 21].

It’s said by Christians that our rule must be based upon a loving, kind God. Implicit for them is the benign, loving, beneficent God of Anselm’s 11th century perfect being theology after centuries of theological gerrymandering. Having come to believe that God is perfect in love these Christian scholars would want us to think of the biblical God’s lordship in the same manner, as characterized by a loving beneficent king. Hence, man’s rule must have the same moral care in his lordship over nature as God himself. But this is emphatically not what we find in the Bible about God’s rule. Yes, there are voices describing God as love and/or caring for his creatures. But there are also many voices showing that God’s rule over us is very harsh, which is reflective an ancient brutal world. It was a very difficult world the ancients lived in where they must struggle to survive against early death and painful diseases from which they had no cures. Wars took place almost every year in the springtime (I Chronicles 20:1). Kings were often brutal. Famines and droughts could devastate them. It was a hostile world they lived in. They must subdue it and make it obey.

The people in Biblical times conceived of God based upon this brutal world and the brutal rulers they have known. This God can be cruel. He can be kind. He is cruel with those who do not submit to his rule and obey his every command. He can be kind with those who do. This God can slam the world with a flood for disobedience, require Abraham to sacrifice his only son, pulverize the Egyptian nation with devastating plagues, send snakes to kill 3000 people for their disobedience, and be pleased when babies are dashed against the rocks (Psalms 137:9). He can send a drought or famine or plague of locusts or even another nation to kill every man women, child and animal for being disobedient. This God also threatens us with eternal punishment if we don’t think the evidence to believe in him is convincing. This God is described as a God of War, a Jealous God, and an Avenging God. This would be the divine model we find as the model for man’s lordship over the earth. Be kind to subjects who are in obedience. But be very harsh toward those subjects who are disobedient. Trample on them. Break them down. It was a patriarchal world. Mankind was to dominate over the world just as God ruled. And so it couldn’t have been a pretty world to live in as women, slaves, children or animals. If a fig tree produced fruit, for instance, bless it, but if it didn’t, then curse it as Jesus did (Matthew 21:18-19).

If I’m wrong about this Genesis text and if Richard Bauckham is correct to say that despite what seems evident in the Bible the responses to my position “can fairly be said to have refuted it over and again,” which I deny, then Christian scholars still have a major problem. For then the problem is no longer an exegetical one but a historical one. The problem becomes not what the Bible says as interpreted by these modern Christian scholars, who base their exegesis on Anselm’s view of God in light of the new Darwinian evolutionary paradigm, but why God allowed this biblical text to be used by Jews and Christians to abuse the environment and abuse animals in the first place. This relates to my second challenge mentioned earlier. Why didn’t God reveal the truth about the intrinsic worth of everything from the environment to other races of people, to women and to animals from the very start? It’s far from clear in this text that he did. He could’ve been much clearer, easily, even if these modern Christian scholars are correct in their exegesis based on hindsight. So the fact that God wasn’t clear is an indictment of a perfectly good God who should’ve known how human beings would interpret these verses. As the CEO of any company knows, if there is any miscommunication about the goals of that company, the fault is the CEO's. If the company does wrong because it misunderstood the CEO’s directives, then it’s his or her fault.

Biblically speaking we do not clearly see God’s special providential care for animals in the Creation story with its dominion mandate. It’s just not to be found in these early chapters in the Bible--the ones that speak of the beginnings of God’s creative work in the world, which are the ones that set the stage for interpreting the rest of the biblical texts regarding the treatment of animals and of nature.

Old Testament Passages Both Good and Bad.

There are some passages in the Old Testament that could be seen as showing care for animals: The Sabbath day was a rest for both man and beast (Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14). The Israelites were told that if they saw their “brother’s ass or his ox fallen down by the way,” they were not to withhold their help, but rather to “help him to lift them up again.” (Deuteronomy 22:4). We also read: “If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting upon the young or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall let the mother go, but the young you may take to yourself; that it may go well with you, and that you may live long.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). The ox was not to plough with the ass (Deuteronomy 22:10), nor were the Israelites to muzzle the ox when it treads out the grain (Deuteronomy 25:4). In Psalm 36:6 we’re told God saves a beast as well as a man. In Psalm 147:9 we’re told that God gives the beasts their food, and in Psalm 148:7-10 they praise him. In Jonah 4:11 God is concerned for both the Ninevites and their beasts.

Probably the strongest text on behalf of animals in the Old Testament is to be found in Proverbs 12:10 where we read: “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” Nonetheless, if someone wants to hang the care for animals on this lone passage in the Bible then we should be sure to understand something about the genre of Proverbs and wisdom literature as a whole. According to Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, the book of Proverbs contains “prudential wisdom—that is, rules and regulations people can use to help themselves live responsible, successful lives.” If a person wants to be successful then he or she should follow its advice, they claim. [See their book, How to Read the Bible For All its Worth (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1982), pp. 195-203.] Read with this over-all context in mind, Proverbs 12:10 may merely be saying that if a man wants to be successful he will have regard for the life of his beast, for a righteous man was a successful man and a successful man was a righteous man, usually. This is why we find in the story of Job, as another book in the wisdom literature, a man who is having a great deal difficulty defending his righteousness before his critics when disaster has struck him not just once but twice.

Expressed in all of these verses is some minimal concern for animals. But, one can question the reason why Israelites cared for their animals given the harshness we find in the dominion mandate and the earliest parts of Genesis. Surely it wasn’t just that they cared for the intrinsic worth and value of animals qua animals. It was because they needed them. Animals were part of their domain, their property, and if found in the wild they were hunted and eaten. Caring for them, just like caring for their wives and children and slaves, was important to Israelite men. For by doing so it was better off for them, their patriarchal headship, and their lordship over their households. Animals would have had merely instrumental value, not intrinsic value. If a man became emotionally attached to an animal to give it special care, which no doubt was done, that was well and good. But it would do little to stop him from butchering it for a future meal much like how farmers do today, or in sacrificing it to God. The Israelites were given permission to eat the ox, the sheep, the goat, the hart, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, sheep, birds and fish, what are known as “clean” animals. (Deuteronomy 14:4-20).

When it comes to animal sacrifices this was done quite a bit by everyone in the Old Testament, especially at festivals and dedication ceremonies, all sanctioned and commanded by God. According to the Bible there were priests who came from the tribe of Levite who were to offer up sacrifices to God for everything from thanksgiving, to expiation for sins of an individual person and for the sins for the whole nation on the Day of Atonement. When Solomon’s slave laborers finished the Temple we read where “the king and all the people offered sacrifice before the Lord. King Solomon offered as a sacrifice twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep.” This was surely an exaggeration if it happened at all (see Jeremiah 7:22-23), but it’s stated nonetheless (II Chronicles 7:5) and shows complete and utter disregard for the animals that were sacrificed no matter their number.

From our perspective this was a completely unnecessary waste of animal life, and a brutal way to kill them. Even if we admit that animal sacrifices were to prefigure the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to atone for our sins, and even if we set aside the insurmountable intellectual problems in understanding how Jesus’ death does anything to atone for our sins, Old Testament sacrifices, according to Christian theology itself, did nothing to atone for anyone’s sins…nothing. In the canonical book of Hebrews we read that it was “impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins,” because animal sacrifices could “never take away sins.” They couldn’t have, because if so, Jesus would never have had to die on the cross as a sacrifice “for our sins” it’s argued (see Hebrews 10:1-18). These innumerable animals were brutally butchered for no reason at all, none, unless one thinks that using animals in this manner is something a perfectly good God would command. Their throats were slit and the blood was drained on the altar where they were subsequently skinned and quartered into pieces and then burnt with the smoke of their flesh rising up to God, who was considered to reside up in the sky (i.e., “heaven”), as a sweet smelling aroma (Exodus 29:18, 25; Leviticus 3:16; 23:18, etc). Depending on the kind of sacrifice offered, some of the meat went to the priests and/or the person making the sacrificial offering. [For more on the biblical depictions of this sacrificial system see Roland de Vaux’s classic work, Ancient Israel: Religious Institutions Vol 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965), pp. 415-456].

What we do know is that when God’s judgment comes down on people, their animals suffer along with them for their sins. This can be seen not only in the Flood story of Noah, but foremost in the story of God sending the ten plagues upon the Egyptians to free the Israelite slaves at the hands of Moses, the supreme prophet of the Old Testament. Water is turned into “blood” and all the fish in the rivers and streams subsequently die. Frogs were made to cover the land and then all but those remaining in the river Nile were destroyed by God. Gnats laid waste to the land, we read. The Egyptian livestock were all killed with a severe pestilence in the fourth plague; all of their horses, their donkeys, their camels, and their flocks of goats and sheep (but then where did they get horses to pull their chariots to chase the Israelites into the Red Sea?). We also see God sending a fifth plague of painful boils (the same kind we read Job was afflicted with), and then a sixth plague of a storm of fire and hail on both the Egyptians and their beasts. (Note: How many times can the Egyptian livestock be punished after they were already killed in the fourth plague!). Then God ends with a scorched earth policy where an eighth plague of locusts devour any and every green plant or tree which might have been left after the storm of hail. The ninth plague of darkness puts a finishing touch on what God had done to the land indicating there was nothing left for the Egyptians. Here we see a wanton divine disregard for animal and plant life. All of this devastation was done, not because any of the Egyptian’s animals did anything wrong. It was because of the sins of the Egyptians, particularly those of the Pharaoh who refused to free the Israelites. (See Exodus 7-9).
 

The “Prophetic Tradition.”

When arguing against the so-called New Atheists, John F. Haught, the former Chair and professor in the department of theology at Georgetown University, in Washington D.C., faulted them for not understanding that the biblical prophetic tradition expresses the moral core of Judaism and Christianity. [One can see this expressed in my former professor Daniel Maguire’s book, The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity: Reclaiming the Revolution (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993]. Describing the moral core of the prophetic tradition with its emphasis on justice as “God’s preferential option for the poor and disadvantaged,” Haught wrote: “To maintain that we can understand modern and contemporary social justice, civil rights, and liberation movements without any reference to Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jesus, and other biblical prophets makes Dawkins’s treatment of morality and faith almost unworthy of comment.” [God and the New Atheists: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 68]. But conspicuously lacking in the Old Testament prophets are any prophetic denunciations of animal cruelty. And as we shall see shortly, the words and actions of Jesus the prophet “like unto Moses,” fare no better. If the prophets represented God’s concern for the disadvantaged and lowly then apparently God was not concerned for animals. If these prophets truly represented the moral core of Judaism and Christianity then it doesn’t include any concern for animals.

There is a prophetic vision for the future in the book of Isaiah (11:6-9; 65:17-25), which seems to express a future return to the Garden of Eden, or a future heavenly reward that animals will experience. Isaiah 11:6-9 says: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 65:25 says: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”

 

But, Paul Copan in his book, “That’s Just Your Interpretation” [(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), p. 229, footnote # 34], rightly points out that Christians “must be cautious about literalizing a poetic and highly symbolic text.” Right that. In Isaiah 65:20 it also says that, “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the child shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.” If taken literally, Isaiah’s vision for the future still involves death, hardly a description of the supposed original paradise in the Garden of Eden and certainly not that envisioned by the final state of man in heaven. Concerning this verse in its context, Copan argues: “Surely the text does not urge literalism here! It uses understatement to stress the longevity of life during the Messiah’s reign.” Distinguished New Testament scholar and professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, C.F.D. Moule agrees when he wrote: “No one with a grain of sense believes that the passage…is intended literally, as though the digestive system of a carnivore were going to be transformed into that of a herbivore. What blasphemous injury would be done to great poetry and true mythology by laying such solemnly prosaic hands upon it!” [Man and Nature in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), p. 11.]

Copan quotes from John Oswalt’s commentary on Isaiah 11:7 where we find the point of the passage is that “the fears associated with insecurity, danger, and evil will be removed.” [Isaiah 1-39, New International Commentary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 283.]. These passages do not express literal truth even from a biblical perspective. And they are not to be considered prophetic unless it can be shown they were something more than a mere wish for the future. Something yearned for is not a prediction. Anyone can hope for a peaceful paradisiacal future. Even given this hope for the future, the child will not literally play over the hole of a poisonous asp, and neither will the lion nor the ox eat straw. Copan rightly tells us that “the emphasis in these allegedly vegetarian texts is not the nature of the lion’s diet but his domestication, his being tamed so that he is no longer a threat. To eat straw like an ox is to be tamed and not to be a danger.” [Emphasis his].

 
If, however, the authors of these passages in Isaiah really thought they were describing a literal return to the paradise in the Garden of Eden, then they got it wrong. According to the Bible itself there was animal predation before the fall as we’ve shown in Chapter 9 for this book. Isaiah cannot be having a vision for a return to a non-predatory Edenic state of animal affairs because there never was such a blissful state in the first place.
 
The prophets did condemn any and all animal sacrifices and formalized worship that did not spring from clean and sincere hearts. The prophetic voice in Psalm 50 typifies this. But it is hardly a text supportive of God’s care for animals. About this Psalm, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-1985, Volume 1, page 831), as just one source among many tells us: “God did not reprove them…for their meticulous keeping of the letter of the Law in offering the prescribed sacrifices. But Israel failed to realize that God did not need their bulls or goats (v. 9; cf. v. 13), for He is the Lord of all Creation. He already owns every animal and knows every bird. He instituted the sacrifices not because He needed the animals but because the people desperately needed Him. He is not like the gods of the pagans who supposedly thrived on food sacrifices. The Lord does not depend on man’s worship for survival.”
 
Neither is there any care for animals expressed in Isaiah 1:11-17. All we see is a condemnation of the injustice of those who made “vain” sacrifices to God. What God wanted from his people is expressed in Micah 6:6-8. The important thing for God wasn’t their sacrifices, but “to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly” with him as their God. This does not mean God didn’t also demand their sacrifices. He did. He just wanted these sacrifices to come from a pure and sincere worshipful heart.


We read in Amos (6:4-6) where God is seemingly displeased with the eating of meat by the people in the southern kingdom of Judah: “Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David invent for themselves instruments of music; who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” But Amos’s God is confronting his people with a totally unexpected reversal of what the people expected when the so-called “Day of the Lord” comes. They believed God desired sacrifices, and they were right. We don’t see anywhere in context where God denies this. Instead, God would rather that they do justice and righteousness (v. 24), not to the neglect of their sacrifices, but along with them. They didn’t heed the prophet’s warnings of judgment. They instead indulged themselves in a decadent hedonism. Their sole concern seemed to be for their own gluttonous lifestyle rather than grieve over what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel who were slaughtered by the Babylonians They showed no concern with their own impending “Day of the Lord” when they will meet with a similar fate. Therefore, Amos says that God says their gluttonous drunken and luxurious lifestyles with come to an end. The sound of their musical revelry will be silenced.

Robert N. Wennberg, Christian professor of philosophy at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California, sums up what I’m claiming in these words: “To be sure, prophetic condemnation of animal sacrifices occurred from time to time, but the prophetic objection was not directed against animal sacrifices per se; rather, it was an objection to sacrificial offerings in a context devoid of genuine repentance, devoid of compassion for the needy, devoid of a true commitment to justice. It was any ritual divorced from true spirituality, not only animal sacrifice, that was the object of prophetic condemnation.” [God, Humans, and Animals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 296].

There is a prophetic passage in Joel (1:18-20) after a plague of locusts came and devoured the land. Joel speaks these words: “How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep are dismayed. Unto thee, O LORD, I cry. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field. Even the wild beasts cry to thee because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.” But surely this is a prophetic metaphor aimed at the people who had fallen under God’s judgment. Again we read in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-1985, Volume 1, page 1415): “The people were all too aware (before their very eyes) that their food supply, and with it all reason to rejoice, had disappeared (v. 16). Drought had apparently set in as well, for the seeds had shriveled….With no harvest available, the storehouses and granaries had been left to deteriorate. The domesticated animals (cattle. . . . herds . . . flocks of sheep) were suffering from starvation.” As such, God was punishing nature and with it animals for the sins of man. Again, this is not a text supportive of the care of animals. On the contrary, God punishes animals for the sins of man.

 
New Testament Passages—Jesus and Animals.

In the New Testament the treatment of animals fares no better. In fact, it’s worse. Robert Wennberg acknowledges that the New Testament is not “quite the resource for moral concern for animals that the Old Testament is. This has prompted some to view Judaism as a better friend to animals than Christianity.” [in God, Humans, and Animals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 291]. Given what we’ve just seen in the Old Testament this doesn’t look good. Peter Singer charged that while the Old Testament “did at least show flickers of concern for their sufferings,” the New Testament is “completely lacking in any injunction against cruelty to animals, or any recommendation to consider their interests.” [Animal Liberation, p. 191].

Richard Bauckham tries to remedy this understanding of the New Testament texts in a couple of important chapters dealing with Jesus teachings about animals and how he treated them. [Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto, eds., Animals on the Agenda, pp. 33-60]. There is some concern shown in the New Testament he argues. In the Gospels we read where God feeds the birds of the air (Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:24, 27) and cares for the smallest of sparrows (Luke 12:6-7). But after each of these sayings we subsequently read Jesus saying that human beings are more important to God than they: “Are you not of more value than they?”; “Of how much more value are you than the birds!”; and “Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
 
Of the just cited passages Bauckham claims: “Only those who recognize birds as their fellow-creatures can appreciate Jesus’ point…it is not an argument which sets humans on a different plane of being from animals. On the contrary, it sets humans within the community of God’s creatures, all of whom are provided for” by God. [Ibid, p. 41]. When it’s said humans are of much “more value” than these particular animals, Bauckham admits the best interpretation of the word for “more value" (διαφέρω) is to say humans are “superior” to animals, which is a “hierarchical superiority.” [Ibid, p. 45-46]. But he comes up with a false analogy that this hierarchical superiority can be compared to human beings, as in a human king who is superior to his human subjects. There is nothing here to suggest this, nothing. A king is a human being who rules over other human beings. Animals, according to the Bible, are in a different category of being altogether. And while Bauckham may be correct to suggest these animals have some intrinsic worth to God as the creator and caretaker of them, it doesn’t follow that they should have intrinsic value to human beings. Bauckham even admits there were several Old Testament laws where animals were to be regarded as property (see Exodus 21:28-35; Leviticus 24:17-21).

Jesus is represented as teaching he could heal on the Sabbath by using examples of animals who could be rescued on that day. Matthew 12:11-12 is typical where Jesus said to his critics, “What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” (See also Luke 14:5; 13:15-16). Such acts were acts of compassion, Bauckham argues, “intended to prevent animal suffering.” [Ibid, pp. 37-38]. Since acts of compassion to help animals are lawful on the Sabbath, so also are acts of compassion toward human being are also lawful, he argues. Of course, here is that same Greek word again, expressing the phrase that humans are of much “more value” (διαφέρω) than these animals. It’s not that animals have no value at all to God or to man, but the kind of value is different for God than for man, as I’ve suggested.

In any case, is this any different than the parable of the man who leaves his flock of a ninety-nine sheep in the open pasture to find the one which was lost, who then rejoices when he does? (Luke 15:4-6) What will he eventually do with his sheep? He will eventually sell it to be killed for a meal or kill it and eat himself. The same thing would go for any sheep that a man rescues from a pit on the Sabbath. The question of how much work could be done on the Sabbath day was a legal one, which was disputed in Jesus’ day. Jesus (in Mark 12:24-27; John 5:16-18; 7:23) used arguments based on what his critics accepted in order to argue his case. He did the same thing with regard to his “healing” people on the Sabbath. He was making the point that it was permissible to heal on the Sabbath if they could rescue a sheep on the Sabbath. Does this mean he thought sheep had intrinsic worth in and of themselves? What we do know is that the Bible attributes to animals an instrumental worth, to be used by human beings for meals, for clothing, for work, and for sacrifices.

Bauckham argues that rescuing a sheep from a pit “cannot be understood as motivated by a concern to preserve the animals as property,” because they were not in any life threatening danger. Would the sheep be in danger of dying if left for a day in a pit? Who knows? Would it suffer harm if left there? Yes. Does this entail a compassion for the animals? Maybe, but it’s not a forgone conclusion given what we know from the majority voices found in the Old Testament itself about the value of animals. If Jesus was indeed expressing some compassion for the individual animal itself, then such an understanding comes from the minority voices in the Old Testament, which I already acknowledged. Surely the desire to keep the sheep from being harmed could be understood as a desire to limit any further loss to the owner of the sheep if not immediately rescued and treated by the owner.

In another story in the life of Jesus he encountered a man with a Legion of demons who feared Jesus would cast them out without providing them another host. [The commonly known Latin word “Legion” referred to a Roman army regiment of about 6,000 soldiers.] So the demons begged him to cast them into a herd of swine, which Jesus did. Upon Jesus’ command they “came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.” (Mark 5; Matthew 8:24-34; Luke 8:26-39). It was a common myth that demons needed a host to inhabit, and it was also a common myth that if they couldn’t find a different host after leaving, or being exorcised out of one, they would try to return to the one they left (Mark 9:25; Matthew 12:43-45). Richard Bauckham tells us that upon being cast into the pigs the reason why the pigs were destroyed by the demons is because this “manifests the inherent tendency of the demonic to destroy whatever it possesses (cf. Mark 5:5; 9:22).” [Animals on the Agenda, p. 47]. Bauckham believes these demons could not be sent back into the “abyss” as they requested (Luke 8:31), because until the final end of history evil can only be “deflected and diminished but not abolished” based on a passage (in Matthew 13:24-30) that has nothing to do with these particular demons and what Jesus could or could not do with them as the supposed “Son of God.” So Bauckham merely admits that the supposed sinless Jesus “permits a lesser evil” here. He says that “the destruction of the pigs is preferable to the destruction of a human personality,” [Ibid., p. 48] as if there were no other alternative options for Jesus who as God’s “Son” had “all authority over heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18). I see no reason at all why Jesus, if he is who Bauckham believes he is, couldn’t have sent them back into the “abyss,” as they requested, especially since these demons would surely have some idea what was possible for him to do when they pleaded with him not to send them there. So as far as we know Jesus could have imprisoned these demons in a cave in the mountains, sent them into into a murderer condemned to die, or a number of other alternatives. He could even have sent them into the pigs and then kept the demons from drowning them. As it stands this shows a wanton disregard of the “sinless” Jesus toward swine, animals that the Old Testament already declared unclean.

A few things are sure about Jesus. He was not a vegetarian. We read that in contrast to John the Baptist who came “neither eating nor drinking,” Jesus came “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:18-19). He would eat meat when invited into the homes of some wealthy people (Mark 2:15; Luke 7:36; 11:37; 14:1; and 19:5). We read where Jesus assisted his disciples to catch fish (Luke 5:11), multiplied fish along with some bread for the multitudes to eat (Mark 6:38-43), and it’s even reported after he supposedly resurrected that he prepared a meal of fish for his disciples (John 21:1-4) and even ate fish (Luke 24:42-43). He ate a lamb for the Passover meal every year, certainly at his last supper (Matthew 26:17-20), which had been sacrificed that same day in the Temple. As a good Jew it is almost certain he participated in sacrificing animals to God, which took place during the yearly festivals he attended in Jerusalem (John 2:13; 7:1-10; 10:22-23).

We also know Jesus neglected animals when describing the greatest commandments (Mark 12:28-32; Matthew 22.34-40; Luke 10.25-28). He said all the law and prophets could be summed up in these two commandments. The first greatest commandment is that we are to love God above all. The second greatest commandment was to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus said: “There is no other commandment greater than these.” That’s what he said, and he said nothing about caring for animals as even a distant third, which is what a perfectly good person should have said if he was perfectly good. To respond that loving God also includes loving animals doesn’t follow, otherwise Jesus would not have had to mention the command to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. For surely it could be likewise argued that to love God is to also love love our neighbor making the second commandment superfluous.

Jesus is also heard to commission his disciples with a new mandate at the end of the Gospel of Matthew by commanding them to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:16-20). No expressed concern for animals here! The drama of the New Testament is one for the hearts and minds of people whom Jesus died to atone for their sins. Salvation of men’s souls was of the utmost importance lest they be cast into eternal fire. It was a cosmic battle with the forces of Satan and his evil hosts. It’s this passion for the souls of men that drove the Apostle Paul to suffer much as a missionary for Jesus (II Corinthians 11:23-33). He was after all, not on a mission to alleviate the sufferings of animals.

According to Jesus at the Judgment Day depicted in Matthew 25:31-46, we will be judged by our deeds. That is, if our faith has led us to feeding the poor, being kind to strangers, caring for the sick, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, then we will be welcomed into God’s presence in the kingdom. Nothing is said about caring for animals, nor in James 1:27 where the practice of true religion is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” And nothing is said in the final chapter of the book of Revelation that animals will be in the new Heavenly Jerusalem either.

New Testament Passages—Peter, Paul and John the Revelator.

There was a major shift in the eating habits of Christians in the New Testament. The Jews had already distinguished between the animals they could eat (clean) from the animals they could not eat (unclean). But with a vision of Peter this all changed. In Acts 10:9-16 we read about it. A sheet came down from heaven and in it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. A voice told Peter to rise and eat but Peter refused. Then a voice told him: “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” This vision in a “trance” was thought by Peter to be a divine instruction that uncircumcised believing Gentiles would be accepted by God: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” This same sentiment was written back into the words of Jesus in Mark 7:19. So unlike the Old Testament all animals were now considered fair game for hunting, herding, raising and eating.

In I Corinthians 9:9-10 the Apostle Paul wrote in defense of the need to be given financial help for his ministry by allegorically interpreting an Old Testament passage (in Deuteronomy 25:4). Paul writes: “For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop.” The problem here was penned adequately enough by Robert Wennberg, who said Paul “argues that because we could not suppose that God is concerned with oxen, some alternative meaning must be assigned to this passage….and if God is not concerned with oxen, then by implication God is not concerned with any other animal either.” [God, Humans, and Animals, p. 298]. In reply a Christian interpreter could claim this doesn’t mean Paul’s implication follows, but I don’t see why not. For what could it mean to say that although God was not concerned with oxen he was concerned with other animals? That hardly makes sense. What’s the difference in moral status between oxen and other animals? Other Christian interpreters may claim Paul was not denying the literal truth of Deuteronomy. He was only describing a deeper truth in addition to the literal truth, but that is quite a stretch. The text does not suggest this as a possibility. Conservative Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce simply bites the bullet here by rejecting attempts to soften the blow of Paul’s words by saying that while Paul’s argument clashes with a modern concern for animals, “he must be allowed to mean what he says.” [New Century Bible: First and Second Corinthians (London: Oliphants, 1971, pp. 84-85].

John the revelator in the book of Revelation, who was not John the Apostle, used many different animals in telling his apocalyptic vision for end times. Ninety three verses contain references to lions, bears, dogs, cattle, birds, eagles, a Lamb, serpents, scorpions, locusts, horses, a dragon, and a beast. There is a lot of carnage taking place, mostly by these animals to human beings. They are used by God to inflict pain and suffering. Reading through the book we get the very real impression that the animal world is a hostile word for the most part. Locusts and scorpions torment men, while birds feed on their flesh and on the flesh of horses. There is a dragon and a beast (numbering 666) which are at war with believers. The one exception, of course, is the Lamb, who represents Jesus who conquers over this hostile animal kingdom and rescues believers. But what we see depicted is a hostile animal kingdom.
 
In the heavenly city when all is said and done we read that the wicked, who are represented as “unclean,” will not be there (Revelation 21:27), and that outside are “the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying” (Revelation 22:15). Using “dogs” to represent wicked people who will be eternally condemned to the lake of fire is surely a disgusting image unbecoming of a caring attitude toward them, even if dogs at that time were scavengers.

The only expressly positive thing about the New Testament with regard to animals is that because Christians viewed Jesus’ death on the cross as the final sacrifice they no longer had any reason to participate in the Jewish animal sacrificial worship (See the book of Hebrews). This would mean that animal sacrifice was abolished as unnecessary for them. How long it took Christians to actually understand this is not clearly known. We know the Apostle Paul went up to the Temple to offer animal sacrifices when he visited Jerusalem after his third and final missionary journey. In order to help silence his critics the Jerusalem church elders told Paul to show them he still lived “in observance of the law.” Then we read in Acts 21:24-26 that Paul took four men with him “and the next day he purified himself with them and went into the temple, to give notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for every one of them.” The church therefore had not yet ceased offering animal sacrifices. Presumably Christians came to understand what they did about Jesus’ sacrifice later, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Jews themselves ceased offering animal sacrifices after that time as well, so even though Christians ceased offering up animal sacrifices they probably didn’t do so any sooner than the Jews themselves. Even so, it would best be understood as an unintended consequence of a developing Christian theology. It was not something that they ceased doing because of any care they might have had for animals themselves.

A Final Note.

After reviewing the Biblical passages concerning the treatment of animals in the Bible, Christian philosopher Robert Wennberg candidly speaks about what Christians must do to defend holy writ from this appalling lack of concern found in the Bible about animals. He suggests that the defenders of the Bible who are seeking a Biblical basis for a “dramatic revisioning” of Christian attitudes toward animals “are no worse off, possibly better off, than those who in an earlier century turned to Scripture in order to condemn slavery.” [God, Humans, and Animals, pp. 299-302]. He openly admits that “Scripture may seem to have been more of an impediment to the Christian community’s finally making a decisive break with slavery than it was a help,” which I find a major understatement. According to him “there seems to be considerable textual ammunition for the southern white preacher in the 1850’s to rebut attacks on slavery by Christian abolitionists,” but that eventually the abolitionists won the debate. Wennberg informs us the Christian abolitionists were not “principally seeking to decide whether slavery is right or wrong.” They already knew it was wrong and sought a Biblical justification for it, he claims. What necessitated these attempts, he honestly confessed “was the independent conviction that slavery is wrong.” Hence, just as in the case of slavery where the goal of explaining these specific texts “is typically an activity that occurs after we have come to see slavery to be an evil, not before,” so also he challenges the whole Christian community to “come to terms with all of Scripture,” with the goal of arriving at a “thorough and defensible theological vision of animals and their place in the moral universe.” [Ibid., p. 308].

Such a goal as Wennberg proposes is called special pleading, pure and simple. The conclusion has already been reached. Now find the reasons for accepting that conclusion in the texts of the Bible. As I’ve argued in this chapter the Biblical texts do not support Wennberg’s animal concern. The truly intellectually honest thing to do would be to seek to understand what the Bible actually teaches rather than force it to fit inside the grid of anti-slavery, pro-feminism, or animal advocacy concerns. Only after being candidly honest with the texts themselves will he be able to be intellectually honest when thinking about God and the Bible. My claim is that we do not see much of a concern at all for animals in the Bible. It truly is anthropocentric to the core. And as such it’s not indicative at all of what a perfectly good God would reveal to us. If God was truly concerned for the welfare of animals he would’ve said, “Thou shalt not mistreat, abuse or kill animals,” and said it as often as he needed to without giving any conflicting advice. Then God’s people could not justify the ill treatment of them down through the centuries. And so there would be nothing to reform, since there wouldn’t be such wanton abuse of them in his world.