Our fellow creatures did not come by chance
I share my study, for most of the day, with a cocker spaniel called Maggie.
It is extraordinary to me that we have what can only be called a relationship. She is quite a character, and she is truly part of the family. Mind you, it goes without saying that she is not a part of the family in the sense that my daughter is. I would pay far more for medical treatment for my daughter, for one.
Animals don’t exactly have a starring role in the Bible.
As I contemplate her dozing (she snores), I catch myself wondering: “Why are there animals?”
From an atheistic evolutionary perspective, that is a nonsensical question, of course. There is no “why.” Or at least, the only answer to the question of “why” is a “how”: there are animals because by the laws of physics, there had to be.
But for a person who believes in a creator God, the question is very different. To believe in a Creator is to believe in the meaning and purpose of all things. Things aren’t put together by chance, but they have particular order and place. They do not belong to themselves but have been fashioned by the one who made them, and who gives them their particular qualities.
That’s how Genesis 1 depicts the Creator at his work: creating the creatures to fill the earth, sea and sky, and creating them each “according to its kind.”
Then he creates, finally, humankind, not according to its kind, but according to his kind: “in his image.” And to this creature, more kin with himself than with the animals, he gives dominion over the others, to rule and to keep.
In Genesis 2, it is man who is invited by God to name the animals. And this says something about the peculiar gift that human beings have, which is that they are able to see the things in the world and describe them. A giraffe does not know that it is a giraffe, in the sense that it is an even-toed ungulate mammal – but we do. That gives us the ability to find the deep order and connection in things as well, as we observe the similarities and differences in things. Our words are not powerful like God’s words, which create things from nothing. But they do have a power to describe the things that are.
But animals don’t exactly have a starring role in the Bible. The animals around the Christ child’s manger are mostly the products of artistic licence (sorry, but it’s true). In the Old Testament, animal life is taken for sacrifice. Animals are important to the largely agricultural society that ancient Israel was, certainly. They are valuable, and their lifeblood is close enough to ours for us to get the symbolism of sacrifice. It’s their blood instead of ours.
We have a peculiar gift which makes us unique amongst the animals.
In the New Testament, however, which is not set in the farms and the fields but chiefly in the cities of the Roman Empire, there seems to be hardly any reflection on animal life at all.
So what are we to make of our fellow creatures, then?
The first thing is that the biblical authors seem to use animals to remind us of our place in the order of things – as Psalm 8 says “a little lower than the angels.” We are made of the dust of the earth like the animals. We have bodies, as they do, which need water and food; and we reproduce via male and female, like them. We understand from them what it is to be a creature, because we can see the same bodily functions in them that we see in ourselves. Should we be tempted to think ourselves divine, we see animals eat and excrete and remember that we do exactly the same.
And yet: we are not like them.
We have a peculiar gift which makes us unique amongst the animals. Of course, it doesn’t make us actually unique, because we share this capacity with our Creator. We are not just conscious: we are “self-conscious.” This means we have the ability to think about ourselves in the third person. We can imagine a future. We can consider our deaths – not just in the sense that an antelope knows that it would be unpleasant to be eaten by a lion, but in the sense that we can ask ourselves the question of existence itself. To be, or not to be? – that is a uniquely human question. What dog ever pondered its mortality?
Part of this gift is the gift of words. Gorillas and chimps can be taught a basic language. But it consists mostly of items. It is nothing like the sentences you are reading now. They do not write poetry, or rap, or describe the taste of wine like sunsets. We can speak, and we can think in words. The speechlessness of animals shows us just how incredible this ability is.
And we are made this way because we are made for a special relationship with our Creator. He rules over all his creatures, but it is the human creature whom he has crowned with glory and honour, and with whom he seeks to unite himself. He speaks with us, and invites us to speak with him. More than that: it is as a human being that he enters into our world. Though many other religions have had their gods take the form of an animal, the God of the Bible is incarnate as a human being.
Animals show the genius of God.
The second thing that the animals give to us, in biblical terms, is a sense of the creativity and power of God. The animals show his genius. Psalm 104, which is a magnificent hymn to the Creator, describes the greatness and majesty of God by noting how he makes and sustains the natural world: How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number – living things both large and small. (Psalm 104:24-25)
One of my favourite passages in the entire Bible is in the book of Job. It’s when God finally answers Job out of the whirlwind. And instead of defending himself, what God does is point to his extraordinary works in the creation and say (to paraphrase) “tell me if you could do any of these things” – which of course Job can’t. Among other creatures he lists the ostrich, the wild donkey, the mountain goat, the lion, the horse, and the hawk. Here’s a sample:
Do you give the horse its strength or clothe its neck with a flowing mane?
Do you make it leap like a locust, striking terror with its proud snorting? (Job 39:19-20)
Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread its wings towards the south?
Does the eagle soar at your command and build its nest on high? (Job 39:26-27)
The animal world is of such extraordinary variety and beauty. Could you have invented it? Did you have the power at your disposal to manufacture a creature such as the horse? The answer is, of course, “not in a million years.” But look at the animal kingdom and be amazed at what God can do. It reveals his power and his glory.
We are not given dominion over the creatures of the world to oppress them and to exercise our cruelty over them.
But the third thing that animals get us to see theologically speaking is our responsibility for them. The Creator cares for his creatures – and so should we, his ambassadors. Jesus points to the way that God keeps his eye on the sparrow and feeds it (I am sure he had Psalm 104 in mind). We are not given dominion over the creatures of the world to oppress them and to exercise our cruelty over them. They do not belong to us. Or at least: we receive them as a gift from the Creator, for his glory.
There’s no biblical objection to eating meat or using animal labour, but to treat animals as merely machines for our use is offensive to the idea of them being creatures made by the God we know.
The Noah story is instructive here, for in saving the corrupt world – corrupted by human behaviour, as only human beings can corrupt anything – God ensures that the animal creation is not destroyed. Noah is the saviour not only of his family but of the whole family of creatures.
The Old Testament law also shows God’s concern. The animals are to rest on the Sabbath day along with the human beings who own them. They are to be given part of the food their labour makes. They are not to be treated ruthlessly.
Along with us, animals feel pain. Many animals, particularly mammals, show signs of misery, depression and despair. Our treatment of them is surely a sign of how well we know our common Creator and how well we have listened to him.
But oh how dismally we fail at this! The reality is that we have become calloused to the plight of the many millions of animals that serve us. Surely, knowing that God cares for the creatures he has made, we should be horrified. It should show us, yet again, how poor we are at our assigned task, and how profoundly we need the Saviour.
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.