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Catholic-Animals
THE ARK

A Publication of
THE CATHOLIC STUDY CIRCLE
FOR ANIMAL WELFARE

From The Ark - Number 190 - Spring 2002

Learning from Job

Fr Fergus Kerr, Regent of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, and a distinguished

theologian, gave the following address at the Special Service for Animal

Creation at Arundel Cathedral on 29 September, 2001.

By Fr Fergus Kerr, OP

And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and was with the wild beasts (Mark I:13).

Consider one small but highly significant instance within Christian theology of greater sensitivity to the theological importance of animal creation.  In Peake’s excellent and much used one-volume commentary on the Bible (1962) there is no entry for Animals in the index. In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1989; Roman Catholic) there is a separate entry, listing two topics: Animals, plague of; Animals, worship of.  In the brand new Oxford Biblical Commentary (OBC)1 (2001; ecumenical) it is taken for granted that there should be an entry and nine topics are listed.

Thus: forty years ago it did not occur to great biblical scholars that references to animals in Scripture were of any theological importance at all.  Twelve years ago, animals are sent as a plague (Exodus 7-13); animals are objects of idolatry (Wisdom 11:15); indeed the plague of animals was the punishment for worshipping animals: animals are theologically important all right but regarded in a somewhat negative light (to say the least).

Now, however, the scholars of the new OBC list nine topics - without mentioning either plagues or idolatry.  We can’t go through them all.

Foundation Covenant

The first reference is to the Ark and the last is to the Covenant.  All along Christians have known about the New Covenant that the Lord God makes with sinful human beings in the blood of Christ.  Since about 1945 Christians have begun to remember the Covenant the Lord God made with Abraham and the people of Israel.  Now, a few pioneering people have realised that these two Covenants are preceded by, founded upon, embraced by, the Covenant the Lord God made with Noah (Genesis 9; Hosea 2: 16-23) - with humankind in the company of and solidarity with the entire animal creation.

A third topic listed by the OBC under Animals is Creation: human beings as stewards, etc. (Genesis 1): a fairly familiar theme in these days of greater ecological sensitivity.

Under Animals, see Jonah.  We learn that this is not the only occasion in which God is pictured as achieving his mysterious purposes through an animal - thus animals are not just a plague or objects of idolatry but messengers or instruments of divine providence.

But of the nine topics listed the two major references are to animals in the Psalms and animals in the Book of Job.

People who pray the Psalms cannot avoid hearing of the presence of every kind of living creature in God’s world: sometimes frighteningly, mostly supportively, especially in praising the Lord (as in Psalm 104 and in Christina Rossetti’s Creation Processional).2

Referring to the theological significance of animals in the Book of Job is much more unexpected.  The Book of Job is among the greatest books - not just in the Bible, but in all religious literature: the innocent man enduring terrible suffering; whose friends (Job’s comforters) try to persuade him that he is suffering - so he must be a sinner.  It’s only if you are in the wrong that God makes you suffer - a picture of God, then, rooted in a primitive feeling we are all likely to have when something awful happens - it’s our fault if some one we love dies, etc.

Job’s innocence

The Book of Job is complex; perhaps edited by someone who didn’t quite like the central theme!  But mainly (it seems to me) the theme is that Job is innocent; he is not afflicted because he deserves it; it is simply that we live in a far, far stranger world than Job in his affliction or his comforters can conceive.  They try to get him to understand - they provide reasons, they do philosophy, they try to explain.  Job wants an explanation; I think we all often want an explanation - why do these things happen?  And what happens (as the OBC commentary brings out very well) in Job chapter 38 onwards is that the Lord God ‘explains’ why human life is the way it is by asking Job to look at the world, the weather, the planets and above all wild animals: lion, raven, mountain goat, deer; hawk, vulture; Behemoth (water buffalo?), Leviathan (crocodile?) - so that God ‘explains’ who He is, ‘why’ things are as they are, by inviting and commanding Job to contemplate his place (and so human values: innocence, justice etc.) in this immense parade of wild animals in all their superabundant bizarre splendour.

If you want to understand the ways of God, in effect, consider the cosmos - and especially the wild animals, in all their awesome wonder.

Dialogue

Of course, these final chapters of the Book of Job are deeply ambivalent.  It is very easy to see poor Job as being silenced and crushed by God’s mocking and arrogant insistence on His own sheer power as displayed quite despotically in crazy-looking animals like the hippopotamus and the rhinoceros - as if human desire for justice, explanation, etc. are simply regarded as worthless and irrelevant in face of the arbitrariness of a totally savage God.

And yet - extravagant and disturbing as the theology of the Book of Job may be, isn’t there something undeniably profound about this summons to replace human values in this much larger - and much wilder - context?

Isn’t there something urgent about reminding us human beings that, if we are the focus of God’s mysterious purposes and the ones with whom the Covenants are made, we are nevertheless at the centre of an immensely greater and deeper creation than we (in the West at least) often think?

The Lord God of the Book of Job reveals himself in a conversation with Job - it’s a dialogue between the human creature and the Creator; but what the human creature is summoned to see is that this world exists not just for us.

What Christians believe is that God came to be ‘with us’ (Matthew 1:23); what we need to remember is that, when Jesus was on his own, in the wilderness, engaging in the combat with the Evil One, he had the Angels ‘ministering’ to him (coming and going?) - but he was ‘with’ the wild beasts3 (as his permanent companions throughout).

Notes

1. OUP book; Introductory price £40 until 1st Feb, then £60. Also available on CD Rom.

2. Included on the Service Sheet, also cf The Ark no.188, p.20.

3. Cf Fergus Kerr’s article in The Ark no. 185, p.35.

Return to The Ark No. 190

For questions, comments and submissions, please contact:
Deborah Jones at The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare djonesark@waitrose.com

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