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From The Ark Number 195 - Winter 2003
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BIBLE AND ANIMALS
John Eaton, Old Testament scholar and to be leader of our 2004 Ecumenical Animal Welfare Retreat, considers here the attitudes of some of the biblical translators, and other Christian interpreters, towards animals
By John Eaton
Among the beautiful words of the marriage service in the old Anglican prayer-book there are a few that we may not be happy with today. An example is the passing reference to animals in the priest’s opening address. Holy matrimony, we are told, ‘is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding’. Apart from the fact that there is much devotion and life-long fidelity between couples in the animal world, it is the round assertion that animals ‘have no understanding’ which grates. The author of the passage will have been influenced here by a Scripture he had recited thousands of times - Psalm 32:9 (Vulgate 31:9), which in that prayer-book version reads: ‘Be ye not like to horse and mule, which have no understanding: whose mouths must be held with bit and bridle, lest they fall upon thee.’
Such an absolute statement that these animals have no understanding is contrary to fact and offensive to those who know them well in a bond of trust, affection and faithfulness. It is also contrary to the spirit of other Scriptures, as when Isaiah compares his people’s sense unfavourably with that of the ox and ass (Isa 1:3) and Jeremiah contrasts the people’s folly with the wisdom of stork, turtle, swallow and crane (Jer 8:7). Not to mention the profound story of the ass that saw the angel the great prophet just could not see, and thereby saved his life (Num 22:21-33). One has therefore to ask whether the translators of the psalm have got it wrong. Could it be they who are here without understanding, and not the horse and mule?
Well, the translation ‘have no understanding’ represents a verb and a negative in the Hebrew, and for this verb the standard dictionary (Brown, Driver & Briggs) includes the sense ‘to heed’. We may judge therefore that the psalmist is speaking of a horse or mule which ‘does not heed’ its owner, probably because it is not yet fully trained, not yet accustomed to the human requirements. Bit and bridle serve to render it more amenable. A lucid translation might therefore be: ‘Do not be like a horse or mule not yet trained - with bit and bridle their course must be checked, or they will not come along with you.’ The psalm is advising us to walk trustfully with the Lord, circled by his faithful love (so verse l0b).
You may agree that this was not a difficult scriptural problem to solve. So why were translators so obtuse? Could it be the effect of a traditional disposition of arrogance towards other species?
In the next psalm, 33 (Vulgate 32), we have a case for milder censure, but where horse-lovers could well complain. Verse 17 is usually rendered: ‘A horse is a vain thing to save a man; he will not deliver any by his great power.’ Yet there are people who owe their lives to a faithful horse, as many do also to dogs, and we may feel even in this passage something of that unsympathetic attitude to animals. The fact is that horses were not part of the old Hebrew life. They were then encountered in the military equipment of great and wealthy nations - the war-horse in iron chariotry and cavalry. Kings like Solomon acquired standing armies well provided with such war-horses, but psalmists and prophets taught not to trust in such military might, but rather in the Lord. Hence the psalm:
The translation ‘war-horse’ suits the passage, as well as the historical facts, and avoids any slur against the noble animal, so often exploited in the cruelties of warfare.
Harmony with the animals
Sometimes it seems that insensitivity towards animals has caused the translators to be puzzled unnecessarily. In Psalm 72 (Vulgate 71) God’s ideal king is depicted, reigning in peace, coming down like rain on the crops, like showers that water the earth.. Translators fumble with verse 9a. The New English Bible tells us that ‘Ethiopians crouch before him,’ but this is changed in the Revised English Bible to ‘May desert tribes bend low before him.’ Grail (1995) has ‘Before him his enemies shall fall,’ while the New Jerusalem Bible surprisingly states that ‘The Beast will cower before him.’
Actually, there is no problem if it is realised that this king, exalted because of his pity for the humble, is depicted in Adam-like messianic harmony with the animals (rather as in the great prophecy, Isaiah 11:1-9). The Hebrew word so fumbled is satisfactorily explained in the dictionary aforesaid as referring to wild animals. The passage then is clear enough:
In his days shall justice flourish, and abundance of peace, till the moon be no more. ... Wild creatures shall kneel before him, but his enemies shall lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and the isles shall give presents; the kings of Arabia and Saba will bring gifts.
With this picture of the animals of the wilderness kneeling before their beloved king, we are brought close to the short but pregnant statement about Jesus: ‘And he was with the wild animals, and the angels ministered to him’ (Mark 1:13).
Let all flesh bless his holy name
The desert sand of prejudice has blown into the eyes of some translators in another symptomatic case, the end of the splendid Psalm 145 (144). Verse 21 is literally: ‘My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever.’ In a number of passages, ‘all flesh’ does refer to humans, but in others again it comprehensively denotes all creatures. In this particular psalm there is keen awareness of God’s relationship with all the beings he has created: ‘The Lord is good to all, and his tender love is over all his creatures. All your creatures will give you thanks, O Lord. ... The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at its due time. You open your hand and satisfy the wants of every living thing’ (verses 9, 10,15-16). Surely when such a psalm ends ‘Let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever’, we can take ‘all flesh’ here to mean ‘all creatures’. But whereas the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) has ‘Let every creature bless his holy name,’ Grail (1995) has ‘Let all peoples bless your holy name.’ This melancholy pattern is repeated when the New English Bible, with ‘All creatures shall bless his holy name’, is changed by the Revised English Bible to’ All people will bless his holy name.’
What can be the explanation for these poor judgments? It seems that the translators thought the reference to the utterance of the holy name required the worshippers to be humans. But when the psalms often speak of animals beseeching, praising or thanking ‘the Lord’, they assume that the animals in their own way have all that is necessary for those purposes. They can call on ‘the Lord’ in their own way. Hence, in the great concluding line of the Psalms, the call goes out, ‘Let every breathing thing praise Yah (= ‘the Lord’). So it is surely misguided to exclude the animals from the conclusion of Psalm 145 (144).
On a broader front, we notice scriptural passages (sometimes very influential) where the translators duly render the original words, but where generations of interpreters have misrepresented the point to the detriment of animals and nature. Some of these passages are now commonly discussed and put in a better light. For example, the dominion of humanity over animals in Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 is now coming to be acknowledged (when all aspects of the passages are properly considered) as the care of a steward responsible to God. Again, the covenant, which is the basis and glory of the Church, is now likely to be understood in relation to the Noah covenant embracing all creatures, a cosmic covenant, foundational and ultimate (Genesis 9: 8-17 - I recall more than once reading student dissertations which used the Noah covenant without having noticed that it was not just for humans). Those glorious psalms 19 (18) and 98 (97), which describe great elements of the heavens or of the landscape as knowing and praising God, are now sometimes taken seriously, not just as poetic exaggerations or as allegories for great teachers and apostles(!). In all these cases we are growing aware of a heavy chain of prejudice (to use Fr Robert Murray’s image) which has to be thrown off.
How much readers feed into scriptural interpretation from their own attitudes has been a concern in recent scholarship. In interpretation, when all is said, there is a meeting of past and present, of them and us. We have to be in there, and should be encouraged to bring along with us concerns God has laid on our heart. If by his grace he has prompted us to love his creatures in the way of his own love, we should not fear to bring that to the work of interpretation. In such a way, the Spirit leads us into his truth, into what he intends through the manifold and complex Scripture. In pondering the scriptures, let bishops, nuns and bus-drivers not fear to give due weight to those convictions they receive from the compassionate heart of the Creator, whose ‘tender love is over all his creatures’ (Psalm 145/144:9).
A New Testament passage to end with - the Gadarene Swine (Mark 5:1-20; also Luke 8:26-39; Matt 8:23-34). A man possessed of many demons and ferociously wild is cured, as Jesus allows the demons to transfer to a herd of 2,000 pigs grazing on the hillside above the lake. The pigs stampede to their death in the lake, while the man is soon after found clothed and in his right mind, sitting like a disciple at the feet of Jesus. A commentator typically remarks that the loss of the vast herd weighed as nothing in comparison with the rescue of one single human being. Fair enough, if the herd is viewed only as an economic asset. But we may think the comment reflects that old man-centred prejudice. I think rather of a young climber who risked and lost his life trying to rescue a goat on a hillside in the Alps, and I venture another approach.
In this Gospel story of a healing and many deaths we see another example of the mystery of suffering that surrounds God’s good works in this world. The Egyptian horses drowned in the Exodus, the little children massacred as the Holy Family escaped to Egypt - many are the examples in the Bible and in our time. His work of salvation is very costly, but ‘dear shall their blood be in his sight’ (psalm 72/7:14 ). May we not divine that all innocent suffering will one day be seen gathered up in Christ’s suffering, so that the tragic deaths of children, of numberless good folk and of multitudes of other creatures, in the unfathomable wisdom of God, will appear woven into his redeeming purpose? In his time, little ones, you shall come forth again, come forth with joy.
* John Eaton, is a former Reader in Old Testament Studies in the University of Birmingham,and author of The Circle of Creation: animals in the light of the Bible, SCM Press, ISBN 0334026199, 1995.
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