By James Van Alstine
Animals are common in the Bible. The Jews, early Christians and indeed all the people of the ancient world were familiar with animals and experienced them routinely in their lives. It is therefore not surprising that animals occur often, both literally and metaphorically, throughout the Bible. Volumes have been written on animals and how a Christian faith informs human relations with them, including a growing library of titles by Rev. Andrew Linzey (several titles), Norm Phelps, Dominion of Love and Matthew Scully, Dominion, to name just a few.
There are numerous moments from Genesis to Revelations that illuminate the human animal relationship. In Genesis, we are offered a vision of paradise. Eden meets all human needs and we are seen, at first, in perfect peace with God and all creation. In Eden at peace, God prescribes a vegan world:
“See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food, and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food.” (Genesis 1:29-30)
Just a moment before this, God gives humans “dominion” over creation (Genesis 1:28). The granting of dominion is often sited as a defense of the practice of eating flesh. Since the vegan diet prescription immediately follows the granting of dominion, clearly God did not intend that the right of dominion should include consumption of his animals, blessed with the same “breath of life” we generally translate to mean “soul.”
Dominion is often taken to include a sort of superiority. The dominion of Genesis is the cornerstone of a deeply entrenched sense of hierarchy that places God at the top of creation, humans below God and all other creatures beneath humans. In light of the peace that comes with the creation of the Edenic order and the sorrow and toil that follow the Fall, it seems unlikely that dominion was intended to convey superiority. After all, employers hold dominion over employees and governments hold dominion over citizens yet who today would believe that a CEO or a president is superior to a worker or a citizen in the order of God’s creation? The divine right of kings to govern, the ideology of a master race and innumerable other notions of human hierarchy have been justly relegated to the trash heap of history.
The Fall, as told in Genesis, provides an insight into the trouble with humanity’s false assertion of superiority over the rest of God’s creation. The fruit of the story was held out in temptation under the pretext that through it humans could obtain a higher status. Of course, this purported improvement does not follow. Humans fail in this proud attempt to elevate their status above the rest of creation and are instead labeled sinners and cast out of Eden. We fall. No other animal in God’s creation falls. They all remain in a state of grace with God. Our original sin, then, was to think that we could become better than, superior to, the rest of creation. This may shed light on the nature of original sin. Inevitably, sinful behavior begins with a person or people, in some way, placing themselves above their station.
Dominion does not make humans superior to creation, but rather calls us to a great calling to meet the world’s needs with responsible stewardship, consideration and kindness befitting this gift from God.
Genesis also provides the most frequently cited permission for eating flesh. As the sins resulting from the Fall spread and consume the souls of humans, God eventually is compelled to clean house.
Noah and his family are spared and take with them on the ark all God’s creatures. After the flood, the first thing Noah does is build an altar and offer an animal sacrifice. There is a curious decision. Why would God, who instructed Noah on how to spare the animals, wish Noah to kill one once safety is reached? God tolerates the act, but levies a punishment for the infraction. As if speaking to a spoiled child who disobeys at the very moment of release from discipline, God tells Noah:
“Dread fear of you shall come upon all the animals of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon all the creatures that move about on the ground and all the fishes of the sea; into your power they are delivered. Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the green plants.” (Genesis 9:2-3)
Permitted to eat flesh is granted, but clearly God was displeased with this development and spoke of a very steep moral price for this bit of flesh. God was angered. This could have been a moment of joyous reunion between humans and God, but instead it becomes one in which humans are both blessed and cursed. In modern speech God may well have said, “Fine then. Do whatever you’re going to do. Eat my animal friends. I won’t stop you, but it will cost you dearly.” Perhaps we pay this cost today in our alienation from nature, the described fear of humans shown by animals and the health and welfare toll that eating animal flesh exacts in the form of heart disease and cancer.
The book of Isaiah also shows that God does not welcome the killing of animals and again strives to lead humans back to a just society in which peace will reign not just among humans but to all creatures.
“What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; In the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure. When you come to visit me, who asks these things of you? … Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean!” (Isaiah 1:11-12, 15)
God makes it pretty clear that whatever reasons humans may put forward for killing animals, pleasing him is not the result. In both this passage from Isaiah and in Jesus’ cleansing of the temple it is important to note that all animal flesh consumed by Jews went through a prescribed legal practice of ritual sacrifice. To the Jewish mind of the time, condemning ritual killing of animals at temple was to condemn all killing of animals.
On the other hand, Isaiah holds out hope of a better day. Even in a time of sin and sorrow, the promise of peace, justice and a renewed relationship between humans and God is encouraged and promised.
“Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips. Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.” (Isaiah 11: 5-9)
Isaiah provides a peaceful picture of a return to Edenic tranquility, but is this only metaphor or is it actually possible? Will lions subsist on hay? No human could claim to know, but there may be a clue at hand. Many vegans provide a diet free of animal products to their companion dogs and cats. When managed responsibly (as anyone’s diet should be) vegan cats and dogs enjoy good health and long lives.