The Covenant with All Living Creatures - Beginning from the Beginning
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Stephen R. L. Clark

Beginning from the Beginning

From the very first chapter of Genesis it is affirmed that Being itself is good. `God could not have created a thing had he hated it, as the Wisdom says (11.24f) and the mere fact that he keeps it in being is the proof that he loves it.' After the flood God makes a covenant with all living: no more flood to destroy all living (Genesis 9.8ff). The Lord rejoices in His works (Psalm 104).

Some modernist theologians explain the apparent failings of our present world as God's chosen way of creating rational individuals. Everything, by their account, exists for us to use. The God of orthodoxy has no need of secondary causes of this sort. Whatever He creates, He creates for its own sake, because He chooses to. Some have held that He created every possible creature; others that He actualizes only some real possibilities; others again that even God the Omniscient cannot inspect all possible, so-far non-existent, beings (because there can be no criteria for their identity beyond what God makes real in creating some `of them'). Whatever the truth of this, we can be confident that He creates exactly what He wants, for its own sake or `for His glory'. Nor does the God of orthodoxy need to make particular creatures co-existent: as far as we can see He may have randomized creation, since His chosen must, in any case, relate to anyone at all who is their neighbour, irrespective of their nature or their merits. Nor does He select for special treatment just those creatures that a finite observer might expect: nothing in the long ago determined Him to raise up mammals, hominids, or Abram. So orthodox theocentrism is far less committed to the notion of a Visible Plan than atheistic critics have supposed.

Granted that things exist `for their own sake', because God wishes just those things to be, then they aren't simply `for us'. From this beginning we can see that the commandments have a wider message than simple social solidarity.

Consider the Sabbath rules (Exodus 16.23ff no gathering of food on sabbath; Exodus 20.8f keep sabbath holy): the Sabbath is not just the seventh day: it is also the tenth day of the seventh month; and in the seventh year land is left for the poor and the wild things (Leviticus 25.6). Amos (8.5) links the sabbath requirement explicitly to a ban on the commercial exploitation of poor. Jeremiah (11.3) makes possession of the land conditional on obedience.

There are related commandments about Jubilee, and about the rules of war: Leviticus 25.23 says that no land is to be sold outright (lest land accumulate in the hands of the rich); Deuteronomy 20.19f requires us not to burn fruit-bearing trees in war; Isaiah 24.5 makes it clear that violation of the eternal covenant leads to disaster (as does Jeremiah 4.23; and 5.25: `your wrongdoing has upset nature's order').

When Babylon has fallen, `there no Arab shall pitch his tent, no shepherds fold their flocks. There marmots shall have their lairs, and porcupine shall overrun her houses; there desert owls shall dwell, and there he-goats shall gambol'. `The whole world has rest and is at peace; it breaks into cries of joy. The pines themselves and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you: since you have been laid low, they say, no man comes up to fell us'. The land shall have the sabbaths we denied to it. If we want a share in the sabbath, we must not seek to deny it to others. As I remarked some years ago: `The natural historian of a future age may be able to point to the particular follies that brought ruin - chopping down the tropical rain forests, meditating nuclear war, introducing hybrid monocultures, spreading poisons, financing grain-mountains, and rearing cattle in conditions that clearly breach the spirit of the commandment not to muzzle the ox that treads out the corn (Deuteronomy 25.4). The historian whose eyes are opened to the acts of God will have no doubt we brought our ruin on ourselves, that it is God's answer to the arrogant.'

Or as another said: `These were the words of the Lord to me: Prophesy, man, against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them, You shepherds, these are the words of the Lord God: How I hate the shepherds of Israel who care only for themselves! Should not the shepherd care for the sheep? You consume the milk, wear the wool, and slaughter the fat beasts, but you don't feed the sheep. You have not encouraged the weary, tended the sick, bandaged the hurt, recovered the straggler, or searched for the lost; and even the strong you have driven with ruthless severity. ... I will dismiss those shepherds: they shall care only for themselves no longer; I will rescue my sheep from their jaws, and they shall feed on them no longer.'

Ezekiel, or the Lord, here takes it for granted that true shepherds care for sheep. `A righteous man cares for his beast, but a wicked man is cruel at heart.' Literally, of course, shepherds care for sheep only that they may profit from them in the end, but perhaps this was not so in the beginning, and need not be wholly so even now.

`For any man who is just and good loves the brute creatures which serve him, and he takes care of them so that they have food and rest and the other things they need. He does not do this only for his own good but out of a principle of true justice; and if he is so cruel toward them that he requires work from them and nevertheless does not provide the necessary food, then he has surely broken the law which God inscribed in his heart. And if he kills any of his beasts only to satisfy his own pleasure, then he acts unjustly, and the same measure will be measured out to him.

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