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The Lamb That Was Slain:
Rereading “Dominion” in Scriptural Traditions
by Carolyn J. Sharp
Assistant Professor of Old Testament
Yale Divinity School

Any appeal to Scripture in service of an argument for honoring animals is fraught with risk. Those who advocate on behalf of animals may well ground their arguments in the Hebrew Bible, for that collection of ancient witnesses celebrates God as the Creator of all: sea creatures and wild animals, cattle and birds and the tiniest creeping things. Scripture teaches us that to rejoice in the Creator is the right of every living being. Yet there is risk, too, in any appeal to Scripture on behalf of animals. The evidence for ancient Israelite attentiveness to animal welfare is slim. Vegetarians may argue that animals were not designated as food in the Garden of Eden and thus that carnivorous life was a post-Fall phenomenon, not God’s will but a consequence of human sin. Animal welfare advocates may ground their hopes for inter-species compassion in Isaiah’s glorious vision of the Peaceable Kingdom (Isaiah 11). Nevertheless, the Hebrew Bible’s objectification of animals as things to be controlled remains insistent. God has created a breathtakingly beautiful world brimming with life, but humans are to rule and master it (Gen 1:26, 28). We are to have dominion over creation, subduing the living things that run and wrestle and hide and play. There is no honest way to avoid the Hebrew there: the verb radah, “to have dominion,” is used in other Hebrew Bible contexts to denote brute subjugation. It signals the use of force to oppress and enslave other living beings.

Reading further, we see that across the pages of the Bible streams the blood of countless animals whose bodies were broken on Israelite altars. For many centuries, Israelite ritual required the regular slaughter of animals: innumerable living creatures had their throats slit or their bodies torn in half. One might respond that Israelite slaughtering practices were generally more humane than those of surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures. One might suggest that manual slaughter guaranteed a more intimate acknowledgement of the cost to the creature. One might insist that the sacredness of ritual slaughter stands as a rebuke to the callousness with which our own post-industrial technology commodifies the bodies of animals in factories and processing plants. And yes, humane slaughter is preferable to more horrific methods. Yes, the Israelite priest would have placed his hand on the body of every bird or animal he slaughtered, would have felt it tremble, and through that touch he might have understood better the terrible price that was being paid. Yes, the God of Israel’s Scriptures commanded sacrifice not out of caprice but out of mercy, so that Israel could dare to lift its hands to the Holy One at all. One might say all this about ancient Israelite dominion over living creatures, and it is true. But it is not enough.

Is Scripture unusable, then, for those who decline to exploit animals? No. Scripture offers a dynamic word of life to all who hear God’s voice, and every living creature hears God’s voice. Virtually the last word in the Book of Psalms, central to ancient Israelite worship millennia ago and still powerful for contemporary expressions of faith, is this: “Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!” (Ps 150:6). It is the calling of every living creature to praise God, and it is the right of every living creature to be loved by those who love God. Scripture testifies, in many voices and in many ways, to the God Who created all life. Animal-rights advocates in church and synagogue ought not give up our Holy Scriptures; but neither should we engage in simplistic prooftexting, exploiting a few favorite Bible verses to make our points. What the animal advocacy movement needs now is a fully developed new hermeneutic – a new way of reading – that brings life-giving Scripture texts into relationship with those texts that we find disturbing. We need to move away from the polemical wielding of isolated verses for the purposes of debate, and see the truth of Scripture as revealed through the lively struggles of diverse texts bearing witness in harmony and cacophony, affirming and contesting each other.

The model for such a hermeneutic has been suggested by Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann speaks of Biblical dynamics of “testimony” and “countertestimony” as characteristic of the way in which Scripture tells what is true. Brueggemann points us toward a way of reading that is attentive to the interactions among multiple Biblical claims and counterclaims, finding truth through processes of faithful engagement and resistance. Consider the truth that emerges when we invite the “dominion” of Genesis 1 into engagement with the parable of the ewe lamb told by the prophet Nathan against King David (2 Samuel 12).

A desperately poor man had a ewe lamb that he adored, raising her with his own children. The lamb shared the scant food of the family, drank from the man’s own cup, slept tucked in the man’s arms. “It was like a daughter to him,” Nathan whispers. But a rich man in the same village needed to prepare a meal for a traveler, and rather than take an animal from his own abundant flocks and herds, he seized the poor man’s lamb and butchered her. The rich man’s heartlessness is held up by Nathan as a means of shaming David for his ruthless appropriation of the woman Bathsheba and his subsequent murderous betrayal of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah in battle. The story offers a searing indictment of King David’s exploitation of those who were most vulnerable under his dominion.

This parable offers a deeply moving portrayal of the poor man’s love for the little lamb. An impoverished father shares all that he has with a lamb – an animal he could easily slaughter for much-needed food but with which, instead, he chooses to share his meager stores. He had bought this lamb, and she is everything to him: the New Testament similitude regarding the pearl of great price comes to mind here (Matthew 13). Not only is this little lamb cherished by the poor man, she comes to be cherished by all who encounter this remarkable story. But more: the love of the poor man for his lamb sets before us an ancient paradigm for relational justice. The prophet Nathan may be decrying David’s adultery with Bathsheba, but the power of his metaphor clearly points beyond that particular case to a larger truth: even the smallest creature is worthy of respect and compassion. This is prophecy indeed.

Hebrew Bible scholar Ehud Ben Zvi has suggested that Biblical texts were written for attentive rereaders who mined their sacred traditions, delighted in them and struggled with them again and again. Today as then, our practices of rereading create a web of testimonies and countertestimonies. The hermeneutical task for animal advocates, then, is to bring life-giving Scriptural voices into uncompromising engagement with those texts that are death-dealing. Equipped for the struggle, we may reread Genesis 1 now in light of the truth so powerfully proclaimed by the prophet Nathan.

* * *

In the beginning, language and image and form constitute a sacred unity expressing the creative power of God. God speaks life into being: “Let there be!” The divine Word speaks the identity of the cosmos and of the self, of one and of incalculable others. God speaks, and multiplicity teems forth over the mountains and through the valleys, bounding into seas and splashing into rivers, swarming up tree trunks and scurrying into dark earthy holes, wriggling into crevices and soaring through the clouds. Myriad creaturely and botanical species spring up and branch out and learn how to breathe and move, each according to its furry or gelatinous or leafy or prickly or iridescent or feathery or spongy kind. Now divine language sings the manifold possibilities of the human into existence: “Made in God’s image! Be fruitful and multiply!” We are made in the image of the Life-Giver, and we are to speak God into majestic canyons and wildflower meadows and misty cypress swamps, into quiet village squares and bustling city streets, into human history and on into a wondrous God-breathed future that we can barely imagine.

But then – God rests. On the seventh day, God finishes the work of creation. Perhaps God is finished with us. Wait! How can God just leave us here? How is it that we are in the image of God? We can’t remember. We don’t know how to speak. Over time, we forget Who made us. Bitter consequences unfold: pain and fruitless toil and misuse of power. So much was left unsaid when God finished speaking the world into life.

Aeons have passed. We were fruitful; we did multiply. See what we have wrought! Beauty, yes: luminous art and music and literature, transcendent worship, brilliant means of healing, passionate work for justice. But we have also wrought unremitting coercion and slaughter – of each other and of the creatures in whose marvelous company we had sprung into being. Difference has become alienation, care has been supplanted by control, and power has mutated into brutal violence. So many living creatures have suffered and died at our hands! Is this what God commanded us to do? We can’t remember. The ground becomes flinty under us as we sink down, confused and defeated. The ancient seer Amos warned that we would thirst for knowledge of our Creator, and he was right. We are so desperately thirsty! Our hands have blood on them, and we can’t even remember where it came from. There is no water – how will we wash it off?

But even as we despair, we hear the clatter of small hooves, faint at first, then growing more audible. Our vision is blurred, but we can make out a diminutive white form gamboling toward us. Instinctively, we reach down and pick up a sharp-edged rock to use as a weapon. As the form draws near, the clattering hooves quiet, the steps become tentative, inquisitive. We recognize the little ewe lamb so beloved by the poor man. The lamb trips over to us and plants her front hooves firmly. Her large liquid eyes search ours. Her nostrils widen as she breathes in who we are, who we might become. And her soft white muzzle glistens with luminous drops of water. She has just had a drink, somewhere out of sight of this flint-hard landscape we have made for ourselves. She knows where the spring of water is. Dare we listen to her? Our hand unclenches; the rock falls to the ground. Haltingly, we rise. Her invitation accepted, the little woolly lamb bleats softly and kicks up her hooves. She frisks away toward newness, toward life, looking back to make sure we are following.


Ben Zvi, Ehud. Micah. Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol. XXIB. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.

Kaufman, Stephen R. and Nathan Braun. Good News for All Creation: Vegetarianism as Christian Stewardship. Cleveland: Vegetarian Advocates Press, 2004.

Linzey, Andrew. Animal Gospel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999.

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God's Creatures Ministry is committed to spreading God's compassion to all He has made based on The Scriptures. Although we are a Christian Ministry, we encourage all to have their own animal welfare committee in their community. We extend our resources to those who would like to learn more or begin their own God's Creatures Ministry as an extension of us. God created us to have a vegetarian diet and commissioned us to protect His animals. Instead, we have exploited them for our entertainment, fashion, appetite and useless, torturous research. These creatures have the right to live as they were created to live. Because we live IN this world, but are not OF this world, we strive to bring God's mercy and justice to all. We live in God's Kingdom now where Jesus, The Sacrificial Lamb, The Prince of Peace, The Lion of Judah reigns. We look forward to that day when all of creation will be 'set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God' (Romans 8:21) where a little child will lead and guide God's creatures (see Isaiah 11:5-9).

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