For many North Americans, interactions with animals are summarized neatly in terms of pets, pests, and meat. Yet the lives of the ancient Israelites and the early Christians were filled with animals. They played important roles in Biblical stories as a source of praise to God and revelation of the nature of faith, humility and peace. By examining Jesus’ interactions with and conversation about animals, we can better understand how we are called to relate to other creatures.
“If you want to learn, then go and ask the wild animals and the birds, the flowers and the fish. Any of them can tell you what the LORD has done. Every living creature is in the hands of God” (Job 12:7-10, CEV). Both creation stories in Genesis tell of God creating the creatures of the earth, sea and air (Genesis 1:20-22; 2:19-20). In fact, in the second Genesis creation story, God creates the animals using the very same soil used to form humans (Genesis 2:19). Later, in response to human corruption, God destroys all the creatures of earth, save two of every species (Genesis 7:1-24). Yet after the flood, God creates a covenant to never again “let floodwaters destroy all life” (Genesis 9:15-16, CEV).
In this passage, God establishes concern and respect for all creatures. Gospel teachings show that humans are not only charged with compassion toward animals, but to learn from their faith and humility. Observing the role of animals in these stories also helps us to understand more about who Jesus is.
John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, CEV). At key moments in the Gospels, Jesus dwells among animals as a sign of humility and of connectedness with God’s creation. He is born in a stable and sleeps in a feeding trough (Luke 2:7). At the start of his ministry, he goes out into the wilderness, staying among the wild beasts (Mark 1:13). He compares the lives of animals to his own itinerant life (Luke 9:58). At the end of his ministry, Jesus enters into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey (Mark 11:1-10). When “the Passover lambs were being killed” (Mark 14:12, CEV), he shares a Passover meal with his disciples. Jesus ultimately becomes “The Lamb of God,” giving up his own body for the redemption of creation. It is noted in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews that through Christ’s death, God no longer wanted animals to be killed through sacrifice. If the Law teaches that offerings and sacrifices must be made because of sin, why did Christ mention these things and say that God did not want them? “It was to do away with offerings and sacrifices and to replace them… So we are made holy because Christ obeyed God and offered himself once for all” (Hebrews 10:8-10, CEV).
Jesus is one who dwells among and is identified with the poor and the weak, and with the animals of creation. He provides new life for all people, and spares the lives of animals.
“Don't worry about having something to eat, drink, or wear. Isn't life more than food or clothing? Look at the birds in the sky! They don't plant or harvest. They don't even store grain in barns. Yet your Father in heaven takes care of them” (Matthew 6:25-26, CEV). Jesus calls us to identify with and to learn from the animals as well. Birds become a model for trusting in God’s provision (Matthew 6:25-26; Luke 12:6-7). In the parable of the mustard seed, they also serve as a metaphor for those who make their home in the realm of God (Matthew 13:31-32). Jesus’ respect for and identification with the animals of God’s creation is an indication that we are called to respect animals, and to appreciate them as a source of understanding about God’s concern for the all of creation.
This doesn’t mean that animals always received favor in Jesus’ eyes (Matthew 7:6). A Canaanite woman convinces Jesus to heal her despite the fact that she is not an Israelite, saying that “even dogs get the crumbs that fall from their owner’s table” (Matthew 15:27, CEV).
Animals and humans play different roles both in the Bible and in our world today. It is clear from the text that our lives have been interconnected with the lives of animals from the very start of creation, and that they can show us new ways of understanding God.
Looking at the Text
Read some of the texts referencing birds:
- Genesis 8:6-12
- Psalm 104:16-17
- Ecclesiastes 9:12
- Hosea 11:11
- Mark 1:10-12
- Matthew 6:25-26
- Matthew 13:31-32
- Luke 12:6-7
How do birds function in these texts? How are they used as symbols? How do these images resonate and/or contrast with your perceptions of the birds in your own context?
Read Hebrews 10:1-26 and Romans 8:19-23. What might Christ’s redemption mean for the animals of creation?
Looking at Our World
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2007 that hundreds of species are being disrupted, and many will be made extinct due to human-caused climate change. Do you think, based on the Biblical text, that God would be bothered by this? Do you think humans should repent when human activity leads to the extinction of parts of God’s creation? How?
Jenny Phillips writes resources for outdoor ministries and churches. She has a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York, NY.