I’d like to start with what according to Wikipedia is a famous, but possibly made-up, quote. The 20th century scientist and writer J B S Haldane was once asked what could be deduced about the mind of the Creator from studying God’s creation. His reply was “an inordinate fondness for beetles”. This relates to the fact that over a quarter of all known animal species are beetles - around 350,000 species. (And there are probably more as yet undiscovered.)
This is the final sermon in our series on Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology. Today we’re looking at a specific section of the book, which is actually about wild and domestic animals. There’s also more about animals elsewhere in the book, which other preachers have already spoken about. A more accurate title for today would be “some thoughts about wild animals – especially the dangerous ones – and about domestic animals”. Accurate but not very snappy.
I’ve found the book inspiring and thought-provoking. I particularly like the way Richard Bauckham looks at a range of scriptures, not just the more obvious ones, to show how God’s good purposes are for both humans and the non-human creation. But I’ve found today’s topic difficult to get to grips. I have some questions – for example about suffering and evil in the animal kingdom – which, as Bauckham puts it, are unlikely to be answered “this side of the end of history”. Bauckham points out that “the Bible is a book for humans” and that God has a relationship with the animals that we don’t know about and doesn’t need to be mediated by us. As we heard from Lesley’s sermon on the book of Job, recognising our lack of understanding about God’s creation can lead us to greater humility, and help us find our place alongside the other creatures God has made in the community of creation. Going back to Haldane’s quote, maybe God does have a special fondness for beetles - there are many things we just don’t know.
On the other hand, there are some wonderful things we can learn from the scriptures.
Reading: Isaiah 11: 1-10
This passage focuses on a particular group of wild animals – those that might harm people and their livestock. The background has been pointed out in previous sermons, especially Veronica’s. One of the worst consequences of the fall was ever-increasing violence, affecting both humans and animals and resulting in broken relationships. Following the flood, God makes a covenant not only with Noah but also with every other living creature on the ark. This includes measures that limit violence but don’t totally deal with it – including that humans are for the first time allowed to eat meat, although with certain restrictions, and animals will live in “fear and dread” of humans. It leaves the world a place in which two major fears for people are predation by dangerous wild animals and predation by invading armies.
Broadly-speaking there are two ways the Bible talks about dealings between humans and animals – one realistic, as in what I’ve just said about the aftermath of the flood, and the other paradisal, picturing in various ways a return to Eden or a new creation. Isaiah 11 is one of the most far-reaching visions of a new creation, looking forward to the peaceable kingdom of the Messiah. Through the knowledge of the Lord, the Messiah establishes justice among humans and peace with wild animals. The picture here is of things being put right, first among the Messiah’s own people, then spreading out to encompass all nations in universal peace.
A key feature is the establishment of peaceful relationships between wild animals and people (and people’s livestock). The passage isn’t primarily interested in the relationships between wild animals, but verse 7 makes it clear that carnivores have become herbivores and so that’s likely to make a big difference!
The passage talks about human children and young domestic animals – the most vulnerable - which no longer need fear wild animals. Likewise, wild animals no longer need fear people, as the human dominion commanded in Genesis 2 is exercised as it should be, in gentle and beneficial service, as Bauckham puts it. A little child can lead the wild animals, with no coercion, and they willingly follow.
Bauckham acknowledges the problems for modern readers in thinking about lions becoming vegetarians. (It’s one of the things the Wednesday homegroup has discussed.) It’s hard to see how this could work biologically, as lions and many other species are adapted to kill and eat other animals and can’t survive unless they eat meat. From our human perspective we might also feel that a lion that didn’t hunt other animals would have lost something of its essence, it’s lion-ness. Whilst writing this sermon I realised this doesn’t particularly bother me. On a purely practical level, in a world where scientists are working on making synthetic meat, I don’t think it’ll be too difficult for God to resolve this. And Bauckham reminds us that there are many things about the new creation we can’t comprehend, and it will involve a new creative act of God comparable to the wonders of the original creation.
But there’s another thing that I find more difficult. Science tells us that animals were eating other animals long before humans came on the scene and it’s difficult to square this with God’s command in Genesis 1. After God has created humans, Gen 1 vs 29-31 say “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move on the ground - everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food’. And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Bauckham says that this picture of animals and humans originally being vegetarian is idealised and should be seen as eschatological – in other words, I suppose, that hasn’t yet been a time that the world God created was very good in the way described here, but that these verses look forward to God’s ultimate plan for creation, a time when there will be no more violence and when all creation lives in harmony with God. I must admit I haven’t been used to looking at the creation accounts in this way and it challenges me to think again.
Mark 1: 9-13
Only Mark’s Gospel talks about animals being part of Jesus’ wilderness experience - “He was with the wild animals”, and Bauckham links this with the passage we heard from Isaiah 11. I once heard a comment about what I’m about to summarise that it might be stretching a point to build an argument from one word - “with”.
This may be a fair point, but I really like what Bauckham says. Jesus is baptised and designated the Messianic Son of God. I’m grateful to Chris for pointing out that the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the form of an animal – a dove. I’m not sure what all the symbolism of this would have been to the original readers, but Jesus told his disciples to be “as innocent as a dove” and I think of it as a gentle, non-violent image. Then he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to establish his relationship as Messiah with the non-human creation (Satan, wild animals and angels), before he establishes that relationship as Messiah with the human creation. Satan is clearly an enemy, angels clearly friends, but the wild animals are more ambiguous. Traditionally, as we have seen, they are enemies of people. However, the setting here is the wilderness, where the wild animals belong, as Sue pointed out in her recent sermon on wild places.
Bauckham says that the word “with” indicates Jesus’ peaceful presence, and has no sense of hostility. In Mark, “being with” is often used to describe a friendly closeness – for example of the disciples in Mark 3:14 “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach…” and so on. Bauckham sees in Jesus “being with” the animals a foreshadowing of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom. He points out that Mark could have viewed the ideal relationship between the Messiah and animals as being one of domination or of recruiting them to become domesticated – taming them if you like.
The Bible’s original readers would have had good reason to fear wild animals, so the promise of healing of the relationship between people and animals would be good news for people. And of course today in some parts of the world people still have cause to fear wild animals. For instance in the Sunderbans mangrove forests of Bangladesh around 50 people are killed every year by tigers. However, Bauckham points out that there’s been an enormous shift in the balance between humans and animals, and now it is overwhelmingly the animals that are threatened by humans. (Tigers, even those in Bangladesh, are gravely threatened and may soon become extinct in the wild.) But the good news of the reconciliation that Jesus brings is still good news in these changed circumstances. Bauckham suggests the way Jesus is “with” the animals in the wilderness can be a model for us – respecting animals to have independent value for themselves and for God and allowing them to live in peace in their own habitat. Interestingly, in the Sunderbans, there’s work going on which aims both to protect people and conserve the tigers – this seems to me an example of creative and practical peacemaking. One of the things in Bible and Ecology that I’ve been struck by is the recurring theme of violence and peace, and it seems to me that a Biblical understanding of God’s purposes for non-human animals fits very well with our calling to be a peace church. Having said this, we need to be wise. We can begin, in our limited way, to live lives that reflect God’s will for creation, but Bauckham warns people against trying to create utopias, which always fail. The full expression of the peaceable kingdom is for God to bring about.
Can we have our final three verses please?
So now we come to domestic animals. There is a wider discussion we could have about people becoming vegetarians, but that isn’t the main focus of the section in Bible and Ecology, and would need a whole sermon, or even a sermon series – so I’m not going to address that here.
Domestic animals are probably mentioned more than wild animals in the Bible – not surprisingly as they lived closely alongside Biblical people and were likely considered almost part of the household. Contrary to the view of some who are interested in animal rights today, the Bible doesn’t suggest that there’s anything wrong with the domestication of animals. In fact it seems to see a distinction between domestic and wild animals as being part of God’s intention. Accounts of the creation, flood, and the post-flood covenant all make a distinction between domestic and wild animals.
The Bible makes it clear that both humans and domestic animals are to benefit from the arrangement. The Hebrew scriptures contain specific instructions about looking after the welfare of domestic animals, such as the one we just heard – while the ox is threshing grain, it should be allowed to eat some of it. More generally, there are passages showing how people can relate to domestic animals in a way which mirrors God’s caring responsibility towards creation. Bauckham points out something I hadn’t seen before - about all those references to good and bad shepherds in the Bible. Although often given to illustrate human or divine leadership, they draw from an idea of a proper relationship between people and their domestic animals. Those passages wouldn’t make sense unless the readers understood what it meant to treat the flock well or badly.
I see Bauckham’s book as mostly about Biblical study rather than the nitty-gritty of our behaviour. But on the subject of domestic animals, Richard Bauckham is uncharacteristically forceful in condemning some of the things we humans do. Here’s one quote: “ …in the modern west, animal husbandry has largely been replaced by systematised brutality and exploitation quite unlike good farming practice in the past and in a different league of evil even from bad farming practice in the past. It cannot possibly be justified by reference to the Bible. Crucially, the Bible does not regard domestic animals as mere objects for people to use, but like wild animals, as subjects of their own lives.” This challenged me as, although I don’t normally eat meat, I eat dairy products and am therefore implicated in this systematised brutality, which I have chosen to ignore. Not many of us are livestock farmers, but by our choices as consumers we are linked to the systems of farming, for good or ill. Bauckham reflects on the Proverbs reading we just heard, to encourage us to use our ability to empathise to help us imagine something of what an animal’s experience might be. This may help us to act rightly towards domestic animals, and with true kindness and tenderness, in imitation of God’s character. There are resources to help us think further about this – for example the organisation Compassion in World Farming.
To conclude - something a bit more personal. Some of you won’t be surprised when I say I really like animals. That’s especially true of the cute and furry ones with big eyes, but I can even find beetles – and of course bats - fascinating. I’m not sure what Richard Bauckham would think of this, but one of the things I like about animals is that they make me laugh. One of my guilty pleasures is (very) occasionally watching television programmes like Planet’s Funniest Animals. But I also have a sense of wonder, of privilege and even awe in encountering wild animals – in real life or through books or films. What’s it like to be this slow loris – what’s going on in its head? What’s it like to be a penguin in an Antarctic winter – or even what’s it like to be the robin in our back garden? I think this is to do with what Bauckham describes as the value of otherness – recognising animals as distinct from us, having their own lives and their own value to God, and their own relationship to God. Contemplating this otherness, Bauckham thinks, might help people towards humility in recognising that it’s not all about us, what we achieve and control – and might also help us towards recognising the greater otherness of God, the creator and reconciler of all.