Mars Hill Forum #9: Animal Rights and the Bible

John C. Rankin

[excerpted from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, Vol. 1,  now out of print]

In October, 1994, I hosted a Mars Hill Forum at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, and my guest was an ordained minister, Marc Wessels, who served as head of the International Network for Religion and Animals. Our topic was: “Animal Rights And The Bible: Are They In Conflict?”

Marc’s language treated animals as “persons” with certain rights. He continually personified animals in order to accrue to them as many “human rights” as possible, focusing on passages in the Bible that reflect good stewardship of animals. Marc calls himself a “pragmatic idealist” who thought it was wrong to use leather and eat meat, but he also said that he was not successful at living fully up to this standard himself. At this point he was both candid and modest.

British singer and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney is an outspoken animal-rights activist, but he became willing nonetheless to allow his late wife Linda to use some cancer-fighting agents which had been tested on animals. His love for his wife reflects the image of God, as he placed the human life of his wife above animal life.

But the real question for me is whether Wessels’s position was informed by the Bible on its own terms, or by an accommodation with secular and pagan animal-rights ideologies. For example, the leading animal-rights group in the nation is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). I tried on several occasions to have one of their spokespersons address a Mars Hill Forum, but they did not want to deal with someone whose interest was theological, so they referred me to Marc Wessels’s group. The very name of PETA is interesting. How are animals treated ethically? Do we treat them as humans or as animals? And if we apply human ethical standards to animals, are we not imposing human standards on them – the very “speciesm” (bigotry of one species against another, as it were) that PETA reputedly opposes?

Human ethics is how we treat each other, and the standards that govern such relationships. What are animal ethics – how do animals treat each other? Well, lions do eat antelopes, and big fish eat smaller fish. Many animal-rights activists adopt a macroevolutionary view that mankind has evolved from animals over time. Yet here the animal-rights activists want such an animal heritage disavowed – that somehow we have evolved far enough to no longer eat animals, to no longer use them for clothing, riding, plowing or research.

But how then could we have evolved to begin with, if PETA standards had always been in place? Would not the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” ethos (for those who believe it) have guaranteed the extinction of the human race if mankind refused to use animal meat and skin? How could the Eskimos keep themselves warm without whale blubber for oil and animal skins for clothing – before they could import or harvest other fuel, cotton, and before the invention of synthetic materials? Native American spirituality, which is attractive to many environmentalists, is profoundly grateful for the use of animals for meat and clothing. The Lakota (Sioux) Indians treat buffalo this way. If we apply human ethics to our treatment of animals, should we not also require animals to treat each other by the same ethics in order to be consistent in this sense? And if so, what is the difference between imposing on animals as we eat their meat, and imposing on animals to deny them the “right” to eat other animals?

Animal Stewardship

Having said this, the Bible is equally concerned that our treatment of animals is not cruel – that it reflects on our part a thankfulness for such provision. Whereas animals do not bear God’s image, they are creatures he has made for our well-being and enjoyment, and they have their own unreflective identities. They also are to receive in their animal nature the benefit of the Sabbath rest  (e.g. the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 5:14).

When God prohibits Noah from eating meat “that has its lifeblood still in it” (Genesis 9:4), many people have been uncertain as to what exactly is being referred to. Some people will refuse therefore to have prime rib au jus – in its natural juices which involves the animal blood. Jehovah’s Witnesses take this as a prohibition against blood transfusion. Based on their tradition where their own Bible “translation” makes arbitrary changes in the text for the sake of their theological assumptions, they exalt a pursuit of the “good” (holding to their “faith”) over the biblical definition of good. If a blood transfusion becomes necessary to save one of their lives, they will instead risk death and say no to it.

What is at play in this phrase then? Simply, an animal “that has its lifeblood still in it” is an animal which is alive. God was saying that to eat animals while they are still alive is unnatural, and reflects a cruel spirit on the part of the person doing it. If you want a steak, slaughter the cow first. Otherwise, respect the cow for its nature as a living animal. Beyond the Noahic covenant, this practice is also prohibited in the Mosaic covenant, with the added dimension that Israel was being separated from the surrounding pagan nations that had rejected the Noahic covenant, nations which had religious rituals where different animals were eaten alive.

From this prohibition, God then tells Noah that man will be held accountable a) for the lifeblood of every animal, and b) the lifeblood of every person. The accountability is to be faithful to the purpose of the order of creation, and part of this is distinguishing the difference between man and beast. To be held accountable for the lifeblood of animals does not mean that its blood cannot be shed for meat and leather, but that in so doing, it is respected as a gift of God for man’s provision. This is exactly how the Lakota regard the buffalo, as part of their survival skills in a difficult environment with little technology – even if their understanding of the Creator was lacking. Man has provision at the cost of the animal’s blood, and this cost as part of the order of creation is to be respected, principally out of worship for God.

In this light, we understand the Bible’s treatment of animals. On the one hand animals are for food, religious sacrifice and representative atonement leading up to the Messiah as the Lamb of God, for clothing and parchment on which to write the Scriptures. On the other hand, an ox that treads the grain is not to be muzzled, i.e., thus allowed to eat some of the grain while treading it as part of meeting its needs; see Deuteronomy 25:4. This principle is also applied by Paul, for the provision of the material needs of ministers of the Gospel as they serve the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:7-12; 1 Timothy 5:17-18).

Animals that kill humans are to be stoned, and if the owner had not properly restrained the animal, his life was also in jeopardy apart from the redemption price being paid (Exodus 21:28-34). Bestiality (sex with animals) is the most perverted of sexual sins (cf. Leviticus 18:23), as it utterly rejects the image of God and dehumanizes those who participate in it. Animals can be peaceful or vulnerable to being demonized. It was Satan who first polluted the God-given nature of animals, both in terms of demonizing a snake to tempt the man and woman, but as well, bestiality equals the most extreme reversal of the God, life, choice, sex motif. As God’s image-bearers, we share God’s goodness, which means that originally the animals were created for his pleasure – as they have an intrinsic beauty as part of the creation, and filled the earth with forms of life as part of the ecology of a planet ultimately for God to share with us.

A Jew or a Christian, as a good steward, will not countenance any cruelty to animals. I do not like such practices as bull fighting, dog fighting and cock fighting one inch. I have no interest in blood-letting as entertainment or sport, and I think it reflects a cruel spirit that mocks the order of God’s creation. Circuses should treat animals well and should respect the limits of animals, just as the ox’s limits are respected when it treads the grain, or a horse when traveling a great distance is treated well by its rider. Horse training and horse racing should refrain from whips and yells, and place confidence in a peaceful human spirit winning the best performance of the animal. The same is true for dog racing or lion taming. (I do not like the gambling spirit that permeates the horse racing and dog racing industries, but my point here is separate from that reality. Turtle racing and frog jumping tend to be free from such a bondage, perhaps because it involves children and no money per se.)

In the early 1990s I met a woman horse trainer, and an editor of an equestrian magazine, who spoke to me at length about this. I know very little about horses in general, but since she is also a Christian, I peppered her with some questions. I asked if it were possible to train and race horses without using negative incentives, e.g. whips, against their bodies and “psychological” instincts. She gave me an emphatic “yes” and explained very much to me. The reason I asked the question ties into the difference between the Adamic and Noahic covenants, and the nature of Daniel in the lion’s den and Francis of Assisi’s reputation with animals.

In the order of creation, the animals were unthreatening to Adam and Eve, since their authority of the power to give was intact. No dread was in the animal kingdom toward mankind, and animals were free according to their nature and in view of their temporal survival instincts, to have carnivores in their midst, since death holds no moral loss for animals. After the introduction of human sin, we see the Noahic covenant where the authority of mankind over the animals has to condescend to the inspiring of dread in order to maintain itself.

How does the reversal of the reversal affect such a prescription of dread, prior to the second coming? And what do we make of the passage in Isaiah 65:25 that prophetically describes the new heaven and new earth of God’s eternal kingdom? It reads:

” ‘The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the LORD.”

There are certain aspects to this passage which modify the temptation to be too simplistic in our interpretation, e.g., the lands outside the New Jerusalem, where the city might equal the domesticated “holy mountain,” and animals behave as animals always have outside of it (cf. the dimensions described in Revelation 21), and the serpent’s food as the dust, being a reference to the judgment of Satan.

Too, we see a restoration to the power to give in these words as the power to destroy is abolished. But does a lion eating straw return us to a nature it had in the order of creation? My premise is that the reversal of the reversal restores us to the promises of the order of creation, especially in terms of ethics, of relationships. The difficulty is that the Bible never states that carnivores are not present in the order of creation, and when we see the distinction between the beasts of the field and the livestock in Genesis 2, the evidence would seem to point away from lions eating straw at the outset.

Thus, the lion eating straw indicates a telos or perfection in God’s holy mountain where a certain element in the order of creation is superseded, not because it was lacking, but because the goal has been attained, one where the intrinsic nature of entering Yahweh’s eternal Sabbath by definition transcends an order that was limited by space, time and number. Human sexuality is a part of the order of creation, but it is transcended in the reversal of the reversal where there is no longer the need for marriage and procreation. Jesus, in his resurrection body, walks through a door without opening it, in similar transcendence. Also, in the New Jerusalem as God’s eternal city, there is no longer the need for a sun, transcending the order of creation, since the presence of God provides all the light necessary. This is a mixed metaphor, since the new earth also defined, is outside of the city. The Bible often uses mixed metaphors, and their unsplicing often reveals the truth, similar to how the unsplicing of genes teaches us much about their original composition.

Thus, we can say that the reversal of the reversal removes the dread, and the question is to what extent can we “taste of the power of the age to come” where we can remove that dread between man and animals in this life? We have seen many who have attempted, and succeeded to various extents in the natural world. We can note this in the training of horses or lions, among others. However, there are limits, especially in a sinful world, where human lives have also been lost in the attempt.

The supernatural authority, to which believers in Yahweh have access, is another matter. Here we can consider Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6). Daniel had been betrayed by his subordinate magistrates in the Medo-Persian empire, where he was one of three administrators who oversaw 120 of them. Darius the king was unable to rescue Daniel due to the unchangeable legal code that this plot accomplished, and Daniel was consigned to be thrown into the lion’s den to be mauled and eaten as his punishment. Daniel was about 85 years old at this time and well acquainted with his God, the Hebrew Scriptures and spiritual power.

The text tells us that an angel of God shut the mouths of the lions so that Daniel was not harmed. I can easily see, as Daniel was lowered into the lion’s den, he was completely at peace, looked at the lions and said shalom, the Hebrew word for “peace” (rooted in a prior definition of “integrity” and “wholeness”). The lions obeyed, as the angel of God was present in response to Daniel’s prayers, as God ratified for Daniel a supernatural power in the face of the reversal, in a restoration of the Adamic authority in the order of creation. Perhaps too, we can speculate, that Daniel had a most restful sleep that night, with the cushion and warmth of a lion’s mane as his pillow. Or at least, he rested apart from them in complete peace and spiritual authority.

In all these scenarios and questions about how to treat animals, the overwhelming distinctive is that biblical ethics are determined by the image of God. Animals are in service to us as part of the ecology, and we do not despoil what is meant to serve us. But cruelty for sport and the killing of a cow for a steak are two very different things. The Bible recognizes such a difference in its natural application of the assumptions in the Noahic covenant.

Thus we see God speaking through a donkey to the rebellious prophet Bala’am (Numbers 22:21-41) – not that the donkey was a person, but that it was God’s means to serve the protection of the covenantal Jewish people at a specific point of need. We see the metaphor of a “wild donkey” applied to Ishmael (Genesis 16:12), and the metaphor of a “lion’s cub” applied to Judah (Genesis 49:9) – metaphors in service to image-bearers of God, in both negative and positive imagery. Metaphors from the animal world as well as the rest of creation abound in the Bible.

God gives the freedom to be blessed by pets, seeing eye dogs (redemptive in the face of human blindness, such which will be healed in the resurrection for those who believe), police dogs (redemptive in the face of crime …) and even cockroaches equipped with electronic detection devices to go where no man can go. Animal research has provided much scientific data that has served human health, and saved many lives. I do not like research that deliberately tortures animals, but are there are times when research on rats or mice which demonstrate certain tolerance levels to pain, is in service to human welfare? Suffering for animals and suffering for humans are two different moral equations.

A biblical balance, introduced in the Noahic covenant, places animals in full service to human well-being, and equally proscribes the abuse of animals for sport.