Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some Thoughts on Animals in the Biblical World (for JH)

I'm starting this on Saturday night after being at Pride all day but will probably finish and post it tomorrow. On Monday I begin almost 3 weeks of housesitting at two different addresses. When I say housesitting, I really mean catsitting. Their humans are going away and so they need someone to attend them. For the next roughly two weeks, I'll be at Corinda looking after a delightful cat called Pi. And then on the 28th I go to Chelmer to look after Gerald. Gerald is quite elderly and will sometimes get distressed late at night which can make for disturbed sleep. But he's quite a sweetie too.

There's a number of cats that I've gotten to know over the last five years or so and I look forward to being able to spend time with them. It's not easy to have pets when you're renting and where I used to live, when I was studying, was also not a good place for animals, being unfenced and on a corner block, the kind of corner that seemed to bring out the worst in drivers. So I look forward to spending time with my animal friends. One place I regularly sit, they also feed their possums and four years ago I was there for almost five months. I got quite friendly with one possum and of an evening I would call out "possum" and I would hear the thump and scratchings of a possum on the roof and next thing I knew the possum would appear on the back deck. It would often hang down by its tail and I used to put food into its paws, which it would eat still hanging above me.

My first experience of death was the death of our first family dog. I was only about 4 or going on 5 when it happened. It was while we still lived in Lithgow so I know how young I was at the time. I have never forgotten him and after we settled in Brisbane there was a hankering from my brothers and I for a dog. Eventually we were adopted by a dog. I remember after school I was lying on the grass in the back yard and next thing I knew there was a snuffling at my ear. I opened my eyes and there was this dog who'd just wandered in off the street. Much pressure on our parents to keep him was successful and he lived with us for many years until he was run over in the street in 1968. I would be adopted by another dog in my 20s who turned up one morning at the front gate of the house I was living in at the time. She was very timid at first. I think she'd been dumped as she turned out to be pregnant. And I think her previous owners did not treat her well. She loved kids. I remember coming home early from work one day to see her on the front footpath surrounded by some school kids who were patting and fussing over her. And she loved it. I have also been adopted by a number of cats, too, in my life.

There is a book that didn't get into any biblical canon, 2 Enoch or the Secrets of Enoch. It only survives in Slavonic but it probably dates from the 1st century and from before the first Jewish War. In chapters 58 and 59, there are some strong and remarkable pronouncements concerning animals. Chapter 58 basically expands on what human dominionship over creation entails vis a vis animals. It recounts how God made all the animals and brought them before Adam to name them. It then declares

The Lord will not judge a single soul of beast for man's sake, but adjudges the souls of men to their beasts in this world; for men have a special place.

And as every soul of man is according to number, similarly beasts will not perish, nor all souls of beasts which the Lord created, till the great judgement, and they will accuse man, if he feed them ill. (57: 6-7)

In other words at the final judgement, the animals will be there to give account of human actions towards them. Chapter 59 opens saying, 'WHOEVER defiles the soul of beasts, defiles his own soul.' and, after summarising the correct way of sacrificing animals concludes, 'And he who does any beast any injury whatsoever, in secret, it is evil practice, and he defiles his own soul.' Furthermore in the Testament of Zebulon, part of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a text that was part of the Armenian Old Testament for many centuries, Zebulon exhorts his children:

And now, my children, I bid you to keep the commands of the Lord, and to show mercy upon your neighbour, and to have compassion towards all, not towards men only, but also towards beasts. For for this thing's sake the Lord blessed me; and when all my brethren were sick I escaped without sickness, for the Lord knoweth the purposes of each. Have therefore compassion in your hearts, my children, because even as a man doeth to his neighbour, even so also will the Lord do to him (T.Zeb 5:1-2)

Perhaps the thinking expressed by these texts lies behind the 7th injunction of the Noachide Covenant for righteous Gentiles, as taught by the Rabbinic sages, not to eat flesh torn from a living creature. I have read a number of accounts in the last few years arguing that this injunction is meant to enforce ethical treatment of animals. In Leviticus as Literature (2000), Mary Douglas argues that the whole purpose of the Jewish dietary laws in Leviticus is to enforce an ethical approach to animals and the relationship of human beings to other creatures. Being denoted as unclean, out of bounds for sacrifice and food, is actually a good place to be for pigs and rabbits and prawns and crabs. And Douglas points out that at the time Leviticus is thought to have been written "the whole world as it was known to those who lived between the Mediterranean and the Aegean and on through Asia Minor to the Himalayas, was engaged in theological controversy about the right to take animal life" (171). And her observations are underscored by the fact that the Orthodox rabbi here in Brisbane I met with regularly, while doing my PhD, to learn more about Jewish biblical interpretation, was in fact vegetarian.

Christianity abolished the Law or, perhaps, opted to live under a simplified Noachic rule rather than the Mosaic one. But at least up until the Renaissance and Reformation, Monasteries observed a vegetarian regime with meat only reserved for the sick in the infirmary. In the West, there is also the outstanding example of Francis of Assissi famous for his preaching to the birds. Here is Bonaventure's account from Friar Jack Wintz's Musings

“He came to a spot where a large flock of birds of various kinds had come together. When God’s saint saw them, he quickly ran to the spot and greeted them as if they were endowed with reason….

“He went right up to them and solicitously urged them to listen to the word of God, saying, ‘Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part.’…The birds showed their joy in a remarkable fashion: They began to stretch their necks, extend their wings, open their beaks and gaze at him attentively.

“He went through their midst with amazing fervor of spirit, brushing against them with his tunic. Yet none of them moved from the spot until the man of God made the sign of the cross and gave them permission to leave; then they all flew away together. His companions waiting on the road saw all these things. When he returned to them, that pure and simple man began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before.”

And Wintz adds:

Thomas of Celano, who wrote an earlier biography of St. Francis, told this same story of Francis’ sermon to the birds, including Francis’ admission of “negligence,” but Celano adds this sentence: “From that day on, [Francis] carefully exhorted all birds, all animals, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures, to praise and love the creator…” (see I Celano XXI)
And I am also reminded that it was humans not animals that drove St Seraphim of Sarov from his forest hermitage. A band of robbers assaulted him and left him for dead.

In many respects, the medieval world (and eastern Christianity almost to this day) is strongly influenced by a Platonic theology of a hierarchy of being ranging from the angelic world through to the humblest insects and worms. This worldview comes to an end or at least loses its dominance around the time of the Renaissance and Reformation. The Reformation desacralises the world. Then Descartes puts the human 'I' at the very centre of all existence, disconnected and non-material. The world of matter is a mechanical world, only humans have souls. Consequently animals don't count. And with the rise of a reductionist and mechanist world view and an economic system based on it, the way was open to view animals as little machines, programmed by God or Nature or DNA. But creatures like us with their own fears and joys? Not at all, hence the rise of factory farms and the incredible abuse of animals. And we laugh at the medievals for wanting to put animals on trial but at least they acknowledged some kind of personhood to the animals in their world as the story of Francis shows.

Yakov Leib HaKohain from Donmeh West highlights a different perspective drawing on Jewish tradition. Firstly here's his take on the story of Balaam's ass in Numbers 22:

Moreover, consider the following story from the Bible of Balaam's donkey, a dumb animal:

"Balaam's going kindled the wrath of Yahweh, and the angel of Yahweh took his stand on the road to bar his way. He was riding his donkey . . . . Now the donkey saw the angel of Yahweh standing on the road . . . . and she turned off the road and made off across the country. But Balaam beat her to turn her back on to the road. The angel of Yahweh then took his stand on a narrow path among the vineyards with a wall to the right and a wall to the left. The donkey saw the angel of Yahweh and brushed against the wall, grazing Balaam's foot. Balaam beat her again. The angel of Yahweh moved and took up his stand in a place so narrow that there was no room to pass right or left. When the donkey saw the angel of Yahweh, she lay down under Balaam. Balaam flew into a rage and beat her with his stick.

"Then Yahweh opened the mouth of the donkey, who said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you? Why do you beat me three times?' . . . . Then Yahweh opened the eyes of Balaam. He saw the angel of Yahweh standing on the road, a drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down and fell prostrate on his face. And the angel of Yahweh said to him, 'Why did you beat your donkey three times like that? . . . . The donkey saw me and turned aside from me three times. You are lucky she did turn aside or I would have killed you by now, though I would have spared her.'" (Numbers 22:22)

Here we see that Balaam's donkey, a dumb animal, could see the angel of Yahweh whereas Balaam himself could not and, intuitively understanding its intention, she surrendered to its will three times, out of what could only have been her soul's inherent knowledge of its creator. Now ask yourselves this: Who here has the "higher" soul? The man who cannot see the angel of the Lord, or the dumb animal who does?"

This kind of statement drives the inflated ego of some people crazy. How dare anyone, they assert, imply that an animal's soul -- in this case, that of a dumb ass -- is not only on a par with, but possibly higher than, that of a man? The answer, of course (whether they like it or not) is because that's precisely what the Bible story of Balaam's donkey is saying . . . . for anyone, that is, who has ears to hear it.

But just as Balaam's own bloated ego led him to whip his donkey three times out of his spiritual blindness, so too we dismiss and "whip" our animals out of ours -- never understanding that without their intercession on our behalf we, like Balaam, are threatened by Yahweh's punishment for being unable to see with our spiritual eyes what they can see so readily with theirs. (Numbers 22:22)

His comments are oddly evocative of those pronouncements in 2 Enoch. And here is a remarkable story from the Jewish Midrashim which share in the quality of Oral Torah in Judaism.

This point is made even more forcefully in a Midrash (Oral Scripture) which states:

"Because the dogs of Egypt did not bark when the Children of Israel fled Egypt, Almighty God rewarded them with the [unkosher] hind-quarters of cattle. Therefore, whenever anyone who has eaten unkosher meat comes to the Gates of Paradise, the dogs who stand at guard there say to him, 'You may not enter here because you ate our portion'."

When I was told this Midrash by a Hassidic Rabbi at his Shabbas table, I asked him, "Rebbe, what does this mean?" To which he answered (somewhat impatiently, I might add), "It means that Jews are not to eat unkosher meat." To which I replied, "But Rebbe, does it not also mean that dogs have souls? Otherwise, how could they be standing at the Gates of Paradise? And does it not mean as well that God has given to these very dogs the power to judge among us humans who is fit to enter into heaven, and who is not?" I was never invited back to his Shabbas table again.
I think his is a quite delightful perspective here. I can't help but think of 2 Enoch again and the animals that testify for or against humans at the last judgement. Animals are persons, too, with their own desires, loves and fears. We humans are persons too but as 2 Enoch suggests, we have a capacity and an awe-inspiring responsibility towards the planet. That we have made such a mess is testimony enough to that capacity and responsibility.

HaKohain quotes one more passage from Jewish Oral Tradition which is evocative of the story of St Francis

consider this quotation from Jewish Oral Scripture (Torah Sh'Baal Peh):

"Every being -- from the heavenly hosts, to man, to the tiniest creature -- blesses God with the words of the Psalm (89:53), Boruch Yahweh l'olam, omayin v'omayin! -- 'Bless Yahweh forever, amen and amen'." (Midrash, quoted in The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet, Rabbi Michael L. Munk, Mesorah Press, 1983, p. 56)

Given that the "Oral" Torah (set down in the Midrash, Talmud, Zohar, etc.) is considered in Jewish tradition to be equal in authority to the "Written" Torah (i.e., "Old Testament") -- and that both were given simultaneously to Moses on Mt. Sinai (e.g. see Abraham Cohen, Everyman's Talmud, Schocken Books, 1995, pp. 146-149)

On the strength of such Oral Torah, HaKohain argues that animals have souls, "even the tiniest among them." He goes on to state that they also know the Torah and can speak Hebrew, which strikes a jarringly literalist note. But rather might it mean that animals have no sense of separation from the Divine, unlike we humans. So blessing the Divine comes easily to them (I hesitate to say automatically).

I remember as a child in convent school, the question would recur "Will animals get to heaven?" It represented a concern for the wellbeing of our pets who we loved. I've seen such concerns crop up on the sites of Left Behind Religion. Will our pets be left behind? The discussons can be quite touching, really.

And so I want to close these jottings with some passages from Isaiah, which very much more than Thomas is the fifth gospel of Christianity. Both pertain to the vision of the final restoration and consummation of all creation. "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11.6). This passage might be exuberant metaphor but it also signifies that humans and animals, all, will join in the new order, an order of overarching solidarity, both amongst animals and animals and humans. This chapter of Isaiah continues, "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11.9). And it is echoed here, "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD." (Isaiah 65.25). The holy mountain is the Temple, which represents Eden. The consummation marks the restoration of Eden. Revelation closes looking forward to a new heaven and new earth with a vision of a new Jerusalem descending without a Temple, the place where earth and heaven meet, because Earth is now permeated by Heaven through and through. All of earth is now heaven, which is why Hosea can proclaim, "And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely." (Hos. 2.18). All of animalkind is included in a covenant with Yahweh.

So are animals unimportant in the cosmos? Are they locked out of Heaven and its ways? Are they just objects subject to the bow and sword of human desire and convenience? Do they have no stake in the tikkun olam, the repair of the world? Those who might answer 'yes' think carefully before you speak. Remember the dogs who guard the Gates of Paradise (I'm sure the cats are there, too, to give back-up).


  1. Have an email from a friend who wanted to add a comment but couldn't for some reason. I'm sure I've got the settings right for people to comment so I'm up for any advice on that.

    But here's my friend's comment:

    Michael, thank you! Romans 8:19 is another indication of the place of the other "persons" in the creation. Best translated I think in the song "All creation's standing on Tiptoe, just to see the sons of man come into their own" (unfortunate, difficult to change genderised English) but, "standing on tiptoe..." We are being watched. I apologised to a magpie this morning for talking baby talk to it. (that was Caruso whom I identify individually by her personality and food preferences)

  2. Please check out this unique Understanding of the non-human inhabitants of this mostly non-human world.


  3. Whoops rather unconscious there. It should have been

  4. Just as we are deified through the Uncreated Energies of God - sanctifying grace - so I also believe that animals are "humanized" through our love for them. They are a part of God's plan for humanity and for the cosmos. In and of their animal nature, they could not get into Heaven (St. Thomas Aquinas was right there) - insofar as we love them and they are our pets, raised up to fellowship with man by our love for them, how could they be excluded?