For God So Loved the Animals

We tend to forget that man’s very first action was not to build a house, plant a garden, or even worship God. His first responsibility was to interact with animals. God formed ravens and eagles, elephants and dogs, every living creature, paraded them before Adam, and gave him the authority to name them.

On the day of his creation, before he ate and drank, before he found a mate, before everything else, man cared for animals. They stood before him not in fear, but in communion and community. He was like their mother and father all rolled into one, giving them their names when they emerged from the womb of the earth into this bright and beautiful new world.

It wasn’t just a dog who was man’s best friend. Dung beetles and alligators, sparrows and giraffes, they all looked Adam in the eye and saw in him their father, their loving king.

I’ve heard thousands of sermons over my lifetime. Some of them dealt with the most esoteric of themes, subjects over which the Bible has little if anything to say explicitly. What is strange, and disappointing, is that not one of them addressed a theme that reverberates from Genesis to Revelation: @@As God loves and cares for animals, so we who are his image-bearers in this world, are called to love and care for them, too.@@

Faithful, God-Fearing Animals

Have you ever noticed that God’s concern for animals is smack dab in the middle of one of the most well-known portions of Scripture—the Ten Commandments? Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. But also remember that the Sabbath is not only for you, but for your animals. “The seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall do no work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you” (Exodus 20:11). Sabbath is not only for humans, but for animals as well.

In fact, I suspect the only creatures who were willingly obedient to the Sabbath command were the animals. For over and over in the biblical story, birds and beasts prove far more faithful to God than we do.

For instance, as the Flood approached, Noah didn’t have to trap and net and herd the animals into the ark. While almost the entire human population scoffed at God’s warning and refused his call to repent, the animals came quite willingly (Gen 7:8-9). So there weren’t just eight believers on the ark, for in the heart of all the animals too, there was an implicit trust in their Creator. As if to honor them, after the flood, God makes a covenant not only with humanity, but with the animals, too (9:16).

And that’s just one story. The Bible is full of them. Here are but three examples.

1.     While Jonah disobediently fled from God’s calling, the fish obediently answered the divine call to swallow the unfaithful prophet (1:17).

2.     When Balaam was on his way to curse Israel, blind to anything but his own will, his donkey saw the angel of the Lord and saved his master’s life (Numbers 22). God even opened the donkey’s mouth to rebuke Balaam. On the donkey’s back sat a recalcitrant, cruel, man of lies, while the beast was true, faithful, merciful, and honest. This animal proved a far better preacher than Balaam.

3.     In Elijah’s day, while those created in the image and likeness of God were worshiping idols, murdering people, and trampling underfoot the word of the Lord, the ravens remained faithful to the divine will as they brought Elijah food in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:4-6).

You get the point. @@I suspect that if animals could preach, they’d soon have all the human clergy on the unemployment line.@@

The Gospel Is for All Creation

This is not to say, of course, that animals remain unaffected by human sin and evil. All creation stands downwind from our rebellion against God. The whole world, Paul says, is in slavery, groans and suffers, because of us. We are the reason volcanoes erupt, hurricanes drown, snakes strike, ants sting, dogs bite. We, the fathers and mothers of creation, the kings and queens of this world, are the fountainhead of all corruption and evil that permeates creation. So don’t ever point your finger at Mother Nature and blame her; we, not she, are the guilty party.

For us, the guilty party, God himself was crucified. Yet I find it most interesting, that in the psalm that describes, in prophetic detail, what happens on that cross, animal metaphors are all over the place. “Many bulls have surrounded me,” the crucified Messiah prays (Ps 22:12). His enemies are like “a ravening and roaring lion,” (v. 13). He goes on to say, “Dogs have surrounded me,” (v. 16).

Bulls, lions, dogs. Why all these metaphors from the animal kingdom to describe humanity as it encircles the crucified Savior? I suspect I know why. Because the man on the cross, God incarnate, is there for all creation, not just humanity.

The death and resurrection of Christ is for us and for all creation. He dies for our sin, yes, but he also rises to usher in a new world, which we await in hope. The Gospel, the good news, is also good news to dogs and cows and lions and fish and birds. It’s good news to trees and mountains, rivers and oceans, dirt and rocks. When Christ returns to form a new heavens and a new earth, all creation will be set free from its slavery to corruption and brought into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom 8:21). @@Good Friday and Easter are for the animal kingdom, too.@@

What is the upshot of all this? We who are God’s stewards, the earthly fathers and mothers of creation, have some work to do. We need to relearn what it means to care for animals, not exploit them. To recapture what it means to love and protect animals. To see in them not just a tool, a thing for us to use or abuse, but as those with whom we will share the new creation to come.

And, I might add, we remind ourselves to be a little more humble around animals. Because, chances are, in ways unbeknownst to us, in ways too mysterious and impenetrable for our observation, our pets watch us and lift their eyes toward heaven with a silent prayer that we, like them, will one day learn to live on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.