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Lambs and Lions

By gdvallance - Posted on 05 September 2009

16 August 2009 - 10:35am
Dr. Alison Salvesen


A well-known but probably apocryphal story concerns the (real) 'Jerusalem Biblical zoo' in Israel. This zoo's focus is on animals native to ancient Israel that are mentioned in the Bible. At one stage they tried to arrange the animals in tableaux according to various biblical passages. When the famous American politician Dr Henry Kissinger was trying to bring about peace in the Middle East, the zookeeper decided it would be appropriate to work on a tableau of the passage from Isaiah, 'the lion shall lie down with the lamb'. The day after Kissinger turned up in Israel, sure enough, the lamb and lion lay down together, day after day. A visitor was eager to learn how this miracle had come about, and eventually the zookeeper confessed that the secret was to put in a new lamb in the pen every morning....
I rather doubt this story is actually true, as a similar tale is also told of P.T. Barnum, and about the Moscow Zoo. The joke's impact is due to our certainty that such a thing could never happen: lions and lambs don't mix. Either the messianic age the Isaiah passage talks about has not yet arrived, or we shouldn't take every part of the Bible absolutely literally.
Because of course the messianic age has come. The earlier part of the passage in Isaiah ch. 11 (just before the bit about animals and small children) looks for the coming of a descendant of King David who will receive the Spirit of the Lord in every way, and be able to act as a righteous judge on behalf of the poor. As Christians we believe that that promise has been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. Tradition makes this clear by connecting our gospel reading about Jesus' baptism with this OT one: God's Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism at the start of his ministry on earth. So we are living in the messianic age, Anno Domini, the year of our Lord. And so on a literal reading of this passage of Isaiah, lambs and lions ought to have been lying down together for a couple of millennia, and our youngest church members ought to be playing with snakes regularly.
It may be that some Christian groups project all this into the future, to the Second Coming of Christ, in order to preserve a literal understanding of the passage: 'taking the Bible seriously', some might say. But it's clear that the messianic bit just beforehand has also to be understood as metaphorical - poetry, not statement - because it talks about the Spirit-filled figure being 'a shoot from the stump of Jesse' who strikes the earth with the rod of his mouth and slays the wicked with the breath of his lips, someone who wears righteousness as a belt and faithfulness as a sash on his hips': this is not a literal description of someone wearing a belt or with a stick comign out of his mouth, but a poetic, metaphorical description of a longed-for Saviour and we should understand it as such. So equally we're not going to be sending Naima and Abi snake-hunting or lion-leading on the basis of this passage!
Early Christian writers who weren't affected by either religious liberalism or modern scepticism also took the animal passage non-literally. To them the lion and the snake and the wolf represented the power of the devil, and death, overcome by the Lamb of God. In Christ, even children could resist the power of the devil, they argued.
The literalist reading of the passage is partly due to the vivid presentation of all these interesting animals - rather exotic to us, and rather feared by the original readers of Isaiah. The animal world and animal behaviour have always fascinated humans. The earliest figurative art that has been preserved either involves fertility (even sex! another fascinating subject for humans) or it depicts animals. The cave paintings in Lascaux and other caves in France date between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, and they are really works of art, mentioned in survey courses on art history. It's been argued that the paintings were intended to have some kind of magical effect on the animals, by capturing their essence and so help hunters capture them; or that they represent some kind of star chart; or that they are what the painters saw when they got high on various substances! There are similar but more recent rock paintings of animals from Zimbabwe and South Africa, so fascination with animals is an ancient, world-wide human phenomenon.
What is the impact of animals on us as Christians? Traditionally the Church has been no better in its attitude towards animals than the rest of the world. Its understanding of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 (the two creation stories) tended to place animals firmly under the dominion of humans, in the hierarchy of power: Men, then women, then children, then animals. To this way of thinking, at best animals are witnesses to the wonder of God's creation and examples of his supply of our needs in terms of food and labour. At worst animals are to be controlled and eradicated (even sacrificed to God, in ancient times). (I'm not sure that those outside the church would disagree very much with this hierarchical view, they just wouldn't be able to produce the biblical theology to justify it.) Before Darwin, views outside the bible were largely due to the Greek thinker Aristotle, who also placed animals (and women?) beneath 'rational', thinking men. St Thomas Aquinas was an heir to both Aristotle and the Bible. So for him animals were well below humans. But he advocated treating animals well because cruelty to animals often meant people would be cruel to humans as well - a psychological insight that is actually pretty accurate. But he didn't view them as sacred or endowed with a reason or a soul.
There have been notable exceptions to the general attitude, like St Francis of Assisi and St Anthony of Egypt, but most of the time, most Christians and many other religions (though not all) do not have a particular, non-sentimental regard for animals.
Theoretically, Darwin's shattering discovery that humans share much in common with primates and that all animate life evolved from a single-celled organism or two in a warm pond should have radically changed views of animals among non-religious people especially. If we are animals like any other, and not special separate creations by God, then in theory we ought to have more respect for non-human animals. Perhaps Darwin's idea of survival of the fittest has been misunderstood to suggest that humans as the supposedly most advanced species have the natural right to dominate the rest. That is all changing with the serious environmental concerns that confront us now. At the same time, despite even Christians taking on board the need to change habits and act to protect the environment as good stewards of Creation (however we understand that concept), a theology of animals is really lagging behind.
Some modern Christian theologians like Oxford's own Andrew Linzey challenge the standard 'instrumentalist' view (as it's called) by arguing that when we infringe an animal's 'rights', we wrong the Creator to whom they belong. Animals are rational as well as instinctive, and are not merely here for our benefit but as expressions of God's creative power. As Jesus was 'morally generous' towards the human disadvantaged, we should imitate him and be generous in our care of animals who are vulnerable. That will have an impact on things like factory farming and even on our dietary habits and scientific testing.
Another theologian, Jay McDaniel, tries to develop a theology of animals that talks about God's relationship to animals directly, rather than via our human responsibilities towards them. This tackles the difficult question of violence and suffering in the animal realm, animal to animal, and leave shumans out. McDaniel takes the view that God is present in everything (panentheism), present in animals' existence and suffering, and he has a relationship with animals. But even McDaniel thinks this presence of God/Spirit-indwelling varies according to how sentient (feeling and conscious) an animal is. So we still have a kind of hierarchy, with ticks and creepy crawlies being inferior to dogs and cats, for instance. Animal testing can be justified on this view, with care.
There are quite a lot of problems, both theological and practical, with both these modern Christian positions. I suspect that it will be a long time before any kind of consensus emerges over the issue of animals from a Christian view point. That doesn't mean that we can each shelve it until the philosophers and theologians have sorted it out! The American commentator Matthew Scully comes from a Catholic background, and despite being a political conservative, he argues:
 "Where we find wrongs done to animals, it is no excuse to say that more important wrongs are done to human beings, and let us concentrate on those. A wrong is a wrong, and often the little ones, when they are shrugged off as nothing, spread and do the gravest harm to ourselves and others."
This looks a bit like a reprise of the ideas of St Thomas Aquinas, but is still a helpful starting point . Certainly we should be challenging what the Australian Catholic theologian Richard Wade calls 'the assumption that God is totally consumed with human purposes and that creation is simply the back-drop for human persons to work out their salvation. ' When Jesus had been baptised and went out into the wilderness to be tempted, our gospel reading depicts him as away from humans and in the company of angels and wild animals (as in the Isaiah passage): why do we assume that during that period of preparation for his ministry Christ was only thinking about human redemption?



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