How are animals portrayed in the Bible?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In The Status of Animals in Biblical and Christian Thought: A Study in Colliding Values authors Rod Preece and David Fraser point out that in the Book of Genesis, man is given "dominion" over the animals. The intent of this statement is interpreted differently in contemporary times, but the authors feel that it meant that humans were superior creatures to animals and made "in God's image." However, they also note that

Differing interpretations of the Great Chain of Being and the conflict over animal experimentation demonstrate the colliding values inherent in the complex history of Biblical and Christian thought on animals. 

For one thing, the authors contend, people must interpret the treatment of animals within the context of the age and culture of the time. For instance, during the time of the Old Testament, there were simply pastoral societies. In such a societies, the very existence of this society was dependent upon the use of domestic animals for food, work, and trade. Certainly, survival would have been much more difficult without animals. Thus, "dominion" over animals as John Passmore remarks, implies the treatment of animals “in a manner of a good shepherd, anxious to preserve them in the best possible condition for his master.” Caring for sheep, for instance, became a figurative expression of Divine love:

For these are the words of the Lord God: Now I myself will ask after my sheep and go in search of them. As a shepherd goes in search of his sheep when his flock is dispersed all around him, so will I go in search of my sheep and rescue them, no matter where they were scattered....(Ezekiel 34)

People risked their lives to find their flocks because animals were necessary for survival. Sheep, for example, provided wool from which clothing and things could be made, not to mention the meat that they provided.

In other passages of the Bible, there is, indeed, a certain reverence given to animals as a link between man and animal as being both creations of God. For instance, in Ecclesiastes (3:18-20) humans and animals are said to have been created from dust, and, after death, they will return to dust; moreover, “all draw the same breath.” Isaiah (11:6-8) speaks of an idealized world in which the wolf shall live alongside the lamb, the leopard with the fattened calf or lamb, and the child will have no fear of them in such a world of the harmony of all creatures. That animals were deserving of life and a certain respect is evinced in Noah's construction of the ark on which he was instructed to load every pair of animals in order to preserve them. 

While animals were used for sacrifice as, for example, Abraham offered the lamb, there was a respect for the creatures which provided man's sustenance. Even creatures who did not provide food are treated with respect, for the most part.

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psyproffie's profile pic

psyproffie | College Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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When you are looking at how animals are portrayed within the bible there are two factors to consider. First it could be an analogy to explain something that was happening within that story within the bible or secondly it could be the author’s way of explaining what they saw happening in the world around them within a context they understood.

For example in Genesis 49:27 it is written “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.” Within this verse the author did not intend for the reader to believe that Benjamin had turned into an actual wolf but instead this is used as an analogy to describe Benjamin’s behavior.

In turn when you look at Leviticus 11:13-19 it states “And these you shall regard as an abomination among the birds; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture … and the bat.” This is not an analogy as the first quote. Instead we are looking at something that the author viewed as dangers within their world, in turn these are labeled as abominations and something to be avoided.

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