The article, by Yael Shemesh, titled “And Many Beasts,” is so full of insights, I thought I would do a third post on this subject, highlighting points from it. The author extrapolates on three key messages that Jonah teaches us about God’s animal kingdom:
- Animals play the role of God’s divine emissaries;
- Animals are members of the community. They serve as full partners with the peoples of Nineveh in their efforts to call on God to change His mind regarding the divine decree against them;
- Animals are, along with us, recipients of Divine mercy.
Yael Shemesh draws upon scholarly view points, ideas that were widespread throughout the Enlightenment Period, to counter-argue popular thought about the animal kingdom, God, and our true responsibilities to and for them. Some examples of the thinking at that time that has largely shaped the views which mankind has adopted about animals are:
- Descartes (1596-1650) coined the famous phrase “I think, therefore I am.” (Shemesh’s article, page 4, par 2) His view was that “animals are mere machines, not worthy of moral consideration” (mere machines not capable of thought or self-awareness, did not feel pain or suffer) were instrumental in shaping how animals would come to be viewed and treated since that period of time;
- Immanuel Kant (1725-1804), philosopher, and another whose views of animals were influential, said that animals exist only as a means, not for their own sake; they have no self-consciousness, mankind is the end; our obligations to animals he said were “indirect duties to humanity” (page 4, par 2);
- Saint Thomas Aquinas (page 4, par 1), says Yael Shemesh, “asked ‘whether irrational creatures ought to be loved out of charity?’ and replied in the negative, in part because we have no sense of friendship with them.”
Much of what we have come to accept about the animal kingdom has been based on false – even un-biblical – understanding of the importance of God’s “good” creation; of who animals are; of the role of creation as well as of ourselves within it. Looking around at what we have made of the earth, what we have done to the animal kingdom in our modern commodity driven world today, we can easily see the dreadful results of our astronomically mistaken assertions. In 1,2,3 above, we can instead proclaim as Shemesh has, how important animals are to their Creator as well as what the Bible says their true roles are:
- Animals as agents of the Lord: There are many instances described in scripture where God has used animals as an agent for His purposes: Balaam and his donkey (Num 22:28–30); Moses’ staff turns into a snake to help him win the confidence of his people (Exod 4:3); the quail sent to the Israelites (Exod 16); Daniel and the lion (Dan 6) – these are but a few and Jonah’s story is but one.
- Animals are employed to teach moral lessons: Think about Balaam’s donkey. The story teaches that it is God Who gives all creatures their ability to see; it was not through his own powers that Balaam achieved his miraculous vision – no, the donkey saw, heard and obeyed his Maker’s voice. After three detours and three beatings by Balaam, God opened his donkey’s mouth and he spoke to Balaam; after hearing his donkey’s complaint, he realized there must have been a good reason for his donkey’s actions; it was then God opened His eyes to the angel, and Balaam realized his mistake to both God and God’s donkey. Jonah heard God’s voice but did not obey the first time and reluctantly did so the second. But the animals in these stories hear and obey their Maker’s voice without hesitation.
- Animals serve God as a means of punishment, salvation and deliverance: There are many examples in the article, these are but a few: Several of the plagues in Egypt involve animals – the frogs (Exod 8:1–2 [5–6]), the lice (vv12–14 [16–17]), the swarming insects or wild beasts (vv17–20 [21–24]), and the locust (10:4–6 and 12–15). The Lord employs a plague of hornets to subdue the Canaanite nations before the Israelites (Exod 23:28; Deut 7:20; Josh 24:12). Ravens provide Elijah with his twice-daily ration of bread and meat when he takes refuge in Wadi Cherith (1 Kgs 17:6).
- Animals are part of the community that beseech the Lord in their time of distress (Jonah 3).
- Animals are an object of divine mercy – the Lord’s decision to reprieve Nineveh stems also from the presence of “many animals” in that great city.
- Animals play both a literary and theological role: The fish and the worm, which serve as divine agents, form a contrasting analogy with Jonah, the official divine emissary, who eschews his mission, and as such heightens the criticism of the prophet as well as our realization that he cannot escape. They, along with the other animals in the story, teach us that the Lord is deeply involved with His world and has compassion for all of His creatures.
It may be said that the unrealistic descriptions of animals are intended, in part, to alert readers that the story is fictitious and is to be understood as such. Even if this is true, it does not take away from the messages of this morality play concerning the Lord’s role as God of all creatures – human beings (Israel and the nations) and animals alike.
The status of animals in God’s eyes obviously goes beyond what some anthropocentric conceptions are willing to grant them. It is plain to see in Jonah, as well as the many other passages mentioned throughout the article, that animals indeed are not “mere machines,” they are intelligent; they think, feel, do our Lord’s bidding, and are worthy of our moral consideration.
They do not exist only as a means for humanity’s purposes but ultimately serve God’s purposes. They are self-aware as well as very much aware of their Creator’s voice; they are of great value to our God; they are capable of relationships with us whether we are aware of that relationship or not (as Balaam’s donkey shows us – the donkey is aware of himself, his relationship with Balaam, and exclaims, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” Num 22:30).
Animals are part of the whole of the creation story – an important and intricate part – woven together with us. Animals are dependent on us to be the Creator’s hands, show them His love and care for them; we are dependent upon the animals for many aspects of our existence, for the place they hold in making the natural world function; for their help, companionship, beauty, magnificence, mysteriousness – showing us the Father in all His wondrous greatness and goodness! We are all dependent upon our Creator for existence and mercy and redemption. We humans are not the entire story.
Thanks for stopping by; visit again! ~Kathy