The secret history of animals...


Stephen writes... Genesis, for all of its problems and provocations, says something about animals that is really unbelievable. Genesis says that animals were domesticated first before they became wild. The details of the text can be debated, of course, and many Christians do not take Genesis literally anyway, so the depiction of animals is easily read as a fable. But even as a fable, what do we do with the fact that Genesis gets the biological story exactly backwards? How can we possibly take Genesis seriously if its narrative structure is so wrongheaded?

I want to argue that Genesis actually gives us the clue to the secret history of the origin and fate of all animals. Animals were meant to be (in the language of Genesis, they “originally were”) domesticated, in the sense of being at peace with each other and with us, and their wildness is a temporary state that will not withstand God’s redemption of the world.

The Genesis paradigm is thus the opposite of what we can call the romantic view of nature, which portrays animals as naturally wild and sees their domestication as a result of human manipulation and oppression. In the romantic view, animals are meant to be predators and prey, and they are meant to stand apart from us.

The romantic view can be illuminating when it comes to praising the beauty of animals, but it gets the source of that beauty all wrong. When wild animals defy human expectations and restraints, they are a sublime sight to behold. They demonstrate that they are more than we can ever handle, consume, or tame.

Yet wild animals are not sublime simply because they are wild. They are sublime because they answer to a power that is greater than us. Wild animals demonstrate their essential goodness even when they are being ferocious and terrifying. Otherwise, why would we admire them? Wild animals kill or are killed, and surely when we watch nature shows we are not just enjoying the bloody spectacle of their brutish situation. What we are enjoying is the way in which another authority is watching over them, an authority that has its own laws that we do not fully understand. We are enjoying the way they expand our sense of goodness and restrain our natural desire for authority over nature.

According to the Genesis paradigm, all creatures are meant to be in a peaceful relationship with God and with each other. That is why domestication is not a marginal human activity shaped by evil motivations. Humans have been domesticating animals as long as we have been human because domesticating animals is one of the things that makes us human.

We are meant to stand in a relationship of authority over animals, but that authority is only an extension of the authority God has over us. We should rule animals, but we should do so in a way that does not exploit or manipulate them for human ends alone. Animals have value, but that value does not lie in their independence from us. It lies in our dependence on each other.

The Bible is full of this secret history. Think of the way God creates the animals originally as Adam’s companions, and the way Adam names the animals before Eve is formed. Think of all the Old Testament Prophets who place the redemption of animals in the end times, and think of the Jewish laws that regulation what people can and cannot do to animals. Think also of the Apostle Paul talked about all creation groaning for redemption and how Jesus Christ portrayed God as a feeder of birds (Matt. 6:26 and Luke 12:24) and compared himself to a hen gathering her brood under her wings (Matt. 23:37).

Some day all animals will be subjected to the authority that we have only because God granted it to us, just as some day we will be subjected to the authority that God granted his Son.

Stephen Webb