Judi's Journal

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Animals in the Bible

By Judi Siegal

They are our pets. Cats, dogs, birds, guinea pigs and gerbils. They are our companions, confidants and loyal friends. In the Hebrew Bible, however, animals have very different roles.

In the ancient world, animals provided food, were a sign of wealth and were used for sacrifices in the sacrificial cult of the Temples. Their skins and hides were used for tents, parchment for writing and their horns for instruments. They were beasts of burden, plowed fields and were hitched to carts. And they were a means of transportation. It is in the scriptures, that animals take on different roles.

Basically, we can define the role of animals in the Bible into four categories: morality, wealth, sacrifice and poetry.

Animals are first mentioned in the story of creation with God creating the land animals toward the end of the story, just before humans. One could interpret this as illustrating the purpose and order of creation, starting from the primitive to the more complex humans. It was a beautiful way of showing of how God had provided for the humans s/he had created. Enter the Snake. Long the symbol of mystery and evil, he persuades the humans to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit. Thus we have the serpent as part of a morality story.

In the Binding of Isaac, we have another morality tale. In this story, God instructs Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham complies but at the last moment, an angel stays Abraham’s hand from slaying his son and the lesson that the deity does not want human sacrifice is conveyed.

In another famous story, an ass makes a person of himself. Actually, it is a talking donkey that has an important message for a soothsayer named Balaam who was about to put a curse on the Israelites camped in the valley below. This smart beast instructs Balaam not to curse the Israelites because that is God’s will and Balaam’s curse becomes a blessing which forms the beautiful opening prayer used in synagogues all over the world entitled “Ma Tovu.”

Noah, the man and his family who were saved from a big deluge, offers us a lesson in terms of animals as symbols of morality. To check for dry land after the Flood, Noah sends out a dove who returns with an olive branch in her mouth. This beautiful image is a lasting symbol of hope and peace, universally accepted throughout the world.

Perhaps one of the most famous animals in the Bible was not real at all but a statue. The Golden Calf has stood as a symbol of lack of faith and idolatry for centuries. In the story, the Israelites, fearful that Moses will not return from his sojourn on Mount Sinai, build a golden calf to worship. When Moses returns and sees the people dancing around the calf in joyous orgy, he angrily throws down the tablets of the Law and breaks them. So repentant are Jews of this shameful act of worshipping a statue, that to this day no gold ornaments are used to decorate the Torah.

Animals were signs of wealth in ancient times. How many goats, sheep or camels one had indicated your status in the tribe. Abraham is described in the Bible as a sheik of wealth, much stock, i.e. not a portfolio but one based on animals. When one wanted to marry a woman, gifts of animals were often exchanged as part of the deal. The world of the Patriarchs was one of herds and grazing lands. The more one had, the wealthier they were.

Animals in the ancient world were used as sacrificial items. The Temple Cult has a whole laundry list of conditions and rules for animal sacrifice as set down in the Book of Leviticus. Of most interest is the Red Heifer, an unblemished cow, needed for special sacrifice for the End of Days or Coming of the Messiah. Along with this, we have the rules of kashrut, keeping kosher, permitted foods and those that are not allowed. While both these practices have been interpreted in many ways, it is the keeping kosher that still continues today. Animal sacrifices stopped, of course, when the second Temple was destroyed.

Some of the most expressive poetry in the Hebrew Bible uses animals as metaphors. The sons of Jacob, who became the Twelve Tribes of Israel, had animal descriptions. Some of these are: Benjamin, the ravenous wolf, Issachar, the strong-boned ass, Judah, the lion, the tribe of kings, Joseph, the wild ass, and Naftali, the deer.

In the Book of Psalms and in Isaiah, we have two beautiful expressions of peace. In Psalms, there is the comforting “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack for anything.” David, writer of this psalm, was a shepherd and he uses the metaphor of a shepherd to symbolize God, a loving caretaker of his/her flock who comforts and provides. (Leads to still waters; sheep only drink from still waters.) It is this peaceful, pastoral scene that has comforted many in times of grief and turmoil.

Lastly, in Isaiah there is the passage about the lion lying down with a lamb. In the End of Days, in a more peaceful time, the world will be at peace. Animals that are natural enemies will dwell together in harmony with no fear. The world will be at peace and all the nations will follow laws of basic morality. And while we learn about animals in the Bible, may we protect the ones we have here on earth in order to build a more peaceful world.