So what do you think? Did God create the animals in His (or Her?) image? Or more precisely, do animals have a share in God’s image?
The scripture teaches that “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). Humans are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), but that quality cannot be separated from the quality of humans’ having “the breath of life” because the scripture in the same breath mentions the two together (pun intended). One more thing to consider is that the texts are linear by nature (one word following another and so on). So we may be tempted to think that God created man in God’s image first and only afterward gave him “the breath of life.” If so, the mental temptation would be to exclude “the breath of life” from the image of God or to consider it dispensable for understanding what it means to be God’s image. That interpretation is not justifiable because life is God’s attribute, and humans are fully God’s image (however broken that image may be) when they have life in them. Moreover, it is possible that God created human beings at once, full of life from the get-go, but the text arranges narration of this event in a linear order because that is how texts work.
Now here comes the interesting part. Animals have the same breath as humans (Ecc. 3:19). So if humans are God’s image because (but not only) of “the breath of life” in them, why should animals that have the same breath (or spirit, according to some translations) not be considered living beings who share God’s image to some degree with humans?
Some of you would point out to me that the Hebrew word used for “breath of life” (נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים) or “living being” (לְנֶפֶש חַיָּה) in Gen. 2:7 and the words translated as “breath of life/spirit” (lit. one spirit, רוּחַ אֶחָד) in Ecc. 3:19 are NOT the exact same words. Fair enough. But that does not take into account that Ecc. 3:19 emphasizes a unity between humans and animals, and the Scripture itself uses the words “spirit,” “life,” and “breath” in the same breath somewhere else. (Sorry! How can I let go of the chance for word play!) Find your way to Gen. 7:22 and ponder how the scripture ties together life (haya), spirit (ruach), and breath (nephesh) with one stroke (all three typed in bold) in נִשְׁמַת–רוּחַ חַיִּים בְּאַפָּי כֹּל אֲשֶׁר.
Now, admittedly, animals may not bear God’s image as much as humans do. Nevertheless, if all have the same breath or the same spirit (that comes from God), and having the breath of life is something that makes image-bearing complete, then why not consider animals having a share in God’s image also?
The Scripture gives us other clues that point to animals’ having some kind of share in God’s image. These clues don’t prove anything directly, but they have an accumulative power and work like circumstantial evidence.
For example, God blessed the animals as God blessed humans (Gen. 1).
Not only humans (Jesus’ parents) but also animals witnessed the mystery of incarnation. Can there be some wisdom in the fact that the Lord did not shy away from being born in a lowly stable among the animals?
If these are not enough clues, then let’s recall some more. One of the signs that the scripture mentions of being a righteous person is directly tied to human-animal relations. According to Proverbs 12:10, the righteous man takes care of (or knows) his animals. The righteous person is the one who treats other (non-human) manifestations of God’s image with justice and care. Also, one of the reasons for the Sabbath day is God’s concern for the animals (Ex. 23:12).
However, none of these verses hide the much more glaring pattern in the biblical text itself that I think creates some tension with “animals=partakers in the image of God” pattern. God demanded an animal sacrifice before he sacrificed his son Jesus Christ for the sake of all of creation. The Old Testament is full of animal sacrifice descriptions which by current standards might equal mass-slaughter. As an animal lover, I find difficulty in how I should understand these texts, but then I haven’t done an in depth research on it yet. Perhaps in the future, I’ll devote a blog post to this topic.
Now without regard to how you interpret these verses (literally or otherwise), it is clear that the Scripture also emphasizes the similarities between animals and humans and God’s high regard for (non-human) animals. They surely do have differences, and the Scripture is clear enough about differences. But in terms of origins, the beginning and the end of individual lives, and in relation to God, humans and animals do share the same attributes (creaturely-ness, breath or spirit of life, birth and death) that are significant parts of being God’s image: life.
Seeing Animals as Partakers’ of God’s Image
The question then is what are the practical implications of these scriptural teachings for our relations with animals.
Here I will make a confession (Yeah, I know, you’re probably wondering if I’m a tree argh …animal hugger. Well, here is your reward for reading the post up to this point.) I’m biased when it comes to animal welfare and their treatment. Living with a dog and a cat, observing countless other animals in various husbandry environments of two or three nations, and volunteering in an animal shelter, I’ve come to the conclusion that humans in general do not treat animals as God intends them to be treated. I have my own share of sins against animals stuck in my childhood memories, but God changed my heart by giving me the privilege of living with animals and patiently guiding this prodigal (human) animal in the right direction.
I have learned that instead we treat animals as voiceless objects for whom we won’t be called to account (Yes, I intentionally used “for whom” rather than “for which”).
This breaks my heart.
I think by now humanity has accumulated enough of the oh-so-hard fact-y evidence that living with animals is beneficial to the well-being of humans. Personally, my animal friends enrich my relationship with the Creator, (and I hope I enrich their lives too). Reflecting on their character or personality in the context of the scriptural teachings gives me insights into the God-human, God-creature, and human-creature relations. I believe that God called humans and animals to be mutual blessings to one another. That’s the relation I’m trying to build with my animal friends.
That said, below I share a few verses from the scripture that you may reflect upon in the context of your relationships with animals. Actually, all the verses I’ve mentioned are good for reflection. I pray these verses will begin a transformation inside you, however slow and subtle it may be. I provide you with these verses in their original language simply because I want the visuals of the letters to induce some sense of mystery and the unknown in you because a lot of things in God-human-animal triangle is not fully explainable. I also want you to do a job of actually finding these verses rather than simply reading them here. Even if it is just a click, I hope that clicking and clacking will reverberate in your mind and put you into the right mood that the task of reflection requires.
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Verses and Questions for Meditation and Reflection
(key phrases in bold type)
Read Gen. 2:7
וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶש
חַיָּה. Meditate deeply on the words “breath of life” and “living being.”
Read Gen. 7:22
כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁמַת-רוּחַ חַיִּים בְּאַפָּיו, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בֶּחָרָבָה–מֵתוּ
Meditate deeply on the words “breath of living spirit.”
Read Ecc. 3:19
כִּי מִקְרֶה בְנֵי-הָאָדָם וּמִקְרֶה הַבְּהֵמָה, וּמִקְרֶה אֶחָד לָהֶם–כְּמוֹת זֶה כֵּן מוֹת זֶה, וְרוּחַ אֶחָד לַכֹּל; וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן, כִּי הַכֹּל הָבֶל.
Meditate deeply on the phrase “all has the same breath/one spirit.”
Also, read these questions (either before or after reading the verses) and answer them. Take your time. Call upon your memories and incorporate them into your reflection process.
1. What is the first animal you ever remember seeing? Why?
2. Do you think God teaches us certain truths through animals? If so, how?
3. What are the simplest and easiest ways of a just treatment of animals and why?
4. What do you think are the most widespread forms of animal cruelty?
5. Recall the happiest moment of a human-animal interaction you ever observed. Why do you think that interaction is the happiest?
6. Do you have a fear of a particular kind of animal? If so, think about how that fear affects your relation with animals in general and with that group of animals in particular.
7. If you were an animal, which one you would like to be? Why?
8. What is the spiritual significance of the fact that God likens himself to animals (lion, lamb, bear) and animal-related professions (shepherd) in the Scripture? Or what is the spiritual significance of the fact that Christ calls his followers “my sheep”? What are the implications of these scriptural descriptions for our relations with animals?
9. Are animals gifts from God to us? Can humans be gifts from God to animals too?
10. What are the unique ways that animals are the image of God in contrast to humans?