Edwards Epistle: “Animals at the Manger”

Editor’s Note: The CLC is pleased to announce that we will publish the online version of the “Edwards Epistle,” a longstanding quarterly letter providing the reflections of Dr. James R. Edwards, Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Readers are invited also to subscribe to the print edition by contacting Phil Olson.

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Animals at the Manger

Edwards Epistle, Fall 2011

One of the most indelible Biblical pictures—still strong even in our secular day—is that of the baby Jesus lying in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph, shepherds, and adoring animals.  This particular image derives from Luke 2:16, although neither Luke nor any other Evangelist mentions animals at the manger.  The “ox and ass” commonly associated with the crèche scene may derive from Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

Where this addition came from and when it joined Christian lore we do not know, but no enhancement of Holy Writ can be more agreeable than this one.  There is something wonderful about the ox and donkey—animals that otherwise arouse no affections in me—peacefully presiding over the infant King.  “Presiding” is the right word, for the baby Jesus was a guest at their only table—the manger.  The presence of animals is theologically significant, for all sentient creation—animals, humanity, and angels—in varying ways and abilities now glorifies the God Who Became Human in the rustic sanctuary.

Is there any theological justification for animals in the Christmas story?  Do they have a rightful place at the manger?  Is there any provision for animals in the kingdom of God, or are they simply romantic concessions to the agrarian origins of Christianity?  We know, of course, that animals were created by God.  Moreover, the description of their creation in Genesis 1:24, in contrast to other livings things, places them in a unique relationship to humanity, for beasts share the same day of creation—the sixth day—with humanity.  They are our contemporaries in creation, although they differ in orientation.  Animals, like air and aquatic life forms created before them, were made “according to their kind” (Gen 1:24), whereas humans as male and female were made “according to the image of God” (Gen 1:27).  Animals, in other words, are satisfied to participate in the mystery of nature, whereas humans are not satisfied to participate in that mystery alone, but by fulfilling their divine image in knowing and loving God.

Scripture further attests that God has compassion for and delight in animals.  He wills the wild donkey to run free and unfettered (Job 39:5-6), the stork to fly joyfully (Job 39:13), the mother bird to remain unharmed on her nest (Deut 22:6-7).  Job 39 and Psalm 104 are joyful hymns of God’s delight in animal creatures and their habitat.

God’s compassion for animals may not surprise us, for it seems natural and reasonable to care for what one creates.  Far more surprising and instructive are the various declarations of Scripture concerning the role of animals in God’s covenant community.  Genesis 2 sets the first human, and later his spouse, in a cooperative social relationship with animals in Eden.  We often suppose that in a post-fall world animals reverted to mere brutes, and that human social relationship with them was severed and terminated.  This is not the testimony of Scripture.  Genesis 9:9-10 declares that after the Flood, God established his covenant with Noah and his descendants “and with ever living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock, and . . . every living creature on earth.”  Even in a post-sin, post-Flood world, animals continue to be expressly named in God’s renewed contractual agreement with humanity.

Their role in the covenant is not merely as passive agents, that is, as objects to which humans owe certain duties.  In isolated instances beasts appear as active agents who are accorded rights and accountabilities within the covenant community.  Along with humans, animals are guaranteed respite from work on the Sabbath (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:14).  Remarkably, animals are granted this blessing before humans who are non-Israelites. “’On [Sabbath] you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your town’” (Exod 20:10).  In addition to Sabbath rest, Torah guaranteed animals with the right to humane treatment and adequate nutrition.  Israelite farmers were required to reserve portions of fields and fruits for consumption by wild animals and human sojourners (Exod 23:10-11).  Animals should be unmuzzled so they could eat (Deut 25:4), unrestrained so they could drink (Luke 13:15).  Jesus reminded his Jewish hearers of something they all knew: offering aid to an endangered person or animal was one of the few justifiable Sabbath violations (Luke 14:5).

Perhaps most intriguing are references to animals in relation to worship and morality in Israel.  Moses demands that Pharaoh allow the Israelites to take their animals to worship in the wilderness.  “’Not a hoof is to be left behind.  We have to use some of them in worshiping the Lord our God, and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship the Lord’” (Exod 10:26).  This demand is of course related the sacrificial use of animals in Israelite worship, but their role is not limited to that.  Like firstborn male humans, firstborn male animals are also “consecrated to the Lord” (Exod 13:2).  That Israel understood its covenantal community to include animals is further demonstrated by the fact that people and animals were both prohibited, on pain of death, against breaching the sacred perimeter at Mount Sinai (Exod 19:13).

Jesus rejoiced in his native Galilee, including both the am haaretz, “the people of the land,” and the chayath haaretz, “the beasts of the land.”  Nature itself, in fact, can teach disciples about the kingdom of God.  “’Learn from the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storerooms nor barns, but God feeds them.  How much more valuable are you than birds” (Luke 14:24).  Anyone who observes nature knows that birds are not lazy: they are busy from sunrise to sunset in gathering food, building nests, caring for their broods.  God has ordered nature to provide for them, and he will do the same for Jesus’ disciples, whom he likens to a “little flock” (Luke 14:32).  Even animals, in certain respects, are models worthy of human emulation.

So much more could—and should—be said about this topic, from the marvels of creation (Pss 8, 104) to the longing of creation itself for redemption (Rom 8:18-25).  Animals are but one tableau of that wondrous canvas of creation.  Animals are creatures of God, objects of his compassion, members of his covenant community.  Sadly today, many animals, especially those harnessed for food production, are deprived of their natural habitat, confined, and reduced to industrial commodities. Perhaps Scripture can enlarge and deepen our understanding of God’s providence for animals, and our responsibility for their humane treatment and rightful place in the divine orchestra of creation.

I close with Albert Schweitzer’s prayer for animals, in which he, like Scripture, understands animals as friends to whom we owe the duty of friendship.

“Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost or deserted or frightened or hungry; for all that must be put to death.  We entreat for them all thy mercy and pity and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion, gentle hands and kindly words.  Make us ourselves to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessing of the merciful.”