A Biblical Perspective on Environmentalism: Man's Rule

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com. Read the series so far.

In the scale of relative value, a man—a human being—is of considerably more worth than any of the animals. Jesus said, “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a copper coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will…. So, don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows,” (Matt. 10:29, 31; see also Luke 12:6-7). The ubiquitous and commonplace sparrows are of only minuscule economic and other value individually, very much less than a man (and, incidentally, have no “rights” per se). And yet they are not altogether “worthless.” As God’s direct creation, they, like man, have inherent worth and purpose in their existence. So there is this “tension” in man’s relationship with the animals—at one and the same time, they are worth less than he, yet they are not completely worthless.

This principle of valuing human life over animal life is found in the Law given at Sinai: “If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, then the ox shall surely be stoned,” (Exod. 21:28a). An animal—a creature subservient to man by God’s design and appointment (Gen. 1:26-28)—that harms its superior in God’s order of subordination, is to be exterminated (see also Gen. 9:4). This same principle may have been involved in the judgment meted out on the literal snake in Eden which was used by—possessed by—Satan (Gen. 3:14) to bring harm to mankind, the crown of God’s creation. It is common practice even in India, where animal life is excessively venerated due to Hindu religious teaching, to kill man-eating tigers, and rightly so. We commonly and entirely reasonably kill animals that pose a real and immediate danger to human life and health—poisonous spiders and poisonous snakes, rabid skunks, feral pigs, dogs and cats, grizzlies and mountain lions, disease-carrying mosquitoes and rats, sharks and more that intrude into human habitat.

On the basis of this principle, we conclude that a human life is always of greater value than an animal’s life. If we must choose between rescuing a child or rescuing an animal (a hypothetical dilemma rarely faced in real life), even if it is part of a seriously “endangered” species—whether whale, owl, rhino, or turtle—the human always gets first place. If the choice should be between starvation and eating a bald eagle’s egg, of right, the egg should be eaten (whether it is legal to do so or not is another matter; man-made laws are often flawed).

On the other hand, the mere wanton slaughter of animals for “sport” or torturing them on purpose to inflict pain on them violates Christ’s declaration that even the sparrows have worth in the over-all scheme of things.

Decades ago, one of my college roommates told of going out in the woods of his native Tennessee and killing more than 20 squirrels in an afternoon, not for food, or because they had become over-populated and pestilent, but simply because he could. The 19th century slaughter on the Great Plains of the vast bison herds by train-riding tourists shooting from the trains in many cases—not for meat or hides, but merely killing for the sake of killing—is simply wrong (and extremely wasteful). And the once-famous practice of “going on Safari” in Africa simply to acquire trophy heads for the wall also comes to mind as the worst kind of abuse. Once as boy, maybe twelve years old, I shot a bird off an electric wire with a borrowed bb-gun. I immediately felt terrible about this mindless act, and have not repeated it since.

And of course, we could mention other cases of needlessly inflicting harm on animals—dog and cock fighting, bull fighting, and more.

Adam named all the kinds of animals he encountered in Eden (Genesis 2:19-20). Contrary to the carping critics of Genesis, this need not have included every earthly species of animal (a still undefinable term), but only those there locally present, and may have only extended to very general categories; man’s naming of animals since that first instance has continued apace, given greatest impetus by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the Swedish botanist and naturalist (and pastor’s son), who devised the current Latin two-name system for identifying all animals—and plants.

When did the employment of animals for human use—our “rule over the beasts of the earth, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea”—begin? It actually began in Eden, and its first practitioner was God Himself. “For Adam and his wife, the LORD God made tunics of animal skin and clothed them,” (Genesis 3:22). To provide leather garments for Adam and Eve required the death of the original “owners” of the skins whether, sheep, goats, cattle, deer or whatever species it might be (unless, as one might argue, God directly created the skins, a rather gratuitous suggestion, I think).

By Genesis 4, mankind is already engaging in animal husbandry. We find Abel tending sheep. Although no permission had yet been given by God to man to eat animals at this stage (that would come after the Flood, Genesis 9:3-4), it is a faulty deduction to conclude that killing of animals was not permitted or practiced either. After all, Abel brought one of the animals from his flock in sacrifice to God (Genesis 4:4)—and God accepted it. Noah also offered animal sacrifice to God, and God accepted that as well (Genesis 8:20-22). Furthermore, as there was an obvious and continuing need for clothing for the expanding human populace, the precedent set by God of using animal hides for human clothing may have been continued. It is not possible to say if or when the making of cloth from wool before the flood began; the use of plants for clothing had initially proven “inadequate” (Gen. 3:7)!

And though mankind was not permitted to eat meat until after the Flood, this does not exclude the use of animal milk as food, either as liquid or processed into cheese and other products. The ante-diluvian society that developed musical instruments and metallurgy (Gen. 4:21, 22), could easily have developed both textile manufacture and dairying. The text is silent and so being dogmatic is not warranted, though the possibility of dairy herds and flocks before the Flood must be allowed. It also appears that the original natural docility of animals in the presence of man continued until after the Flood, when “the fear of man” became a part of the instincts animals (Gen. 9:2).

Man, as the Divinely-designated steward of the creation, served as the means of protecting and preserving representatives of all species of air-breathing terrestrial animals from the consequences of the Flood, and ensuring their continuing existence (Gen. 6:17-21) in the post-Flood world. In short, Noah’s obedience to God’s command prevented their wholesale extinction.

For whatever reason (perhaps human nutritional needs), after the Flood, God changed the basic relationship of man and the animals. God now made the animals naturally fearful of people (for their sakes; otherwise we would have already hunted most species to extinction), and man was now permitted to eat their flesh (but not their blood). No distinctions were then made as to which animals were “fair game” and which were not; the “kosher” regulations in the Law of Moses are part of the distinctive legislation given to Israel, not the Gentiles. In the NT era, even the dietary regulations governing Israel were rescinded (Mark 7:19; 1 Tim. 4:3).

Of course, eating meat, though expressly allowed, was not required (unless, under the Law, consuming part of the annual Passover lamb be deemed compulsory); vegetarianism and veganism are personal options for all (Rom. 14:1-4). Jesus, like the patriarchs, was a meat-eater (Luke 22:15). I, too, opt to be partly carnivorous. “Let each be persuaded in his own mind.”

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