And What Does God Require?

And what does God require regarding the domestic animal? Once again, the law codes of ancient Israel are full of instruction. God says in Deuteronomy: But the seventh day is a sabbath belonging to Yahweh your God; you shall not do any work, not you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your domesticated beasts … And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that Yahweh your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, Therefore, Yahweh your God has commanded you to keep the day of the sabbath. (Deut 5:14-15) So right here in the ten commandments, because God has saved his people, his people are commanded to honor Him by allowing their livestock to rest. As is true today livestock were maintained in Israel exclusively to facilitate the well-being of humanity. In Israel sheep, goats, cattle, oxen, and donkeys served the populace with wool, milk, meat, and sweat respectively. And of course, a 24-7 work week for those animals would have seemed the most advantageous economically from a human perspective. But in contrast to that assumed reality, these creatures are allotted a place in the sabbath ordinance of God. An Israelite was forbidden to consume the life and energy of his beast without compassion and care. Deut 25:4 is another law which addresses this topic. Here the Israelite is commanded not to muzzle his ox while he drags the threshing sledge for his master. In the smallholder farms of the Central Hill Country, the cereal crop was absolutely crucial to the survival of the community. And the Iron Age farmer relied heavily upon the labor of his beast for the long and arduous task of threshing (extracting the precious grain from the stalks in which it grew). Once cleaned and stored, this grain would serve as the primary food staple for man and beast. And in this subsistence economy, every kilo counted. Baruch Rosen, an Israeli archaeologist of notable reputation, has done an arresting calculation of exactly how many calories were necessary to sustain the average Israelite village of 100 souls. Operating off of data culled from the known Iron I villages, Rosen estimates that the typical village would experience an annual shortfall of 15,000,000 calories a year.[1] Anticipating that the average family included five souls, this would mean an annual shortfall of sixty days of food for the family. Why is this significant? Because it means that the three to four kilos (5-7 lbs) of grain that an ox might consume over the course of a day of threshing made a difference. Yet God commands Israel to allow the beast who served them the opportunity to enjoy its life and work and to benefit from the fruit of its labors. In other words, even the ox was allowed to feast on harvest day. Note that in Israel’s case, allowing their beasts the opportunity to enjoy the benefit and joy of their own labor would necessarily cut into the farmer’s profits, and in many cases even their essential food supply. So now we are forced to ask, how might these deuteronomic laws reflect on current practices in America—specifically the billions of animals who serve us in America’s factory farms? Factory farming is the practice of raising middle school boarding schools North CarolinaJake Housecomes to Citizen middle school boarding schools with a proven track record in both the private sector and education. href=””>livestock in confinement at high-stocking density, where the farm operates essentially as a factory whose end product is protein units. Confined animals burn fewer calories, their excrement is mass-managed (or mismanaged as many argue), and their fertility and gestation fully controlled. As regards America’s most lucrative agricultural product, pigs, confinement has been distilled into an exact science: twenty 230 lb animals per 7.5 foot-square pen, housed upon metal-grated flooring, in climate controlled conditions, who are never actually exposed to the light of day. These animals are sustained in such crowded and filthy conditions that movement is difficult, natural behaviors impossible, and antibiotics are essential to the control of infection. Sows (typically a 500 lb creature) are separately housed, living out their lives in 7-foot by 22-inch metal gestation crates from which they are never released, even in the process of giving birth. They are artificially inseminated to deliver an average of eight litters, litters inflated beyond their natural carrying capacity by fertility drugs. A staple of their diet is the rendered remains of their deceased pen-mates. Surely if God is offended by boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Deut 14:21), we should be concerned that dead sows are routinely ground up and fed to their offspring.[2] Reading of the standard treatment that these animals endure, one cannot help but think of Ezekiel’s outcry against the shepherds of Israel in Ezek 34:3-4: “You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, those with fractures you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them.” But as the “New Agriculture” reports, all of these innovations make these production units (i.e. animate creatures) easier to manage, maintain, medicate and slaughter. And the rapidly escalating market for meat for human consumption, in the third world in particular, is voiced as the rationale for mass-confinement animal husbandry. As Matthew Scully painfully illustrates in his 2002 exposé of the industry, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy,in our country, the abuses to which domesticated animals are routinely subjected are nearly too horrific to report. This forces my heart to ask, is this what Yahweh intended for the creatures he entrusted to humanity’s care?

[1] Images of factory farming for beef, pork, and poultry may be found at

[2] “Subsistence Economy,” 348-49; cf. Rosen’s more detailed presentation of the same data in ; “Subsistence Economy of Stratum II,” Izbet S?artah: An Early Iron Age Site near Rosh Ha’ayin, 156-85); David C. Hopkins, “Life on the Land.”

Sandra Richter is Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Affiliate Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University’s Near Eastern Language and Civilizations department. She is a popular speaker and has published on an array of topics. Her most recent book is The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 2008).