What does God require? Part 4: Creatures of the land

How does God view the survival and prosperity of the wild creature? Throughout the Bible, we read that even in a fallen world, God rejoices in the beauty and balance of his creation. We also read that God has designed the created order so that his wild creatures will have the food, water, and habitat they need to survive and prosper. It is Yahweh who “sent out the wild donkey free” and “gave to him the wilderness for a home” (Job 39:5-6). It is by his command that the eagle nests in the high country (Job 39:26-27). In the flood narrative, although God judges the world because of its corruption, he rescues animal kind along with humankind, and his recreational covenant is with “every living creature … the birds, the domestic animals, and every wild creature of the earth” (Gen 9:10-11). In the elegant verse of Psalm 104 the beauty and dignity of the wild animal and its habitat is celebrated.

He is the one who sends forth the springs into the ravines; between the mountains they flow; giving drink to each of his wild creatures. (Ps 104:10-11)

In the Whirlwind Speeches of the Book of Job the Creator queries: Do you know the time the mountain goats give birth? Have you watched the calving of the deer? As any environmentalist would say, the single greatest cause of the extinction of animal species is the reckless destruction of their habitat—and in America we are presently devouring nearly 2 million acres a year for the noble quest of urban sprawl, and experiencing a related species extinction rate of as much as 1,000 times the historical loss ratio—the fact that the wild animals’ habitat was designed and given to them by God should give us pause. In the law code of Deuteronomy, God offers specific commands to Israel regarding the care of the wild creature. I find this quite interesting as we can safely assume that in the early stages of Israel’s urbanization (i.e. the era of Deuteronomy), the impact of human development did not present a serious threat to the Levantine ecosystem. Yet in the political foundations of Israel, Yahweh promulgates law that requires the long-term protection of the creatures who share the Promised Land with his people. Regarding wild animals, Deut 22:6-7 offers us the following: If you happen upon a bird’s nest in front of you in the road, or in a tree, or upon the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting upon the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother (who is sitting) upon the young. Rather, you will surely shoo the mother away, and the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days. Here we find the utilization of a pars pro toto and analogia: a vehicle of Wisdom literature that formulates a more abstract point by way of a practical example. The abstract point is very similar to that of Deut 20:19-20—the sparing of the fruit trees during siege warfare that we discussed last month. The common idea between these texts? The preservation of the means of life. In other words, to take both tree and fruit, mother and offspring, would result in the extermination of a particular species in a particular place. Of special interest is the fact that the phrase “mother with her children” often appears in warfare contexts as an expression for wanton killing. Hence, several have hypothesized that the language here in Deut 22:607 is intended to communicate the same within the arena of hunting and gathering—the ruthless, total and cruel extermination of creature life. My research has also indicated that seizing the mother bird with her young may have been an aspect of the iconography of royal prowess in Assyria (the Borg-like empire responsible for decimating orchards and vineyards as we discussed last month). In one of the famous stone wall reliefs of Assyrian king, Aššur-bani-pal, in which the king’s return from the hunt is celebrated, this practice of seizing a bird with her eggs is depicted alongside the notorious royal slaughter of wild lions (see our cover image). [1] But in Deuteronomy Israel is commanded to be different. In contrast to practice of their neighbors, Israel is instructed in the wisdom of preserving the creatures with whom they share the promised land. Moreover, as this command is part of Israel’s foundational political documents, and is issued as coming from God himself, we learn here that the wild creature is indeed privileged with protection under God’s government. As I’ve stated previously, there is a critical ideological principal here: God has offered the wild creature (indeed all of the created order) to humanity to be utilized for human need, but not to be exploited for human greed. Scripture attests that God does indeed value his wild creatures as well as their habitats. It also clearly communicates that humanity will be held responsible as God’s steward of the same. Indeed, Deuteronomy states that if Israel were to kill off the wild creatures without a thought as to the creatures’ ability to replenish their populations, it would not “be well” with Israel in the land. I believe the same would apply to us.

[1] Here men are pictured carrying back dead lions, a hare, a bird and bird’s nests. This panel is part of the larger Lion Hunt Relief exhibit at the British Museum in which dozens of royal hunt scenes are depicted. These reliefs are well known for their graphic celebration of the slaughter of wild creatures as an illustration of royal prowess (Photograph of the original relief displayed in Gallery 10 of the British Museum [BM 124889]. Photo © Lawson G. Stone, used by permission; cf. C. J. Gadd, The Assyrian Sculptures [The British Museum; London: Harrison & Sons, 1934], pp. 72-73).

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).

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