I’m not what you might call an animal person. I hunt and eat meat. My heart doesn’t melt over cute cats or dogs. I’m not in favor of house pets, and I surely don’t refer to my family’s dogs as “fur babies.” (Yes, I lost that house-pet battle.) But I am intrigued by the last words of God’s closing speech to Jonah: “Should I not also have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 people, who do not know the difference between their right hand and their left, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:11, NASB).
As well as many animals? Should we care about animals?
If the city of Nineveh had been destroyed, animals would have died too. Animal suffering should have roused Jonah’s heart to compassion, but it didn’t. If we share Jonah’s apathy, we need a more biblical theology of animals.
Brief Theology of Animals
How can we summarize what the Bible teaches about animals?
1. God cares about animals.
He deliberately created them and was satisfied with what he made (Gen. 1:20–25). Given their extravagant diversity, intricacy, intelligence, and abilities, God clearly made animals to be more than servants for humans. He made them as expressions of his beauty and goodness. Animals praise their Maker: “Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures . . . beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds!” (Ps. 148:7, 10). We should not view animals as mere commodities. While God’s image makes humans distinct, the truth that animals are created by God, cared for by God, and invited to praise God should make clear they are endowed with value.
2. God commissions people to steward his animals.
God called humanity to exercise dominion over his creation (Ps. 50:10–11; Gen. 1:28). One of the first jobs God gave people was to know and name his creatures. Adam and Eve not only cultivated the land (Gen. 2:5), they cultivated all creation and were responsible, as Anthony Hoekema says, “to develop all the potentialities found in nature.”
The truth that animals are created by God, cared for by God, and invited to praise God should make clear they are valuable.
God later gave Israel laws for how they must care for animals. According to the Scriptures, animals have the right to rest (Deut. 5:14; Lev. 25:6–7) and to eat their fair share of the harvest (Deut. 25:4). Godly people care for their own animals (Prov. 12:10), their neighbors’ animals (Deut. 22:4), and even their enemies’ animals (Ex. 23:4–5). When we dishonor animals, we distort our God-ordained responsibility for stewardship.
3. God connects animals’ destiny with human destiny.
When he made humans and land animals on the same day—and both from the dust of the earth (Gen. 1:24; 2:7)—God revealed what Herman Bavinck called “the existence of close kinship between man and animal.” Sadly, this kinship means that animals are cursed by human sin (Eccles. 3:19). The flood is a tragic reminder of this reality. More positively, after the flood God bound together animals and humans in a covenant; he promised to never again destroy the earth with a flood (Gen. 9:9–11). Still now, along with all creation, animals groan to enter the new heavens and earth (Rom. 8:22).
Lessons from Animal Theology
If we can’t speak of an animal theology, we’re refusing to shine the light of God’s Word on a massive sphere of reality. But when we examine what God says about animals, three practical implications emerge.
1. We should receive animals as good gifts.
Animals can be domesticated for companionship and other honorable activities (2 Sam. 12:3; Mark 7:28; James 3:7). Scripture approves of using animals to reduce human exertion (Deut. 22:10; 25:4); Jesus himself rode a donkey (Mark 11:7). God kindly allows people to eat (or not eat) animals and to use animal products (Gen. 3:2; 9:3; Prov. 27:27; Ezek. 16:10). Abraham Kuyper argued, however, that “only because God gives the animals to us and further grants us permission to slaughter and eat them, do we as human beings have the right to use animals in this way.” Animals have value, but they are not sacred. Still, God’s provision of animals for our flourishing should lead us to praise him.
2. We must honor animals’ value.
The question is not whether we have dominion over animals but how we will exercise that dominion (Gen. 1:26). Stewardship is not a blank check. As Kuyper explained, “The commonly accepted view that people may do with an animal just as they please because it is only an animal must . . . be resisted by all Christians because the animals are not yours but belong to God.”
Children should be taught to avoid everything approaching to unkindness; the wanton destruction of birds’ nests, the stoning of birds, beating of donkeys, worrying of fowls, and a hundred petty cruelties in which boys are often encouraged should be promptly denounced.
Spurgeon wasn’t simply concerned about animals. He recognized that cruelty impacts character. It’s no surprise then that Christian abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Hannah More also vigorously campaigned against animal cruelty. Mistreatment of animals reveals our need for the Savior. And care for animals is a mark of godliness: “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (Prov. 12:10).
3. We should study animals.
Finally, the Bible commends looking to animals for how they illustrate diligence (Prov. 6:6–8), collaboration (30:27), and skillfulness (30:28). Animals also teach us the great value of a person (Matt. 6:26), about God’s pervasive providence (Ps. 36:6; Job 38:39–41), and about our Savior’s character (Matt. 23:37; John 1:29; Rev. 5:5). Augustine believed that “knowledge of the ways and meaning of animal life was an intellectual necessity.” The world’s wisest man would have agreed (1 Kings 4:33).
Then animals were not a throwaway point in God’s argument for Jonah to show compassion for Nineveh. God expects that a biblical theology of animals will reorient his people’s hearts to better reflect his own.