B’reishit offers us unique insights concerning humankind’s responsibility to be both sovereign and servants over creation, and the lessons that we might learn about compassion from our furry friends who are the “other white meat” on this planet. Some might be surprised to learn that this week’s parasha Noach offers more of these insights and still others that we might deduce such as self-control and self-limitation. But first let us review last week’s lessons.
As described by the first two commands given in Genesis, humankind was given the responsibility of being the image bearers of God in this world in two distinct ways. First, humanity is commanded to have dominion in this world. “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth (Gen. 1:28).” The second divine charge to humanity is to “till” (l’avdah, literally to serve or to worship) the ground (2:15). While the command is very much the same as the first command, it is actualized quite differently. In the first, humans mirror the image of God as kings, but in the second, as servants. Dominion or mastery does not suggest unbridled freedom to ravage, exploit and exhaust the rest of the animal kingdom, rather as the only beings created in the image of God, humans are expected to be benevolent rulers, serving the creation.
It would appear from the Creation narratives of Genesis 1-2 that animals were originally intended for a more intimate relationship with Humanity. Why than a mere food source. In Genesis 2:18 God declares, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” But there is a gap between this declaration and the creation of the women from the rib of man in verse 21. In between, in verses 19 and 20 God creates the animals from the dust of the earth just as he did the man. Also the animals are brought before the man who is given charge to name each of them, “but for Adam no suitable helper was found.” From this we might ascertain several thoughts. First, this reiterates the idea of man as the benevolent ruler. Although the animals were created much as he was, only the human is able to participate in the creative task of naming. Second there is a clear intimacy between Adam and the rest of the creatures, not only does he know the animals well enough to give them suitable names, but there is an implied potential for one of them to be his special mate. Whatever the unstated process of evaluation was, the Torah is clear that it is only after eliminating the rest of the animal world, as suitable mates, that God provided one that Adam could say was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (v.23).”
Esteemed Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod comments on this odd narrative and its implications.
For me, the most important lesson that emerges from all of this is recognition of the proximity, from God’s perspective, of human beings and animals. However great the gulf may be from a human perspective, from the perspective of God who is infinitely above both humans and animals, the gulf is not as absolute as it seems to humans. It is, of course, that only the human being was created in the image of God which at the very least means that humans are closer to God than animals. But it does not mean that the gulf between humans and animals is as absolute as that between humans and God. Humans and animals are both finite creatures and while, in the final analysis, only woman is the proper companion of man, animals are also companions though less than satisfactory ones.
Given the level of companionship intended between humans and animals it is understandable why, in the original scheme of creation, animals were not on the menu. Despite the implications of the animal skin clothes provided by God at the end of Geneses 3, there is no explicit mention of humans eating animals until after the flood. That God permits the eating of animals might be best understood as a concession to the innately evil character of humankind. After all God did just conclude wiping out all but one extended family with a cataclysmic flood.
First it is interesting to note the relational harmony that existed on the ark. Scripture does not necessarily state that there was harmony on the ark, but given the size of the menagerie on the sea craft and the apparent 100% survival rate coming off of it, it should be safe to jump to this conclusion. The picture this conjures is similar to the one envisioned in the prophetic mind, a reality greater than the present, a Messianic Age when all of the world will be in harmony represented by the reformed eating habits of nature’s predators.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together,
With a little boy to herd them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
Their young shall lie down together;
And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw. (Isaiah 11: 6-7)
But once on dry ground Noah curiously offers sacrifice to God from every ritually pure animal and bird, reminiscent of Abel’s sacrifice East of Eden. Now it gets really interesting. God bestows upon Noah and his sons the same blessing that he gave to the original man and woman. “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth (Gen. 9:1),” but now it is followed by the sober evaluation of the relational disharmony
“The fear and the dread of you shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.” (Gen.9: 2-3).
Recognizing its ineradicably evil disposition, God acknowledges that rather than a benevolent ruler who serves creation; man has become a predatory dictator, a rather distorted image of the Creator. So along with the permission to eat animals though, comes an immediate set of prohibitions against eating animal blood and shedding human blood (Gen.9: 5-6). It is almost as though God expects that when man kills animals, the taking of human life is a near probability. Though Torah contains a great deal of instruction concerning which meats may and may not be eaten, it seems rather easy to conclude that God would prefer His image bearers to be vegetarians.
Talmud also recognizes that the eating of meat is a concession to human desire. Though it teaches that both meat and wine should be served at every festive occasion (Pesachim 109a), it also teaches “A man should not eat meat unless he has a special craving for it (Hullim 84a).” In this respect the tension between the olam ha-bah (age to come) and the olam ha-zeh (present age) are upheld. I have already expressed my opinion, based on the narrative flow of Torah, that vegetarianism is God’s ideal. However, if God allows for concessions so must we. Still, any efforts we can make to place limitations upon ourselves can only prove to be helpful, not only in decreasing the suffering of the animal population, but also by training us to be better stewards of the Earth’s resources which we have been given charge over.
We live in an age of unparalleled consumption of the Earth’s resources and the world’s limited goods. Our use of fossil fuel has placed serious demands upon the fragile economies in the western hemisphere and has precipitated imperial rivalries and political unrest. This is not to mention the irreparable harm that has been done to the environment. In the U.S., where our expenditures on trash receptacles are greater than half of the world’s GNP, we are often unaware of the strain we place on the world’s limited goods. Restraint in regard to animal consumption can be the start of a healthy pedagogy. As it is incumbent upon the redemptive community to be co-participants with the Creator in the restoration of cosmic and relational harmony, then compassion, stewardship and self-limiting discipline should be identifying marks of such community.