The Moral Worth of Animals in the Bible

In my previous post, An Evolutionary Argument Against Theism, I developed a rather detailed argument that animal predation as an evolutionary mechanism can strengthen an atheistic argument from the problem of evil. However, that argument is predicated on an assumption that some people might dispute—namely, that animal suffering is an evil.

It is all too common for Christian theists to assert that nonhuman animals do not have moral worth or moral agency—often based on the assumption that because God only breathed a ‘soul’ into human beings, only humans have moral consideration. And while many arguments could be made for the moral worth of animals from various ethical theories and scientific data, there is also strong biblical evidence for the moral worth of animals which is not often considered.

First, we need to specify the difference between moral worth and moral agency. For something or someone to have moral worth means that the thing is worthy of moral consideration. So when considering the moral consequences of an action, we often consider the effect that the action might have on other people, meaning that other people have moral worth. Moral agency, on the other hand, means that one’s actions can be moral or immoral. Many people believe that nonhuman animals do not have moral agency because they do not have free will, which is believed to be a prerequisite for moral agency.

Moral Agency

In the third chapter of Genesis, we read about a curious interaction between the first human woman (named Eve) and a talking snake. The snake cleverly persuades Eve to disobey God’s command not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and Eve likewise persuades the first man (Adam) to eat the fruit as well. When God discovers that Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, he gives judgments on the three parties involved—Adam, Eve, and the snake. I suspect most readers would agree that the judgments God metes out to Adam and Eve (painful childbearing and agricultural labor) indicate that Adam and Eve are moral agents. But how then do we forget that God, in the very same breath, proceeds to judge the serpent (he must from now on crawl upon his belly and eat dirt) as if he too is a moral agent? (Some argue that the serpent was not actually an animal but rather a supernatural being. The arguments for this are interesting, however, the references to the serpent as among the “beasts of the field” (Gen. 3:1, 14) make it difficult to dismiss a zoological interpretation).

While moral agency does not necessarily imply moral worth, I bring it up because the two are sometimes seen as going hand in hand. If, like humans, animals have moral agency in the Bible, this might suggest that, like humans, animals also have moral worth. And as it turns out, the evidence that animals have moral worth is pretty strong.

Moral Worth

One indication that animals were viewed as having moral worth is the fact that God includes animals in his covenants with Noah and Moses (often referred to as the Noahic and Mosaic covenants, respectively). After the great flood of Noah, we read the following:

“Then God said to Noah and his sons with him, ‘behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.'”

Genesis 9:8-10

Similarly, it is required that animals be allowed to rest on the Sabbath, in both the Exodus and Deuteronomy variations of the Decalogue (i.e., the Ten Commandments):

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.”

Exodus 20:8-10

“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as Yahweh your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God; on it you shall not do any work, 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 livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.”

Deuteronomy 5:12-14

Regarding the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9, God’s specific mention of the animals shows that part of God’s rationale for not sending another flood is for the sake of the nonhuman animals, not only for humans. The continued existence of the animal kingdom is not a peripheral consequence of God’s preservation of humanity; God is very much interested in the lives of animals. Likewise in the Decalogue, God is careful to ensure that the Israelites’ animals are able to enjoy the Sabbath rest just like the Israelites themselves.

There are also some passages that suggest that animals, like humans, actually make requests to God. This is particularly the case when animals get hungry, at which point they pray to God for food.

“Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God for help,
and wander about for lack of food?”

Job 38:41

“The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.”

Psalm 104:21

(The idea that when animals cry in hunger they are calling to God for help might explain a peculiar passage in the book of Jonah where the Ninevites cover their animals with sackcloth and make them fast alongside the people of the city, who together ‘call out mightily to God’ [Jonah 3:8]. It is possible that the Ninevite logic was that when they made their livestock fast, the subsequent cries for food would help get God’s attention because such cries were understood to be directed to God).

One final indication that animals have moral worth is in the Balaam narrative in Numbers 22. As the prophet Balaam is traveling with the princes of Moab (who want him to curse the Israelites), God sends an angel to stand in his path to stop him. Balaam does not see the angel, but his donkey does, and his donkey repeatedly tries to get out of the path, which angers Balaam, causing him to beat the donkey with his staff.

“Then Yahweh opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have stuck me these three times?’ And Balaam said to the donkey, ‘Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.’ And the donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habbit to treat you this way?’ And he said, ‘No.’

Numbers 22:28-30

God then allows Balaam to see the angel, and the angel informs Balaam that his donkey had saved his life by not allowing the angel to kill him. Balaam then declares, “I have sinned” (חטאתי). If Balaam sinned against his donkey, then there can be no doubt that animals have moral worth, for one cannot sin against something that does not. Now, it could be argued that Balaam’s treatment of the donkey was a sin against God rather than the donkey. I suppose that is technically possible. However, I would suggest that the fact that God allowed the donkey to condemn Balaam in her own words might be an indication that the donkey’s moral worth is also in sight.

Many people today have an intuition that there is something morally wrong with hurting an animal unjustly. The idea that animals have moral worth is embedded deep within the human psyche and seems to have been recognized by ancient civilizations as well as modern cultures. The biblical portrayals of animals as lucid beings with moral agency and moral worth should therefore not be incredibly surprising.

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