Thursday, June 17, 2010

The First of God's Works

An old friend could be very needy. He was a dear friend, but whenever he needed affirmation and validation, he was tenacious and even invaded my “personal space.” Sometimes he even disturbed me in the night.

Why did I put up with this? Well … my friend was a cat. Domino was a little Humane Society adoptee—adopted, in fact, on 9/11/01. He was an older, black and white cat, part Siamese and very vocal. He was supposedly eight when we adopted him but I suspect he was older; as our vet says, a cat’s age is difficult to determine unless you know the date of birth. We all loved each other for four years before he contracted some illness, lost his appetite, and had to be put down. His cremated ashes have an honored place on our bookshelves.

My earlier description of him was true but playful. Our other cat, Oddball, just passed away (see my last post), and now her ashes have an honored place next to Domino's. Our new cat, Taz, is settling in, comfortable in the TV room, and she's slowly exploring the rest of the house. Needless to say, a pet is a real friend, though different from a human friend who can give advice. We receive unconditional love from a pet that we would never expect from a human. We might even disdain someone who showed a similar affection, for they’d seem to be needy and thoughtless. Perhaps that’s one reason we love our pets; the relationship is comparatively uncomplicated, yet very deep. I can’t overestimate the role this little animal has played in our family’s well-being, especially my daughter’s, whose pet Oddball has been through her childhood and teenage years. (I don’t mean to leave out dogs and other kinds of pets. Several of our neighbors walk their dogs.) If we’re Bible readers (and even if we’re not), we’d be self-centered if we failed not only to acknowledge our important people for our overall well being, but also our animals.

A few years ago I became curious about which animals are mentioned in the Bible. (Find a Bible topic that interests you. What does the Bible say about angels and “guardian angels”? What kinds of trees are mentioned in the Bible? How do musical instruments figure in the Bible? Go crazy: check out topics like the cities of refuge and the role of the Levites! A good topical Bible or Bible dictionary are essential even for very basic study.) So I took down my old Bible dictionary (King James Version), which, in a brief article, lists several animals, including apes, asses, badgers, bats, bears, “Behemoth” (which could possibly be hippos or elephants), boars, camels, cattle, deer, foxes, gazelle, goats, hares (Lev. 11:4, 6, Deut. 14:7), hart and hind, horses, hyenas, ibex, jackals, lambs and sheep, leopards, “Leviathan” (Job. 3:8, 41:1), lion, mice, moles, swine, weasels, whales, and wolves. The Bible also lists sponges, corals, mollusks, fish, amphibians, reptiles, asp, chameleon, cockatrice (Isa. 11:8, 59:5, Jer. 8:17), geckos (Lev. 11:30), lizards, serpents, tortoises, and vipers. Actually the KJV translation includes dragons—Psalm 74:13, Ezekiel 32:2, and in Revelation—and unicorns (Job 39:9-12). No cats, but the text mentions lions, a different genus but the same family.

Have you noticed that a lot of the Bible happens outdoors? Notice the travels of the patriarchs and their families; the people in the wilderness; the armies on the move, the ministries of Jesus. In one poignant Old Testament scene, Ezra commanded the people to repent of their sin, and the large multitude agreed—as soon as they could go inside from the heavy rain (Ezra 10:9-15). We know little about the place where Jesus lived (Mark 2:1, John 1:38-39); if he wasn’t visiting someone else’s home, he was outside somewhere, turning his observations of outdoor events into eternal teachings.

Once you notice the “outdoor” sections of the Bible, imagine the sounds in the background of the text: the sounds of wind blowing, the rustling of leaves, the crunch of stones as people walk, the lapping water of the waters, and the sounds of animals. We read the Bible for teachings that pertain to our spiritual and moral lives, but what about the outdoor world that lies so close behind the words of God? Read Psalm 8, 19, 14, and 136, all wonderful affirmations of God’s providential care of the natural world.

I turn in my old Bible to Job:

But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being (12:7-10).

The animals are wiser about God than Job’s friends, who try to be so theologically astute!

Look at Behemoth, which I made as I made you, says the Lord to Job, He is the first of the great acts of God (Job. 40:15a, 19a). At some point in my life, I wrote in the margin, Humans and animals equal. In God’s speech to Job chapters 38-41, God tells Job that, bad as Job’s problems are, the cosmos is far greater. Humans belong within a larger world of the animal kingdom.

I’ve had friends who point out that animals cannot accept Christ. I’d rather say that we don’t know what awareness of God animals may have, or how animals “duly and daily” serve God, as the poet Christopher Smart puts it. Nor do I know if the poet Schiller is right when he writes, in his Beethoven-set poem An die Freude, “even the worm [that is, the lowest of creatures] feels the joy of living” (Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben). But I do know several things from the Bible:

· that Paul assures us that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21)

· that when a bull gave up its life as an offering, the person offering the animal lay his hand upon the animal’s head prior to the sacrifice, connoting a connection between the person and the animal serving him (Lev. 1:3-5).

· that God is concerned about the well-being of animals (the background, for instance, of the cryptic “kosher” law of Ex. 36:29)

· that Jesus promises God’s tenderness for even the lowly birds (Matt. 6:26)

· that Jesus identified with an animal, a sacrificial lamb.

God’s providential care is not just about us human beings: what God’s doing for us, what we should be doing, where we fail, and so on. As God reminded Job in those powerful chapters 38-41, God’s activity covers far more than we can fathom.

That gives us confidence. We know we have a Lord and Savior who doesn’t mind a bit that we’re needy, demanding, and come to him at all hours.

he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep (Psalm 121:3b-4)

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