Thinking biblically about animals

August 31, 2020

Thinking biblically about animals

Lindsay Wilson

It is vital for us to think biblically about animals. Unless we see the animal world from God’s perspective, we will misunderstand creation care, since animals are a central part of the creation which God has declared good (Genesis 1:24-25). If we get animals wrong, we are likely to get humanity wrong.

Our view of animals has significant implications for a doctrine of humanity, and for fulfilling our ‘job description’ of exercising dominion over the creation on God’s behalf (Genesis 1:26, 28). If animals are a part of daily life, we need to think Christianly about them.

Ethical thinking about animals

A pressing ethical issue today is the impact of humans on the environment, with a specific focus on climate change. Animals are a crucial part of this endangered world, and so they too must become more central to contemporary ethical thinking. Yet historically there has been a tendency to confine ethics to the human species. When I first began studying ethics, the main issue concerning animals was their use in laboratory testing for scientific, medical and commercial (e.g. cosmetics) research. The debate was over cruelty to animals and the justifiable grounds for their use in testing products. Even though the ethical status of animals has been marginalised in most ethics syllabi, some secular and Christian ethicists have developed this strand in writing about animal rights or our responsibility to animals. A key secular figure here was Tom Regan, but Andrew Linzey has probably been the leading Christian voice.[1] Biblical scholars like John Eaton and Richard Bauckham have sought to explain the Bible’s teaching about animals, while David Clough has developed a systematic theology and ethic based on the view that animals have rights as creatures that will be redeemed by God.[2]

The atheist philosopher Peter Singer has gone in a less common direction by daring to ask what is so special about the human species. He has accused many in the Western world of ‘speciesism’ i.e. ‘the giving of preference to the interests of one species, usually the human species, over against other species’. Like racism, sexism and ageism, Singer understands speciesism to be about unfair discrimination against non-human animals. For Singer, then, the consideration of animal interests is a justice or equity issue. All sentient beings (those with the capacity to suffer or experience enjoyment or happiness), not only human beings, have interests that are of moral significance. Self-conscious sentient beings (adult mammals such as pigs, dogs, horses, whales, dolphins, cats, bears, and seals, together with most humans) are persons, with preferences to be maximised, while all sentient beings (such as fish, birds, reptiles, young humans and mammals, and severely retarded humans) have interests to be promoted.[3]

Over the years, the range of ethical issues which have arisen in relation to animals has expanded greatly, highlighting the importance of clear thinking on such matters. These now include moral perspectives on issues like eating animals, animal products, animal testing, use of animals in research, cloning, breeding, living conditions, factory farming, live animal exports, sterilization, euthanasia, ownership, animal labour, training animals, performing animals, animals in sport and recreation, zoos, hunting, the keeping of pets or companion animals, human impact on wild animals, preservation of bio-diversity and even sexual interactions.[4]

What place do animals have in God’s creation? What are the limits to the way animals can be treated? What responsibilities do humans have towards animals? Do animals have rights that must not be infringed? These are some of the questions that confront modern men and women in thinking about the animal world. We need to remember that the 19th century animal welfare lobby was largely Christian, and clearly predated the more recent secular animal rights movement of the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. Christian concern for animals is thus not simply a novelty or fad, another example of the church trying to imitate the latest fashion in contemporary culture.

A biblical theology of animals

The Bible progressively reveals its teaching on animals. Indeed, throughout the Old Testament, only the book of Ruth makes no reference to animals.[5]

The creation account in Genesis 1-2 describes humans as both like and unlike the animals. In Genesis 2:7, the man is made from the dust of the ground (like the rest of creation), but God breathed the breath of life into him (unlike the rest of creation). They are like the animals in being a creature, not the Creator, yet are unlike the other creatures in that a distinct formula is used and the human species alone are made in the image of God (1:28), which involves responsible dominion over God’s creation. Naming the animals (2:19) also implies authority over them. Yet we are stewards, not owners; able to shape the creation, but not exploit or abuse it; and we are accountable to God for our use of it.

The animal creation itself is arranged according to its different kinds (1:20-25), which reflects a delight in the diversity of the animal world. Distinctions are made between different types of creatures, and this is part of what God called good or ‘in accordance with his plan’. The ideal picture of Genesis 1 is of a diversity of species valued by God, and this is true of the distinct but interconnected spheres of vegetation, animals and humans.

The human need for companionship is not met by the animals, but only through the creation of a fellow human being (2:19-23), one fashioned from his rib, a metaphor for coming from the very stuff of which he was made (vv21-22). In God’s ordering of his creation, there appears to be a deeper level of companionship possible between two human beings than between a human being and an animal.

The Fall in Genesis 3 seems to spoil all relationships and also human dominion. The ground is now cursed (v17). Human beings are still to exercise dominion (Genesis 9) but their dominion will be marred by sin. Death is present in the animal world, for in Genesis 3:21 God made garments for Adam and Eve from skins, which presupposes that animals have died, and in Genesis 4 Abel offers an animal sacrifice.

The animals appear to be victims in the flood accounts of Genesis 6–9, for not only are humans wiped out, but also animals and creeping things and birds (6:7). But the taking of two of each animal into the ark means that the created distinctions or ‘kinds’ of Genesis 1 are preserved after the flood (6:19-20). The seven pairs of clean animals (7:2-3) enable the later sacrifices to be offered without endangering these species. God’s will after the flood is still that the animals multiply fruitfully (8:17, 19). After the flood, Genesis 9:8-17 speaks of a covenant between God and every living creature (v12), not just humans.

What is clear after the flood is that animals are able to be eaten (Genesis 9:3- 6). A distinction is drawn between killing animals for food (v3) and killing a human being (v6). The rationale for this distinction is that humanity is made in the image of God, which appears to be of great moral significance, a theological reason for treating different species differently. In terms of current debate about speciesism, humanity being made in the image of God (with its moral obligations and permissions) seems to place a morally significant divide between the human species and all other species.[6]

If we take a broader sweep of the place and treatment of animals right through the Bible, it is apparent that the clan of Abraham were keepers of animal livestock (Genesis 46:31ff), in a society where wealth was measured in terms of animal holdings (see, for example, Job 1:3). Even when Israel left Egypt, they took with them large numbers of animals (Exodus 12:37-38). Thus at this very early stage, the descendants of Abraham had domesticated and cared for a large number of animals.

The Law prescribed which animals were permitted and forbidden as food (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14) and also allowed animal sacrifices (Leviticus 1-7). While these laws permitted the taking of animal life, there were others that dealt with the proper care of living animals. On the Sabbath, for example, animals were to rest as well as people (Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14). Deuteronomy prohibited the muzzling of an ox while it is processing the grain (25:4). The later book of Proverbs explains that knowing and presumably providing for the needs of your animals is part of righteousness (12:10). While they obviously took care of their own domesticated animals, Deuteronomy extended this to care for your neighbour’s animal as well (22:1-4), and this recognition of human responsibility to animals extended even to birds (22:6-7). The language of these laws is not, however, that of the rights of the animals, but rather of human responsibility towards the animal world.

The two categories of animals throughout the Old and New Testaments are those of domesticated animals and wild animals, and the focus is on how to care for domesticated animals—with little on wild animals. There is no evidence supporting (nor, for that matter, any prohibition on) our popular contemporary practice of keeping pets or ‘companion animals’. Indeed, some common pets like cats are curiously absent from either testament. Of course, in a fallen world where there was animosity between wild animals and the human world (with its domesticated animals), it is inevitable that wild animals would be killed. One example of this in Israel’s history was the young shepherd, David. In 1 Samuel 17:34-36, he outlines how he killed both lions and bears in order to preserve his flock.

It is appropriate to consider the contribution of the psalm and wisdom material at this point. A number of psalms outline God’s attitude to the animals, but it is most clearly set out in Psalm 104. Alongside his concern for the physical world in this psalm (vv2-9), God expresses his ongoing care for animals in providing water, pasture, suitable habitats for birds and wild animals, and even prey for lions. Even the sea is teeming with life. In a summary conclusion in vv27-30, God is both the one who gives food to animals, yet also the one who holds the power of life and death over them. Here animals belong to the sovereign God, without any mention of the role of humans.

God’s delight in the animal world is evident in the majestic description of the wild animals in Job 38:39-39:30. This ‘guided tour’ of the animal world is God’s way of proclaiming his absolute delight in and kingship over all of creation, not just human beings. All the creatures described are not under human control, and so his concern for his creation is wider than simply what works best for humans. Thus, Job 38:25-27 speaks of rain falling where no humans live, for God is concerned for the wider created world as well.

In the prophetic books, Jonah 4:11 makes the interesting comment in passing that God cares not only for the people in Nineveh, but also the cattle or animals. A new contribution of the prophets is their use of animal imagery to depict the future restoration of creation. Prominent here is the picture of wild and domesticated animals lying down together in peace (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:25). Of course, this is more than an image of animals in harmony with each other; it is rather one of peace between the human world represented by domesticated animals and the wild animals which were an ongoing threat to human survival and prosperity.

The New Testament continues this positive valuing of animals, as well as our human responsibility to care for them. In several passages about the Sabbath, Jesus simply assumes that humans should care for animals (Matthew 12:11-12; Luke 13:15-16; 14:5) and urges that the Sabbath should not prevent this. God’s own provision for animals is evident in such passages as Matthew 6:29 (God feeds the birds of the air); Luke 12:24 (he feeds even the ‘unclean’ ravens); Luke 12:6 (he does not forget the sparrows); Matthew 10:29 (not one of them will fall to the ground unless God allows it). Yet he regards humans as of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:7).[7] God’s valuing of his creatures apparently does not preclude his valuing human beings in a distinctive way. While the episode of the Gadarene pigs (Matthew 8:28-34)[8] is still problematic, it must be read in the context of Jesus’ constant affirmation of the value of animal life.

It appears that Jesus did not seek to overturn either the practice of animal sacrifice, or the eating of animals as food. While his death would ultimately obviate the need for animal sacrifices (Hebrews 10:1-18), his release of cattle, sheep and doves from the temple area (John 2:14-16; Matthew 21:12) is based neither on opposition to animal sacrifices, nor on any insistence that the animals had rights. It is likely that Jesus ate meat, and he certainly ate fish (Luke 24:32-33). Yet, as in the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament looks for the renewing of creation, and speaks of the creation as a whole longing for release and liberty (Romans 8:19-22).

• • •

In conclusion, then, the Bible supports a robust and rich theology of the animal world. While God’s purposes focus on humanity, indeed on a chosen people, there is always the wider vista of the rest of creation. While the language of animal rights is not present, there is a strong emphasis on human responsibility to God to act as stewards for the well-being of all of creation, including the animals. As one writer observes, ‘The importance of an animal, and indeed of any creature, is that it is part of God’s world, loved by him. … If you would be servants of the living God you must answer to him for your care of all that lives, the care he has entrusted to you.’[9]

There is, therefore, a pressing need for Christians to move towards a fuller theology of animal well-being and human responsibility. Our study of what the Bible teaches has shown there is little attention to animal rights, but it loudly affirms that animals matter to God and so should matter to us. As humans made in the image of God, we are entrusted with the task of being stewards of the rest of the creation, including the animal world. We will be accountable for our stewardship or dominion to the owner of all things, God himself. The Bible thus urges a positive care for animals without blurring the moral distinction between humans and animals. We may be different species, but we are both special to God.


Rev Dr Lindsay Wilson has lectured in Old Testament and Ethics at Ridley College, Melbourne for the last 30 years, and is a Senior Research Fellow of the Australian College of Theology.



[1] T. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (University of California Press, 1983); A. Linzey, Animal Theology (SCM, 1994) and many subsequent books.

[2] J. Eaton, The Circle of Creation. Animals in the Light of the Bible (SCM, 1995); R. Bauckham, Living With Other Creatures. Green Exegesis and Theology (Paternoster, 2012); D. L. Clough, On Animals. Volume I Systematic Theology (T&T Clark, 2012) and On Animals. Volume II Theological Ethics (T&T Clark, 2019).

[3] P. Singer, Animal Liberation (Vintage, 2015; originally 1975); Practical Ethics 3rd ed. (CUP, 2011). For my assessment of Singer on animals see L. Wilson, ‘Human Beings—Species or Special? A Critique of Peter Singer on Animals’. Rethinking Peter Singer. A Christian Critique ed. G. Preece (InterVarsity Press, 2002), pp106-121. This essay is significantly indebted to my earlier article.

[4] See, for example, S. J. Armstrong & R. G. Botzler (eds), The animal ethics reader (Routledge, 2003); C. Overall (ed), Pets and People. The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals (OUP, 2017)); D. L. Clough, On Animals. Volume II Theological Ethics (T&T Clark, 2019).

[5] R. Griffiths, The Human Use of Animals Grove Booklet on Ethics 46 (Grove, 1982), p6.

[6] In the Preface to the 1975 edition of Animal Liberation, Singer writes ‘the basic moral principle of equal consideration of interests is not arbitrarily restricted to members of our own species’ (p ii). A. Coady comments that while this argument is rhetorically useful, it is persuasive only if ‘species membership is just as superficial a moral characteristic as race membership’ (‘Morality and Species’, Res Publica Vol.8, 1999, pp9-10).

[7] Cf. Matthew 10:31. See also Luke 12:24; Matthew 6:26; 12:12.

[8] Cf. Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39.

[9] Eaton, The Circle of Creation, pp2, 111.

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