I once held a hummingbird in the palm of my hand. I cradled it until I could release it at the open door of the boathouse. It was one of the holiest moments of my life. And there have been many more like it.
While snorkelling in Eilat, Israel, I swam carefully over some 50 metres of nondescript grey brain coral toward deeper water. In an instant – a moment for which I was completely unprepared – I found myself hovering over a massive drop-off illuminated deep down by radiant shafts of sunlight. The vista of countless brightly coloured tropical fish literally took my breath away. Once I recovered from the gasp – and the water in my lungs! – I spent hours lingering on the surface, then diving among the brilliance.
On the first night of this summer’s vacation, two loons fed just metres off shore. Early the next morning, an osprey landed on the beach in front of me. It bathed in the shallow water, spread its wings – all five feet of them – and flew away. At suppertime, two great blue herons glided past at eye level. The next morning, a kingfisher waited patiently on a pole we had erected on the beach, our way of showing it some human hospitality.
These experiences remind me of the haunting song “Beautiful Creatures” by Bruce Cockburn, in which he laments the ecological crises we face, including the threatened loss of such beauty. His simple chorus repeats the line, “the beautiful creatures are going away.”
An intimate connection
Although the biblical prophets weren’t aware of the kinds of ecological threats we now experience, they well knew the intimate relationship between creation and humankind. Because of violation of the moral order, Hosea lamented, “Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away” (4:3). Jeremiah’s lament makes the connection plain: “Because those who live in it are wicked, the animals and birds have perished” (12:4).
Biblical writers were not worried about species extinction. But they were aware that the consequences of human behaviour reverberate throughout creation. The Bible speaks of the redemption and transformation of human beings’ relationship with God. Yet, throughout the Bible, we also find astonishing echoes of God’s own response to creation. From “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31) to “I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5), the Bible is infused with God’s love for all creation and God’s commitment to its transformation.
Animals part of a renewed earth
A few years ago, as I was reading through the psalms, I noticed this odd line: “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord” (36:6, NRSV). It’s hard to believe I had never seen that before. Yet there it was, the most common verb for salvation in the Old Testament! The poet understands God “to save,” “to deliver,” or “to liberate” animals. The NIV translation “you preserve both man and beast” misses the point and the power of the poet’s use of the Hebrew verb.
But please don’t misunderstand my insistence on the verb “to save” here. Let me explain.
I once taught an adult class on the “Salvation” article (#5) in the MB Confession of Faith. During that session, I said something outrageous like, “There is no heaven [at which I paused for effect], without a new earth.” Someone perceptively wondered whether animals will be in heaven, to which I replied, “If we believe in heaven, we also have to believe in earth. So yes, I think there will be animals in God’s renewed creation.”
I then referred to the confession’s article on creation and humanity (#3), which reflects the assurance of the psalmist: “Humans and all creation long to be set free. . . . In Christ all things are being reconciled and created anew.” The article on salvation mentions “creation and all of humanity,” and offers the hope that “the redeemed are gathered in the new heaven and the new earth.”
If there will be a new or renewed cosmos, I suggested, that renewal must also include animals. And if that’s God’s intent, perhaps we ought also to be concerned about their welfare, and that of all creation. Don’t we believe our eschatology – our hope of salvation in the future – gives concrete shape to our lives now? If that’s not enough of a reason, then we need only to ponder the fact that we’ve been made from the dirt (Genesis 2:7), created to participate with God in caring for, even serving and protecting, the earth (Genesis 1:26–28; 2:15).
A journey through Scripture
The psalmists celebrate how God feeds the animals (Psalm 104:24–30; 147:9). “Even the wild animals cry to you,” says the prophet Joel (1:20, NRSV). To the devastation of creation, he writes, “Do not fear, O soil…. Do not fear, you animals of the field” (Joel 2:21–22, NRSV). The whole earth community will sing because God comes to save – a saving that restores justice and righteousness on the earth (Psalm 96:11–13; 98:7–9).
New Testament writers take up those themes. In Romans, Paul writes about the liberation of a groaning creation (8:19–23). In Colossians, we read of the creation and the reconciliation, effected by Christ’s peacemaking death, of “all things in heaven and on earth” (1:15–20). In John’s apocalypse, the One on the throne says, “I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5), an echo of Isaiah’s “new heavens and a new earth” (65:17), in which “all flesh shall come to worship before me” (66:22-24, NRSV).
John sees, in anticipation of God’s ultimate victory over evil, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing” (Revelation 5:13, NRSV). This is surely an echo of Genesis 1, a vision of a joyfully restored cosmos in which all things will be renewed and all relationships reconciled. And the mystery is that, in Christ, we have begun to participate in that new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15).
I punctuate these reflections by referring to one of the most overlooked biblical passages. The flood story provides a basis for God’s (and our) concern for animals (and by extension all creation). Although human violence had brought creation to the point of uncreation (Genesis 6:11, 13), God determines to save creation from its demise at human hands. He makes a covenant with Noah, and instructs Noah to bring into the ark “every living thing” (6:19, NRSV).
Only at the end of the story do we learn of God’s covenant “with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature” (9:9–10, NRSV). In the verses that follow we read six improvisations of that refrain, which mention an “everlasting covenant” with “every animal of the earth” (v. 10), “every living creature” (v. 12), “the earth” (v. 13), “every living creature of all flesh” (vv. 15, 16), and “all flesh that is on the earth” (v. 17).
Against that backdrop of God’s commitment to the earth and its creatures, it’s no wonder the psalmist writes, “you save humans and animals alike.”