Faith News

A message from St George parish church


All God’s Creatures

Introduction

Last year I presented a series on the trees of the Bible which ran all through the season of Trinity or Ordinary Time. This year we will engage with the members of the animal kingdom that appear in the Bible.

In this occasional series I may suggest that you to do some additional reading and investigation for yourself and I may not use the most obvious texts.

The list of animals in the account of Creation in Genesis chapter 1 is very familiar but there are other descriptions of creation in different books of the Bible and many more animals appear throughout the text. I will take a very broad approach including living creatures from smallest to largest; virus and gnat to elephant and whale; vertebrates and invertebrates; and various borderline cases. Texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized Edition, with the Apocrypha and Deutero Canonical Books. The collection of animals included in this series is not exhaustive and the names for some creatures may differ in other translations.

Do take some time to look at our creation window: the great west rose window in St George’s.

Consider the variety and beauty of the creatures depicted there.

In the song of praise sung by the three young men, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, who were thrown into the burning fiery furnace we find:

The three with one voice praised and glorified and blessed God in the furnace:
“Blessed are you, O Lord, God of our ancestors,
and to be praised and highly exalted for ever.

Bless the Lord, you whales and all that swim in the waters;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
Bless the Lord, all birds of the air;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.
Bless the Lord, all wild animals and cattle;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him for ever.

All who worship the Lord, bless the God of gods,
Sing praise to him and give thanks to him,
For his mercy endures for ever.

                                           [Prayer of Azariah. 28, 29, 57 – 59, 68 (Apocrypha)]

Beasts of Burden 

As an indication of wealth, beasts of burden such as camels, donkeys, asses and mules feature many times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The persons they carry are notable and play vital roles in the stories in which they feature.

Abram’s wealth was demonstrated in that he had ‘sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys and camels’ [Gen 12. 16]. (Note that slaves are included in this list of beasts of burden.) Such animals were used as gifts especially when a marriage was being organised. Abram sent his servant with camels, when looking for a wife for Isaac. He used the ruse of sending the servant to a well for the camels to drink in order that he might find a suitable girl. [Gen 24. 10 – 67]. Job’s wealth was first taken from him and later restored in even larger numbers to him [Job 1. 3, 17; 42. 12].

After they had been estranged, Jacob sent to Esau a peace offering of ‘two hundred female goats and twenty make goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys’ [Gen 32. 14 – 15]. When Joseph, while he was a servant to Pharaoh in Egypt, wanted to support his family he sent them ‘ten female donkeys loaded with grain, bread, and provision or his father on the journey’ [Gen 45. 23]. We saw, in the reflection on Lions, how Judah was described as a ‘lion’s whelp’ [Gen 49. 9] in the dying speech of Jacob to his sons. In this same farewell Judah is also said to bind ‘his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine’ [Gen 49. 11]: a picture of prosperity. Later it is Pharaoh’s livestock that is smitten with a deadly pestilence: ‘the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks’ [Ex 9. 3].

A king might send a gift of camels to a prophet hoping for good news [2 Kings 8. 9] and, after a victory, there would be rejoicing, feasting with people bringing many gifts: ‘they were there with David for three days, eating and drinking … and their neighbours  … came bringing food on donkeys, camels, mules, and oxen – abundant provisions of meal, cakes of figs, clusters of raisins, wine, oil, oxen, and sheep, for there was joy in Israel’ [1 Chron12. 39 – 40]. The Queen of Sheba had in her retinue ‘camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones’ [2 Chron 9. 1]. When the exiles returned from Persia they brought with them ‘seven hundred and thirty six horses, two hundred and forty five mules, four hundred and thirty five camels, and six thousand seven hundred and twenty donkeys’ [Ezra 2. 67; Neh 7. 69].

Destroying the ‘ox and sheep, camel and donkey’ [1 Sam 15. 3; 27. 9] of the enemy would demonstrate victory. But on other occasions the livestock was captured as booty: ‘they captured their livestock: fifty thousand of their camels, two hundred and fifty thousand sheep, two thousand donkeys, and one hundred thousand captives’ [1 Chron 5. 21]and, on another occasion, the plunder included ‘sheep and goats in abundance, and camels’ [2 Chron 14. 15]. Camels could be ridden to escape from the enemy [1Sam 30. 17].

Although most of these animals are good to eat, the camel is not considered good because ‘it does not have divided hoofs’ [Lev 11. 4; Deut 14. 7]. In the time of Gideon, the Midianites, enemies of Israel, had many camels and so they used their animals to eat all the produce of the land so that there was nothing left for the livestock of the Israelites [Judges 6. 5; 7. 12]. Camels also wore collars shaped like crescents and these could be traded [Judges 8. 21, 26].

In prophecy these animals, and sometimes their riders, were to be taken note of as warnings of disaster or of the glory of God [Is 21. 7; 30. 6; 60. 6; Jer 49. 29, 32; Ezek 25. 5; Zech 14. 15]. When God’s reign finally comes all there will first be plague ‘on the horses, the mules, the camels, the donkeys’ [Zec 14. 14] but then all people will come to the Lord ‘on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on dromedaries’ [Isaiah 66. 20].

A notable story concerning a donkey occurs in the book of Numbers: the donkey speaks [Num 22.  22 – 30]. This is only other animal to speak in the bible apart from the serpent in the Garden of Eden. This story demands further attention. While there are many interpretations and messages to be discovered in this story, this article may help.

Donkeys also feature in the story of the choosing of Saul to be the first king of Israel [1 Sam 9 – 1 Sam 11] and the summoning of Elisha to the bed of the dead child [2 Kings 4. 22 – 24]. Later David’s son Absalom was riding a mule when his head was caught in the branches of an oak tree. Joab, against King David’s orders, did nothing to help Absalom but killed him [2 Sam 18. 9 – 15]. For his anointing as King, Solomon also rode on a mule to meet Zadok the priest [1 Kings 13. 38 – 39].

In the New Testament we find that there are no animals mentioned in the stable in which Jesus is born but the prophecy, ‘the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib’ [Isaiah 1. 3], has inspired many to place these animals there. John Baptist wore clothes of camel hair [Mat 3. 4; Mark 1. 6.], but most notably the camel is used by Jesus in his illustration of the difficulty for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven [Mat 19. 24; Luke 18. 25] and in his criticism of the scribes and the Pharisees: ‘You strain our a gnat but swallow a camel’ [Mat 23. 24].

The prophecy of Zechariah, ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ [Zec 9. 9], carries us forward to Palm Sunday [John 12. 14]( the only use of this word for this animal – a little donkey – in the NT), always remembering (from Elephants and Horses) that it is a warrior that comes on a horse, whereas the colt is a symbol of peace.

 

Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
Maker of all living creatures:
fish in the sea, birds in the air,
and animals on the land.
May we always praise you
for all your beauty in creation.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
in all your creatures.
Amen