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God Squad: The Bible's laws protect animals - to a certain extent

A canvas of Adam, Eve and animals in

A canvas of Adam, Eve and animals in the Garden of Eden, where the Bible says the only food allowed was plants. Credit: Dreamstime

Q: Can you imagine the horror of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when God slaughtered the animals there to make the clothing for the couple? Most people see God in a theophany that shed the blood of the animals in their stead; however, the horror of the animals must have been profound. What is your take on this matter? — From S

A: "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them." (Genesis 3:21)

The relationship between animals and people is morally complicated, and the Bible understands this more than you imagine. The only food allowed to Adam and Eve (and indeed all the animals) in the Garden of Eden was plants. Meat-eating was not allowed by God until Noah's time, when it was clearly a concession to human weakness. In the laws of the Bible, the suffering of animals must be avoided. Animals of different strength — like an ox and a donkey — cannot be yoked together on a threshing floor because it will be a burden to the weaker animal. (Deuteronomy 22:10)

Even the psychological suffering of animals must be avoided. When taking the eggs from a bird's nest, the mother bird must be chased away so that she does not have to see her eggs taken. (Deuteronomy 22:6) However, those eggs are taken for food. Animals are killed for food, and their skins that are used to make clothing and tents are a byproduct of eating animals. Is the suffering of these animals worth our desire to use them for food? I think the vegetarian argument is strong, but I do not consider animals to be on the same moral level as humans. We debate about eating animals, but there is no debate about eating people. Meat may be a temptation we can and ought to try to avoid for our moral purification, but meat is not murder.

The temple sacrifices described in the Bible are another matter. I do not mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the priestly cultus that sacrificed animals there. The rabbis replaced those sacrifices with prayers and Judaism improved its moral standing in the world because of their changes.

In terms of spiritually acceptable clothing today, the key element to avoid is the exploitation of workers who make the clothes we wear, not the leather they may use from animals we have chosen to eat. Life is filled with moral compromises, and the Bible gives us laws to regulate low-level moral existence and a guidebook to living a higher and better life. That is how God has chosen to teach us, lead us and accompany us through the broken lives we are forced to live.

On loving our enemies

Our dialogue over my column on the Christian commandment from the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies is the longest and most heartfelt about any column I have written (my column on why people dress sloppily when they go to their houses of worship comes in second place). Here is a powerful response from D:

"I had been thinking about your column on 'loving your enemy' since I read it a couple of weeks ago. I was raised Southern Baptist and had heard — and disagreed with — this phrase my entire life, but could not put into words why. You gave me those words in your columns. In your words the commandment should be translated as, 'Be fair to your enemies.' This I can do. This I can understand and support. I am currently working through the legal system to prosecute the man that sexually molested my daughters (and other minor girls). If one more person tells me I have to 'forgive' him for my 'own good,' for 'closure,' so that I will 'have peace,' I think I will come unhinged.

"You summed up my situation perfectly. I have to be FAIR to him (and I am), but I do not have to forgive a man that denies his actions to my face (despite confessing to his physician and confessing to the authorities). This man has not asked for forgiveness, and I certainly do not have to encourage my daughters to forgive this man — to love their enemy. I think there are times we have an obligation to be angry, to seek justice, to not 'turn the other cheek.' This is that time for me. Thank you for giving me the words to explain what my heart felt."

To which I say, Amen. This I can do. This I can understand and support. Fairness and justice? Yes. Love? No.

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