Sabbath: Animals Included

The Bible doesn’t have much to say about God’s relationship with animals. This isn’t surprising since the Bible is part of God’s revelation to humans and thus the relationship between God and humanity is the focus of the story. God’s revelation to animals, whatever it is, is unknown to us. Since animals are not storytellers- at least in the way we tell stories- it seems logical that God’s revelation to animals would be different from God’s revelation to us and  appropriate for and intelligible to animals.

Nevertheless, if we read Scripture carefully there are signs of God’s care and concern for animals. One place we find this in in the establishment of the Sabbath.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.  (Exodus 20:8-11)

Why do you think animals are included? DoesThe commandment just mean animals shouldn’t be worked on the sabbath? Prohibiting humans from working on the sabbath would accomplish that. Oxen don’t yoke themselves. Donkeys don’t take up their burdens on their own. So why the inclusion of animals?

Part of understanding why animals are included in sabbath means thinking through what sabbath was meant to be.

Sabbath is notto be a day filled with prohibitions. It is a day filled with potential. It is a taste of life in the kingdom of God. Jewish tradition often refers to the relationship between the sabbath and Israel as the relationship of a bride and groom. Weddings are certainly not a time of prohibition but of celebration.

In ancient times when a king was at rest it did not mean the king was napping or restricted in his activities. When the king was at rest, he was at home. Not at war. His kingdom was at peace. Life was as it should be. No crises. No famines. No plagues. No threats from outside or inside the kingdom.

On the sabbath we live the life of contented, secure subjects. Our king is at home and in control.

What does this have to do with animals? The verse in Exodus (and Deuteronomy 5:12ff also) includes all God’s world in the sabbath. All people, regardless of status, and animals too live the “good life,” free from worry and toil. Glad that the king is home and in control.

Sabbath is a practice that anticipates the world of Isaiah 11 and Revelation 21. Sabbath is what Romans 8 longs for. Sabbath is what the Psalmist sings of in Psalm 148

 “Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, only and young together! Let them praise the name of the Lord for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.

Care for animals is a bright thread woven in the fabric of the big biblical story of God’s all encompassing love. The thread runs from Genesis to Revelation. If we look carefully at the fabric we see this thread is braided  into the life of Israel right from the start. It’s part and parcel of the practice that defines Israel, the practice of sabbath that sets Israel apart as a holy nation and a light to the world.

I’d like to know, what do you think?


To read more about Sabbath rest as God’s enthronement, see John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One

Thanks to Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on Exodus 20:8-11 in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 1 that prompted my reflections here.

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