In-depth discussion of Genesis over Signal with my neighbor two houses down, JP Chavez, as well as our friend and pastor, Paul Pavlik, has peppered my week. Surrounding the question of animal death before the Fall, and figurative versus literal interpretations of the Creation Account in Genesis 1-3 in the Bible, not one of us three know for sure, at least in the way God does, whether animals died prior to the sin of Adam bringing death into the world. But we have certainly explored a great many possibilities, arguing back and forth in the classical, civil sense of the term, for and against in relation to not only what is in the Biblical narrative, but also some of what others outside of the Bible have contributed to either clarifying or else muddying the waters here.
Thinking about all such discussions, I’m reminded of a few lines of the Scots poem by Robert Burns , ‘To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church.’
“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!”
As an aside, we can only speculate what sort of poem the louse would have written back to Burns. But one thing I do know is that my Grandpa Mullet often recited from memory those first two lines I just quoted before he passed away several years ago. And I smile to remember how Grandpa always did so in the context of something having just been said or done that didn’t land as it had obviously been intended to with others present, for whatever reason.
Speaking of animal death, I came across reporting by John Rigolizzo from The Daily Wire this week about a male lion named “Josh” who attacked and killed a long-time favorite lioness at the Birmingham Zoo within moments of being introduced to her on Monday. The lioness called “Akili” had been alone since 2021 when her mate “Kwanza” died. “Josh” was a transplant from the San Antonio Zoo and had been brought in to give Akili new companionship.
This brings a question or two to my mind. Can we call what the male lion did here immoral? Or what is the word to describe how we feel about such a story?
Whatever the right word is, and whether it differs from person to person, few to none would remark “good” on observing this. And that is at least something to consider when reading the first chapter of Genesis.
Along similar lines, yesterday morning I woke up and was not quite ready to get out of bed at first – and this on account of knowing the coffee maker would not have run yet, if you’re curious. But there I was browsing The Daily Wire again, and another wildlife story caught my attention.
This one was reported by Tim Meads, and had to do with a 400-pound eagle ray who jumped into a family’s boat off the coast of Alabama last Friday. The ray was probably trying to escape from some predator, according to marine biologists. But she got herself stuck on the boat, and subsequently gave birth to several babies on deck due to the stress of the incident. And none of the mother eagle ray’s offspring survived, but their bodies have since been donated to Dauphin Island Sea Lab for research purposes.
Here again, a question or two on the topic of animal death. Can we call this business about the rays tragic? And if not, what is the right word to describe how we feel when we hear a story like this? As with the story of the lions and the Birmingham Zoo, I venture no one present on the boat replied “good” to what happened Friday.
In other news, I was reading ‘Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation’ again yesterday. I’m three-quarters of the way through it now. But Ortlund just covered in Chapter 4 what Augustine had to say to the possibility that animal death was present in the world prior to the Fall. And this, by the way, has been the prompt for the discussions with JP Chavez and Paul Pavlik about animal death before the Fall.
But one of the things we’ve grappled with over Signal this week is how Augustine warns against trusting self-referential assumptions. And Ortlund takes this to mean that we ought not to refer to ourselves so much, specifically how we feel about animals dying. We should not project too much of our own sentiments onto the Biblical narrative in a presumptuous way that limits the range of possibilities for what all God might call “good” while surveying a given day of Creation in the first chapters of Genesis.
So animal death is good if God says it’s good. And that is one argument someone could make. But while that is true enough as far as it goes, it does not establish the premise. That is to say, it does not establish that God did in fact say animal death was good in the beginning before the Fall. That remains to be seen, in my view.
But we do well to consider the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ here and how it’s used to describe animal life like birds, fish, whales, and beasts of the field, as well as mankind.
Thereafter, let us ask the worthwhile questions of what the Biblical text elsewhere says about the lion someday laying down with the lamb.
So also, along these lines, we must wonder about a certain pagan king named Nebuchadnezzar losing his mind and resembling a wild beast for a time when he became proud and arrogant and forgot God in all his splendor. That is, God reminds some of us that we are as much or little like other animals as it pleases our Maker for us to be, and we ought not to get ahead of ourselves to the contrary.
Perhaps too, on this point, we should consider the timing and implications of when precisely mankind was given the blessing of the Almighty to eat the animals after Noah and his family got off the Ark after the Great Deluge. Does that mean there was no eating of meat prior to the Flood? And if so, what can that tell us about the likelihood of animal death before the Fall?
While we’re on that point, let us meditate on what it means that all Creation groans, being subjected unwillingly for a time to the effects of sin, and how this can possibly make sense if the animals were meant to suffer and die all along, evolving for millions and billions of years as the positivists assert, and the interpretive hybridizers propose.
Finally – at least to my mind – in conjunction with these other considerations, we might ponder how the sacrificing of animals to make atonement under the Old Covenant relates to the sin of man possibly bringing animal death into the world in a way that is not “good” as we understand that value judgment. In that case at least, the death of animals is linked symbolically with the sin of man. So why not more broadly as well in our understanding of the overarching Biblical narrative, especially the first few chapters of Genesis?
In considering all such things, whatever else specifically we might conclude, what we must realize in the end is that many seemingly contradictory things can be true all at the same time, albeit in a way that humbles and even surprises us.
Honestly, I think that purpose of humbling and surprising us is more the reason God gave us this account in Genesis the way He did – not simply so our primitive ancestors would understand without Science, but actually in a strategically complicated and mysterious way even we who are allegedly so advanced must ponder and discuss at length to get anything approaching a clear idea of.
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