Bible is a very old document, which makes it extremely pertinent to
those interested in preserving the planet. For more than 3,000 years,
the myths and maxims within its pages have helped the Jews maintain a
continuous cultural identity, despite wars, pogroms and persecution.
For fully two millennia, Christian civilization has been based on the unbroken transmission of holy writ. Admittedly, these are not the oldest spiritual traditions in the world. Aborigines in Australia can decipher the petroglyphs of their ancestors dating back 40,000 years.
Any spiritual heritage that has managed to enable people to endure over the course of many lifetimes deserves a large measure of respect. Yet part of what keeps the tradition alive is the ability to change and grow. Indeed, the Bible is not a single text, but a collection of writings that were compiled over a span of centuries, in dialog with each other and with us. Interpretation is ongoing.
Feminists have combed the scriptures to correct for bias against women. Liberation theologians have discovered the revolutionary message of the Exodus and learned to read the provocative parables of Jesus from the point of view of the poor and the oppressed.
But up until now, only a few have reviewed our sacred teachings to see what they say from the animals’ perspective.
That the Bible reflects the customs of a patriarchal culture is now well accepted, but the fact that our religious traditions are anthropocentric - human-centered as well as male-dominated - is not so widely recognized. But consider: although ours is only one of millions of species on the planet, few of the stories from either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures involve animals. The relation between God and Homo sapiens is foremost: Other creatures are background figures.
So many follies and fallacies have been rationalized from the reading (or misreading) of the Bible - the subjugation of women, our sense of shame at our own bodies, the exploitation of the Earth. If only we could start afresh to see if a more balanced and “sustainable” theology can be found - one where all creation is honored.
Animals played an important role in the creation stories of many indigenous peoples. Among the Cherokee, it was an aquatic beetle who dove beneath the primordial seas to bring up the first muck and make solid ground where civilization could begin. The peoples of the Pacific Northwest regarded Raven as the creator of human beings. For the people of the American Southwest, Coyote worked together with Raven to place two burning bundles of hay in the sky, which became the sun and moon, dispelling darkness and bringing light.
The Creek say that the Creator made the animals, birds and creeping things in the beginning, putting the world in perfect balance. After many moons passed, the animals called to their Maker: “Everything is so plentiful that we have nothing to do but wander here and there, with no purpose to our lives.” That was when the Creator fashioned men and women - weak and helpless beings who needed wisdom and guidance in order to survive. This gave the animals a reason for living: to care for these untutored humans, to teach them how to find food and shelter, and to show them the secrets of healing.
A new appreciation of animals is desperately needed at this moment. Animals can teach us once again the lesson we seem to have forgotten - that the Earth does not belong to us, but we belong to the Earth. God’s injunction in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it” seems to be the one divine commandment the human race has truly taken to heart. According to the 2000 Worldwatch Institute report, 11 percent of all 8,615 known species of birds, 25 percent of mammals and 34 percent of fish are now endangered.
The world has changed tremendously with the growth of population and technology. Meanwhile, the wisdom traditions and holy books we have inherited from the past have not evolved as quickly. Surely the myths and legends that have guided our culture and brought us to the present crisis could use a new twist - an environmentally friendly edition.
What would our new Bible look like? What lessons would it impart? Would the snake still be the one who introduced evil to the world, or would animals become purveyors of grace instead of sin? Would a whale still swallow Jonah, or would these singers of the sea become agents of hope and redemption instead?
A new creation story should acknowledge that our species is not set apart from nature. Our humanity is inextricably intertwined with the existence of other creatures. Like Adam (whose Hebrew name is derived from the root adamah, meaning “the dust of the ground”), we need to understand that we are born of the Earth and related to all Earth’s children - not as masters but as siblings. The word “humility” comes from humus - simple as the soil.
While I would not want to rewrite the entire Hebrew or Christian scriptures (there is so much good within those pages!) there are significant passages I’d like to change.
Those who treat the Bible as an inerrant document whose every word is sacrosanct may be scandalized by the idea that these old stories could be given a new rendition. But that is the nature of midrash in the Jewish Biblical tradition - a time-honored approach to scripture that uses exposition to adapt familiar story lines to changed circumstances or to dramatize new principles.
I would begin with the very beginning - with Genesis.
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the Earth, the Earth was without form and void and darkness covered the face of the deep….
Days passed into years…. Millennia came and went…. And when the waters poured down from the dome of the sky, like a waterfall from heaven, the chimpanzees danced. And as the morning broke over the forest, filling the canopy with soft green light, the gibbons sang with joy. For all the creatures looked upon the work of God and saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind, who shall be a mirror of my creation.” And so God made human beings, female and male, and within their souls placed the light and the darkness and within their veins God placed the seas, fashioning their bodies from the tissue of every living thing.
God blessed them and said to them: “Love the Earth and preserve it for you are related to every living creature: the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and those that creep upon the ground and the wild animals of every kind….”
Thus the heavens and the Earth were finished and all their multitude. And on that day, God celebrated, saying to humankind: Honor creation and keep it holy.’ And God rested, placing the world in our hands.”
Excerpted from The Bible According to Noah: Theology as if Animals Mattered ((c)2001 Lantern Books, One Union Square West, Suite 201, New York, NY 10003).
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