patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Friday, January 25, 2013

god on animals

For a writing project, I’ve been doing research on all the ways we humans modify animals to suit our purposes and peculiar aesthetics. How we dehorn cattle to render them less dangerous to the farmers who raise them as food. And how we clip chickens’ wings to keep them from flying away from people who want to steal their eggs or lop their heads off and eat them. And how we crop the ears and tails of certain breeds of dogs just because we like how that looks better. Not to go all Peta on you here, but I got kind of sick reading about it.

Anyway, to continue along the same line as my last post, I'd like to consider what should be our Christian attitude toward animals, given that God on the one hand sanctioned them as food for humans but also included them in his first covenant to Noah, promising to protect not only humans but “the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth” (Genesis 9:10 NIV) from future destruction by a flood. It is a covenant, God says, between “between me and you and all living creatures of every kind” (Genesis 9:15), and he establishes rainbows as mnemonic devices for himself so that he, at least, won’t forget it: “Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.”

But we humans, it seems, perpetually forget what God takes pains to remember. That humans and animals are equal recipients of this promise of protection. That all lifeblood, human and animal, is to be respected. That God loves all his creation, human and animal—and so, by extension, should we.

That God values animals, values them a lot, makes sense of the previously mysterious end of the story of Jonah, for me. Jonah has finally done what God wanted and gone and told the people of Ninevah that they are going to die if they don’t clean up their act, but he’s still mad at God for making him do it. He’s mad that these foreigners he was sent to warn actually listened to him, so God didn’t destroy them after all. And he's mad that he had to go out in the hot desert in the first place, where there's so little shade he has to take shelter under a vine. And he's mad that God sends a worm that chews on the vine and made it wither and then “a scorching wind” and a blazing sun that make him faint and suicidally depressed (Jonah 4:7-8).

“I’m so angry I wish I were dead,” Jonah tells God (Jonah 4:9).

Until now, I’ve always thought God’s response to Jonah's histrionics—“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11)was a joke intended to reveal Jonah's own absurdity. Now, though, I think God meant exactly what he said. God has concern for animals, just as he does for us.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


All Mark has to say about Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is this: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him” (1:12-13 NIV). All the same stuff—being led (or, here, sent) by the Spirit, the wilderness, Satan’s tests—minus the interesting bread comments.

Plus this mention of wild animals—possibly threatening him, and angels, possibly protecting him.

Perhaps that is reading too much into the words “attended” and “wild.” Other translations, old and new (KJV, ERV, NRSV et al), use, instead of animals, the word “beasts,” a word we use most often nowadays in reference to brutal people or monsters. (Look up synonyms for beast and you’ll find I’m right.)

In any case, it reminded me of a conversation I had the other day with the women who attended a discussion the other day I led of Sy Montgomery’s wonderful book on birds, Birdology. We got on the topic of the enmity between animals (all of them, not just the snake) and humans after the fall, how God tells Noah and his family that, from now on, “The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands” (Genesis 9:2-3).

That is, the humans may now kill and eat “Everything that lives and moves about” (Genesis 9:3), and the animals, surely acting out of their fear and dread, will kill and eat humans too, about which, God says, “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal” (Genesis 9:5).

God then goes on to make his first big covenant, not only to the humans but, emphatically, to the animals as well—to “every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth” (Genesis 9:10)—that “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood” again (Genesis 9:11).

It’s astonishing, the women in the book discussion agreed, how attentive God is to animals—in spite of allowing humans to kill them for food. He includes them in his covenant and holds them to account. He also, in a manner of speaking, justifies the danger they pose to humans.

I’ve heard people wonder aloud about why God created “evil” creatures—that is, ones who are poisonous or aggressive or in anyway dangerous to humans. It seems to me the answer is here. The writer of Genesis is saying that, given our violence—which is specifically identified as the “wickedness of the human race” (Genesis 6:5—the rest of creation would respond in kind.

That’s how it is with violence—or any other kind of meanness. You do it; they do it back.

Anyway, Jesus’ spending forty days with those wild animals—whether as friendly companions or as threats—is intriguing. It the only place in his life story I can think of that explicitly mentions his interaction with real animals of any sort, except maybe the fish that he was always eating and the donkey he rode into Jerusalem just before his death. The presence of domestic animals at Jesus’ birth is merely implied by the fact that it took place in a stable (“The Little Drummerboy” and countless Christmas cards notwithstanding).

Animals are frequent metaphors in the gospels but rarely appear in the flesh, as it were. And yet Jesus began his work on earth by spending forty days with them. Watching them and learning from them, perhaps—seeing God’s invisible qualities reflected in them, as Paul says. Enjoying their company.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Soon after Jesus allowed his cousin John to baptize him, he “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil" (Matthew 1:1 NIV).

I’ve always been disturbed by this story. First, how could God be tempted? My translation’s textual notes give tested as an alternative to tempted, and that helps some. But the devil surely knew Jesus was God (although also human), and he surely knew God could do anything, so what was the purpose of the test? Is this a test only of Jesus’ humanness?

Then, there’s the business of Jesus’ forty day fast, which to me sounds impossible for an ordinary human. Arguably, it’s another permutation of all things are possible with God, that we humans could push literal mountains aside if we only had Jesus’ faith. Etc. And people have told me that it is possible to fast for forty days and stay alive. They’ve also told me people have been swallowed by fish and lived to tell of it. That such miracles of survival are possible. But somehow, to me, if it’s a miracle, then what’s the point of the story of Jesus’ temptation? And if it’s not a miracle, was Jesus being Jesus or God in his survival?

Finally, there’s the question of how Matthew (and Mark and Luke) knew this story. They couldn’t’ve witnessed it, and I have trouble believing that Jesus would’ve told it himself. The story, in other words, gets at the very nature of how scripture came to be in the first place—what part divine imparting and what part ordinary humans telling what happened—and that makes me uncomfortable.

Sorry for this little gout of doubt. Anyway, to get to what I thought about this passage today, this is the first mention Jesus makes of one of his favorite topics: bread. In response to the tempter/tester’s suggestion that he assuage his hunger—or, that is, break his fast—by turning the stones around him into loaves of bread, Jesus retorts, “People don’t live on bread alone but on every word that comes from God’s mouth” (Matthew 4:4, my mashup).

Bread as we ordinarily understand it—like the two sourdough loaves that just came out of my oven—is compared here, unfavorably, to the sustenance we get from scripture. I’m thinking, when Jesus calls himself the bread, as he will do on numerous occasions, he’s calling himself the nourishment of scripture—that kind of bread. (Hence, as his friend John puts it, the word.) Jesus is the food that comes from God’s mouth into ours.

I won’t take you to all the examples that fill my mind of birds and other animals and even humans who feed their young or their romantic interests from their own mouths. Just bread, and how what starts out as a negative comparison to the words of God ends up being a positive one. There’s the bread he broke on so many occasions that the sheer breaking of it—his gestures, his way of holding and tearing—are what finally make him recognizable to those guys on the road to Emmaus. The daily bread we ask God to provide when we pray Jesus’ prayer. The bread Jesus broke at the last meal he ever ate. This bread you are eating, Jesus says, is me.