Animal Rights and Wrongs Part 1: The Biblical Position

Before recorded music, before watching your favorite sports team, before television or videos, what did people do for entertainment? One answer: animal baiting. If you lived in virtually any European city around the time the King James Version of the Bible was being translated, bear baiting was a big thing.

A bear chained or confined in a pen was tortured to rile him. Then dogs reared for strength and trained to attack were released. They would try to seize the bear’s nose, or get their teeth into its neck. The bear would defend itself. In 1517 a spectator wrote that it was “very pleasant to see. . . the nimbleness and wit of the dog to take his advantage.”

On special occasions a public baiting might be held, but generally an admission was charged. To add to the excitement, you could place bets on whether the dog or the bear would maim or kill the other first. For an additional fee, beverages and snacks were available. After the entertainment, the maimed animals died or were killed to end their misery.

It was not only bears. Bulls, badgers, dogs, apes, monkeys, and other animals have often been used in similar spectacles. Such events are not limited to the distant past and foreign countries. Today, if you know where to go, you can probably find a cockfight, dogfight, or a similar “event” in many parts of North America on most summer weekends. These fights are illegal, but that has not stopped people from setting up situations where they can watch animals try to kill each other.

Part of the Culture

Queen Elizabeth I attended a bear baiting. We have no record of what she thought of the event. Puritans of the period condemned the spectacles as cruel. Today many would agree that amusements in which animals are forced to fight and suffer pain are cruel. Those who enjoy such are considered sadistic, and those who engage in the event are barbaric. But others consider attending such spectacles an acceptable part of their culture and heritage.

Today bullfights are held in Mexico, Spain, and a few other countries. A bull specially bred for his strength and aggressiveness is placed in a ring with trained, colorfully-dressed people whose main aim is to entertain spectators. The bull is injured with spears and taunted to keep him charging the matador, who lithely keeps away from the bull’s horns. After a period of time, the matador kills the bull by ramming a sword into its heart, generally to the excited cheers of the crowd.

Christians must remember that an activity is not acceptable or unacceptable, right or wrong based on whether my grandfather or your great-grandfather did it or not. Nor is something right or wrong based on financial gain or a society approving or disapproving of it.

In our “multicultural society” it is considered politically correct to accept whatever other cultures do or don’t do. That inclusiveness is fine for some things like one’s hat style, shirt color, preferred spices, or daily routine, which are generally inconsequential. But when a culture practices adultery or worships a false god, it is not justification for a Christian to either do those things or even approve of them. In a free society a person may have the right to do them, or to practice sodomy or drunkenness as part of their culture, but since these things are condemned in Scripture, Christians cannot accept them even if everyone else does. We must base our decisions of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable on Scripture. The Bible has little to say regarding spices, hairstyles, and outfit colors. It does, however, address drunkenness, immorality, and worship.

What does the Bible say about animals? Do they have “certain unalienable rights”? Or are they here for us to do whatever we want with them, and thus bear baiting, cockfights and bullfights are a legitimate extrapolation of this position?

Animals and Humans In the Beginning

On day five of Creation, God made birds and fish. On the following day, He created the land animals, Adam, and Eve. In God’s perfect creation animals did not suffer and there was no animal death. Animals and humans were vegetarians. In the Garden of Eden, God gave man dominion over animals, and had Adam name them. Adam was to tend the garden, and some Bible scholars feel that Adam was given dominion over the animals so they could be used to help him in this task (Genesis 1, 2).

Our present relationship with animals, however, is more based on the Bible’s next reference to them. Following the first sin, God sacrificed animals to clothe Adam and Eve before He expelled them from the Garden. Animal blood was first shed as God made clothes for humans (Genesis 3). Bible scholars point to this as the first reference to a blood atonement for sin.

Animal Sacrifices

Many Old Testament references to animals deal with sacrifices. Great detail is given regarding the kinds of animals that were to be sacrificed, and how they were to be slain.

The blood on Israel’s altars shed
Could not for sin atone;
The bullocks, goats and sheep that bled
Were but a type alone:
For God Himself must pay the price
Redeeming love to give;
His Son, the Lamb of sacrifice
Must die, that we might live.

Because of Christ’s death on the cross, animals are no longer called upon for ceremonial sacrifices (Hebrews 10:1-13).

Animals Fear Man

Later in Genesis, we are told that before God destroyed the sinful earth with a flood, He had Noah build an ark to save his family and representative animals. More significant regarding our present relationship with the animal kingdom is what God did next. As they leave the Ark, God tells Noah that He was going to make the animals fear and dread humans (Genesis 9:2).

Generally, animals avoid man. When domesticated or by frequent association with humans animals can learn to overcome their natural fear. When animals attack humans, it is because the animal senses a threat to itself, its young, its mate, or its territory. Instinct tells it to defend itself or attack the aggressor. Rare and unusual are the circumstances in which an animal even seems to do other than stay out of man’s way.

Animals Can Be Food

As God puts fear of humans into the animals, He also gives them to man as food. “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things” (Genesis 9:3). Eating meat is repeatedly illustrated in Scripture. Much of the meat of the Jewish sacrifices was eaten by the priests. In the Passover feast a lamb was eaten by every Jewish household. To describe the wealth and size of Solomon’s household, I Kings 4 tells us that thirty oxen were slain daily to supply meat for the king’s table. As Christ and his disciples kept the Passover, it is understood that they would have been eating meat. Christ cooked fish for his disciples, and when Israel was in the wilderness, God miraculously supplied animal flesh to feed His people.

As part of the ceremonial law, God limited the kinds of animals the Israelites could eat (Leviticus 11). But the New Testament teaches that Christians are not under Jewish dietary restrictions. In Peter’s dream (Acts 10) God emphasizes that all animals are acceptable for food. Today our preferences (what tastes good) and our scientific knowledge (this meat has too much fat in it) determine what meats we choose to eat.

The only spiritual reason for a Christian not to eat some meats is to prevent spiritual offence of a Christian brother (1Corinthians 8:4-13). Vegetarianism is not a Biblical teaching. If one chooses to be a vegetarian because he thinks it healthy, ecologically wise, or appealing—fine. But if a Christian is a vegetarian because he feels the Bible teaches such, he is in error (1 Corinthians 8; 1 Timothy 4:3).

Animal Skins Can Be Used

Animal skins were used in Bible times. Parts of the Tabernacle were constructed of skins, as were the tents the patriarchs and other Jews used for temporary dwellings. John the Baptist wore animal skins. Leather was used for bags and pouches for transporting liquids. In Joppa, Paul stayed with Simon, a man who tanned leather so that it could be used for such things.

Jews wore leather sandals. It has been pointed out that, if killing animals for their skins was wrong, Scripture would need to point out that Christ’s sandals were made of something else so that we would know that He did not condone the use of leather. Scriptural silence is not the best foundation for a position, but since the use of animal skins is often described and never condemned in Scripture, it is safe to assume the use of hides and leather is acceptable.

Animal Domestication

The Bible speaks favorably of animal domestication. Abel was a keeper of sheep. David shepherded his father’s flock. In a tender illustration, Christ compares Himself to a good shepherd.

Some biblical animal domestication was to supply animal products (wool, milk, eggs, meat) but it also supplied labor. Patriarchs and their household traveled by camels. Abraham rode a donkey as he took Isaac to sacrifice him. Balaam was taught a spiritual lesson by the donkey he was riding. Saul and David rode donkeys. As an Egyptian ruler, Joseph rode in a horse-drawn chariot. Oxen pulled plows and carts and were considered good for doing so (Psalm 144:13-24). Animals must be trained to do these things. Scripture speaks of this training and does not condemn it (Proverbs 26:3; Psalm 32:9).

Man’s Responsibility

Finally, the Bible clearly teaches that man assumes responsibility for the animals he domesticates. We are instructed not to muzzle the ox that treads the corn. The animal should be allowed to eat of the crop it helps plant and harvest—you don’t work the animal and not properly care for it (Deuteronomy 25:4). If diverse animals are yoked together for work they are going to hurt themselves, so we are not do it (Deuteronomy 22:10). In Old Testament times, domesticated animals were expected to have the Sabbath day for rest, but their need of food and water was to be met on that day, even though their masters were not to work on that day (Exodus 20:10; Luke 13:14-16). If a neighbor’s animal falls into a ditch (gets into some difficulty), we are not to pass by ignoring it—we are to take it upon ourselves to help the animal out (Deuteronomy 22:4; Luke 14:5). Proverbs 12:10 sums it up: “The righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.” In other words, God places our taking good care of domesticated animals on a high level.

This brief survey of Biblical teachings regarding animals is foundational to answering many of our modern questions: What about pets? Do we have responsibility for wild animals? What about animals suffering for medical research. Those will be addressed in Part 2 – A Modern Biblical View.

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By William Pinkston

Mr. William Pinkston teaches science at Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, South Carolina. He is a member of Faith FPC.