What Does the Bible Teach About Animals?

On March 5th in his daily podcast The Briefing, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler commented on a story in the New York Times about Barbara Streisand’s cloning of her dog, Samantha. The story was of interest because of a statement Streisand made towards the end: “You can clone the look of a dog, but you can’t clone the soul.” Mohler disputed the statement’s very premise:

Well let's just remind ourselves that the Bible reveals that human beings have souls and that's a part, a central part, of what it means for human beings, uniquely and alone, to be made in God's image. Ms. Streisand, a major figure in American music and movies, since the 1970's, thinks that she has cloned the appearance of her dog, but the cloning didn't reproduce the dog’s soul. But the reality is, her dog never had a soul. That's true of the dog that is now dead, and it's true of the dogs' cloned from the dead dog. None of them, not one of them, has a soul.

I doubt Streisand intended to make a technical philosophical claim about the nature of dogs, and perhaps Mohler was just being pedantic. But this presents a good opportunity to consider the question and, along with it, a biblical perspective on animals more generally.

Mohler makes two main claims: (1) Dogs (and presumably all other animals) do not “have souls;” (2) Human beings “have souls” and this is a central part of what it means to be made in God’s image. I do not think either claim holds up biblically.

Animal “Souls”?

Is it true that humans “have souls” and animals do not? I do not know of anything in the Bible that substantiates this claim. In the creation story, the Hebrew word נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh) — the term often translated as “soul” but which really means something closer to “life” — is used equally for all sea, air, and land creatures, and for mankind (Genesis 1:20, 24; 2:7). Genesis 2 describes God breathing into man the “breath of life,” but that language is not unique to man, as it is also used of animal life a bit later in the flood story (Genesis 7:22). So there is no “soul vs. non-soul” distinction at creation, nor am I aware of any other biblical texts that make such a distinction. Ecclesiastes 3:19 actually speaks of men and beasts all having “one spirit” (ר֥וּחַ אֶחָ֖ד, translated in the ESV as “the same breath;” cf. Psalm 104:29-30). The blood of animals in Genesis 9:4 even appears to be equated with animal soul: “But you shall not eat flesh with its life [nephesh], that is, its blood.” Compare Leviticus 17:11, “For the life [nephesh] of the flesh is in the blood.” The language is no different for humans. For example the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is spoken of as “pouring out his soul [nephesh] to death” (Isaiah 53:12).

Now, Mohler might just mean that human persons maintain some kind of consciousness after death in anticipation of resurrection, but animals do not. This position is unproblematic biblically, although the Bible is in fact silent on the question as it pertains to animals. What does appear problematic is using “soul” terminology to account for this difference, or positing an inherent qualitative difference between human beings and animal life at the level of “soul” or “spirit.” The Bible does not do this. As far as biblical language is concerned, creaturely life is simply creaturely life, whether human or animal.

Of course, it seems clear that human beings have capacities that animals do not, but experience and science seem to point more and more to this being an issue of degree rather than kind. Clearly, at the chemical and biological level, there is no clear line of distinction between human life and animal life. We have such similar anatomical and chemical structures that some animal organs can even function as substitutes in human bodies. And when it comes to behaviors and capacities such as intentional communication, use of tools, compassion, complex family structures, and even actions that we would regard as heroism such as self-sacrifice, animals display all of these. Animals can anticipate, grieve, and manifest joy. Animals often even have what we instinctively recognize as personalities—that is why cartoons and computer animated films are so easily able to use anthropomorphized animals as characters, and the character type is often pre-determined by the species in question. (Think of how lions are portrayed in “Lion King,” the seagulls in “Finding Nemo,” the squirrels in “Over The Hedge,” or Iago the parrot in “Aladdin.” They just seem to fit). All this is obvious already to dog owners.

Animals and Men in the Bible

Scripture likewise recognizes a close analogy between human beings and animals. Thus in the old covenant sacrificial system, animals like bulls and goats can stand in as substitutes for humans. Animals can represent humans symbolically, either positively or negatively—think Jesus as the “lion of Judah” or the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers,” God’s people mounting up “on wings like eagles,” etc. Examples could be multiplied. Animals can serve as illustrations of industriousness (Proverbs 6:6-11), loyalty (Isaiah 1:3), bondage to folly (2 Peter 2:22), or even as symbols of whole nations (Daniel 7). And God’s people are regularly called a “flock.” Indeed, it seems that one reason God created animals was to teach us about ourselves and about Him.

The Bible even hints toward animals having what we might see as a spiritual or moral sense, if only in a limited degree. Consider—while we know from later Scripture that the serpent in the garden was in some way a vehicle for the Devil (Revelation 12:9, etc.), within the text of Genesis he is presented simply as a beast of the field that the Lord had made, he is described as crafty and cunning, and the curse laid upon him has a physical dimension (crawling on his belly). The physical beast was not irrelevant to the event of the Fall. In the story of the flood, animal life seems to be tied in with the corruption of “all flesh” that lead to the flood, and sure enough animal life suffers the same judgment (cf. Genesis 6:13, 17-19). After the flood, the covenant is established with them as well as with man (Genesis 9:9-10), animal life comes under the scope of judicial punishment (Genesis 9:5), and this is reaffirmed in the Sinai covenant (Exodus 21:28-29). Note that in the Sinai legislation, the ox is to be stoned to death, which is a judicial punishment, not simply pragmatic slaughter. Balaam’s donkey was supernaturally enabled to speak, and when it does the conversation focuses on fair treatment and Balaam’s evident abuse (Numbers 22:28-30). Granted, the Psalms speak poetically, but they do speak of animals “seeking their food from God” (Psalm 104:21) and birds laying their young “at God’s altars” (Psalm 84:3). And the Psalmist calls on the animal kingdom to join in praising their Creator (Psalm 148:7-12; cf. Revelation 5:13).

Souls and the Image of God

Human beings do inhabit a special position within God’s world, in that mankind is said to be made in God’s image with dominion over the lower creation (cf. Psalm 8). But this position is nowhere in Scripture attributed to possession of a “soul” in distinction from animals. So while Mohler makes the soul a mark of God’s image and a distinguisher between men and beasts, the Bible does not. Of course, this is a common misconception. Theologian Louis Berkhof writes with regard to the image of God:

 God is Spirit, and it is but natural to expect that this element of spirituality also finds expression in man as the image of God. And that this is so is already indicated in the narrative of man’s creation. God ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’ Gen. 2:7. The ‘breath of life’ is the principle of his life, and the ‘living soul’ is the very being of man… In view of this we can speak of man as a spiritual being, and also in that respect the image of God.[1]

But as pointed out above, “breath of life” and “living being” language is used of animal life as well. This is not what “the image of God” consists in. We are told in Genesis 1:26 what the image of God means—it refers to man’s position of rulership over creation and, under God the High King, his responsibility to reflect God’s character in his rule over it (Ephesians 4:24). It connects also with the relationship of God’s people to Him as son to Father (cf. Genesis 5:3, Hebrews 1:1-3). But to assert that humans are “body and soul” and animals are only “body” has no basis in the text of Scripture that I can see, and no relation to man’s position as image of God. After all, while man’s likeness to God may be seen in character qualities, we should not forget that animals serve as a likeness for God in that sense as well—Jesus is the Lion of Judah, and the Lamb that was slain; the Holy Spirit manifests Himself as a dove; and God compares Himself to a leopard or bear (Hosea 13:7-8), an eagle (Deuteronomy 32:10-11), etc.

What Are Animals For?

So, returning to where we began, Mohler’s criticism of Streisand appears to just be pedantic. But from a biblical perspective, how ought we to see animals? In the remainder of this article, I just want to paint in broad strokes some foundational considerations.

First, we should remember that animals were created prior to and independently of man. Sea creatures and flying creatures were created on the fifth day of creation, before man, and land animals were likely made before man as well.[2] Animals are in fact the first of God’s creation to be explicitly blessed by him—“And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth . . . ’” (Genesis 1:22). So animals have independent value to God in their own right. They exist for the same reason anything exists: God delights in them. One passage where this comes out clearly is in God’s response to Job from the whirlwind. Much of God’s monologue to Job consists in the reminder that there exists an entire world of animal life off of man’s radar, so to speak, which exists simply for God:

Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God for help,
and wander about for lack of food? (Job 38:41).

Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you observe the calving of the does?
Can you number the months that they fulfill,
and do you know the time when they give birth (Job 39:1-2).

Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high?
On the rock he dwells and makes his home,
on the rocky crag and stronghold (Job 39:27-28).

True, God has given man dominion over the animals. But animal life still belongs to God and was created first of all for His sake. After all, the the vast majority of species are of no real use to man, domestically or otherwise.

Indeed, not only do animals have independent value to God as part of His creation, but his compassionate care extends to them explicitly. In Jonah 4:11, God cites the presence of cattle in Nineveh as part of the reason for his pitying the city. In Joel, for example, God’s compassion for the suffering of animals forms a basis of the prophet’s appeal for God to be merciful to his people:

To you, O Lord, I call.
For fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness,
hand flame has burned
all the trees of the field.
Even the beasts of the field pant for you
because the water brooks are dried up,
hand fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness (Joel 1:19-20).

Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:26 that human beings are of greater value to God than the sparrows, yes, but that God still values and cares for them—“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Animal treatment regulations are even included in the Mosaic Law—“You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4). In 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 Paul does draw an allegorical interpretation from this law (regarding pay for ministers of the gospel), but this cannot negate its literal meaning.[3] As God Himself cares for all his creatures, concern for animal life is a character quality that the godly will reflect—“Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (Proverbs 12:10).

Human beings are clearly authorized to use animals for food and labor, but human dominion over them should be exercised with the knowledge that they belong to God, are created for Him, are valued by Him, and if we are righteous their lives will not be something we can simply be callous or thoughtless toward in our practices. So, for obvious application, trophy hunting would not be an activity consistent with a biblical worldview.

As a concluding consideration, is it at all conceivable that our eternal state in the new creation (pictured in Revelation 21–22) would not contain as rich or richer an assortment of animal life as God made at creation in the beginning?

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pg. 204.

[2] Genesis 1:24ff seems to place the creation of animals before man, and Genesis 2:19 seems to place their creation in between that of Adam and Eve; but Genesis 2:19 may be read as a past perfect (God “had” created), or it may be speaking of creation localized in the Garden of Eden.

[3] Some translations, including the original ESV, translate the phrase in 1 Corinthians 9:10 (ἢ δι᾿ ἡμᾶς πάντως λέγει) as “does he not speak entirely for our sake?” But the phrase is more accurately translated in the newer editions of the ESV: “Does he not speak certainly for our sake?” The former might be seen as excluding any literal application at all, but the more accurate translation does not.