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God's Covenant with Animals in the Old Testament

What is our human responsibility to the earth and its non-human inhabitants? Traditional Biblical scholars would say one of master-servant and ecologists would say one of caretaker. However, using either frame, neither movement has responded in full view of the evidence presented throughout the Bible that God clearly included animals in covenantal relationships with Biblical scholars neglecting the sanctity of animals and secular environmentalists neglecting God. A closer look at the Old Testament reveals that God designed humankind’s role in relation to the animals as one of stewardship rather than domination. Traditionally religious people often cite Scripure justify a master/servant relationship between humans and animals rather than one of partnership, but deeper investigation invites us to see texts rich with references, both literal and figurative, to the partnership between humankind and the animal world. From Genesis through Prophets and Wisdom Literature, the writers of the Old Testament expose God’s instructions for this relationship and the responsibilities inherent therein through clearly stated covenants beginning in Genesis and reverberating elsewhere in the Old Testament.
Understanding this relationship requires an initial analysis of the word covenant. While modern secular usage restricts covenant to a “bilateral contract or agreement,” theological dictionaries add critical divine dimensions. The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology distinguishes between modern day contract and covenant. “From the Latin word, convenire (to come together or to agree)” covenant as currently used “ neglects the Biblical sacred context of the word berith and offers as analogy “the difference between prostitution (contract) and marriage (covenant). or between owning a slave (contract) and having a son (covenant).”
Secondly, theological commentaries underscore the unilateral nature of God’s covenants. Humans are not God’s equal; thus it is God, not man, who “ formulates all the conditions” and “stipulates all the results.” Theopedia provides further insight: ” …the inequality between the parties (Creator and creatures) is absolute. It is always made clear that the initiative is God's - that He makes covenants with his people and not vice versa. God initiates, confirms and even fulfills.” The argument extends beyond mere definition to incorporate the concept of relationship. Ralph Alan Smith implores us to lay down the argument differentiating between “agreement” and “relationship” since one is often a precursor of the other: “an agreement may establish a relationship and be considered an aspect of it.” Accepting God’s relationship with his creation, then, means accepting the intimacy of relationship. Terence Fretheim concurs with his assertion that Genesis lays the groundwork for our perspectives on “the relationships between God and the world, and human and non-human interrelationships” (71).
Translators tackle challenges when interpreting covenant, which has no accurate translation; as the St. Paul Center explains, its unknown origin requires contextual definition. Scholars actually translate two words, the Hebrew word berith and the Greek word diatheke, each with individual connotations. In fact, an appropriate etymological irony here is that, berith relates to a word meaning "to cut" and covenant is a metaphor for ‘cutting,’ refererring the ancient practice of “ dividing animals into two parts with the contracting parties passing between them, in making a covenant” (Theopedia). In Genesis15, God told Abraham to bring in a ram, a heifer, a goat, which he split “and placed each half opposite the other.” After a “terrible darkness” enveloped Abraham, a “flaming torch” passed through those pieces.” This is immediately followed by, “It was on that occasion that the Lord made a covenant.” The St. Paul Center points out that Abraham’s passivity signifies the “unilateral nature of this covenant…” Indeed, his slumber, as opposed to God’s deliberate activity, enforces this notion.
Animal Covenants throughout the Old Testament
Throughout the Old Testament, God proclaims his care for both humans and animals, which begins in Genesis beginning with, as Diane Bergant notes, our shared origins as both man and animals are created from “ the substance of the earth” (“The Bible Tells Me So”). Our shared creation is further evidenced by Greenway’s assessment of God’s dietary instructions: we were given plants and fruits for food, and so were all the other animals who have "the breath of life" in them… neither animals nor we are given other animals to eat.”
Terence Frethheim identifies significant passages in Genesis where the world, including the animals, are “caught up in God’s saving work (6:19 -7:3), God’s remembering (8:1), and God’s promising (9:10)” (44). In Genesis 6:19 God instructs Noah to bring two kinds of each of the “birds,” “beasts,” and all kinds of creeping things” into the ark “to stay alive.” In Genesis 8.1, as the rains continue, God’s remembrance of Noah and the animals compelled him to end the flood: God remembered Noah, and all the animals, wild and tame, that were with him in the ark. So God made a wind seep over th earth, and the waters began to subside.” After the flood, when God blessed Noah and his sons, he enters into a covenant with him and all the earth’s creatures. I t is written in the frequently cited Genesis 9:10, “See, I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you.” God promises never to destroy the earth by water is clearly extended to the animals: “ never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood” and repeats with the appearance of a rainbow, the triangular covenant that is “between me and you and all living beings.” In fact, between Genesis 9:8 and 9:17, God repeats his promise no fewer than six times. Hiersl writes , “Clearly this was not an anthropocentric covenant, rather it was made with and for the benefit of all kinds of living creatures and calls covenant with the natural world the most significant of all the covenants because precedes the other covenants Abraham and his descendants and it covered all life (5).
Historical, Literary, and Theological Associations
The most debated element of our relationship with animals centers on the controversy over one word in the Old Testament: dominion. Theologians have treated it as synonymous with rule and subordination, but examination suggests otherwise. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language assigns its derivation from the Latin dominiom, meaning property, from dominus, meaning lord; also related to domain and dungeon. Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary offers the synonyms sovereignty, control, rule, and authority. In Biblical contexts, the word has been linked to domination. Although radah/dominion is used most often to speak about kings and national rulings, James Limburg concluded that a study of the Old Testament yields evidence that “humane and compassionate rule that displays responsibility for others … results in peace and prosperity,” supporting the interpretation of dominion as caretakaing (Bunge).
In considering its application, theology professor Ellen Bernstein calls for primary attention to context. “You have to consider the derivation of the words under consideration the meaning of the neighboring words and verses, the message of the Bible as a whole, the context in which it was written, and how others have understood the verse throughout its 3000 year history”(2). She suggests that we often miss the sacred context of the word dominion as it was written in Genesis. “The concept of ‘dominion’ in this context is a blessing/bvracha, a divine act of love” (3). She explains the intricacies of Biblical Hebrew, a “more symbolic, multilayered and vague language than English – any single word root can have multiple meanings and often a word and its opposite will share the same root” (3) Bible scholar Norbers Samuelson demonstrates that the word kvs/master comes from the Aramaic “to tread down or make a path” and in Sechariah the root is interchangeable with akl, the word for each. This demonstrates that in one case it can be translated as master but in other cases “it appears to have agricultural implications” (3). “Have dominion over” –rdh, “generally refers to “rule of subjects.” If we are righteous and rule wisely and responsibly we are above animals, but if we misuse our power, we “sink below the level of animals and bring ruin to ourselves and the world”(4). The duality of meanings is at play here as it is in many Biblical passages. “graciousness and domination” (5).
Diane Bergant also supports the nurturing context of dominion, citing Gensis 2:15: ""The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it. " Jeanne Kay relies on the benevolent monarchy – “good shepherd stewardship” rather than tyrannical rule (221), and noting the limitations of dominion, reminds us that “Adam cannot eat the animals” and God gives Noah the task of saving them. (222). Man cannot claim authority “to subjugate” animals. In Job 39:9-10, God asks, “Who has given the wild ass his freedom, and who has loosed him from his bonds?.” declaring, “ I have made the wilderness his home and the salt flats his dwelling.” He uses this line of questioning in lines 26-27 to demonstrate that he alone rules the earth: “Is it by your discernment that the hawk soars” and “Does the eagle fly up at your command to build his nest aloft?” Only God can dominate nature, Kay contends. “Humans may, on good behavior, serve as nature’s managers, but true dominion belongs only to God” (227). Bernstein speaks of “perpetuity” in defining the role of dominion: we cultivate the garden to ensure that its creatures continue. Likewise, only God can take a life. The dietary directions given to Noah after the flood are explicit in their prohibition of consuming an animal’s blood which Tubbs contends “ is presented not as a cultic ‘dietary law’ but as a universal ordinance: " Even when man slaughters and kills, he is to know that he is touching something, which, because it is life, is in a special manner God's property…” and as a sign of this he is to keep his hands off the blood." It was not God’s intention for humans to behave as "tyrants" in the natural world, “but rather to preserve and care for God's creation in the image of God's own providence.”
Theologians frequently justify the rulership model of dominion through Adam’s naming of the animals, a task given to him by God. However, Tubbs offers contrary evidence: “the Yahwist Adam names his human partner no less than the animals, and the Priestly account certainly does not indicate any human "dominion" over other humans.” Writing in the Theology Today, Tubbs shows us how God attends GOd's creation “quite apart from any human agency.” God sends rain to areas with no human inhabitants (Job 38:26-27) and provides habitation, food, and drink for animals in the wild (Job 39:5-6; Ps. 104:10-27).” “Clearly, such depictions of the natural (nonhuman) creation as subject to God's ownership and providence imply strongly that its proper value and status extend far beyond its utility to humankind.” Bunge interprets God’s speaking to Job through the storm in (Job 38 and 39) in a similar vein: “God's first speech from the whirlwind (Job 38,39), indicate that God takes great delight in non-human creatures and did not create them for human benefit alone:
Who puts wisdom in the heart,
And gives the cock its understanding?
Who provides nourishment for the ravens
When their young ones cry out to God,
And they rove abroad without food?
(Job 38:39-41)

Tubbs writes that it was not God’s intention for humans to behave as "tyrants" in the natural world, “but rather to preserve and care for God's creation in the image of God's own providence.” Greenway concurs, writing “True dominion lies not in us, but in God. If we are rightly to understand how to exercise our dominion, we must strive to imitate and understand God's dominion.”
How Covenant with Animals Contributes to the Wider Theology of the OT
The covenant between God and animals is referenced throughout the Old Testament with animals used in various capacities: as agents of God, messengers, and teachers. Hosea 2:20 the reiterates the covenant: “I will make a covenant for them on that day, with the beasts of the field, with the birds of the air, and with the things that crawl on the ground (Bergant). Animals also serve as teachers in many instances. Jean-Yves Lacoste writes that “Directives and reprimands may come to humans through animals” and Murray suggests that animals offer a Divine model for human behavior .
Ezekiel’s vision of a chariot (43) may illustrate (albeit metpahorically)how animals and humans will share a place in God’s heaven as "blended creatures." The characters within the chariot in Ezekiel 1:5-15 are presented as “living creatures” that possess both human and animal characteristics that include multiple wings rounded feet (“the souls of their feet were round”) “ but each had four faces and four wings” and “the soles of their feet were round.” Their animal faces are very specific: each of the four had the face of a man, but on the right side was the face of a lion, and on the left side the face of an ox, and finally each had the face of an eagle.”
Tova Forti explains that Old Testament literature, particularly Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, “embed empiric observations of animal’s [sic] behavior as well as illustrations of zoological characteristics as examples reinforcing various teachings about human behavior” (120). In Proverbs, “minute creatures, such as ants, badgers, locusts, and lizards, are considered to display some of the wisest models of behavior in spite ote their lack of physical strength. Proverbs 30:24-28 lists numerous creatures who have lessons for human beings:
Four things are among the smallest on the earth
And yet are exceedingly wise
Ants, a species not strong, yet the store sup their food in the summer.
Rock badgers – a species not mighty,
Yet they make their home in the crags
Locusts – they have no king,
Yet they migrate all in array;
Lizards – you can catch them with yoru hands,
Yet they find their way into kings’ palaces.
The locusts, usually seen as a destructive force are seen in Proverbs as admirable because of their “efficient organization” (Forti 121).
Throughout the Old Testament, God proclaims his care for both humans and animals. Addressing God’s care for all creation, Robert Murray notes, “Human beings share with animals the condition of being creatures” (42). This means also that they share the condition of mortality. Psalm 49 warns humans against valuing the “folly” of wealth, reminding us that our demise is contingent upon our lack of wisdom: “If mortals do not have wisdom, they perish like the beasts.” Bergant says we are interdependent with all creation and thus bond with the animals, even in our blessings as Psalm 103 indicates: “Bless the Lord, all creatures” (“The Bible Tells Me So”).
More than messengers and models, animals are often used to do God’s bidding, as Kay shows. It is written in Exodus 23:28-30 and Leviticus 26:22: that if the Israelites’ behave righteously,” hornets will drive out the Hebrews’ enemies and wild predators will not attack them as they escape from Egypt and head for Canaan (223). In 1 Kings 17:1-6, God directs Elijah to hide in a wadi in Jordan during a severe drought . God assures him, “You shall drink of the stream, and I have commanded ravens to feed you there….Ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening.” In 2 Kings 2:24, on the way to Bethel, the prophet Elisha is ridiculed by children and the wrath of nature is set upon them:“Go up, baldhead,” they shouted, “go up, baldhead!” The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore torty-two of the children to pieces.” Another instance of an animal carrying out the wishes of God appears in the story of Jonah, as the fish does God’s work of transporting Jonah safely to shore. “Out of my distress I called to the Lord…From the midst of the nether world I crid for help and you heard my voice,” Jonah says, and continues describing his life-threatening experience “enveloped” in the “abyss;” when he acknowledges that God has the power of deliverance. In Daniel 6:23, we see a similar scenario (226). Surviving the lion’s den, Daniel proclaims, “My God has sent his angel to close the lions’ mouths so that they have not hurt me.” A drastically different fate befalls Daniel’s accusers, their wives, and their children, who were killed by the lions even “before they reached the bottom of the den.” The most widely known instance of creatures doing God’s bidding is evident in Exodus, through the Plagues, “the role of the nonhuman as mediator in God’s delivering activity (Fretheim 44).
In nearly every book of the Old Testament, we witness the relationship with God and non-human creation. Even the genealogies in Genesis demonstrate more than historical lineage, according to Fretheim: “it shows that every person is kin to eveyr other; even more…human and nonhuman are linked together in one very large extended family” (68). The Book of Psalms concludes with a testament to God’s relationship with all life: ‘Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!’ (Sharp).

Practical Ministerial Applications of the Theme

In “The Role of Nature in Natural Disasters,” Diane Bergant sees a causal relationship between “anthropocentric imperialism” and ecological destruction. “We, like every other creature of the natural world, are embedded in the realityof this world, we are not above it. Furthermore, like every other creature of the natural world, we are subject to its laws, laws established in the beginning by the Creator.” Greenway accuses traditional Biblical scholars of ignoring ”a pivotal theological teaching” “that we are to love all creatures. ” Bunge credits Fretheim with teaching us that through Psalms, we witness that “God is active in nature and intimately involved in every aspect of natural order” (2).
Furthermore, Bunge highlights an important connections between the environment and social injustice: how can we love our neighbors without considering their vulnerability to environmental hazards? (2). The Bible “points out the commonalities between human beings and other living things” and “provide powerful grounds for environmental responsibility” ( Referring specifically to divine covenant, we receive blessings from our covenant with God, but such That receipt is contingent upon how we fulfill the duties assigned to us in our living relationship with non-human inhabitants of the earth. Relationship with God is not limited to humankind, as Yale Divinity Professor Carolyn Sharp reminds us that “every living creature hears God’s voice” .
This concept assumes new significance today because of our heightened sensitivity to the environment and earth’s creatures, both suffering devastating loss and destruction. It gives us a Biblical imperative for cultivating relationships with non-human elements of the earth and spiritually validates those of us who choose to share our lives with them and work for their benefit. It adds Divine impetus to “humane” living as we reassess ourselves in relation to the Bible, demonstrating that our moral standards – sadly, not shared by all – lead us to be activists for Divine justice. It invites us to rediscover purpose in our relationships with the non-human world we share. As a grief counselor specializing in the loss people's animal companions I see first hand how these insights validate their choices and can draw them into rather than away from organized religions that have traditionally neglected the potency of human-animal relationships and minimized the spiritual value of the natural world. People often experience discomfort when their religious leaders proclaim human superiority over animals because their experience shows them otherwise. They often become disenfranchised. This research elasticizes religion to embrace a more holistic spirituality reserving for them a place where they are not only welcome but blessed by God for their loving stewardship of the garden. As Bergant writes, “The human creature is placed in the garden to serve (the same verb as ‘till’) and guard it” (“The Bible Tells Me So”). Tubbs maintains that giving attention to our role in dominion and nature offers us opportunity through reflection to assess our values which may “deepen and broaden our appreciation and concern for the effects and consequences of human decisions upon nonhuman beings.
Works Cited
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Houghton
Mifflin, 2006.
Bergant, Dianne. "The Bible Tells Me So: The Good Book is Gull of Passages to Inspire
Environmental Action." U.S. Catholic 73.4 (April 1, 2008): 16(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. CCLA, Miami Dade Comm College. 19 Apr. 2009.
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1998 (33).
Bernstein, Ellen. The Splendor of Creation, a Biblical Ecology. www. .
Bradshaw, Robert L. Covenant.
Bunge, Marcia. “Biblical Views of Nature: Foundations for an Environmental Ethic.”
“Covenant.” Dictionary of Theology. http://www/
Forti, Tova. “Who Teaches Us More Athan the Beasts of the Earth, and Makes us Wise than the
Birds of the Heavens. PECUS. Man and Animal in Antiquity. Proceedings of the Conference at the Swedish Institute in Rome, Sept. 9-12. 2002. Ed. Barbro Santillo
Frizell (The Swedish Insittute in Rome. Projects and Seminars , 1) Rome 2004.
Fretheim, Terence. The Pentateuch. Nashville: Abington Press 1996.
“God’s Covenant with Animals.” Humane Religion. July - August 1996
Greenway, William. “Animals and the Love of God.” Christian Century , 21 June 2000. Gale,
Cengage Learning. 1-4.
Hiersl, Richard H. “Reverence for Life and Environmental Ethics in Biblical Law and Covenant.
Kay, Jeanne. “Human Dominion Over Nature in the Hebrew Bible.” Annals of the Association
American Geographers. (1989) 79: 2. 214-232.
LaCoste, John-Yves. “Animals.” Encyclopedia of Christian Theology.
Sharp, Carolyn. “Rereading Dominion in Scriptural Traditions.” Catholic Concern for Animals. .
Smith, Ralph Allan. “Defining the Covenant: What Consensus?”
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Tubbs, Jr., James B. “ Humble Dominion.” Theology Today. 50. 4 (1994.)
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Daqua said…
Thank you Lisa for providing wonderful insight for fundamentalists to learn the truth of scripture and Gods love for all creation. It is not just the unholy man that we must save for God, but also Gods creation from the unholy man.

I have taken the liberty of posting a proportion of your post at
Lisa Shaw said…
Thank you Daqqua....thank you.

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