On God and Dogs

 | May 24, 2009 9:52 PM


Recently I was inspired by Pastor John March and his post Animals: Another Other to Love (Or, Why I’m a Vegetarian) to read the book On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals.

Halfway through Chapter One I realized Pastor March is much smarter than me and that this book is far too academic for me.  However just in that short amount of reading I felt I had learned quite a bit.

Stephen Webb’s audience for this book is those that are interested in animal rights and those who study Christian theology.  These “two different audiences … ordinarily do not read the same books.”  I happen to be a Christian who is not too interested in theology but is becomingly interested in animal rights and how they affect my everyday decisions.

It is obvious that Mr. Webb’s love for animals originated with the special relationship he had with his pet dog as a boy.  The moving story of his elderly arthritic dog painfully climbing up two flights of stairs to comfort a sick boy caused me to reflect about whether we should get a family dog.  We have had three dogs and for various reasons gave them up which reflects on what poor dog owners we were.

Mr. Webb is a vegetarian which seems to be typical for people who care about animal rights.  The trend of vegetarianism seems to be growing, even within Christian circles.  This is a trend I can no longer ignore even if I do enjoy so much the taste of meat.

Mr. Webb’s book’s goal seems to be to explore the relationship between people and their pets and to expand that.  However I did not really get very far in that exploration but instead read the beginnings of understanding how God cares for not just humans but all of his creation.

The Genesis account of creation provocatively portrays a vegetarian world (“Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.’”  Genesis 1:29) in which the humans exercise authority over the animals but do not use or kill them.  Indeed, land animals are made on the same day as humans, showing their similarity to humanity, but they are also made before humans and pronounced good independently of humans, showing that they too are created out of love…  The use of the phrase “all flesh” in Genesis joins together the human and the animal in a basic kinship of creatureliness under the shared providence of a merciful God (Genesis 6:12, 13, Genesis 9:11, 17).

Meat eating is later permitted but Mr. Webb argues it was far from the ideal.

In Deuteronomy 12:20 God seems to allow meat eating due to the uncontrollable cravings of the Israelites…  When Deuteronomy 8:7-10 describes the ideal land and diet for the Hebrews … meat is excluded (also see similar descriptions in Jeremiah 29:5; Amos 9:14; and Hosea 2:22).

I don’t think any of the above verses are particularly persuasive for arguing that vegetarianism is Biblical but no one could disagree that until after the flood God did not permit meat eating which seems to point to a vegetarian diet being at least Edenic.

Eating and animals are thus more than symbols; food becomes part of the daily struggle of obeying God.  The Book of Daniel … Daniels and his friends … ate only vegetables, and at “the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food” Daniel 1:15.

Mr. Webb goes through the Bible pointing out various places where the rights of an animal and creation itself were to be considered.  The most interesting to me was Hosea 4:1-3 which pictures a time of immorality evidenced by the land mourning.  The “beast of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying.”  This sounds remarkably like current times.  Many of the other verses Mr. Webb highlights I think are not necessarily as much about animal rights as about being practical, for example including animals in the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10).

Interestingly Mr. Webb says Jesus was often described as “a lover of animals.”

… Jesus declares his Father’s love for the sparrows (Luke 12:6, Matthew 10:29), portrays God as a feeder of birds (Luke 12:24; Matthew 6:26), and compares himself to a hen gathering together her brood under her wings (Matthew 23:37) ….

However Mr. Webb would not say the same thing about Paul.

Most Christians follow Paul in showing little concern for the world of animals, although with Paul, too, the evidence is ambiguous…  Paul established the very influential idea for Christianity that vegetarianism must be a form of superstition and that Christian freedom must mean the complete secularization (and thus indifference) of food preparation and consumption (see, for examples from the Pauline tradition, 1 Timothy 4:4 and Colossians 2:16-17)…  Paul’s influence continues today, when many North Americans look at the mass production of animal flesh in factory fams as one of the chief signs of our country’s freedom, prosperity, and equality.

Mr. Webb concludes that the Bible is favorable to animal issues and compares it to how the Bible implicitly opposes slavery.

Clearly, it is possible to interpret the Bible (especially the Hebrew scriptures) favorably on the issue of animals but not without a struggle with the dominant theological tradition.  After all, animals are used, eaten, and traded in the Bible, and humans are clearly the main focus of the biblical narratives…  Gary Comstock has stated: “I have come to interpret the Bible’s views on the killing of animals in the way I interpret its views on the owning of slaves.  Even though each practice is implicitly, if not explicitly condoned, the practice is still shown to be wrong by the larger story of salvation in Jesus Christ…”  Jonah 4:11 is a most revealing scripture.  Here God reprimands the recalcitrant Jonah, saying, “Should I not be concerned about Ninevah,” a great city with thousands of people and “also many animals?”

Mr. Webb then talks about the Christian tradition and how some “equated gluttony and flesh eating.”  There were vegetarians like St. Benedict, James, the brother of Jesus (according to some traditions), John Wesley, etc.  But most of the time these Christians and their groups were considered on the fringe or even heretical.

At this point I stopped reading the book and picked up Dominion which was much easier to read.  I appreciate though what I learned from Mr. Webb within the first thirty-seven pages of his book.

2 Responses to “On God and Dogs”

John wrote a comment on May 26, 2009

Wow, you got all of that from 37 pages! That is an excellent set of quotes summarizing a lot of the biblical argument that Webb makes. Thanks so much for this thoughtful review. I remember reading some of these quotes but I couldn’t remember exactly how they went.

BTW, I also remember strongly desiring a dog when reading this book. But I couldn’t sell Mary on the idea. If only we could find a dog that didn’t shed, poop, bark, or make her sneeze. 🙂

essny wrote a comment on May 30, 2009

Your point about the author having a dog as a boy and that particular relationship shaping his views is valid. If I didn’t have Sweetie Pie, I don’t know if I would be anti-down/anti-poultry. I don’t claim to know the Bible all that well, but there were at least 3 vegetarians in the OT: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!

Care to comment?