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Wildlife in the Bible: An Exegesis

by bruce marcot

Exegesis:  (n)  An explanation or critical interpretation (especially of the Bible)

The Beasts of the Bible

I've scanned the Bible (on PC; using the King James version) for various references to wildlife.  Here are two key passages:

 For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
  Leviticus 11:44

 To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.
  Leviticus 11:47

Other passages of the Book of Leviticus list the kinds of "unclean" beasts that would "defile" one:
 3 Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.

 4 Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

 5 And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

 6 And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.

 7 And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.

 8 Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you.

 9 These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat.

 10 And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you:
 11 They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination.

 12 Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.

 13 And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray,
 14 And the vulture, and the kite after his kind;
 15 Every raven after his kind;
 16 And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind,
 17 And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl,
 18 And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle,
 19 And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.

 20 All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you.

 21 Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth;
 22 Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.

 23 But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.

 24 And for these ye shall be unclean: whosoever toucheth the carcase of them shall be unclean until the even.

I've been stumped as to why one would be "defiled" by "any manner of creeping thing" (Leviticus 11:44), especially by eating the particular non-domesticated beasts listed here.  At first, I thought it was purely a practical manner, in that some animals listed such as the vulture eat carrion, which can be unhealthily full of parasites and disease; or that other animal foods, particularly those being carrion themselves, would likewise be unhealthy.  Or that the term "creeping thing" referred to reptiles and amphibians and maybe small terrestrial mammals such as rodents.

But then why deny the consumption of pigs and rabbits, as well as the purely carnivorous diurnal raptors and the owls, the insectivorous bat, the insects (except for locuts, beetles, and grasshoppers!), cursorial species, and so on, which can be healthy and nutritious parts of one's diet, as they are in so many parts of the world?  Snakes, guinae pigs, ants, termites, and other "creeping things" are also eaten in many parts of the world.

The answer came to me when I researched the meaning of the word "defile."  According to my dictionaries, defile means, in part, to "desecrate," which in turn means "to profane (the name of)," "to violate the chastity of," and, most importantly, to "abuse the sacredness of."

So, to be "defiled" by consuming "any manner of creeping things" may mean to become profaned, unchaste, and unholy.  But why, then, would one become profaned, unchaste, and unholy by consuming "creeping things" and other listed animals?  It may be because these animals are, in some sense, to be honored and respected, that is, they themselves are sacred and chaste, and to consume them profanes oneself.

That is, for people to consume something that is sacred (these wildlife) is become unchaste and unholy.

To further explain this, Leviticus 11:44 refers to eating these animals as "unclean;" and "unclean" is defined, in part, as "morally impure (ceremonially impure)."  This is a far different definition than simply foul or dirty or unhealthy.


The Zen of the Bible

Bible passages seemingly saying that all life is interconnected and that we cannot be vain and assume preeminence over nature (all from Ecc 3):
  18 I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.

  19 For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

  20 All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

Passage 18 here seems to suggest that "the estate of the sons of men" -- humanity -- belongs to the same realm as that of "beasts."  Passage 19 goes on to say that what affects humanity affects other life and that all life shares "one breath."  And, to consider oneself to above other life is vanity.  And Passage 20 speaks of the ultimate eschatology of all life -- we all are born of the same dust, and we all return to dust.

A Mission From God

(A little preamble:  I intend this section to be a bit whimsical.  But it does raise a fun and interesting point.)
Genesis 2:19  And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
One of the aims of the science of conservation biology (and taxonomy) is to identify and name the organisms of the world.  This is a major effort.  It is estimated that scientists have identified several million species, but as many as 10 or more million species may remain to be discovered and classified.
In this vein, I was amused at the following passage I read in the wonderful sci-fi book "Earth" by David Brin (©1994, Bantam Books, New York; p. 234).  The passage is from a (fictional) on-line dialogue between a scientist (T.M.) and a (presumably fictional) Catholic Monsignor (Msgr. B.):
Query by T.M.:  "Monsignor, according to the Bible, what was the very first injunction laid by the Lord upon our first ancestor?"
Reply by Msgr. B.:  "By first ancestor I assume you mean Adam.  Do you refer to the charge to be fruitful and multiply?"
T.M.:  "That's the first command mentioned, in Genesis 1.  But Genesis 1 is clearly just a summary of the more detailed story in Genesis 2.  Anyway, to 'multiply' can't have been the first chronologically.  That could only happen after Eve appeared, after sex was discovered through sin, and after mankind lost immortality of the flesh!"
Msgr. B.:  "I see your point.  In that case, I'd say the command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge.  It was by breaking that injunction that Adam fell."
T.M.:  "But that's still only a negative commandment ... 'Don't do that.'  Wasn't there something else?  Something Adam was asked actively to do?
    "Consider.  Every heavenly intervention mentioned in the Bible, from Genesis onward, can be seen as a palliative measure, to help mend a fallen race of obdurate sinners.  But what of the original mission for which we were made?  Have we no clue what our purpose was to have been if we hadn't sinned at all?  Why we were created in the first place?"
Msgr. B.:  "Our purpose was to glorify the Lord."
T.M.:  "As a good Catholic, I agree.  But how was Adam to glorify?  By singing praises?  The heavenly hosts were already doing that, and even a parrot can make unctuous noises.  No, the evidence is right there in Genesis.  Adam was told to do something very specific, something before the fall, before Eve, before even being told not to eat the fruit!"
Msgr. B.:  "Let me scan and refresh my ... Ah, I think I see what you refer to.  The paragraph in which the Lord has Adam name all the beasts.  Is that is?  But that's a minor thing.  Nobody considers it important."
T.M.:  "Not important?  The very first request by the Creator of His creation?  The only request that has nothing to do with the repair work of mortality or rescue from sin?  Would such a thing have been mentioned so prominently if the Lord were merely idly curious?"
Msgr. B.:  "Please, I see others queued for questions.  Your point is?"
T.M.:  "Only this -- our original purpose clearly was to glorify God by going forth, comprehending, and naming the Creator's works.  Therefore, aren't zoologists, crawling through the jungle, struggling to name endangered species before they go extinct, doing holy labor?
    "Or take even those camera-bearing probes we have sent to other planets ... What is the first thing we do when awe-inspiring vistas of some faraway moon are transmitted back by our little robot envoys?  Why, we reverently name the craters, valleys, and other strange beasts discovered out there.
    "So you see it's impossible for the end of days to come, as your group predicts till we succeed in our mission or utterly fail.  Either we'll complete the preservation and description of this Earth and go forth to name everything else in God's universe, or we'll prove ourselves unworthy by spoiling what we started with -- this, our first garden.  Either way, the verdict's not in yet!"
Msgr. B.:  "I ... really don't know how to answer this.  Not in real time.  At minimum you've drawn an intruguing sophistry to delight your fellow Franciscans.  And those neo-Gaian Jesuits, if they haven't thought of it already.
    "Perhaps you'll allow me time to send out my own ferrets and contemplate?  I'll get back to you next week, same time, same access code."
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