As a modern general designation for all living creatures other than plants, “animal” does not always have a simple equivalent in the Bible. The closest equivalents in the Hebrew Bible include ḥayyâ (“living [creature],” Lev. 11.2), and bĕhēmâ, which usually refers to all quadrupeds (Gen. 6.7), or more specifically to domesticated animals (Exod. 22.9–10). Yet even these Hebrew terms do not usually include birds or fish. The Septuagint and the New Testament frequently use tetrapous (“quadruped”) or thērion to translate both Hebrew terms.
Aside from problems in basic terminology, the differences between biblical and modern Linnaean systems of animal classification sometimes create uncertainties in translation. For example, the Hebrew dîšōn (Deut. 14.5) has been translated by different versions or scholars as “ibex,” “white‐rumped deer,” “pygarg,” or “Arabian oryx,” all representing completely different genera in most modern classifications. More than one species of predatory birds (e.g., eagles and vultures) may be subsumed under the Hebrew term nešer.
Dietary laws in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.3–20, as well as the sacrificial system, depended on a system of classification which distinguished clean and unclean animals. In general, a clean land animal had cloven hoofs and chewed its cud (a ruminant artiodactyl in modern zoology), thus eliminating reptiles, amphibians, rodents and carnivorous animals from the diet. Animals that only chewed their cud (e.g., the hare) or only had cloven hoofs (e.g., the pig) also were eliminated. Most insects are unclean (the locust being one exception), and only those aquatic animals with fins and scales are fit to eat (Lev. 11.9–10). The logic underlying the clean/unclean dichotomy in Leviticus remains unclear. Other ancient Near Eastern cultures had views similar to those found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy regarding unclean animals, including the pig. Not surprisingly, for the Jewish sect that became known as Christianity, Levitical animal classification was a major issue in the debate about observance of dietary laws (Acts 11.5–9). (See also Purity, Ritual.)
Origin, Use, and Relationship with Humans.
Biblical views concerning animals are linked closely with the two principal myths of creation. In the first account, generally ascribed to P, all the animals were created before both man and woman (Gen. 1.20–30). In the other account (Gen. 2.7–22), usually ascribed to J, the creation of all the animals follows that of the first man, and God creates the first woman only after none of the animals was found helpful to the man. In both accounts animals were created to serve the needs of human beings, though Genesis 9.3 (cf. Gen. 1.30) indicates that humans were not expected to use animals for food before the Flood. Psalm 104.10–30 depicts Yahweh, not human beings, as responsible for the general welfare of the animal kingdom.
Sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs are the most extensively attested domestic animals from the Neolithic period onward in ancient Palestine. The camel may have been domesticated by the early third millennium BCE in some portions of Asia, but the geographical extent of domestication by the second millennium remains undetermined.
Aside from providing a ready reserve of fresh meat and milk, most domestic animals could provide hides, bone implements, transportation, and other commodities. Wealth and status were often measured by the number of animals that a person owned (Job 1.3). The raising and trading of horses played an important role in achieving and maintaining military power in the Near East (1 Kings 4.26; 10.28–29).
Although offering animals to appease a deity has a strong magico‐religious basis, animal sacrifice formed an important part of the economy in ancient Israel. Ordinances that required that only the best of the flock be brought to the Temple for sacrifice (Lev. 1.2; Deut. 15.21) in effect demanded the allocation of the best animal resources (especially cattle, sheep, and goats) for the priesthood. Smaller animals such as pigeons were acceptable if the worshipper was too poor to offer larger animals (Lev. 5.7). Christian writers argued that Jesus' death nullified the need for animal sacrifice altogether (Heb. 10.1–18).
The Bible also mentions various animals that were considered harmful. Some of the plagues sent upon Egypt (Exod. 7–11) included the uncontrolled multiplication of frogs, gnats, flies, and locusts. Locusts were particularly feared because they could destroy agriculture and so cause a famine (Joel 1.4). Rituals sometimes were devised for protection from poisonous animals (e.g., snakes in Num. 21.1–4).
Biblical authors often use animal imagery to express aspects of their culture. Sheep imagery is used to depict a future messianic utopia (Isa. 11.6–7), as well as the Israelite community (Pss. 44.11; 79.13; 80.1). In the New Testament Jesus was portrayed as a lamb (John 1.29), and he warned his disciples about wolves dressed in sheep's clothing (Matt. 7.15).
Lions and other ferocious animals are often used to speak of hostile armies or personal enemies (Ps. 22.21; 1 Pet. 5.8), though lions may also symbolize positive figures (e.g., Judah in Gen. 49.9). Certain birds are associated with desolation (Ps. 102.6). Dogs usually are represented negatively in the Bible (Prov. 26.11; Matt. 7.6), though a recently discovered dog cemetery from the Persian period at Ashkelon may suggest the existence of non‐Israelite cults that viewed the dog positively.
The Bible is also stocked with a variety of mythological creatures such as the cherubim (1 Kings 8.6–7) and seraphim (Isa. 6.2), which combine human and animal traits. Leviathan (Isa. 27.1) and Rahab (Isa. 51.9) are primordial beasts that were believed to threaten God's creation. As was the case with El, Baal and other Canaanite deities, Yahweh may have been depicted as a bull (Exod. 32.4–6; See Golden Calf). Bull figurines from the second and first millennia BCE have been found at, among other places, Hazor and Ashkelon, though it is difficult to determine which deity, if any, is represented by the figurines.
Aside from biblical scholars and archaeologists, ecologists and ethicists have recently become interested in the extent to which the biblical view of animals has influenced the relationship of modern civilizations with nature (see A. Linzey, Christianity and the Rights of Animals, 1987; and E. J. Schochet, Animal Life in the Jewish Tradition: Attitudes and Relationships, 1984).
Hector Ignacio Avalos