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Animal Studies

Oxford Encyclopedias of the Bible What is This? Provides accessible, authoritative coverage for all major topics pertaining to the Bible and the study of the Bible.

Animal Studies

What does “animal studies” have to do with gender studies? Feminist and animal studies philosopher Kelly Oliver suggests that “In the Judeo-Christian tradition, animal difference and sexual difference are intimately associated from the beginning of time” (Oliver 2009, 143). The context for Oliver’s assertion is an engagement with Jacques Derrida’s reading of the story of Adam and Eve in The Animal that Therefore I Am (Derrida 2008, 15–23), a book with considerable influence in animal studies. Derrida emphasizes the scene in which Adam names animals and birds, who are brought to Adam by God “to see what he would call it” (Gen 2:19). Once the woman is created, the man also says that she will be “called woman” (2:23), and then “calls the name of his woman Eve” (3:20). Recognizing a link in these naming scenes between the woman and the animals, Oliver argues that the man’s action “is evidence of his dominion over her, akin to his dominion over animals” (Oliver 2009, 143).

To suggest that the subordination of women to men is “akin” to the subordination of animals to humans is not to suggest that the status of women in the Bible is equivalent to the status of animals. One of the insights of animal studies, however, is that the boundary between human and animal, which is increasingly problematized today (Calarco 2015), does not only provide a rationale for the human exploitation of other creatures. It is also used to distinguish those humans thought to fall closer to, and those humans thought to fall farther from, assumed norms for the properly human. Although the use of animal images to represent other humans is not inherently negative, some groups of humans, including women, are associated with animals in ways that underscore or justify subordinate status.

The study of such associations represents one component of animal studies, which has emerged as a growing area for interdisciplinary research and writing across the academy. While fields associated with animal biology, behavior, and cognition continue to expand our knowledge of animals, questions about animals are also being raised today in literary and cultural studies, philosophy, ethics, history, sociology, and anthropology as part of what is sometimes called an “animal turn” (Weil 2012, 3–24) in the humanities and social sciences. This heterogeneous body of animal writing has already had an impact on the attention given to animals in non-biblical religious studies (e.g., Waldau and Patton, eds., 2006; Moore, ed., 2014; Gross 2015; Schaefer 2015). Now it is beginning to influence biblical studies as well (Stone 2016, “Animating the Bible’s Animals”; 2016, “Animal Difference”; 2017; cf. Koosed, ed., 2014).

One useful resource for thinking about the relevance of animal studies for biblical studies is the work of feminist theorist Donna Haraway on companion species. Companion species include, but are not identical to, companion animals, those individual animals (such as pets) with which many humans live. The notion of companion species is used more comprehensively to analyze what Haraway calls “co-constitutive human relationships with other critters” (2008, 73; cf. 2003, 2016). Haraway notes that human cultures do not predate interactions with other species. We must ingest some species of plants or animals to exist at all. Individually and collectively, humans “become who they are” with other living entities in particular “situated histories, situated naturecultures” (25). Against tendencies to understand human existence independently of other living beings, Haraway argues that we are always “entangled” with other “critters” in specific “contact zones.” Haraway takes the phrase “contact zone” from canine agility training, but she notes that it occurs also in postcolonial studies, acknowledging thereby that power relations and histories of conflict structure companion species relationships. While Haraway is especially interested in interactions between humans and dogs, she also gives attention to other companion species, including domesticated animals such as sheep; and to histories of labor, economy, technology, geography, migration, colonialism, ethnic relations, gender relations, and so forth, that shape the contact zones in which humans and companion species co-evolve.

One could conclude from Haraway’s work that biblical texts, with their many references to animals and plants, are products of co-constitutive companion species relationships that “entangled” writers of the Bible in the contact zones often referred to as the Bible’s ancient contexts. Such texts originated in the “situated naturecultures” of the ancient Levant, where, as histories of domestication and zooarchaeological evidence demonstrate, the herding of goats, sheep, and cattle was crucial for human livelihood before and during the periods in which biblical literature was written (cf. MacDonald 2008; Boer 2015). Given how intertwined the narrated lives of Israelite ancestors are with companion species, it is unsurprising that biblical writers found in relationships with sheep and goats a rich resource for political and religious imagery. Like other ancient texts, biblical literature utilizes the language of shepherding and flocks to refer to human leaders, God, and their subordinates. The consequent impact of specific species of animals—flocks of sheep and goats—on Western literary and religious thought is considerable. Moreover, biblical texts were literally preserved on animal skins (parchment) for centuries. This use of animal skins may have been crucial for processes of canonization, since such processes required writing surfaces that lasted longer than papyrus (Haran 1983). But it also presupposes the subordination of animals to humans.

The concurrent subordination of women and animals is apparent in Exodus 20:17, where masculine linguistic forms warn a male audience that “You will not covet the house of your neighbor. You will not covet the woman of your neighbor, or his male slave, or his female slave, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” This prohibition lists things belonging to one male Israelite that another male Israelite might desire, including women, slaves, and animals. It is consistent with narrative texts that associate the acquisition of women with the acquisition of animals. The story of Jacob, for example, sets up a kind of parallel between Jacob’s work for Leah and Rachel, who with their slave women bear Jacob’s children, and his work for goats and sheep, which produce young animals for him (see Stone 2016, “Animating the Bible’s Animals”; 2017). As Jacob notes to Laban, “I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flock” (Gen 31:41). In addition to underscoring Jacob’s ability to sire children and increase his animals, the narrative associates animal difference with other types of human difference. When Genesis 30:43 remarks upon Jacob’s wealth, the narrator does not only refer to flocks of sheep and goats, donkeys, and camels. We are also told that Jacob acquired female and male slaves. Like Exodus 20:17, the story puts domesticated animals and human slaves in a shared category of objects subordinated to heads of households, making thereby an association between animals and slaves that can be found from the ancient world (e.g., in Aristotle) to modernity (cf. Roberts 2008, 61–91).

Later in the Jacob narratives, Jacob’s sons offer Hamor and Shechem an alliance by proposing “we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters for ourselves” (34:16). When Hamor and Shechem repeat this offer to the men of their city, they add that “all their cattle and their property and all their animals” will move between the two groups of men, along with daughters, as part of the alliance (34:23). The offer is a ruse to avenge the sexual humiliation of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi kill the men of Shechem after they are circumcised. As a consequence, however, Jacob’s sons “took their flocks and their herds and their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and whatever was in the field” (34:28). Once again women and animals are represented as objects acquired by men. This passing around of women can be interpreted in terms of the political economy of sex, gender, and kinship famously glossed by anthropologist Gayle Rubin as “the traffic in women.” Rubin’s explication of the traffic in women also includes animals among the objects that circulate in such economies (e.g., Rubin 2011, 43–44) and refers at one point to Abraham’s “wives, children, herds, and dependents” (41) to illustrate the social structures associated with these economies.

This connection between traffic in women and traffic in animals may (along with Haraway’s notion of companion species) also shed light on Nathan’s parable in 2 Samuel 12. There a lamb beloved like a daughter (bat), who is taken and served as food, represents Bathsheba (bat-sheva), the woman taken by David for sex. Although these actions are viewed negatively, a basic comparability between the woman as sexual object and the daughterly lamb as edible object allows Nathan’s parable to make sense. Such terms as “carnivorous virility” and “carnophallogocentrism,” which Derrida (1995, 280) uses to discuss connections between the subordination of women and the subordination of animals, provide an especially apt frame for the interwoven dynamics of eating an animal and having sexual relations with a woman in this story.

The animalized fates of some biblical women are even more troubling. Jephthah’s daughter is sacrificed like an animal in Judges 11 rather than being saved from sacrifice like Isaac (cf. Stone 2016, “Animal Difference”). The woman in Judges 19 dies when a Levite cuts her body into pieces and uses those pieces, like the cattle slaughtered by Saul in 1 Samuel 11:7, to send a message throughout Israel. These and other troubling texts support Derrida’s contention that, once “a noncriminal putting to death” has been “left open” in our ethical and social structures to permit the killing of animals, it may be impossible to restrict such death to non-humans (Derrida 1995, 278). In the words of Cary Wolfe “the human discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans … to countenance violence against the social other of whatever species—or gender, or race, or class, or sexual difference” (Wolfe 2003, 8, his emphasis).


  • Boer, Roland. The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
  • Calarco, Matthew. Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2015.
  • Derrida, Jacques. “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject.” In Points …: Interviews, 1974–1994, edited by Elizabeth Weber; translated by Peggy Kamuf, et al. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995.
  • Derrida, Jacques. The Animal that Therefore I Am. Edited by Marie-Louise Mallet, translated by David Wills. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008.
  • Gross, Aaron S. The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
  • Haran, Menachem. 1983. “Book-Scrolls at the Beginning of the Second Temple Period: The Transition from Papyrus to Skins.” HUCA 54: 111–122.
  • Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016.
  • Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.
  • Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
  • Koosed, Jennifer L., ed. The Bible and Posthumanism. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2014.
  • MacDonald, Nathan. What Did the Israelites Eat? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008.
  • Moore, Stephen D., ed. Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.
  • Oliver, Kelly. Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
  • Roberts, Mark S. The Mark of the Beast: Animality and Human Oppression. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2008.
  • Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” In Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Schaefer, Donovan. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015.
  • Stone, Ken. “Animal Difference, Sexual Difference, and the Daughter of Jephthah.” Biblical Interpretation 24 (2016): 1–16.
  • Stone, Ken. “Animating the Bible’s Animals.” In The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative, edited by Danna Nolan Fewell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Stone, Ken. Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2017.
  • Waldau, Paul, and Kimberly Patton, eds. A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Weil, Kari. Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
  • Wolfe, Cary. Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Ken Stone

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