Try a six month print or digital Life and Work subscription


Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Please confirm that you are happy to hear from The Church of Scotland:

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please visit the Privacy Policy on our website.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Home  >  Features  >  Biblical Animals


Biblical Animals

Biblical Animals

Sunday April 14 2019

As the humble donkey takes centre stage on Palm Sunday, Jackie Macadam focuses on the stories of animals in the Bible.



The Bible is full of them.

Big ones, like the leviathan that swallowed Jonah, ‘unclean’ ones, like the herd of pigs Jesus cast the demons into, and of course, the ark was stuffed full of them.

Donkeys are widely used in the Middle East even today. Practical, small in size, strong and patient. Not fussy eaters, relatively easy to keep and accessible.

But donkeys seemed to have a special place in the Bible. There can’t be many who have attended Sunday School without colouring in at least one picture of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on his little donkey.

Was there some special symbolism to the donkey?

“Not so much,” says Professor Helen Bond, Head of the School of Divinity at New College in Edinburgh.

“People tend to think of donkeys as humble beasts, the transport of the poor,” she says. “But that’s not really correct. Donkeys were the usual way of getting about in the first century, the ‘Ford Mondeo’ you might say.

“In the Hebrew Bible they are found as beasts of burden or as mounts.

“For example, when Abraham goes to sacrifice his son, Isaac, he saddles his donkey.

“Though royalty sometimes ride donkeys, it was actually much more common for them to ride on mules, the sterile offspring of a donkey and a horse.

“In Zech 9.9, where the future king rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, there might well be a hint of humility in the action. There could be a sense that the conquering king is on a donkey rather than a war-stallion, but equally the reference to humility may refer to his demeanour rather than his mount.

“Certainly in the case of Jesus, riding into Jerusalem on any kind of a mount (rather than walking in pilgrimage), was a claim to authority rather than humility.”

Even before Jesus, animals and particularly birds, were important. In fact, some scholars say there are well over 100 named animals in the Bible, from types of deer, to various birds, from behemoths to dragons and all kinds of insects.

But the animals in the Bible were imbued with more than just their physical presence. Often, a deeper significance was given to them; a significance that seems to still apply to some of them today.

The lamb is of course, very closely associated with Jesus and sacrifice.

“Lambs were sacrificed in the temple morning and night (known as the tamid offering) which atoned for sin,” says Helen.

“Most people in the ancient world sacrificed pigs, but they were unclean to Jews so Jews sacrificed lambs instead.

“Having a lamb or sheep was important in a subsistence economy so to offer one to the Temple was a real sacrifice for the family.”

For most of us, contact with animals comes from sharing our lives with a pet of some sort.

For some churches that gives the opportunity  to have a special ‘Blessing of the Animals’ service.

Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh is famous for the wee Skye terrier who stayed on his master’s grave for years, and who came to be known as ‘Greyfriars Bobby’.

Minister the Rev Dr Richard Frazer says the Blessing of the Animals is a real opportunity to think about the life we all share with all the animals and plants on the planet and the interdependency that entails.

“I think it is an opportunity for people to express their gratitude, not just for the pets they have but for the idea that we share life with plants and animals. Life would be unimaginable, indeed impossible, without them, and so it reminds us of our duty of care to the whole of creation. According to Genesis, human beings were put in the garden to ‘tend it and serve it’.

“Initially, we were approached by the Skye Terrier Association who were concerned about the breed dying out. Due to our connection with Greyfriars Bobby, we agreed to host a pet blessing service, and it has now become an annual event, which is well supported.”

As you can imagine though, a service full of animals and their owners can be a bit different from the run-of-the-mill Sunday service in the average church.

“It can be chaos!” Richard says. “But you know, sometimes that feels like how it should be. A little chaos is a good thing. Jesus was a great un-settler of people’s patterns and set attitudes.”

But there’s a more serious point to animals in the Bible, and how we treat their modern-day counterparts.

“Animal Welfare is a Christian Issue”, says the Rev Professor Andrew Linzey, Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

“There are strong biblical and theological grounds for thinking that how we treat fellow creatures is a kind of litmus test of our own Christian belief.

 “Humans are not made God’s in creation, but rather God’s own deputies. They are made in God’s image (Gen 1.27) – in the image of a God who is just, loving and holy. We are to reflect that love, and we are to care for creation according to God’s moral purpose, not our selfish wants.

 “God’s love extends to all creatures, even the life of the smallest bird (sparrow – strouthion in Greek) has value and ‘is not forgotten by God’ (Lk 12.6).

“Genesis 1 provides a vision of creation at peace. We are made in the image of God, given dominion, and all creatures are given a vegetarian diet, a position only reversed after the fall and the flood (cf Gen 1.29, 9.3, Is 11.1-9). However much killing may be inevitable in the present world, we need to remember that peaceable co-existence is God’s original will. In living without cruelty or killing (as far as possible), we anticipate God’s Kingdom.

“Might is not right. Our power (dominion) over animals needs to be interpreted in terms of in terms of Christ’s example of moral generosity, especially directed to the poor, the weak and the vulnerable – and by extension animals. We are not so much the master species but the servant species – commissioned by God to look after the cosmic garden (cf Gen 2.15).

 “Of course there is much more to be said, but theology could only improve if theologians attended to these positive biblical voices that have so often been neglected.

“And if Christians began to actualise just a few of these insights, the world would be better for animals.”

This feature first appeared in April's Life and Work. Subscribe or download from £1.99