Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Livestock and Loved Ones

There are still a few wonderful things in this increasingly weird world. A good number of them are covered in fur, and occasionally wool.

You do not find many pets in the Bible. Life thousands of years ago was generally harder, and people were poorer, hungrier and more pragmatic. Most verses that mention animals have to do with wildlife and livestock, not domesticated creatures living indoors.

Adam and the Animals

Adam had an exceptional relationship with the animals of his day. As the first ruler of our world, all the beasts of the field and every bird of the heavens were brought to him by God. The task of naming them was probably not as onerous as it sounds: this was prior to the vast majority of speciation, and certainly prior to breeding, and Adam was not exactly pressed for time. Today, the job would involve inspecting something like a million different species of creatures, and that’s leaving out insects, fish and invertebrates. It would take lifetimes.

Nevertheless, even if the task assigned to Adam was orders of magnitude more manageable in Genesis 2, it still must have taken the first man a fair bit of time to consider each animal individually and bestow upon it a moniker appropriate to its character; names in those days meant much more than they do today. That speaks to a level of engagement with the animal world rarely seen since.

Of course, this was all in aid of finding Adam a helper fit for him, or at least in aid of stirring up in Adam a sense of need for the partner God intended to provide for him, so we should not read too much of ourselves into the story. There were surely creatures all over the Garden of Eden — Eve was unsurprised by the presence of a talking snake — but they were not pets in the modern sense.

The Poor Man’s Ewe Lamb

The one domestic animal in the Bible that I always remember is the ewe lamb in Nathan’s parable of 2 Samuel 12. This was a true pet. The lamb ate from her master’s table, drank from his cup and lay in his arms. She was also a fiction, but a fiction that resonated with David because he had been a shepherd, and in a sense still was. David was no modern bleeding-heart card-carrying member of PETA — he had no problem dispassionately killing predators when necessary — but he obviously had great sympathy for the plight of defenseless creatures, and he understood the tender sentiments and appreciation of God’s wonderful design that might prompt a man to raise a lamb with his children and treat it like a member of his own family.

That’s what gives Nathan’s story its sting, and it explains David’s rage at the man who would take a member of someone else’s family and turn her into dinner. As a pet-loving child, the story made me livid. I still get a little worked up reading it.

That’s not exactly a logical reaction, is it.

The Purchased Lamb

Stop and give it some thought. Doesn’t it seem a little strange for one man to take a member of an animal species and serve it up for dinner, while another takes a member of exactly the same species and gives it a home, a bed, and regular portions of hand-fed dinner, making a mere creature his child?

Nathan’s story contains an odd little detail that may explain it: unlike his rich neighbor, the poor man did not possess flocks and herds, with ewes giving birth to lambs here, there and everywhere. Whatever he ordinarily ate for dinner, it wasn’t mutton. He had one lamb and one lamb only, and this lamb he had bought with the same sort of extremely limited resources as the poor widow in the New Testament commended for her generosity by Jesus. This lamb didn’t just show up as one among dozens in his sheepfold. He went out, selected and paid for it. We have no idea what might prompt such an act, but we can say that a man who chooses and pays for something out of his own pocket is personally invested in a way that the owners of flocks and herds are not.

The difference is not in the lamb, but in the heart of the man who bought it.

We get out of our domestic animals exactly what we put into them. The best ones are a product of the love they have received. I have watched animals remarkably humanized by consistent, loving care. These “pet grade” animals are as far removed from the feral version of their species as it is possible to imagine. At times we can come to believe they are responding to us with faculties like our own.

The Lord has done something similar to me, I often think.

What Kind of Love?

Now, Christ has purchased many lambs. There is nothing whatsoever remarkable about us. We are exactly the same sort of creatures as our unsaved neighbors, friends and family members. Explain to me why the world is full of flocks doomed for slaughter while you and I enjoy the tender care of the Lord, the love of our Father, food from his own table and a place near his heart, being welcomed into his own family. We are not just his people and the sheep of his pasture, but members of his household. I can’t explain that. Can you? The only answer I can find is that the love of the Father lavished upon us in Christ has created this great distinction between livestock and loved ones. We love because he first loved us. It’s not what we are in and of ourselves, but what he is that has made all the difference.

The cost of our purchase was not mere legal tender, but the precious blood of the Son of God himself. Moreover, unlike the poor man in Nathan’s story, our Lord is not incapable of defending those who are his own. He says to his Father, “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.”

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” I can’t explain it, but I can certainly enjoy it.

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