Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Garden of Delight

Last Sunday, when we began again our study of the works of the God of Genesis, we talked about what it is we are – what a human being is, what God made us to be. And on the one hand, whether in one step or many, God sculpted us from the dust of the earth, from the chemical properties of the matter beneath us. It was in this connection that we examined what Christians, both before and after Darwin, have consistently believed about our life in the body. It is good to have a body derived of dust, good to have senses and impulses and all this biological baggage. On the other hand, God caught this dust of earth up in the wind of heaven – we're set apart from other animals because ours is a spiritual soul, able to judge and contemplate and wonder, able to know and will and love beyond what any matter can itself sustain. We're each that odd overlap between angel and ape.

Today, we have to ask the question about where God ought to put such an odd critter as the human being. What place would be healthy for a miniature universe to be? What kind of life did God want for us from the outset? What's our natural – and more-than-natural – habitat? And now Genesis rolls on. For “the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature; and the LORD God planted a garden... and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:7-8). It wasn't inside the garden that the human being got its start – it wasn't the garden's dust from which he rose, wasn't the garden's trees between which he came to life – but God led him there, put him there.

So maybe the first question we'd best ask is, what's a garden? The Hebrew word for one, gan, comes from a verb that means “to be enclosed, fenced off, protected.”1 To their mind, the defining feature of a garden was the notion of life within boundaries of protection, a cultivated space with structure, shape, capable of being locked or unlocked (Song of Songs 4:12). Later on, Greek-speaking Jews picked up a new word to translate this. The Persians had a word, paridaeza, a space surrounded by an enclosing wall, which the Greeks reimagined as a royal park cultivated to be a pleasant place for a king to take a stroll.2 Many kings took pride in getting exotic plants from all over for their personal pleasure park in their capital city, like a botanical garden.3 And it's from such paradeisoi, and this original garden of God pictured as one, where we get our English word 'paradise.'

So God himself is pictured as the king planting his royal garden, his special paradise. Where? “In Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8). So somewhere east of Israel, the garden is inside a larger territory called 'Eden.' We're also told that “a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden,” and that this river “divided and became four heads” (Genesis 2:10). That's probably not a view downstream at a river that flows into four; it's likely looking upstream at four rivers merging into one River of Eden.4

When early Jews and Christians read this, some took it as pure allegory, saying the rivers represented the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.5 But most insisted that Eden was a real place on earth.6 And Genesis spends several verses trying to explain where, by mentioning four rivers. The last two are easy. “The name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria” (Genesis 2:14). The Tigris rises in eastern Turkey and flows into Iraq. It's over a thousand miles long, and Nineveh and Baghdad are on it. “And the fourth river is the Euphrates” (Genesis 2:14). Further west than the Tigris, it's formed in southeast Turkey by two rivers called the Karasu and the Murat, and then it passes through Syria, picking up a few smaller rivers that join it there, before getting to Iraq and flowing down to meet up with the Tigris just before the Persian Gulf. It's over seventeen hundred miles long, and Babylon was built on its banks.

So far, so good, right? But “the name of the second river is Gihon, the one that wound through the entire land of Cush” (Genesis 2:13). And “the name of the first is the Pishon, the one that wound through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold, and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx are there” (Genesis 2:11-12). Before modern times, most people guessed that the Gihon was the Nile in Egypt and the Pishon was the Ganges in India – even though these four never touched.7 But prehistorically, the Tigris, the Euphrates, a third river that flowed through Cush in western Iran, and a fourth river that flowed through the gold-rich territory of Havilah in Arabia used to all come together in a single river valley full of freshwater springs. Where? In what's now the bottom of the Persian Gulf, but which – long, long before recorded history – was a massive oasis.8

So what if you could go back? What if you could step through your Bible like a door, and find yourself in the garden as Genesis pictures it? The name 'Eden' comes from a verb whose primary meaning is “to make abundant with water supply.”9 One early Christian understood it as “a most delightful place..., shady with groves of fruit trees..., rendered fertile by a huge spring.”10 Another pictured it “thick with evergreen trees, full of fragrance, flooded with light, and surpassing any conceivable sensible loveliness and beauty.”11 They all imagined life there was one of “enjoying the beauty of visible things... and gaining much pleasure from that enjoyment. Consider, after all, how great a thrill it was to see the trees groaning under the weight of their fruit, to see the variety of the flowers..., and all the other things you would be likely to chance upon in a garden, especially a garden planted by God.”12 In other words, Eden is Longwood on steroids, “a rich mosaic of wetland environments, river floodplains, mangrove swamps, and estuaries.”13

But while the gardens around Middle Eastern temples were there so humans could grow food to feed and care for their gods, this garden is different, because God planted it so that he could feed and care for his humans!14 In this realm of special protection, we were meant to live off of perfect providence. To meet your every need, just reach out and take what God has grown. Unlike even in the promised land, there was no need to dig a well – the river's so close, the springs are all around you.15 To eat, we've got “every plant yielding seed that's on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit” (Genesis 1:29), so “eat of every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:16), to pluck all the veggies, harvest all the spices. With provision like this, early Christians pictured a life there of “wearing a body yet being fortunately rid of any bodily needs.”16 They imagined the garden as “a wonderful existence..., a life free of any care,”17 a “state of perfect ease.”18 We were meant for that peace!

And the mention of precious minerals like gold and precious stones up the river also suggests a place of luxury and wealth, of the fine things in life. In fact, the word 'eden' entered Hebrew as a common noun meaning luxury like fancy clothes (2 Samuel 1:24), even a delicacy like gourmet cuisine on your dinner plate (Jeremiah 51:34), or the pleasure of an ice-cold drink on a warm day (Psalm 36:8). So it was “a life of freedom and great affluence.”19 Every vacation you've ever taken or ever wished to take, every daydream of enjoyment and satisfaction – that's a glimpse at what God wanted to give us, of where we were meant to be.

But better than where we'd be is how we'd be. If nothing had ever taken us away, if you'd been born and raised in the garden, what would it be like to be that version of you? For centuries, Christians have spoken about “that original righteousness wherewith at first we were created.”20 Sometimes the same phrase was also translated as “original justice.”21 “And this rightness of man, as he was divinely established at the beginning, consisted,” it was said, “in the lower parts of his nature being subject to the higher, and the higher not being hampered by the lower.”22 With everything in you working as God intended, there'd be no virtue you wouldn't have had, and so you would've had “not only an exact purity from all spots of unrighteousness, but also a disposition to perform cheerfully all offices of charity and justice.”23 There'd be no good thing you wouldn't find it delightful to do!

You in the garden would've been “blameless in your ways from the day you were created” (Ezekiel 28:15). However many lived in the garden, there'd be “no domineering pride, no malice, no envy, no falsehood, no brawls or contentions among them, but all harmony and love, each seeking the welfare and happiness of his fellow-creatures as well as his own.”24 There'd be no arguing, no shame, nothing to stop us from fully enjoying everybody else's company, nothing to stop us from fully enjoying just being ourselves. You would be thrilled just to be you. And God meant for this blamelessness, this original righteousness, to be a gift handed down as an inheritance to all generations, both“divinely bestowed upon all human nature in the first parent” and “transmitted along with human nature to the descendants.”25 Had all gone right, you were meant to live all that!

Not only that, Ezekiel pictures those in the garden as “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12). In some traditions, these came to be called 'preternatural gifts' that came along with original righteousness – gifts of God that are beyond human nature, but which he wanted us to have even in our life on earth in the garden. “No distresses of body afflicted them,”26 so that in the garden people didn't get sick or hurt, much less die in any sense we'd recognize. We would have just “kept suffering away,”27 or, to whatever extent some sort of pain as “a disturbance of the nervous system” might have been necessary and healthy for us, it would've not only preserved our comfort but been more than balanced by the great pleasure of being alive.28

Because of how God would've kept you ordered inside, in the garden you wouldn't have been troubled by out-of-control passions or feelings, but would've always had total control of your inner self.29 All your inclinations would have been directed consistently toward the best good, instead of toward other lesser goods.30 Nothing about you would be out of order or out of control or bent out of shape, nothing about you would be selfish, nothing in you would settle for being only kind of kind or for chasing after trifles. You'd have integrity.

And not only have Christians pictured life in the garden as one of immortality, impassibility, and integrity, but also one of infused knowledge. Think about it: Adam doesn't waste his time in baby talk. He doesn't wake up and spend his first few hours trying to guess what a stick is. Genesis doesn't picture him learning as slowly as we do. As a gift, God had directly infused into him “all that knowledge both of God and creatures which was needful for his happiness.”31 And it's likely that, had we stayed at home in the garden, had we inherited original righteousness, then from birth you would have simply recognized the world, recognized God in the world, had a deep and profound insight into the nature and character of everything around you. You would've just 'gotten it.' You'd have had the light of God shining in your heart and mind from the instant he formed you there.32

In giving us these gifts, God would've been throwing grace all over us, pouring out his Holy Spirit to sanctify us and make us holy, lifting us up toward our supernatural purpose found only in him. In the garden, you'd always have been moved by a supernatural trust in God, expectation of God, love for God. As Isaac Watts put it, a human in the garden would have been graced so “his will must have an inward bias and propensity to holiness and virtue..., an inward inclination to please and honor that God who made him, a supreme love to his Creator, and a zeal and desire to serve him, a holy fear of offending him, with a readiness to do all his will.”33

And that's fitting, this holiness, because Genesis presents the garden as more than a garden. Think back on how Israel's temple in Jerusalem was decorated like a forest, coated in gold and jewels, and how the prophets even imagined a river running from it.34 No wonder some Jews said “the Garden of Eden was the Holy of Holies and the dwelling of the Lord” (Jubilees 8:19). This is a garden of “holiness in which all was perfect, ideal, and unblemished, immune from the ravages of time.”35 To understand the garden, look to the tabernacle. What did God say in Leviticus? “I will make my tabernacle among you..., and I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12). And that's because it was an echo of Eden, where we'd have daily “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day” (Genesis 3:8).

Yes, the best thing in the garden wasn't the protection or the provision or the pleasure, not the loveliness or the luxury, not even the gifts that exceed our nature. The best thing about the garden was that it was a place to meet God without shame or reservation, to live with him as his people. To live there was a nearer and dearer walk with him, a clearer hearing of him, a better sighting of him, than I can even imagine. I doubt even Moses and Elijah, for all they lived and heard and saw, could have even fully gotten their minds around it. This garden was a place where God would be with us every day, available for us to walk with him and talk with him and hear that we're his. He'd have been with us there as our best friend, as a Father to whom we'd all have been born as sons and daughters. We could have interacted with God, and with each other, on a basis of uninterrupted friendship and fellowship, of radical trust, of unobstructed intimacy.

I like the way one old hymn put it, and I sorely wish I'd come across it sooner, else we'd have sung these words today: “There was an Eden once on earth / beyond conception fair, / where mortal beauty had her birth / ere sin had entered there. // What flowers perfumed the balmy gale / all bursting into bloom! / What fruits enriched the happy vale of cool, but grateful gloom! // There our first parents clothed in grace / the velvet verdure trod, / and loved in all they saw, to trace / the vestiges of God! // Oh! life divine – when day retired / and closed her golden eye, / and genial evening gently fired / the curtains of the sky, // then would the Voice that made them all / flow downward from his throne, / and sweetly on his creatures call, / to walk with him alone! // Holy communion! matchless joy! / How freely it was given – / that bath of bliss without alloy, / an antepast of heaven!”36

That's the life we were meant to live, with God and with each other, blameless and growing in grace, enjoying perfect delight with our perfect Lord. And as the Lord Jesus bled and choked on the cross for us, with what words did he comfort a crook who saw this neighbor in crucifixion as King of God's kingdom? “Truly I tell you: Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), to “repose in Eden-land,”37 in that “spiritual garden..., that immaterial and intellectual meadow which never grows old and is never defiled.”38 May you, even now, begin in spirit to be with God your Gardener; and live in “fervent hope of receiving again the Paradise in Eden, as well as the dawn of the brightness of the second coming of Christ our God, from the east.”39 For there's no limit to the beauty and goodness you were made for. And if you cling to Christ in faith, and settle his spiritual paradise called the Church, you won't miss out. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Dust of Earth, Wind of Heaven

“What does it mean to be human?” That's what the words on the wall asked me to consider. The other week, as you all know, my wife and I went on vacation to our nation's capital, and while we were there, we spent a few hours in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Now, among the permanent exhibits there is a section known as the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. I wanted to be there, to see it for myself, before I came back to preach this sermon today. We've been working together for a while now through the Book of Genesis, God's word on beginnings. But to many American Evangelical Christians today, when they think of Genesis, one thing looms large: controversy. That controversy is often put in the language of 'creation' versus 'evolution.' And as much as I originally wanted to preach through Genesis without this topic, I realized that it isn't really possible. As I walked through the Hall of Human Origins, it was obvious that Christians from the same church could stroll those same exhibits and have very different reactions to the fossils and artifacts and reconstructions and, above all, the answers the museum offers for how we got here and, more daringly, what it all means.

To some Christians, the story of humanity the Smithsonian tells is helpful and largely true, even if incomplete. These Christians agree that all living things stand in a family relation going back through several billion years, and that the human branch emerged only with millions of generations of processes like mutation and natural selection, but all of which took place in the hands of our loving God, the God of Genesis. Meanwhile, to other Christians, the story of humanity the Smithsonian tells isn't just incomplete but fundamentally false, maybe even deceptive. These Christians deny one big family tree for all life; they say we've got one all to ourselves, and that God's creative work toward making the first humans involved no suffering at any point along the way.

Each position faces its assorted challenges. Those who reject evolutionary stories, especially if they do so in the name of a 'literal' reading of Genesis, have to deal, on the one hand, with tricky questions about apparent gaps or oversights in the Genesis text (e.g., Cain's wife), about the anthropocentric description of the world it presents (e.g., animal kinds coming pre-divided into domestic vs. wild), about Genesis' commonalities with ancient Near Eastern mythical accounts, and about preserving a literalist reading while not resorting to too many 'background miracles' not suggested by the author; and, on the other hand, with the overwhelming weight of scientific consensus drawing on the many lines of scientific evidence cited in favor of evolution, such as developments recorded in the fossil record, genetic linkages among creatures (including indications that the second human chromosome is a fusion of two ape chromosomes preserved as distinct among chimpanzees), etc., etc.

Meanwhile, those who accept evolutionary stories have to deal with tricky questions about how to harmonize those evolutionary stories (with their preference for gradualism) with the theological significance that the Church has always read in Genesis, including at least two necessary non-gradual events of spiritual or moral significance: the transition from pre-human hominins not made in God's image to full theological humans made in God's image, and the transition from a state of original righteousness to a fallen condition of sin that needed a Savior. Some Christians who accept evolutionary origins will do so at the cost of one or both of these necessary events. Thankfully, others refuse to abandon clear historic Christian teachings – but they may come up with some different suggestions on the related questions of when Adam could've lived or even what biological species he might have been.1

The point here, though, isn't for us to get sucked too deep into all the nitty-gritty details. It's to remind us that each position has real questions to wrestle with. As for which camp is right, I don't think this pulpit's put here for me to spout off my latest opinions. I will say I've known pastors in our denomination who are convinced strongly against the kinds of evolutionary stories you'll see at the Smithsonian, because they're deeply concerned to uphold the Genesis story as God's inspired word. I will also say that I've known other pastors in our denomination who are convinced strongly for those same sorts of evolutionary stories, and who are just as comfortable championing Genesis as the inspired word of God. And what goes for our pastors goes for our people. It's not a reason to divide fellowship or be suspicious of our fellow believers. We can (and should!) pose each other the tough questions without losing the spirit of unity in Christ.

The reason we bring this up is that in today's text, we're introduced to Genesis' close-up look at what a human being is. (Questions about who a human being is, or why a human being is, will unfold over the next couple months.) Among our brothers and sisters in Christ who might feel least at ease in the Smithsonian's Hall of Human Origins, sometimes one of the many motives for that discomfort is the sense that there's be a big problem for human dignity if the ancestry of our bodies included lower lifeforms. In the years after Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species, one critic expressed umbrage at “tracing descent from an ape,”2 another critic called “degrading” any theory that “herds us with all four-footed beasts and creeping things,”3 while a third adamantly rejected any “genealogical table which begins in the mud” and which would tie the human family to “a race of obscene and dirty little brutes.”4 In 1925, when the whole thing got tied up in court, the Christian prosecutor of evolution insisted that for humans to “have come from below” and to “link their ancestors with the jungle” would be an unacceptable demotion from “the high plane upon which God put man.”5

So what does Genesis say? “The LORD God sculpted the man from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). First, we can see this involves at least some figurative language – Christians always knew God doesn't literally have hands for sculpting with or a mouth to breathe out with.6 Second, we should see Genesis describes human creation this way because it would be easy to understand. In Israel's neighbors' stories, human beings were often sculpted by the gods out of clay.7 Long before evolution was on anybody's radar, Christians pointed out that Genesis uses the images it does because it was, they said, “written for a primitive people.”8 In this case, the image of God as a potter emphasizes his total authority over what he's shaping: “Who are you, human, to talk back to God? Will what is molded say to its maker, 'Why have you made me like this?'” (Romans 9:21).

So, third, as much as some of us worry about outside ideas that would make our human ancestry 'lowly,' our own Bible's psalmists confess that “we are dust” (Psalm 103:14), Job's friends describe humans as “pinched off from a piece of clay” (Job 33:6), Paul says we're “from the earth, of dust” (1 Corinthians 15:47), and Jesus says humans are naturally “from below” (John 8:23). It's hard to see how an ancestor swinging in a tree would be any lower than an ancestral dirtball! Really, it's Genesis we should find humbling! And early Christians saw it that way, saying: “From these words spring no little instruction in humility... whenever we consider where our nature derived the beginning of its subsistence.”9 Our “genealogical table,” either way, “begins in the mud.”

But, fourth, where does Genesis picture animals coming from? In chapter 1, God commands, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” (Genesis 1:24). Here in chapter 2, we read that “out of the ground, the LORD God shaped every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens” (Genesis 2:19). The earth produces, but it's God who sculpts – from the same ground whose dust is also where Genesis gets us from. This is actually one of the things that sets Genesis apart from the creation myths of Israel's neighbors: the emphasis on how much humans have in common with the animal world.10 So no matter which camp of Christians we fall into on the evolution question, the Bible binds us all to agree that, in some way, God made us from the same stuff as other creatures.

That's why, long before Darwin hit the streets, it was Christians who were saying that, when it comes to the human body, “man and the other animals have the same kind of origin,”11 that “the human being takes the beginning of its composition from the earth, as do the plants and the irrational beings.”12 And now we know, after all, most life shares with us the same basic cell structure, with nuclei, membranes, mitochondria. As animals, we live by breathing oxygen and by consuming organic material. You can map the bones in your hand onto those in a bat's wing or a dolphin's flipper. We have similar eyes and ears, mouth and stomach, liver and lungs, kidneys and brain – in fact, almost every animal has the same eleven organ systems you or I do. Martin Luther said, in light of all this, that in such bodily functions “there is no difference between man and beast.”13

And none of this is bad, shameful, or unchristian! It was good that the Potter made his clay into animal bodies with beautiful biology. God didn't decide to give us “affinity with lower bodies” without a reason.14 Early Christians testified that God wanted to “link together the different natures by small differences, so that the whole creation is one and akin, by which it is particularly evident that the Creator of all things is one.”15 Yet the human body was “made in no other way than by the great wisdom of God,”16 and “if there seems to be any fault in the human body's constitution, it must be taken that such a fault is a necessary consequence of the material used.”17 Or, as Darwin put it, “man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”18 But even such a body, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “belongs to a person's essence. … People who reject their bodies reject their existence before God the Creator.”19

God made us bodily, biological beings with a grand purpose. That isn't to be rejected, no matter what condition your body has come to, or what design improvements you might have suggested for it. The human body is part of what God proclaimed “very good” (Genesis 1:31). And biologically, it makes sense to understand the human body as animal. Early Christians read even Genesis as teaching that “your body is related to the beasts.”20 The Bible itself, in Ecclesiastes, directly warned that God tests human beings “so that they may see that they themselves are animals” (Ecclesiastes 3:18). But we are, in one scientist's words, “the paragon of animals.”21

So if we hear people in the world say that humans “are animals and subject to the same rules and limitations... as all other forms of life,”22 or that scientific research can “shed light on the question of what it is to be human,”23 Genesis reminds us that that's at least partially true. ...But only partially. Because there's a lot to our existence that Genesis reserves as only partially touchable by science, whether by biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, anthropology – these can only get so deep into the human mystery.

The day after visiting the Smithsonian, my wife and I headed to the Museum of the Bible, which happens right now to have a special exhibit on Scripture and Science. Little sooner had we set foot there than the wall asked us a question not unlike the Smithsonian's: “What makes me human?” And as you might guess, the Museum of the Bible reminded its visitors, without rejecting anything from the Smithsonian, that there's still more to the story: that, though humans and other animals share “close similarities,” yet “our sense of morality discerning what is fair and just, our spirituality and worship, storytelling, and our unique accumulation of knowledge and culture over time sets us apart from other species,” for “only humans are made in... 'a little lower than angels.'”

In this, they're echoing the many scientists who admit that “there are innumerable ways... in which we human beings are distinct from even our closest relatives in nature,”24 that even our nearest parallels are “incapable of making sophisticated tools or using conceptual language,”25 that “human beings, alone among the creatures, speak, plan, create, contemplate, and judge,” or “can think about the whole, marvel at its many-splendored forms and articulated order, wonder about its beginning, and feel awe in beholding its grandeur and in pondering the mystery of its source.”26 I think my cats are precious and personable (and full of 'personality,' though not personhood), but God didn't place eternity in their hearts like he did in yours and mine (Ecclesiastes 3:11). You'll never meet an elephant engineer, a poodle poet, or a horse historian. We've sent chimps to space, but none ever knew what space was. There's no such thing as an eel with existential dread, a philosopher piranha, or a penguin priest; neither will you find a sinful skunk or a sainted squirrel. But humans can know and will the infinite.27 Different from all other animals “in kind and not in degree,” we are, it's been said, “not merely an evolution but rather a revolution.”28

Why? Because there's more to us than dust. The myths of ancient Babylon agreed, but they thought the other ingredient was the blood of a sacrificed god.29 But listen to Genesis: “the LORD God... breathed into [the human being's] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). Not violence, but gentleness! And Christians understand this other ingredient to be, not demon blood, but the human soul. Now, every living creature has a soul of some kind, a “primary principle of life” that “actuates its body.”30 If you've ever asked whether animals have souls, consider that the word 'animal' literally comes from the Latin word for 'soul'! Yes, every animal has a soul, from mammoths to mosquitoes. But we're unique in the kind of soul we have. Other animals have “souls... produced by a certain material force,”31 souls “coextensive with matter,”32 but ours is described as a 'rational' or 'intellectual' or 'spiritual' soul. It isn't made from stuff or produced by stuff. For each human who's ever lived, God directly created their spiritual soul out of nothing at the very start of their lives.33 God “breathed into him the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7), and Christians always said that “this became the origin of the soul's being.”34 Because this soul is the special form of the body, even our bodies, with all they share with animals, are a suitable “instrument” to “raise a fitting hymn to the Lord.”35

Since the start, Christians always defined the human being as “the living thing composed of soul and body.”36 On this account, it's been said that, if in our bodies our nearest parallels are apes, in our souls our nearest parallels are the angels and archangels, powers and dominions, cherubim and seraphim! Think about that: for all science might ever discover about what parallels they can draw between you and other animals, the story isn't complete until we factor in all the parallels between you and the host of heaven! Between ape and angel, simian and seraph, chimp and cherub, we're the unique and miraculous overlap of two vastly different ways of being God's creation. That's because God saw it fitting that “a combination of the two should take place... as a kind of binding together of the visible and invisible natures.”37 Each of us is a sampler platter of the creation, “material and spiritual at the same time,” with “one foot on earth and one foot in heaven.”38 It's almost incomprehensible that you are “such an earthquake as the image of God in dust..., a cloud of dust shaken up into a shocking miracle of life.”39 But this dust of earth has caught the wind of heaven, and it can never be the same.

The mystery is that we're “made from dust and yet destined for glory.”40 And the main place the Church, down through the ages, has worked out these truths of what a human is, is in one place above all: Christ. What did the Son of God take on to become one of us? In the Church's most solemn answers, she said that “the Word... united to himself flesh animated by a rational soul,”41 and so became “truly man, of a rational soul and body..., consubstantial with us in respect of the humanity.”42 In Jesus Christ, who as God is beyond every category and is from above, he became also from below, condescending to a genealogy of mud, to the indelible stamp of a lowly origin, to adopting our Homo sapiens biology with its 23 chromosome pairs, its common chemical composition, its history stretching back to the dust by whatever route ours took from there, and hence he came to share with every animal who ever lived a common physical source in the earth, herded with four-footed beasts and creeping things and you and me even as he himself is “the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:48). And along with that flesh, he took for its form a real human spiritual soul, a soul he created the same way he makes yours and mine. Anything less than everything laid out in Genesis, and he wouldn't have been human.

That's why we talk about this. To know what we are, what a human being is, is to know not just an earthquake but a heavenquake: that the hands nailed to the cross had the same bone layout as the foreleg of a lamb, that the flesh and blood that bought our salvation was animated by a spiritual soul like yours and mine, that a 'human animal' body with brain and heart has been raised from the dead and taken up in splendor, that his humanity – now a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45) – is hope and awe to every ape and to every angel. And so he pronounced our dusty bodies of earth, our windy souls breathed from heaven, the entire miniature world that each one of you is, to be too good to leave outside his glory if you're willing to come in. Glorify him! Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Six, Seven, Rest

These past few months, we've taken a tour, step by step, through the wonderful works of God who created this whole universe out of nothing and then shaped it, organized it, filled it. But now it's time to pull back from the details and take a wider look at what's been going on. The saga of creation has been recounted to us in the span of six days, and there's a lovely symmetry to it. In the first three days, God is addressing the dark formlessness of the world he made, giving it light and shape. In each of these days, he makes a particular domain. Then, in the second set of three days, God is addressing the emptiness of the world he made. Each of these last three days is a partner to the corresponding day in the first set, and fills that domain with something that moves there.1

So on day 1, 'let there be light,' God created domains called 'day' and 'night' (Genesis 1:3-5). On its partner-day 4, God installs lights to govern the domains of 'day' and 'night' (Genesis 1:14-19). On day 2, God uses the firmament to create the sky and portion out the waters below (Genesis 1:6-8). On its partner-day 5, God calls forth all the creatures that are going to move in the waters, like fish, or in the sky, like birds (Genesis 1:20-23). On day 3, God separates out something new called dry land (Genesis 1:9-10). Not only that, but as a second work, he then covers the dry land with plants – now it's productive, hospitable land (Genesis 1:11-13). So, as a partner-day to day 3, day 6 also gets two works done on it. The first work is that God calls forth the creatures that are going to move on the dry land (Genesis 1:24-25). And the second work is that God personally makes a very special creature that's not according to its own kind but according to God's image (Genesis 1:26-31).

Now we've walked through these matching pairs of days – 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 – and “thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them” (Genesis 2:1). We're about to hear about what happens on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2-3). But if we pause here a moment, we find out that the number 7 was with us all along. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), guess how many words that is in Hebrew? Seven. Then verse 2 is fourteen words, which is two sevens. From the beginning to the end of the story, the word 'God' shows up thirty-five times, which is five sevens. Seven times we hear the phrase 'God said,' seven times we hear 'and it was so,' seven times we hear that it was 'good.' And then, with a five-times-seven-word last paragraph, the whole narrative comes to 469 words, which is of course sixty-seven times seven.2 Now, would you guess that all that is an accident? Or is it more likely this rich stew of sevens is shouting something?

Why all the sevens? Well, centuries before Abraham, there was a king who built a temple for his idol, and he wrote a poem about it. He gave the temple seven blessings, then in seven days he put up seven special stones around it, and when everything was finished he celebrated the temple dedication with a feast that lasted for, can you guess how long? If you said seven days, you're right. King Gudea's temple was just full of sevens.3 When the Canaanites told a story about a god building himself a palace, they said he purified it with fire on six days, and “on the seventh day the fire was removed from the house,” leaving behind a pure temple of silver and gold.4

But now let's get closer to home. When Moses climbs Mount Sinai, “the cloud covered it six days, and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud” (Exodus 24:16). Over the next few chapters, God gives Moses seven speeches, each introduced by “the LORD said to Moses.” When work finally begins on the tabernacle, the Spirit of God – the same one that hovered over the waters in the beginning (Genesis 1:2) – fills the architect Bezalel (Exodus 35:31). He weaves fabric the color of the sky into a tent and veil, and inside this sky he puts 'lights' (Exodus 35:14). During construction, we hear twice seven times that things were done “as the LORD commanded Moses.” Then, once “all the work... was finished” (Exodus 39:23), “Moses saw the work” and “blessed them” (Exodus 39:43), and God moved in (Exodus 40:33-34).

Centuries later, the tabernacle was replaced by a permanent temple thanks to King Solomon, who oversaw its construction over the course of seven years (1 Kings 6:38). Not only did it keep the sky-colored veil inside, but it had a basin it called a 'sea' (1 Kings 7:23-26) and two 'pillars' like the pillars of the earth (1 Kings 7:15-22). It was decorated with carvings of many plants and animals (1 Kings 6:18, 29, 32; 7:29, 36), all under a roof that was compared to the firmament (Psalm 150:1). Once “all the work was finished” (1 Kings 7:51), Solomon gathered Israel in the seventh month (1 Kings 8:2) and led a dedication prayer made up of seven requests (1 Kings 8:31-53), leading to a celebratory feast “before the LORD our God, seven days” (1 Kings 8:65).

Have we been noticing any patterns here? These big concentrations of sevens are stories of setting up temples and getting them running, and the biblical foundation stories of tabernacle and temple even use some of the same language as Genesis 1. Later, a psalmist says outright that God “built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth which he has founded forever” (Psalm 78:69). What that tells us – and I know I've belabored these examples – is that Genesis 1 is also a story about the foundation of the temple. What temple? The entire universe God creates! That's what Genesis 1 is trying to hammer home with all its sevens. What the tabernacle was in miniature, what Solomon built in Jerusalem a little less in miniature, is a scale model of what Genesis 1 is talking about.5 The whole world, all of heaven and earth, is the grand temple of the living God!

And isn't that a radical way to see the world around you? Every patch of dirt, every fathom beneath the ocean, every cubic centimeter of air, and the farthest reaches of space beyond – it's all part of the temple of the Lord, a holy place, according to the way God made and designed the world. Every living creature he made, he made to install it as a functionary in his temple. Every object God made, he made as temple furniture. And all those things are pure, all those things are holy.6 The entire world is, to borrow one scholar's words, “the very site of divine goodness given by God..., informed by the light of God..., imbued with divine word and revelation.”7 Temples are places of rule and refuge, and so that's how the world itself must be. Best of all, a temple is the place where God lives and shines, where he's accessible and available. That's why the rules, that's why the refuge. Just by living here, you tread on holy ground every day, dwelling with the Holy One, the Most High!

But Genesis gets even more specific. We read that “on the seventh day, God finished his work that he had done, and he ceased on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Genesis 2:2). The word Genesis picks is shabat, 'to stop' – and it sounds a lot like the word shabbat, or 'sabbath.' Having overcome all the chaos, having fixed everything that wasn't yet ready, having accomplished all he set out to do as described in the framework of the six days, now on this seventh day God stops. God stops his creative works because he's done, he's built the temple he wanted. And once he stops, then – as he tells Moses later – “on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:17). Stopping the work leads to rest and refreshment.

In the world Genesis was written to, a king often had to go out and fight, lead his armies against whatever was threatening the nation. But if victory was won, then the king could stop or cease the war, and return in triumph to his palace. After King David had fought all his battles and made Israel supreme, then we read that “the king lived in his house and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies” (2 Samuel 7:1). In fact, in the cultures around Israel, another name for a king's throne was “the resting place.”8

In the stories those cultures told, what was true for their kings was true for their gods. The Babylonians said that after their god Ea “had achieved victory over his foes,” he built himself a shrine and then “rested quietly in his chamber.”9 Later, they said that Ea's son Marduk had to win a great battle before the world could be created, but once he'd defeated Tiamat, he “rested, surveying the corpse,” and from it he began to create the world.10 As a final touch, the other gods suggested that they “make a shrine of great renown... wherein we may repose when we finish the work.”11 And it was as “a man of rest” that David's son King Solomon would be able to build the temple, as a sign that victory had been given, that a hard-won peace had been established (1 Chronicles 22:9). The psalmist calls this temple the LORD's “resting place” where God is enthroned on earth (Psalm 132:8, 14).

What Genesis is saying, again, is that what was true of the temple in miniature is true of the world writ large. If God 'stops' his work after six days and makes the seventh day his 'rest,' it means just what it means when a king or a god 'rests' in those neighboring cultures: that the battle has been won, that things have changed! Rest says that the crisis is over, that normal operations can start, “engagement without obstacles” in the different kinds of activity that God is going to do now.12 When a king sat back on his palace throne after the war, when the myths told of God's resting in their shrines after combat and construction, it was like when a presidential candidate can stop the work of campaigning because the election is over, the inauguration has happened, so he sits down behind his desk at the Oval Office. That's the president's 'resting place,' his 'throne.' And what Genesis is saying is that the Creator campaigned unopposed for this world he created, and now he's in office, he's seated in the control center of the universe, he's indwelling his temple as an abiding presence there.

Now that the 'crisis' of the campaign is done, the works of administration and governance and enjoyment can begin. One medieval theologian emphasized that, when God rested on the seventh day, “he did not cease from conserving and fostering and governing the natures... he had made” during the works of creation.13 After all, it was Jesus who insisted that, even with the seventh day begun, “my Father is working until now” (John 5:17). But it's a restful work, the work of a king commanding from his throne, the work of God at home and at rest in the world.14 And this sustaining work creates a realm of peace, order, and blessing where the temple is. The rest of God creates the possibility of feasting and celebration, enjoyment and communion, with his creation.15

So that's what day 7 is all about. Picture the king sitting back on his throne, picture the glory-cloud filling up the temple. That's what God does in the whole world here. The kingdom has begun! The temple is open for business! You can come and be heard, come and be seen, come and listen to his voice, come and bask in his light, come and seek his face, come and find shelter and splendor, celebration and communion! So feast in joy, for “the LORD reigns! Yes, the world is established, it shall never be moved” (Psalm 96:10). “The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). “Sing praises to God, sing praises..., for God is the King of all the earth..., God reigns over the nations, God sits on his holy throne” (Psalm 47:6-8), “in his holy temple” (Psalm 11:4).

And through Israel, this same God taught the human race to organize time accordingly. In creation, we read that “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God ceased from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3). God taught Israel that “the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:10), one on which they were to behave differently than on their six working days. That created a seven-day week for them, unconnected to whatever the sun, moon, and stars were up to. And every time we organize our calendar by this same seven-day week, we're commemorating creation, bearing silent witness that all space is holy space, that every week we pass is “a constant reminder of God's creative sovereignty.”16

For Israel, the sabbath was a repeated celebration that God is on his throne and in his temple, that the world as such is holy ground, and that he really does dwell within and rule the universe. The myths of ancient Babylon say that the gods decided to create us because they needed someone to take over the hard work of life. So one of them “created mankind, on whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free” to rest.17 And thereafter they had to jealously guard their peace and quiet from us, because human life remained a threat to the gods' rest.18 Israel's sabbath proclaims a different story. God didn't make us so that he could rest at our expense. His restfulness doesn't exploit us, nor is it threatened by us; his rest invites us, embraces us, includes us!

In ancient Babylon, there were days – called sapattu – where important work was to be avoided, but it wasn't to celebrate; it was because those were considered unlucky days, dangerous days, Friday-the-13th kinds of days, so just hunker down and ride it out and don't take big risks. But to Israel, the sabbath was a day to transcend work, not because work is bad or because the day is bad, but because the day is good, because God is good – he is good, and he invites us to his goodness. Sabbath was given to Israel as an invitation for creatures to make themselves at home and be at peace in God's cosmic temple where he rests.

Sabbath insists, even demands, that every seventh day we put down our mundane works, stop slaving away for whatever's been demanding our time and talents (Exodus 34:21). On the sabbath, Israel was invited to look to God on his throne, God filling his temple, and to realize that God will keep the world driving fine without your hands and my hands on the wheel. For Israel, it's a day of faith in the God of providence, a day of hope in the God of promise, a day in love with the God of plenty. It's a day shared for our own good (Mark 12:27) – not because we need rest for a functional purpose like recharging for further work, but because work isn't the same thing as life. The point of rest is not to serve work; the point of work is to serve rest, because rest is life. God worked the works of creation so that he can rest on his throne, not being dormant but savoring and governing his creation. He asks us to work our works for the sake of resting in him. And so sabbath says to every now and then stop and “be still and know that he is God” (cf. Psalm 46:10). And God blesses the day of rest because it's rest, not work, that's ultimately fruitful and radiant, the birthday of blessing, the gala of glory.

Sabbath was a symbol of laying down burdens and falling to the holy ground at the foot of the throne of God, and being lifted and carried in his arms. And it was as the Lord of the Sabbath that Jesus said to “come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). What he's saying is, “I will give you what Sabbath was always about; I will open the gates of the seventh day to you.” A spiritual writer in the Middle Ages put it like this: “How should we understand the sabbath, except that it means Christ? In this sabbath, to be sure, we take our rest, since we place our hope in him alone and love him with all our heart's affection and, despising all desire for temporal goods, we stop performing all servile work.”19

To Christians from the start, true sabbath wasn't just weekly interruption of working rhythms, but a hope and a future. We each, over the ages of our lives, are working ourselves into something, but when we are finished, we hope to be pronounced 'very good,' so that at the end of our days we too can lay down our works and “rest from our labors” in God (Revelation 14:13), “rest he is going to give us from all our works if we too have done good works.”20 “So then,” says Scripture, “there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:9-10). We “share in a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1) to enter “the supreme sabbath, the sabbath which has no evening.”21

Each of the six days of creation has a partner. But the only partner for the seventh day is day 0, the act of initial creation itself, perhaps even eternity!22 Sabbath is something like eternity's twin, because it points to eternal rest, heavenly rest, rest no more interrupted than God's unending dominion in his world. That's the rest he asks us to accept from his hands, when we lay down the works of life. If we don't trust him like the sabbath taught, if we aren't obedient as we do our works, then we'll remain restless forever (Hebrews 3:18; 4:11). But if we believe, if we faithfully labor our hard labors for him, then to us “the promise of entering his rest still stands” (Hebrews 4:1). The Lord rests, the Lord reigns, in hopes that you and I will rest and reign with him, celebrate and enjoy him forever! So as you even now savor the grand temple of the living God in which you already live, “let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11), the day of delight in God which has no end! Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

All Creatures Great and Small

I remember the question she asked – “They won't come in here, will they?” – and our driver's assuring “No, no, no...” I also remember that not a second passed before I heard the thud above my head, and scarcely sooner had I looked up to it than it jumped into the van, contradicting our guide's false prophecy. And so, with it balanced now on the arms of the seats in front of me, as those in front of me shrieked in fright and were put to flight, that was how I found myself cornered in close quarters by a wild baboon. Hey, I was just relieved it wasn't one of the lions from earlier. This was ten years ago, and I was on safari at Lake Nakuru in Kenya. Close encounters of the baboon kind aside, it was a delightful excursion with the utmost respect for God's creation.

And so much of what I saw, that's what Genesis tells us about now, in these words. “God said: Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds” (Genesis 1:24). They're of the earth, of the dry land – that is where these call home, where they come from, where they belong. God calls for them, and like St. Ambrose put it, “the word of God permeates every creature in the constitution of the world.”1 In particular, God here calls for three broad categories of land-based creature: “livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth” (Genesis 1:24). And so “God made beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind” (Genesis 1:25). Genesis talks about them in terms of their relationship to people. The 'creeping things' are pests, little things you don't usually want around much but probably can't easily stop. The 'beasts of the earth' are the undomesticated animals that don't belong in your house or on your farm, and if they're there, it could be a problem. And the 'livestock' are those domesticated animals you might welcome into your house or onto your farmland.2 These aren't natural categories, they're social categories – Genesis is describing the animal world, not as it is in itself (like today's biologists might), but as it was experienced by the Israelites, projecting that back into the moment of creation.

Start with those 'creeping things,' vermin, pests, creepy-crawlies. God empowers the earth to be host to the annelids, the worms, including the six to seven thousand different species of earthworm, which breathe directly through their skin, regenerate lost body segments, and bless the soil by processing organic matter and aerating the dirt. God empowers the earth to have arachnids, too – 2,500 species of scorpions, with their vicious tails and pinching claws; over 50,000 species of spider, which spin webs and other structures out of a protein fiber called silk; 900 species of ticks, and all the other mites, including one microscopic Demodex mite that lives in the hair follicles and oil glands of me and you and everybody.

Then God made more than twelve thousand species of millipedes, and over three thousand species of venomous centipede. And God made the insects – there are at least six million, maybe ten million, species of insect. It might be true, in the end, that if you pick ten random species alive today, nine of the ten will be insects! There are hundreds of species of firebrat and silverfish, two thousand species of earwig, over twenty thousand species of orthopterans – those are things like katydids, crickets, grasshoppers, and even the mountain stone weta of New Zealand, which can survive being frozen almost fully through the winter. God made over four thousand species of cockroach, three thousand species of their termite close cousins, and over twenty-four hundred species of mantises, like the orchid mantis which can blend in amazingly on a flower to wait for flies and bees.

And it's no wonder one biologist quipped that if there is a God, he must have an inordinate fondness for beetles – after all, we know of four hundred thousand kinds and suspect up to two million. There are dung beetles, which can push up to two hundred times their body weight – that's like if you saw me pushing a fully loaded schoolbus down the road – and there are fireflies like our familiar lightning bug, with underside organs where enzymes react to give off light, and bombadier beetles who can spray noxious chemicals at temperatures just below boiling. God made butterflies and moths, whose gossamer wings are products of a great transformation from caterpillar to adult, in which nearly the whole body breaks down and rebuilds itself. Early Christians told each other to “recall the metamorphoses of this creature and conceive a clear idea of the resurrection.”3

And there's another order of insect, the hymenopterans, that includes bees and wasps and ants. There are about twenty-two thousand species of ant, but in terms of individuals, we're talking more like twenty quadrillion – two and a half million for each human. Some are bullet ants, whose sting feels like getting shot and hurts intensely a whole day. Thankfully, we're more likely to face pavement ants. In absolute terms they might be “a people not strong” (Proverbs 30:25), but relative to their body size ants are among the strongest, able to carry ten, twenty, maybe fifty times their body weight. And when they work together, St. Augustine said “the cooperative labors of tiny ants strike us as far more wonderful than the colossal loads that can be carried by camels.”4

They live in colonies founded by queens, dividing labor according to roles for which each is born and raised. The Bible holds out their society as an example for its decentralized industry: “Go to the ant, you sluggard, consider her ways and be wise! Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8). Ants organize themselves in foraging through trails of pheromones, and some species even farm aphids like livestock, milking and tending and defending them. They do police each other's behavior, recruit as needed, and work with great determination. Even though there are a lot of unemployed ants standing around the nest, if the active ants are taken away, these labor-reserve ants step up to the plate and take over. So one Christian teacher said: “When you observe [the ant] treasuring up food for herself in good season, imitate her and treasure up for yourself the fruits of good works for the world to come.”5

Besides arthropods, Israel counted as 'creeping things' the reptiles, like snakes with their slithering bodies and their fangs, like geckos and their incredible adhesive toe pads, like chameleons with their camouflaging color changes, and like iguanas such as the horned lizards, which God taught how to deliberately rupture blood vessels near their eyelids and squirt it as a rather colorful and confusing defense mechanism called ocular autohemorrhaging. Israel also counted amphibians like frogs. There's the hairy horror frog, which, when it gets scared, can break its own toes and shove sharp bones through its skin like claws; there's the pumpkin toadlet, to which God didn't give the gift of balance, so their jumps are hilariously uncoordinated flop through the air, never sticking their landing. Then there's the golden poison dart frog, the world's most toxic animal, whose skin contains batrachotoxins enough to kill you ten or twenty times over. They make pretty good pets, I'm told – don't worry, if bred in captivity, without their full natural diet, they lose their toxicity. God made them all!

Then there are mammals, animals with vertebrae that usually have some kind of fur and which produce milk. Israel also counted some smaller mammals among “swarming things that swarm on the ground” (Leviticus 11:29) – moles, hedgehogs, rabbits, and then there are the rodents, with sciurids like chipmunks and prairie dogs and squirrels, castorids like beavers who build so well and have iron in their tooth enamel to make them tougher, and murids like mice and rats. The grasshopper mouse preys on scorpions, so God adjusted one of its proteins so that, in addition to the usual sodium channel whereby scorpion venom causes pain, there's another sodium channel with the opposite effect, turning venom into a natural painkiller – what a gift of God for them!

The larger mammals are what Israelites counted as “beasts of the earth” or as “livestock,” depending on their domestication status. Barely any are monotremes, which are mammals that lay eggs, like the platypus. There are marsupials, which bear live young earlier in development and then usually finish embryonic development in a pouch called a marsupium. This includes our familiar opossums, and also Tasmanian devils and koalas and kangaroos (which God gave the leg strength to kick powerfully and jump twenty-seven feet in a single bound).

But most mammals are placental mammals, which bear their live young later in development. Biologists divide God's placental mammal creations into four superorders. There's Euarchontoglires, which covers rodents and baboons and me. There's Xenarthra, named for the extra articulations of their spine joints, which includes thirty-one species of armadillos and anteaters and sloths (which have very low metabolism and save their top speed of fifteen feet per minute only for the gravest emergencies). There's the superorder Afrotheria, which covers aardvarks and elephants. The African elephant, who sleep just two hours a day and whose pregnancy lasts nearly two years, are one of the most intelligent and social animals on earth, with as many neurons in their big brains as we have in our smaller brains. With skin over an inch thick, they've got an upper lip and nose merged into a trunk controlled by tens of thousands of muscles, letting them move it so flexibly and precisely.

The last placental superorder, Laurasiatheria, includes seventeen perissodactyls, hoofed animals that bear their weight on an odd number of toes. The rhinoceros is one, and so are the equine animals like the zebra whose stripey herds I saw roaming free on the savannah, and the more familiar horse. There are a lot more artiodactyl species, hoofed mammals that bear their weight on an even number of toes. One family is the giraffes, which grow up to nineteen feet tall for grazing high in the trees. Then there's the family of camels, some of which drink two gallons of water per minute. There's the pig family, and the family of cervids like elk and moose and deer, and the family of bovids like antelopes (such as the mountain gazelle that can sprint fifty miles an hour [cf. 2 Samuel 2:18]), and also cattle and goats and sheep – all key to Israel's life of sacrifice (Leviticus 1:3-13).

Then God made non-hoofed mammals, too. There's the mustelid family that covers otters and weasels and badgers and wolverines and even those fierce honey badgers that can eat venomous snakes and will proudly fight off much larger beasts. There's the ursid family of so many bears, even the polar bear, its 1,800-pound bulk sustained by eating seals and beluga whales and walruses, and whose unpigmented fur and transparent guard hairs both camouflage it and trap heat. There's the canid family of foxes and coyotes and wolves and our dog, which has an astonishing sense of smell thanks to hundreds of millions of smell receptors (you've got just six million). And who doesn't love a friendly domesticated dog and its good attitude and touchingly loyal heart? One early Christian teacher asked, “Doesn't the gratitude of the dog put to shame... those who not only fail to love the Lord... but even treat as friends people who use offensive language against God?”6 So, like the dog, “learn to use your voice,” they said, “for the sake of Christ when ravening wolves attack his sheepfold.”7

Personally, I'm more a fan of the felids, like the couple cats lazing about my house right now. Their flexible backbones help them land on their feet when they fall, while free-floating clavicles let them squeeze into tight spaces. And they know how tight because of special stiff hairs called whiskers, with which they sense touch and vibration. They have retractable claws, eyes that can see using just a sixth of the light we need, and they can hear a wider range of sounds than dogs can, but they've got fewer taste buds by far and can't recognize sweetness. They purr because their hyoid bone keeps the larynx against the base of their skull, plus they have shorter vocal folds. God wanted them to purr, which promotes healing and is just so soothing to listen to.

But then there are larger felids, like the leopard and the tiger, and the jaguar with jaws so strong it bites through skulls to bring a quick end to its prey, and who could ignore the lion? They're low-stamina but fast, sly, and so strong. Proverbs says “the lion is the mightiest among beasts and does not turn back before any” (Proverbs 30:30). They're socially complex, living in clans known as 'prides.' Israel knew lions as ferocious predators, a genuine danger to their lives and livelihoods, which is why Peter uses them to picture the devil as “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). But they aren't evil: “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (Psalm 104:21). When I fell in with a lion pride while on safari, I saw for myself God had answered their prayers. And, thanks be to God, “the righteous are as bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1).

All these God made, in the words of one old bishop, that “we might see the overflowing abundance of his creatures and be overwhelmed at the Creator's power, and be in a position to know that all these things were produced by a certain wisdom and ineffable love out of regard for the human being that was destined to come into being.”8 Each one, in all its intricacy and ability, is an incredible gesture of God's creative generosity.

Now, with some, like the creepy-crawlies and the blood-drenched predators, early Christians struggled as much as you or I might with seeing our way to agreeing with the God who “saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25). So first, they had to be taught that “as a work of God, they are good and commendable, even if the precise reason for their existence is hidden from us,”9 trusting that “all these things are beautiful to their Maker and Craftsman, who has a use for them all in his management of the whole universe.”10 Second, Christians took all animals as examples of good and bad character and conduct, with “even the smallest one offering correction” somebody needs.11 Third, they suggested that God might have made some disturbing creatures “to frighten us, draw us to himself, and cause us to invoke his assistance.”12 Fourth, they observed that not only does each play a role in a food chain, but plenty of pests are sources of chemicals that, even thousands of years ago, doctors could “employ as medications capable of promoting the health of our bodies” – so how much more now?13 All of them call us to faith, trusting beyond our temporary concerns that God's vision of goodness is good indeed.

God made them all, and he knows them all, boasting to Job that he's the one who hears a mountain goat giving birth when nobody's around (Job 39:1-4), that he's served by the wild ox who submits to no human hand (Job 39:9-12), that he's the one who set the wild donkey to run free (Job 39:5-8), that he's the source of every horse's strength and courage (Job 39:19-20). And whatever each animal eats, God provides for their work, for “the eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season; you open your hand, you satisfy the desire of every living thing. The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (Psalm 145:15-16).

So, in the words of Job: “Ask the beasts, and they will tell you” (Job 12:7). When Israel approached the land of promise, they knew they'd share it with many animals, and were exhorted that part of righteousness would be advancing the well-being of the domestic animals under their care (Proverbs 12:10). Righteousness would let them dwell in harmony with “their livestock and their herds and all their animals” (Numbers 35:3), but they were warned that if they were unrighteous, they'd face “the teeth of beasts” and “the venom of things that crawl in the dust” (Deuteronomy 32:24). Yet in their psalms, they called for praise to God from “beasts and all livestock and creeping things” (Psalm 148:10). They ask cats and dogs to praise the Lord, giraffes and gazelles to praise the Lord, worms and millipedes and rats and frogs to praise the Lord – go on, praise him!

When Jesus arrives, the Word becoming flesh with as many mites living on his skin as on yours and mine, he ventured into the desert to face temptation, “and he was with the wild animals” (Mark 1:13), establishing with them a “peaceable and friendly companionship.”14 In the psalm he prayed from on the cross, the sufferer asks God to “deliver my precious life from the power of the dog, save me from the mouth of the lion” (Psalm 22:20-21). But amidst their jaws of violence, Christ died for us: “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:36)! Yet, rising in glory, he's hailed as the True Lion of Judah (Revelation 5:5), nobler and mightier than any, roaring good news of the victory of life. Yet he leads us gently as his flock of sheep, watching out for hungry wolves (Acts 20:29).

At judgment day, we're told that all creatures, even “the beasts of the field and all creeping things that creep on the ground,” will join humans in trembling before the face of the LORD (Ezekiel 38:20). And those of us who cling to our sins will find what Peter meant in comparing sinners to “irrational animals, having been born by nature for capture and destruction” (2 Peter 2:12). But in advance of judgment, God offers a covenant of grace “with the beasts of the field... and the creeping things of the ground” to lie down in safety with us (Hosea 2:18). “Man and beast you save, O LORD!”, exclaimed the psalmist in amazement (Psalm 36:6). For, as James puts it, God “brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18) – meaning that all creatures, great and small, from mosquito to mammoth, from platypus to polar bear, are bound for a holy harvest “when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat” (Isaiah 11:6), when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD (Isaiah 11:9). Amen!