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!

Sunday, August 6, 2023

The Birds Their Carols Raise

Over these past couple months, we've been exploring the astonishing works of our Creator – the One who spoke and summoned the universe out of absolutely nothing, the One who stretched out space and time, the One who authored laws of physics, called forth matter and energy, set whole galaxies spinning, made planets and moons and all the celestial bodies, and on this planet made seas and dry land and atmosphere, carpeted it with plants, and summoned life to commence in the seas. And now, skipping around a bit biologically, Genesis credits God with filling the skies overhead with living creatures that go there. God declares: “Let flyers fly above the earth, across the face of the firmament of the heavens” (Genesis 1:20). God wants things to fly between land and sky!

“So God created every winged flyer according to its kind; and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:21). One old-time preacher remarked here that “the words of Scripture, if simply read, are a few short syllables..., but when the meaning of the words is explained, then the great marvel of the wisdom of the Creator appears. How many varieties of winged creatures he has provided for! How different he has made them from other species! With what distinct properties he has marked each kind!”1 Today, we're approaching God as the Creator of every bird, so that we can marvel greatly at his wisdom there – equipping each variety for their lifestyles in ways that amaze more the more we know them.2 Of the ten thousand species of bird alive today, the ostrich over nine feet tall dwarfs his cousin the bee hummingbird, who – just over two inches long – you could cup in your hands.

One thing they've all got in common are feathers, a unique feature paleontologists have worked out they shared in common with some dinosaurs. More and more fossils hint that many dinosaurs, maybe even T. rex, were covered in basic feathers, largely for display and insulation. That's part of why biologists today classify all birds – turkeys, parakeets, name it – as technically a sub-category of dinosaurs. That's where the feathers grow.

A feather is an amazing thing. They form in follicles in the outer skin that produce beta-keratin proteins, which are a lot like the alpha-keratins your hair and fingernails are made of. But for birds, these twist into tubes that form a main shaft and then branches called barbs. Most of them are those nice, soft down feathers – barely any barbs at all, and short shafts, so they stay very fluffy. But we're more familiar with pennaceous feathers, the ones with more pronounced shafts, part of which has no barbs (that's the quill) but most of which does (that's the vane), and all these barbs have extremely tiny hooks that hold the branches together, giving each feather its elegantly defined shape. God designed and crafted that feather. God made its nanostructures reflect light in wonderful ways, and he painted them with pigments a-plenty. Can you even name a color in all creation that's not somewhere in the feathers of a bird? I don't know if there are any left out. Aren't they beautiful?

And once God had designed the feather, well, a step had been taken toward what else separates most birds from other animals: flying. An old Christian poet told how the “Maker fashioned wings and feathers, that when they flap them, they might travel through the upper air.”3 But you'll also need to cut down on weight to make it feasible to get airborne. So God gave birds bones that are hollow with struts like a bridge – still sturdy enough for the job, but light and airy. Yet even while cutting weight, you've got to maximize the muscles attached to the sternum braced against the wishbone. In some birds, just two of those main flight muscles take up almost a third the total body weight. You'll also need all the oxygen you can get to them, which means a faster heartbeat and faster lungs – a sparrow takes about five times as many breaths as you in the same time. Then, last of all, you'll need technique – a downstroke that produces forward thrust, a recovery stroke that minimizes drag.

Flying is complicated! No wonder some bird species have lost the skill. But God gave the rest everything they need. To some, he taught such precision control that they can fully stabilize their head at a fixed point in the air, even as their body vibrates and darts around behind it. A hummingbird might beat its wings eighty times a second, four times the rate of its astonishing heartbeat. To other birds, God gave great speed so that they can keep up with your car as you zip down the highway. And a peregrine falcon, diving toward the earth below, can reach speeds up to two hundred miles an hour. So when God quizzed Job, “Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?” (Job 39:26-27) – no, God's the one whose wisdom and word provide each flyer its flight. And for more social birds in the air, they only have to watch their seven closest neighbors, matching their orientation and keeping a just-right distance from each, so that thousands of birds can coordinate as a flock.

They watch those neighbors in part through the sense of hearing God gave them. Birds don't have quite as big a range of hearing as we do, but not only don't they lose hearing with age like some of us, but a bird actually hears things faster – in the time you hear one noise, a bird's picked up ten. And similarly with their sight. Their eyes make up a way bigger percent of their head weight than ours – some shaped for wide-angle vision, others for sharper vision, but they all see more light than we do, and a better range of shades of color. They've got extra membranes to keep their eyes from drying out when they fly, and they see so much faster than you or I.

With that enhanced senses, birds look for food, for which God invented beaks adapted in shape to the particular food of each. A beak is a keratin structure around the upper and lower jaw which can snatch up food whole and crunch it. Some birds are carnivores, some are scavengers, some go for fish. The northern gannet has airbags and hidden nostrils so it can dive up to 75 feet underwater to snag fish. Other birds like fruit, berries, or nectar. Some go for bugs, either by probing around in stuff, hawking in mid-air, or gleaning them off surfaces. And other birds, especially those we'd keep as pets, like seeds. God lets them store food in their crop, a stretchy part of the throat, so they don't have to start digesting until they're safely done feeding; then they pass it into a two-part stomach, one for digesting and the other for grinding (since they don't have teeth) – that's the gizzard's job.

God taught some birds to forage in groups, in which some serve as lookouts while the others hunt. Pied babbler lookouts even have a special song to assure everyone they're on duty, and they speed up their song when they're ready for a shift change. There are even some birds that forage in mixed-species groups. One kind of bird, a honeyguide, even forages alongside humans. Honeyguides like beeswax and larvae, humans like honey; honeyguides are better at finding than opening hives, humans are the other way around. So honeyguides have a special call for summoning humans, and the local human tribe's hunters have a call for requesting a honeyguide. (That seems like an inspired arrangement... though I suppose a bee is free to disagree!) Some birds even find tools. Raptors learn how to use stones to crack eggs or turtles' shells below. Crows not only use sticks, but can even look at sticks and decide they need to combine them into a longer tool.

But “who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help and wander about for food?” (Job 38:41). “Your Heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26). None of these birds would find food if not for the Lord who provides. There are some birds who engage in storage behaviors: woodpeckers who hammer acorns tightly into holes in trees like a bank, nutcrackers who bury seeds in the snow, jays who glue seeds to the underside of bark with sticky spit, and many species who jealously guard territory they find reliable. But most birds live day to day, hunting or foraging from scratch each time. That's why Jesus could highlight that the birds common in Israel “neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them” in spite of their lack of anxious hoarding (Luke 12:24). That's not to say they have no risks! Many wild birds have only a 50/50 shot of living year to year – it's not a cushy or leisurely life, being a bird. But still they live by faith day by day, but simultaneously they work to hunt or gather what they're trusting the Lord to provide.

“And God blessed them, saying...: Let the flyers multiply on the earth” (Genesis 1:22). Plenty of what birds do, like any other creature, is about attracting mates. Plenty have songs, dances, colorful displays. Some cockatoo even use sticks to drum on hollow branches, punctuating their performance with occasional vocal sounds – in other words, the rock star approach! Many birds then pair off and support each other, comfort each other, preen and play with each other. And, of course, there's making some kind of nest, whether a scrape in the ground, a hole, or some kind of structure of mud, grass, string, straw, sticks, or something else. God bade birds build!

About a tenth of all bird species are cooperative breeders, where more than just one couple shares a nest – to the point where at least one species is known to kidnap chicks from other groups so they can grow up to help with babysitting! Other birds, like cuckoos, are brood parasites, meaning that instead of incubating their own eggs, they'll lay them in some other bird's nest, with the aim of tricking that bird into raising its kids. To defend against this, one oft-targeted bird lays its eggs with a special coating that wears off in a few days, so that any eggs that don't match get tossed; another bird teaches its eggs a password as soon as they're laid, and if the chicks that hatch fail to use the password when they beg for food, they don't get fed. But many birds just get better and better at recognizing their own eggs, so that the true eggs is the standard of authenticity by which to judge intruding eggs as false. And those eggs are active: sometimes the chicks inside will even chirp at their moms to turn them over so they can warm evenly, or chirp at each other to coordinate when they plan to hatch!

And who could forget God's gift of voice to the birds? They've got an organ called a syrinx, a lot like our voice box but lower, right where the bronchii divide for the lungs. Its membranes vibrate, letting many birds make some kind of call; and some birds are so great at imitating sounds they hear that they'll even do a decent impression of us, like some parrots. But most birds are songbirds, thanks to five different pairs of muscles attached to their syrinx. Early Christians marveled at “how some are equipped with melodious song,” and it's mighty wonderful today, too.4 They sing to attract mates, to communicate, to defend their territories – but whatever they mean to do, when they sing anything from their repertoire, they praise the Lord by using what he gave them. In all this and so much else, Christians have always been impressed by birds – by “the numberless variations among them in size and form and color..., their lives, their actions, and their customs.”5

Yet, in the Bible, God announces: “I know all the birds of the hills” (Psalm 50:11). He understands them – their anatomy, their behavior, the details of each species and each individual – better than the best ornithologist ever will. He cares for each chicken and each chickadee, every blue jay and every budgie. Like the song says: “His eye is on the sparrow – and I know he watches me!” And they're his: “The world and all its fullness are mine,” God declares (Psalm 50:12). When I ate an egg for breakfast, or a chicken empanada for supper last night, God shared with me what's exclusively his. Even to see or hear a bird is by the good Lord's generous indulgence.

When God rescued Israel from Egypt, he says he “bore you on eagles' wings” (Exodus 19:4). As God cared for Israel like a mama eagle nurturing her chicks (Deuteronomy 32:11-12), he fed them by guiding a whole migration flock of his quail to land in their midst (Exodus 16:13). Nested in their land, sometimes God's people could celebrate victory “like a bird escaped from the snare of the fowlers” (Psalm 124:7); other times, they felt like a desert owl or a lonely sparrow (Psalm 102:6-7). The prophets compared Israel negatively to birds: “Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but my people do not know the decrees of the LORD!” (Jeremiah 8:7). So “our pursuers were swifter than the eagles in the heavens” (Lamentations 4:19), catching them in traps. But God promised that if they only waited patiently, then again “they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31). “Like birds from Egypt, like doves from the land of Assyria, I will return them to their homes, declares the LORD (Hosea 11:11). And so he did. Yet still all of us live facing mortality “like birds that are caught in a snare” (Ecclesiastes 9:12).

And so God sent down his Son, to nest among us in our habitat. Jesus started his ministry only once “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:22). And as he chirped good news everywhere he went, he wished his people would've let him gather them like chicks under a mama hen's wings, “but you were not willing” (Luke 13:34). Then, after a disciple denied him to the sound of a rooster's crow (Mark 14:72), he was slaughtered. But on the third day, he flew back alive to sing forth a Church who would become his Bride, “my dove, my perfect one, the only one” (Song of Songs 6:9) – and to her, he is likewise “my dove in the clefts of the rock..., whose voice is lovely” (Song of Songs 2:14). And before flying off to heaven, he sent his apostles and evangelists to soar as “eagles crying with a loud voice” the news of the gospel, down through the generations (Revelation 8:13). That gospel assures us that God's steadfast love means that all people can “take refuge in the shadow of [the Lord's] wings” (Psalm 36:7). We can live by faith, like birds trusting from day to day in God's providing care – for remember that “you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).

Christians have always looked to birds to gain insights into God's wisdom – “ask the birds, and they will tell you,” like Job said (Job 12:7). Some birds, like those labeled in the Law as unclean for food, especially birds of prey, served as cautionary tales not to be like people who “grasp others in their lawlessness and are always on the watch as they go around, with an air of innocence, to see what they can plunder in their greed.”6 A person who unjustly amasses wealth is like one of those birds that kidnaps chicks (cf. Jeremiah 17:11), for ill-gotten gain has a tendency to fly away (Proverbs 23:5); while unfaithfulness is like deserting your proper habitat, your breeding ground (Proverbs 27:8). In general, Scripture warns us against flying to sin “as a bird rushes into a snare: he does not know it will cost him his life” (Proverbs 7:23).

Instead, we're meant to be a cooperative colony, watching out for each other as lookouts, pitching in together for the work at hand, sharing life together as a flock – but a very specific flock, God's flock. Some hummingbirds, for safety, build their nests as close as possible to the predators of their predators: a jay won't come after that hummingbird when that hummingbird's so close to the hawk! And just so, the psalmist urges us to be like those little birds who build their nests in the temple (Psalm 84:3-4). We, too, should nest in God's house, should make ourselves safe in sacred space, at home in the Holy One's hospitality, because the Spirit of the Lord is the predator of our spiritual predators. So “take refuge in the shadow of his wings” (Psalm 57:1).

And from songbirds we learn lessons from discipleship. A young songbird needs adult tutors to imitate; raised only among other young, its songs will be simplistic and stunted. And if we don't learn the Christian life from more experienced Christians, if we don't broaden our biblical repertoire, if we aren't shaped in full discipleship, then we're liable to sing a stunted, simplistic gospel, never realizing how much more we were made for. As for how to sing holiness to such a noisy world, forest birds set an example there. One way is to sing more loudly – to live holiness more publicly, more boldly. Another is to sing at a higher pitch, to rise above the noise – to make holiness stand out through being more radical. And then we can sing our song with more repetitions of the same elements – to live holiness consistently through the everyday routines of a Christian life.

Birds teach us, too, to be on the guard against brood parasites. Some are outward, as when Paul warns of “false brothers secretly brought in” as corrupting influences in the church – unrepentant in sin, twisting the gospel (Galatians 6:2). But still more are inward: the devil lays eggs of temptation in our heart-nests, eggs that look like good things we want to hatch, but be warned: they'll cry loudly, devour endlessly, exhaust us of life. Just as birds defend against brood parasites by knowing their true eggs intimately, so the more naturally we learn to recognize real truth, real beauty, real goodness, the less fooled we'll be. Jesus commands us to be “innocent as doves,” yes (Matthew 10:16), but our Maker “makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens” (Job 35:11). He makes us spiritual super-birds painted in his colors of beauty, if we fly to him as the Source of All That's Good.

And because of their power of flight, Christians throughout the ages have taken such birds to “signify those who climb aloft on the wings of virtue to contemplate heavenly things.”7 Or, as Paul put it: “Set your minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). That's the spiritual secret of flight – to rise above, to soar, to transcend the functional two-dimensional thinking of earthbound creatures, and operate in more dimensions, more liberty, more exaltation. Birds remind us to let our minds, hearts, and souls fly! So let's even now be “birds that fly up toward heaven, away from the ever-changing, shadowy, and tempestuous waters of life” in this world.8 There's an “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” for us (Philippians 3:14). For we trust that “at the general resurrection, we will be brought forth like birds that fly to the heights..., to be with the Lord forever.”9 And there, in the shadow of our Lord's wings of love, we will sing our songs for joy eternally (Psalm 63:7). Amen.