The way it was meant to be:
We’re continuing in our series of sermons on the cosmogony in Genesis, and as we come to the 5th and 6th Days, the plot, as they say, thickens. We are finally getting down to the creation of animals – first fish and birds on the 5th Day, then land animals on the 6th – including the creation of human beings. We – or our ancestors, anyway – are finally making their entrance upon the stage, and our interest is the more piqued thereby.
But one thing at a time . . .
First, we have the creation of fish and birds and sea monsters. This takes place on a day separate from the creation of the land animals. Why? Well, remember it was on the 2nd day when God separated the waters above from the waters below and then the 3rd day that the dry land appeared. I mentioned in that sermon how God took special care to make a place for life, including us, amidst the earth and space. And here he is, filling that space – or, rather, I should say, those spaces – with that life. And as we look at the waters and the skies, we should remember how this account compares with the accounts in the other creation stories of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world.
In the typical Canaanite or Babylonian creation story, in the beginning there was chaos, and chaos was imagined as a crashing of turbulent waters. There was no solid place for Man to dwell in, no way to have an ordered existence. And ruling over the waters of chaos was the dragon Tiamat. Then arose Baal, who fought with Tiamat and overthrew her, and set the bounds of human life to keep back the chaos that would otherwise overthrow us. This is why the Canaanites called Baal the Lord of the City. He was seen as making human life – ordered existence – possible.
Remember also, that the ancient Jews hated and feared the sea. The great sea monsters were thought of as symbols of the devil, which gives a lot of the poignancy to the story of Jonah, by the way. (Jonah is the man who tried to run away from God and was swallowed up by the devil.) Anyway, in Canaanite thought, the sea monsters were 1st cousins to the dragon, Tiamat, and their view is mirrored in the fears of their Semitic cousins, the people of Israel.
But in Genesis, the Lord Most High does not beat back the primordial chaos; rather, his creation act is an ordered process from beginning to the end. Not only that, but the great sea monsters are not manifestations of chaos. He made them, and knows them, and their existence is an ordered one. Yes, they (and the fish) live in a medium where we can visit, but not dwell – just as the birds live (or at least fly through) a medium we can visit, but not stay in. But that is their proper place. God made it for them, just as he made a proper place for us to dwell in, and he is Lord of all places and all the life in them.
When we fear the overthrow of our world by flood or earthquake or fire or war, we should realize that God is the master of all things, and not be afraid. We may die – indeed, some day we will die – but the world will not collapse until God is finished with it, and in the meantime, he will stand by us to meet every situation we may face. There is nothing beyond his control
Then on the 6th day, God makes the land animals of all sorts. Also on that same day, he makes us, although in a second creative act after the others. It’s a way of pointing out that we share the same physical nature of the animals, but that we are in also in some way unique. The way the Bible refers to it is this way,
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."What is this “image of God” that the Bible talks about?
People have pondered this ever since the Bible was written, and there are many theories. Many assume that the “image of God” means the possession of an immortal soul, although the immortality of the soul is not an idea that appears very clearly until the time between the two Testaments, so I wouldn’t press that too hard. Other teachers say the “Image of God” refers to our possessing a kind of “Reason” that partakes of the Mind of God, a faculty beyond that the other animals possess. And that’s true, so far as we can test it, though some animals seem more able to reason than others. Still others think that the image of God refers to our moral capacity – that we are able to ponder whether a thing is right or wrong, whereas animals just do what they do. Dorothy Sayers noted that the only thing said of God before saying that we were created in his image is, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." And that the thing that separates us from the other animals is therefore our power to make things: art; technology; ideas.
And there are other possibilities, too, and I’ll mention one of them in a couple of weeks, but right now, I want to point out to you that right after it is said that God made us in his image and after his likeness, he said, “and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth.“ Surely one factor in the Image of God that we should consider is the fact that he left us in charge of his world, to exercise his sovereignty over it. God made someone capable of delegating responsibility to, of acting in God’s place. And this has profound consequences in our relations with the rest of creation – especially because of our fall from grace.
I have called this sermon series, The way it was meant to be, but one of the ways it was meant to be was that we would retain our original innocence, even as we grew in wisdom, and so God would be leaving his creation in good hands. Except there are now no good hands. But there is still the responsibility to act as God’s stewards over his world; however unclean our hands might be, there are no other hands to turn the job over to. So we are responsible for the lands, the waters, the air, the other animal species that we share this world with, and God will demand an account of our stewardship from us.
How we care for the creation around us is a moral issue, not merely an economic one. Still, when I talk about our responsibility for our environment and the creatures we share it with, I come at it a little diff from some of those who are what we might call “environmental activists.” You see, I believe we human beings are unique, are exceptional. If we weren’t, we could not be held responsible for the fate of the other creatures in the world.
So I have no patience with people who want to talk about “animal rights,” because in practice that means that an animal could sue you in court regarding its treatment. But how could an animal sue in court? How would it do that?
Well, another human being – or a lawyer (close enough, I guess) – would have to represent it. But how could he determine the mind of his client? How could he even get the client’s consent for him to represent it? He can’t. It’s all a pretense for one set of human beings to sue another set of human beings; the “client” is a mere prop.
Now, I firmly believe in laws against cruelty to animals, but that’s fellow human beings holding other human beings to a standard of humane conduct – a law made by humans, representing human values. The animal has no rights in the legal sense at all, which is why it is so important that we treat them properly, for they have no recourse against us. As C.S. Lewis said, anything that a Man does to an animal is either a just exercise or an evil misuse of a right given by divine authority. And God will call us to account some day for what we have done with his creatures, his forests, his waters – his people.
The 6th point of the Scout Law is, “A Scout is kind..” And too often, that word gets lost amidst many other unfamiliar words, like Courteous and Helpful. Or it gets confused with gentleness or meekness (which are fruits of the Spirit, but not points of the Scout Law).
The distinctive nature of Kindness is often elusive. But “kind” means “according to nature.” In older English, it means, in fact, “nature” or “species,” just as it says in the Bible, “God created them after their kinds.” And the Scout Law was written at a time when the notion of “built-in” relationships was still talked about.
There are certain relationships where you are supposed to act a certain way. You owe certain duties to those you share certain things with. So “kindness” referred to the proper way of acting between parents and children, between family members and near kin, between yourself and your neighbors, and so on. To act otherwise was to act in an “unnatural” way. “Courtesy,” the behavior proper to the king’s Court, was for public relationships and formal occasions. “Kindness” was the behavior proper to intimate relationships and private occasions.
And it had a yet wider application. For when we talked about being kind to animals, we meant acting in a natural way toward them: showing them the respect they deserved, as fellow creatures, even as we treated them as subordinate to ourselves. We share the world with the animals – and the plants and the waters and the land. There is a right and proper – a natural way – to respond to those things. And when we do that, we are being “kind.”
The hunter is “kind” when he kills cleanly, and feeds his family with what he brings down. He does not kill for fun, nor in such a way to prolong suffering. The same goes for the farmer who raises animals for their meat or who uses an animal for work, and even a family that keeps pets. We are their masters, but we owe them something for all that. When the Old Testament Law said, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain” it was recognizing the proper way to treat the animal – the “kind” or “natural” way to treat it. Kindness is acting in accordance with our proper relationship to each other and to the natural world; Kindness is, literally, “the way things were meant to be”
“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”
The world is a wonderful place, and there are many beautiful things in it. Every morning when I step out and take my first breath of clean air, I thank God for the life that fills my body. Every time I find myself in the woods, I find myself giving thanks to God for the gift of this world. I offer my worship every time I look up at the stars and the moon, for my heart is lifted up at their sight. Every time I see a dog or cat in town, I find myself saying, “God bless the doggy (or kitty).”
A small bird blundered into my cabin this week and then couldn’t find its way out. It was frightened and tiring itself banging on the window. I caught it in a tea towel and put it outside. When it didn’t fly off immediately, I put a cup of water beside it and left it alone. Later on, when I opened the door again, it flew off singing into the woods.
It is all a gift – a wonderful gift – and I must acknowledge it every time something new catches my eye. But with the gift comes responsibility, and so we must pray for wisdom to use all God’s creation wisely, and our relationships with each other most wisely of all.
Blessed be thou, Lord God, King of the Universe, who hast made all things for our pleasure and use, and hast called them very good. Amen.