We will first talk about the negatives: that is, the verses that skeptics claim prove that God does not care about animals.
Muzzling the Ox
I Corinthians 9:9-11, “For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.’ Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be the partaker of this hope.”
These verses of I Corinthians 9 are the only Bible passage that MAY imply that God is not concerned about oxen. However, it has been badly translated and interpreted for centuries, as most scholars and theologians admit.
In these verses, Paul is rebutting critics who say that he and other apostles are “only in it for the money.” Paul did sometimes accept funds or perks for his ministry. In this chapter he also points out that Peter (Cephas) has perks and no one complains about him. And then Paul says, “is it not the Old Testament principle that you should not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain?”
We modern people no longer use oxen to work with our grain…we have machines for that now. Oxen would pull a wooden beam around, causing a large millstone to turn, that crushed the hard husks around grain kernels and allowed the good grain morsel to fall below. God told the Jews in Deutero-nomy not to take cruel advantage of the animals performing work, but to let them eat while they work. Some mill owners were strapping muzzles on the ox to keep him from eating even while surrounded with food. God said “no” to that.
The Jews never contested this law. They always agreed that God wanted oxen free to eat, and applied this to other animals like donkeys, goats, sheep, etc. Even people. They said that if God gives us a rule that shows a principle in a small way, we should also apply it to bigger cases. So you should treat your workers well, also.
The problem is that translators messed up in choosing one of several possible meanings for pantos, a Greek word. It can mean “altogether” or “no doubt.” But it can also mean “surely, mainly, or especially.” Albert Barnes, Walter Kaiser, and many others have shown this. So Paul could be better translated here:
“Is it ONLY oxen that God is concerned about? Or does He say it also for our sakes? For our sakes, as well, SURELY this is written.” Even oxen get some perks for their work, so Paul asks, why not me? Paul is using the standard Jewish interpretive method, of extrapolating a larger truth from a lesser truth.
John Calvin wrote about this passage, “…from this it is inferred, from the lesser to the greater, how much equity he requires among men, when he wishes that it should be shown to brute animals. When he says, that God does not take care for oxen, you are not to understand him as meaning to exclude oxen from the care of God’s Providence, inasmuch as he does not overlook even the least sparrow…” (Commentary on Corinthians)
John Wesley likewise explains Paul: “Doth God take care for oxen?” Without doubt he does. We cannot deny it, without flatly contradicting his word. The plain meaning of the apostle is, is this all that is implied in the text? Hath it not a farther meaning?” (General, 121)
Another obvious reason to believe that the translation was done badly is the problem of how we interpret the Bible. Paul is usually very literal in interpreting, and so are modern pastors. If Paul is really teaching that “do not muzzle the ox” actually means nothing of the kind, but means pastors deserve payment, that opens a huge can of worms! When else should we interpret the Old Testament not to mean what it actually seems to say?
Martin Luther had a clever interpretation of these verses. He said that Paul was making a joke about oxen that can read. Was God writing Deuteronomy for oxen to read? Of course not, it was written for us! So again, Paul was not saying God didn’t care about oxen. He was saying that we draw principles from all of God’s commands, even the ones about animal treatment.
Swine and Demons
There is another passage that critics use to say God cares nothing about animals: the story of Jesus and the Gadarenes Demonic, found in Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39. It is too long to cite here, so I encourage you to read it on your own.
The basic plot is that Jesus finds one (or two) demon possessed men on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, where Gentiles like to raise pigs. One of the demons calls himself Legion “because we are many.” A legion was several thousand troops in a Roman army. The demons beg Jesus not to send them to Hell, but to let them instead flee into a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus says “Go,” and the demons leave the man (or men) and enter the pigs. All 2000 pigs then run into the Sea and drown. The demoniac asks to be a disciple, but Jesus tells him to stay and preach here. The locals ask him to leave.
Saint Augustine, unfortunately, started the poor interpretation of this wonderful miracle.
“Christ Himself shows that to refrain from the killing of animals and the destroying of plants is the height of superstition, for, judging that there are no common rights between us and the beasts and trees, he sent the devils into a herd of swine and with a curse withered the tree on which he found no fruit.” (Passmore, 111-112)
Augustine was trying to extract himself from some bad philosophical ideas of his youth. A number of eastern Christians were trying to push vegetarianism as a key element of our faith, and Augustine took every opportunity to oppose its promoters. He used the Stoic angle, claiming that humans only have moral obligations to “rational” creatures, not animals or plants. (Wennberg, 306) Thomas Aquinas later adopted the same perspective, and this pair of great theologians set the church on the wrong track, toward animals.
The interpretive method being used here by St. Augustine and Aquinas is not proper. They are arguing from the specific to the general, but they are not using a commandment or principle, but details from a narrative story. Their argument is basically this: since Jesus allowed or caused 2000 pigs to die in order to save one man from demonic possession, then animals are clearly not important to Jesus. Proponents of animal industries cite this as proof that God doesn’t mind us wiping out animals even in large numbers, since Jesus did it.
Is this proper interpretation?
Not at all.
The assumptions in this interpretation are unfounded.
One- Jesus did not care about the pigs, they say. This is not stated, nor implied. The assumption is that Jesus would never send demons into pigs if he cared about animals. For all we know, Jesus may have been very sad at the pigs’ demise. Nor does this incident prove that pigs (or animals) have no value. All this event proves is that Jesus believed that the human(s) involved had higher value than the pigs. It was better for demons to be in pigs than to be in humans.
Two- they say that this proves that we humans can kill large numbers of animals without compunction. Absolutely false. It proves that large numbers of animals can be killed for righteous reasons. Jesus never sinned, so His action is righteous. It is up to the industrialists to prove that their killing of large numbers of animals is righteous and just. Jesus was entirely just. Are they?
So what is a proper interpretation of this strange miracle? There are many facets to it, and I will focus on those relevant to the discussion of animals.
This miracle was a demonstration of Jesus power over demons to the disciples, to the local population, and to one healed man.
Look at the context! That is a good way to start any interpretation of the Bible. All three gospel accounts have a very similar order of events before, during, and after the Gadarene case.
1) Jesus was healing people and casting out demons. Matthew 8:1-15. Mark 3:1-30. Luke 7:1-17 and 8:1-3.
2) Jesus saved the disciples in the boat from a severe storm. Matthew 8:23-27. Mark 4:35-41. Luke 8:22-25.
3) Jesus casts out Legion. Matthew 8:28-32. Mark 5:1-13. Luke 8:26-33.
4) The locals ask him to leave (rejecting Him). Matthew 8:33-34. Mark 5:17. Luke 8:37.
5) Jesus heals more people. Matthew 9:1-7, 18-38. Mark 5:21-43. Luke 8:40-56.
6) Jesus sends the disciples out to heal people and cast out demons. He tells them how to deal with acceptance and rejection from people. Matthew 10. Mark 6:1-13. Luke 9:1-6.
You will find this pattern in Matthew, Mark and Luke. What does this mean?
These chapters of Jesus’ life show that He is preparing them to become apostles. They were fishermen. They had no idea how to teach, heal, or deal with “unclean spirits.” Of course Jesus is demonstrating His power, that comes from God, that they will also be using in the future.
The real point of the story of the Gadarene swine is that Jesus does a miraculous work. It saves a man from demonic possession. And the locals are not happy about it, and want Jesus to leave. The disciples will encounter the same kind of rejection when they start doing miracles.
As for the pigs, the point was this: there were thousands of demons in the man, called Legion, and the thousands of pigs committing suicide was proof that all the demons were gone.
If only ten pigs had died, would the locals conclude that only a small portion of the demons were gone? The pig keepers were watching Jesus’ conversation with the possessed man, and apparently hearing it also. If only twenty pigs ran off and died, would these men have run into the city to tell everyone what happened?
Critics say that this story proves that one man is worth more than 2000 pigs.
Maybe. Or you might ask it a different way? Is losing 2000 pigs better than having thousands of demons terrorizing the countryside? Trading 2000 pigs for 6000 demons is a better trade, perhaps?
The city people, rather than being thankful for the deliverance from thousands of devils, begged Jesus to leave. They rejected Jesus.
So, no. The incident with lots of dead pigs is no proof that God cares nothing about animals. The worst that can be said is that Jesus permitted a “lesser evil.” Invisible demons fleeing the man would not be seen by the onlookers or disciples. The only way for people to “see” the departure of the demons was by their entry into the pigs and the suicide of that herd. (Bauckham, Living, 98) If you were forced to choose between the life of a human and the life of an animal, the human would always be preferred. That is the most that we can infer from the incident of the swine.
In the next blog, Part Two, we will look at positive proofs that God does care about animals.