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Why is there so much violence in the animal kingdom?

This week's question asks about zoology, but we'll take the question into the realm of theology just to keep the column focused. Alan writes, "Why is there so much violence in the animal kingdom?"

In the ideal world, a biblical world mentioned twice in the Bible, there is no violence of any sort. The first idyllic world we read about is the world of Eden.

In the beginning, according to Genesis 2, the world was at peace with itself-and it was by itself. There were no plants, no animals, and no humans to inhabit the planet. So God got busy. We read, "Then the Lord God formed a human of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the human whom he had formed" (Genesis 2.7-8). So far, so good. Then God decided the human might be lonely, so God created all the animals and brought them to the human to see if there was a suitable mate. There wasn't, but with the creation of the human and the animals, we get our first glimpse of why there was no violence in this idyllic world: everyone's a vegetarian! Even the animals.

Back in Genesis 1 we read the first creation account and the "rules" for living that God gave to all living animals. "And God said, 'Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.' And it was so" (Genesis 1.29-30). The only violence we might find in this Utopia is the harvesting of fruit and vegetables.

A close reading of scripture tells us that the consumption of the edible species continued to be prohibited until after the great flood (cf., Genesis 9.3), although violence, at least within the human species, began much earlier. In Genesis 3 we read that the humans, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and were ejected from the Garden of Eden and told that their gardening efforts would be hampered by weeds and thorns. In other words, they were going to have to work and work hard to produce their food.

Shortly thereafter, removed from their perfect world of harmony, Adam and Eve's firstborn sons got into a sibling rivalry that resulted in the first murder (Genesis 4.8). Violence had begun. Violence that only got worse according to the next couple of chapters.

But what of the animal kingdom? Was there violence there?

The vegetarian law of Genesis 1 hadn't yet been lifted, so in an ideal world we'd expect so. However, the humans had rejected God's laws, the earth was producing thorns and weeds, and so there's really no good reason to expect that the animals weren't participating in the fall.

Except that animals were created as animals and as such were above rebellion. Cows do what cows do. Sparrows do as sparrows do. And as long as they can be what they were created to be, they can do no wrong. And so, perhaps, the animals in the creation story behaved themselves.

And it seems they would have had to, since they all got into Noah's ark two-by-two and stood around with each other for the next couple of months. Noah didn't bring extra gazelles for the lions, so apparently the animals hadn't yet discovered the luxury of consuming each other.

In any event, when the ark opened up after the flood, God gave permission for the humans to eat flesh. So, at that point in the story, the animals must have begun putting each other on their menus as well.

Aside from the story, zoology teaches that carnivorous animals have been feasting on other animals from way back. The intentional ending of a life for food in the natural world may seem to be violent, and yet there are few animals that hunt for the sport of hanging a head on a wall-in fact, only one. Most animals that hunt, do so to survive, and though the act of hunting seems violent, it is no less violent to put a .22 bullet into the forehead of a steer and then to grind up the flesh for McDonalds, for Burger King, and for Hamburger Helper. Although there may be "permission" for such acts, permission doesn't mean it's the ideal (cf., Jesus' teaching about marriage and permission for divorce in Matthew 19.8).

The Bible speaks of a day when the ideal shall one day return. In Isaiah 11.6-8 we read of a future where the animal kingdom is no longer a violent world, but ruled by vegetarians once again. But until that day, the violence must continue.

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