So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air,
and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every
living creature, that was its name. —Genesis 2:19
he textbook Harry Potter consults to learn about zoology at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was written by magizoologist Newt Scamander and is called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. That sounded like a great sermon series to me, so here we are.
The Bible is an ancient book, of course, not quite antediluvian, but almost. Its oldest materials date back to 1000 BC, and the latest, newest biblical writings were finished by the year 100 AD. Agrarian folk, the Bible’s authors lived much closer to the earth than we do. They were shepherds and farmers and cattle ranchers, and kept intimate consort with the beasts who provided their livelihood and their calories.
From the time of King David to the time of King Jesus, the common Palestinian home was a simple, rectangular, two-story structure constructed of fieldstone and brick and plastered over with dried mud.
The human family members ate and slept and congregated on the second floor. Guess who lived on the first floor? Oxen, donkeys, sheep, and goats. And so Mother Mary was probably not as shocked as we are when she had to deliver her baby in a stable, with sheep and oxen for midwives. That was actually a common experience for Bible folk.
This makes them very different from you and me. We never witness the obscure and sometimes unpleasant ways our food journeys from pasture and orchard and henhouse to dinner table, and, unless we are at a zoo or a national park or on safari, rarely see anything more exotic than a squirrel or rabbit or songbird, once in a while a fox, rarely a coyote, too often a skunk, as Dudley has discovered to his utter dismay three times in seven years.
The Bible is an ancient book written by shepherds and subsistence farmers, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the beasts feature prominently in our most beloved Bible stories.
When my kids were in single digits I read to them at bedtime from a book with short stories about Bible animals: it had 50 chapters. My estimate is that there are about 100 different animals mentioned in the Bible. Jo and I will only have time for nine of them.
This text from Genesis chapter 2, for example. There are two creation stories in the Bible. In the first story, God acts like a confident, Type ‘A’, left-brained engineer with PhD’s in cosmology, geology, meteorology, biology, zoology, and anthropology. Creation snaps into place, in six carefully delineated steps, like the precise gears of a Swiss watch, so that by the seventh day, God can take a day off. Day One: Light. Day Two: Sky. Day Three: Plants. Day Four: Sun and Moon. Day Five: fish and birds. Day Six: land animals.
God has a blueprint, like Daniel Burnham or Louis Sullivan. God has a business plan, like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. God’s cosmic symphony is mathematically precise and perfectly symmetrical; there is not a note out of place, as if composed by Mozart or Beethoven.
It is a masterpiece; it is perfect. God is bursting with pride. Six times God says it, “It was very, very good.”
Especially the last piece of the intricate puzzle, God’s crowning achievement, the first man and the first woman, stamped with God’s very own image, finite replicas of God’s infinite beauty. In the first creation account, you see, God remembers that if you’re going to create beings that reproduce sexually, you’ll need two genders.
This minor detail seems to have escaped God’s notice in the second creation account. The second creation account, which I read a moment ago, is very different from the first. This creation story comes second in your Bibles but it comes first in history. This story is among the oldest, most primitive, most aboriginal material in the Hebrew Bible, from 1000 BC, three thousand years ago.
In the second creation story, God is the Great Improviser, more jazz musician or dabbling artist than engineer or architect; God is Duke Ellington or Jackson Pollack.
In this story, God starts with the man, just the man, mind you, no woman yet. There stands the lonely man, all by himself in the barren wilderness, Adamah, which means earthling, groundling, dusty thing. And God says to Godself, “Oh shoot, I forgot to give the man a place to live and food to eat. Back to the drawing board.” And God plants a lush garden with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good to eat.”
But it’s still not right. This story is very different from the first creation story, where creation hums and steps to a perfect rhythm like the choreographed robots of a Ford Motor Company assembly-line and God says six times “It’s very good.”
In the second story God doesn’t boast; God apologizes. “It’s NOT good,” says God. “I didn’t get it right. Sorry. Let me try again.”
Creation is NOT good, and what’s not good is that the man is alone. So back to the drawing board goes God again and God throws paint and color and ideas hither and yon across the almost-blank canvas and concocts an astonishing panoply of shapes and forms and wings and fins and hoofs and paws and tentacles and antlers.
To change the metaphor, God takes creation’s simplest molecular constituents—carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen—and bends them into loops and links them together into chains of acids and twists the chain into a double helix of prolific possibilities that must have shocked even God Godself.
It’s miraculous, literally miraculous. From the same DNA building blocks, you get Tyrannosaurus Rex and a sparrow, the dinosaurs’ closest living relative; raptors have more in common with chickens than with iguanas.
I’ll bet even God is surprised by all of this. Even God could never have predicted the caribou’s towering rack or the tiger’s sleek pelt or the manta ray’s undulating wingspan. What twisted imagination concocted a giant squid sixty feet long and weighing a ton and then hid it from plain sight forever two miles down in the briny deep?
And then God parades the whole crawling, squirming, leaping, flying, diving zoo past the first man to see what he’ll call them. “Aardvark, orangutan, platypus, rhinoceros (Greek for Horned Nose), hippopotamus (Greek for river horse), wildebeest (which needs no translation).”
This is Adam’s first task on earth. The oldest profession is not what you think it is. At this point in this story, remember, there’s only one gender, for humans at least, so sex, for hire or otherwise, hasn’t even happened yet. Humankind’s earliest vocation is not what you think it is. Humankind’s earliest vocation is taxonomist; Adam’s first task is to name his new friends, to bring to life with words these new companions God has graciously surrounded him with.
And the human being has been at this task ever since, trying to name the sprawling miscellany that sprang from God’s prodigious imagination, framing the chaos by placing his friends in a structure of phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.
Over the years Adam and his descendants have named two million species—two million!—but we’ve apparently just gotten started because that appears to be a mere ten percent of the total and likely we’ll never be finished. Twenty million animals! Twenty million names! Long Latin names, like canis lupus familiaris, because something as quotidian as ‘dog’ just won’t do for so splendid a companion.
We’d better stay busy with the task of taxonomy, because some of the animals will be disappearing before we’ve even had a chance to name them. Global warming and human sprawl into wild habitat are imperiling the existence of our animal companions.
Renowned Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson says that as many as half the animal species on earth will go extinct by the end of this century. That’s 80 years. Many of our children will still be alive in 80 years. It will be a lonelier place.
Human thriving has put such a strain on other flora and fauna that scientists have begun referring to the age we live in as The Anthropocene Epoch, the age that is impacted most profoundly by homo sapiens.
The Ice Age was called the Pleistocene Epoch. What came after the Ice Age is called the Holocene Epoch; now some scientists are calling the age we live in The Anthropocene Epoch. Many of the animals God gave to us via the gift of 4 billion years of natural selection will be gone before we knew they existed, before we had a chance to name them.
Last year a frog named Toughie became a minor celebrity at his enclosure at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He was of a species called the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, and they say he was aptly named—Toughie, as in Rough and Tough. Toughie had been collected from Panama and taken to Atlanta 12 years ago, so he was at least 12 years old, maybe a lot older. He became a minor celebrity at the Garden because staff and visitors at the Garden knew that he was the last of his kind and would never be seen again. He’d fathered tadpoles with his girlfriend, but none survived, and then his girlfriend died. Then Toughie died last fall.
Now, I’m not going to miss the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog. I’ve never seen one and until yesterday did not know that it existed. It happens all the time. Animals evolve into a discreet species, stick around generation after generation for 20 million years, then disappear. What is it Elton John sings? “It’s the circle of life.” Also, the circle of death. Still, creation seems a little diminished.
This is The Anthropocene Epoch, which suggests that the increased rate of animal species extinctions are humanly caused, or at least humanly exacerbated.
The other day, the United States resigned from a mediocre club. This club had 195 members and anybody could get into it, even North Korea. The United States decided it didn’t want to be in that club anymore and instead joined a much more exclusive, highly selective club with only two other members: Syria and Nicaragua.
I don’t know how you feel about the Paris Accord, but I’m choosing to see this whole thing as good news. It’s good news because it’s forcing me to take responsibility for my own decisions about what I take from, and what I give back to, this stunning, spinning blue sphere. I can grow up; the world needs more grown-ups just now.
I can raise the thermostat four degrees in the summer and lower it four degrees in the winter. I can walk, bike, and bus, instead of driving, and if I must drive, I can drive a Volt, not an Escalade. I can eat fewer animals and more plants. I can lower my annual budget for consumer stuff–clothes, computers, phones, appliances–by 20% and save the money for retirement or leave it for my kids. I can be less consumer and more conservator. I can become a better steward of the lush garden and swarming zoo God has put me in charge of.
But back to the story. Adam’s naming of the animals is not the end of the creation story, of course. Twenty million friends and creation’s still not finished, still not perfect, still not good, by God’s own admission, because there is still not a helper fit for man. He is still lonely. So God goes back to the drawing board yet again, and this time God comes up with woman, God’s magnum opus, and then creation is finished, then it is good, then it is perfect, because the man has a helper fit for him, and he is no longer lonely.In the end, this text is not about the animals. This text is about relationship. This text is about marriage: it tries to tell us why a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves unto his wife, and the two become one flesh. This text is about friendship. This text is about the unstinting providence of the God whose heart aches over the creature’s loneliness. This text is about the God who will not quit creating until the creature has companions to walk the way with him, until he has a helper fit for him. Twenty million friends, and a partner who is his helpmate and equal.
With blossom and birdsong bursting forth everywhere, and the drab colors of winter giving way to a bolder palette, this is the time of year we believe there was, and is, an Eden, which is neither myth nor fantasy, but reality. More than reality, it is home—lavish, extravagant, unmerited home.
Edward O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), 118.
Laura Smith, “We’ll Never See These Animals Again, Mother Jones, December 31, 2016.