You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it;
you shall help to lift it up. —Deuteronomy 22:4
hristian churches do not often consult the book of Deuteronomy these days, perhaps because its long center section is a curious miscellany of obscure rules and regulations that don’t have much to do with life as we live it today.
For example, I can’t remember the last time I was tempted to muzzle my ox while he was treading my grain.
But perhaps we should consult it more often because it is one of the most important books in the Hebrew Bible. One scholar claimed that Judaism, as we know it today, is a product of the Book of Deuteronomy.
In a couple of weeks when we are worshiping God at Sukkat Shalom, stop for a moment to remember that the contemporary Jewish synagogue is largely the product of Deuteronomy. For all practical purposes, Deuteronomy is the Jewish Constitution.
Deuteronomy taught the Jews what it means to be holy before the Lord, and when you read the Book of Deuteronomy, you discover that to a large extent what it means to be holy before the Lord is to show compassion to the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the voiceless. In its comprehensive egalitarianism and inclusive humanity to those who cannot speak out for themselves, Deuteronomy is way, way, way ahead of its time. In the annals of global law-making, there will be nothing as humane or progressive for centuries to come.
Certain words pop up with unexpected frequency in Deuteronomy: widows, orphans, strangers, aliens, even oxen and donkeys—the weak, the forgotten, the left-behind, the disenfranchised, the speechless. Widows, orphans, accident victims have a special—even an extraordinary, an all-eclipsing—claim on our humanity.
Unaccountably, this mandate applies even to the unhuman, even to the dumb animals. In this sense, Deuteronomy is way ahead of its time. The first SPCA wouldn’t appear until 1824, created in England by several Ministers of Parliament, including William Wilberforce, who also ended the slave trade in British territories.
For most of human history, animals were simply unfeeling objects. Thomas Aquinas said animals were for human use, and we could do with them what we wanted.
The English word ‘cattle,’ for instance, comes from the Latin word capita, which means ‘heads,’ so that the phrase ‘head of cattle’ is a redundancy. The words ‘chattel’ and ‘capital’ come from the same place. Capital is property, of course, so cattle are simply ‘moveable property.’
Descartes thought of animals as ‘complex automata’ without mind, soul, or consciousness. They felt no pain when they were beaten or injured, and no pleasure when they ate. Clearly Descartes did not have a dog or he would have known that animals experience intense pleasure when they eat.
And so Deuteronomy is way ahead of its time in looking after the interests of animals.
You probably knew this, but I didn’t know this: oxen are just cattle; it’s the same animal. Oxen are simply the kind of cattle that plow the fields and thresh the grain. Most oxen are bulls because bulls are bigger and stronger than cows, and most oxen are neutered because it makes them more docile. It takes years to train a beast to plow the fields and thresh the grain efficiently. So an ox is just a steer with an education.
In days of old they’d pull a wooden roller studded with nubs of iron across the harvested grain to separate the ears from the stalk, and since the oxen worked so hard for your daily bread it just seemed fair to the bleeding-heart liberal who wrote Deuteronomy to let them share the calories while they were doing the work. Muzzling the ox during threshing just seemed inhumane, un-Sabbath-like, un-Jewish, unholy. Long before the first SPCA, Deuteronomy offered us a Theology for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Kindness to animals sometimes doesn’t mean a whole lot, of course. You can adore your precious chihuahua and still be mean as a snake to every other biped on the planet. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they passed the most comprehensive animal protection laws in Europe. They took away the human being’s sacrosanct privilege at the apex of the animal status-pyramid and placed all living beings in a pecking order of relative value. Aryans were at the top, of course, followed by wolves, eagles, and pigs. Jews and rats were at the bottom. Out of respect for their four-footed friends, Hitler, Hess, Himmler, and Goebbels were all vegetarians.
Deuteronomy gets its point across with the relentless monotony of a CD player with a stuck laser beam, or an iPod on the fritz. Widows, orphans, and the defenseless have an extraordinary claim upon your humanity.
Why? I’m glad you asked, because Deuteronomy is not bashful about answering that question—over and over and over again. It’s because of the long, deep, entrenched, inescapable, collective memory of the Jews as the people of God. It’s because not long ago and not far away, Deuteronomy tells its Jewish constituents, you were defenseless and voiceless too, and you can never forget that.
“A wandering Aramean was my father,” Deuteronomy reminds the Jews. “He went down into Egypt an alien and came out an exploited slave.” “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Jewish compassion for the defenseless derives from and is anchored fast to the Jews’ own recent experience of vulnerability. When they arrived in Egypt, they were defenseless aliens, and when they left they were slaves, and when they wandered for forty years between slavery in Egypt and promise in Canaan, they were homeless derelicts, and you should never forget what that is like.
That’s such an important lesson to remember about our own humanity. Isn’t it your own vulnerability that teaches you compassion, and isn’t it suffering that teaches us sympathy?
Do you want a dentist drilling in your mouth if he doesn’t know how much it hurts?
Do you want an oncologist coaching you through your chemotherapy if she’s never been scared to death herself?
If you’re young and small and lost in the mall, do you want a father who was never himself young and small and lost in the mall, tracking you down at the end of the weepy ordeal?
When your marriage is in trouble, do you want a therapist who’s never struggled terribly with and almost failed at her own?
When some burly sixth-grader corners you on the playground with a bristling ice-ball, do you confide in a friend who’s never been bullied himself?
When you’re standing there next to a pile of turned earth at the lip of a fresh grave, do you want a pastor who’s never had a broken heart?
Can we see our own experiences of vulnerability and voicelessness and sadness and suffering as undercover gifts from the God who wants to make us human and humane?
One of Jewish novelist Philip Roth’s protagonists remembers the day he became a man. “It was the first time I saw my father cry. A childhood milestone, when another’s tears are more unbearable than your own.” Deuteronomy reminds us that we become mature, we become human, we become the holy people of God, when another’s tears are more unbearable than our own.
That’s how Barbara Brown Taylor heard the voice of God. Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopalian priest and one of the most respected and beloved preachers in the English-speaking world. She says that when she was little, she could not walk past an injured creature without rescuing it, and that that was the beginning of her call to the ministry. She says that the number of graves in her backyard never deterred her from picking up the next orphan or cripple. Instead of collecting stamps, she collected wounded animals.
“I was much happier with a hurt bird than I was with most people,” she says, “because the bird seemed happier to see me. Sitting quietly together, we both got better. We understood each other, and in the inexplicable alchemy of compassion, my care for the bird gave real comfort to me.” I love the way she puts that: the inexplicable alchemy of compassion.
The Reverend Taylor says most clergy are like that: they have this soft spot for hurt things. Maybe most doctors too, and veterinarians and therapists and social workers. “In my case,” she says, “the priesthood came as natural as breathing, as simple as picking up a hurt thing and taking it home either to heal or to bury.”
I think I’ve mentioned before this odd but provocative little book by Joy Williams called 99 Stories of God. That’s just what it is, this book: 99 stories of God. Some of them are just a sentence long. One of them goes like this:
The Lord was living with a great colony of bats in a cave. Two boys with BB guns found the cave and killed many of the bats outright, leaving many more to die of their injuries. The boys didn’t see the Lord. He didn’t make His presence known to them.
The Lord was very fond of the bats but had done nothing to save them. He was becoming harder and harder to comprehend. He liked to hang with the animals, everyone knew that, the whales and bears, the elephants and bighorn sheep and wolves. They were rather wishing He wasn’t so partial to their company.
Hang more in the world of human beings, they begged Him. But the Lord said He was lonely there.
Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not for a man’s religion if his dog and cat are not the better for it.” What about your neighbor? What about the starving on the other side of the world? Are the vulnerable and the voiceless any better off because of your faith? If not, what’s the point?
Leslie J. Hoppe, in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), p. 343.
Cited in a sermon by Jonathan Massey, God Is Concerned About the Oxen, Paul!, in Best Sermons, vol. 5, ed. James W. Cox (Harper San Francisco, 1992), p. 184.
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), p. 113.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (Harper San Francisco, 2006), pp. 25-27.
Joy Williams, “A Little Prayer,” ninety-nine stories of God (Portland, OR: Tin House Books), p. 73.
Quoted by James Taylor in The Spirituality of Pets (Kelowna, BC, Canada: Northstone, an imprint of Wood Lake Publishing, Inc., 2006), p. 66.