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A promise is a promise: God's covenantal relationship with animals

  • Kris Hiuser (a1) and Matthew Barton (a1)


The place of the nonhuman animal within Christian doctrine is a topic of increasing interest, as more theologians seek to describe where nonhuman animals fit on the theological stage. One area where there seems great potential, yet which has been relatively untouched, is God's covenantal relationship with nonhuman animals as described within the Bible. This article is an attempt to use the idea of God's covenantal relationship with nonhuman creatures to build a case for understanding them as creatures of value, with a corresponding human calling to treat them in ways suitable to their value. This case is made in two sections. In the first, the fact that God covenants with nonhuman animals, and calls humans into covenant with them, will be shown through examining Genesis 9 and Hosea 2. Given such a reality, what it means to be involved in a covenant will be examined, and ultimately two main implications will be put forward. First, that nonhuman animals are worthy of covenantal care and protection, and second that humans have a calling to exist in a covenantal relationship with them. Following this, this article then turns to its second section, where it examines the ways in which the Christian tradition has (or has not) intentionally chosen to live out such a covenantal theology with nonhuman animals. The doctrines of two contemporary Christian denominations (Anglican and Roman Catholic) as described in significant denominational documents are examined, as are two groups from these respective traditions which choose to pay close attention to the welfare of nonhuman animals to address the manner in which the covenantal relationship shared between human and nonhuman animals is recognised and understood in the church today. While the groups focused on nonhuman animal welfare continually call for the church to recognise the value of all creatures as described in the covenantal relationship all animals are involved in, their respective denominations often fail to live out such ethical implications. In light of the significance of the covenantal relationship, it is suggested that the church is called to engage in deeper acts of moral discernment on matters of animal ethics.



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1 The work of David Clough, Rachel Muers, Andrew Linzey, Carol J. Adams, John Berkman, Neil Messer, Stephen Webb, David Grumett and Michael S. Northcott (to name some) have contributed greatly to the development of animal theology.

2 Although not uncommonly noted by biblical scholars, there has been very little written on the implications of God's covenanting with animals.

3 Though Genesis 9 is the first case of God covenanting with humans and nonhumans, it should also be noted that it is the occasion where God allows for humans to eat their fellow sentient creatures. It is widely recognised that the paradisiacal relation between humans and animals found in Genesis 1–2 has been tarnished, and as far back as Tertullian (‘On Fasting’, ch. 4) the allowance for human consumption of animal flesh was seen as one due to human weakness. While humans are allowed to eat animal flesh (9:3), immediately following this (9:4) is a commandment not to eat the lifeblood, for the life of the creature belongs solely to God (von Rad, Genesis, p. 128). Given that this is an allowance due to human sin, and the warning about consuming the lifeblood, it is more reasonable to view the covenant as limiting the extent to which this new allowance would enable human use of animals, rather than viewing the allowance as descriptive of the nature of the covenant. For more on this, and the relation of this covenant to the eschatological images found in Isaiah 11 and 65, see Greenway, ‘Animals and the Love of God’, Christian Century 117/19 (2000), p. 680, and Fortin, ‘The Bible Made me Do it’, Review of Politics 57/2 (2009), p. 200.

4 Amos, Clare, The Book of Genesis (Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2004), p. 67; Gowan, Donald, Genesis 1–11 (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1988), p. 104; Kidner, Derek, Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 101. While Gen 6:18 is the first mention of a covenant between God and Noah, it is only in Gen 9 that this covenant is fulfilled and made by God (as well as being extended beyond Noah).

5 Arnold, Bill, Genesis (Cambridge: CUP, 2009), p. 110.

6 Hughes, Kent, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing, vol. 1 (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), p. 147. These same three points are also noted by Barr, James, ‘Reflections on the Covenant with Noah’, in Mayes, A.D. H. and Salters, R. B. (eds), Covenant as Context: Essays in Honour of E. W. Nicholson, (Oxford: OUP, 2003), pp. 1114.

7 Gen 9:9, 12. This and all subsequent biblical references are taken from the NRSV. Gowan, Genesis 1–11, p. 104.

8 Westermann, Claus, Genesis 1–11, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), p. 474; Gowan, Genesis 1–11, p. 104.

9 Amos, Book of Genesis, p. 55; Gowan, Genesis 1–11, p. 104; Westermann, Genesis 1–11, p. 471; Barr, ‘Reflections on the Covenant with Noah’, pp. 11–14. This is not to say that humans have no role to play. Just as in the creation narrative, God calls them to be fruitful and to have dominion (albeit now a diminished version). However, regardless of humanity's ability or willingness to fulfil such calls, God's covenant with humans and nonhumans will remain. For more on this see Drunen, David Van, ‘A Covenantal Conception of Natural Law Drawn from Genesis 9’, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 30/2 (2010), pp. 131–49.

10 Amos, Book of Genesis, p. 55.

11 Gen 9:11, 15.

12 Gen 9:16. The eternal nature of this covenant is noted by Gowan (Genesis 1–11, p. 105), Vogels, Walter, God's Universal Covenant (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1986), p. 29, and Murray, Robert, The Cosmic Covenant (London: Sheed & Ward, 1992), pp. 34, 37, 102.

13 Westermann, Genesis 1–11, p. 471.

14 Miller, Patrick, Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), p. 486.

15 Hos 2:18.

16 Stuart, Douglas, Hosea-Jonah (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), p. 58.

17 Murray, Cosmic Covenant, p. 36.

18 Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, p. 58; Mays, James, Hosea: A Commentary (London: SCM Press, 1969), p. 49.

19 Beckwith, Roger, ‘The Unity and Diversity of God's Covenants’, Tyndale Bulletin, 38 (1987), p. 98.

20 Nicholson, Ernest, God and his People: Covenant and Theology in the Old Testament (Oxford: OUP, 1998), pp. 13, 33, 39, 5682.

21 Amos, Book of Genesis, p. 67; Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pp. 31–2; Katherine Dell, ‘Covenant and Creation in Relationship’, in Mayes and Salters, Covenant as Context, pp. 111–34; Barr, ‘Reflections on the Covenant with Noah’, p. 11.

22 Dell, ‘Covenant and Creation in Relationship’, p. 111. Dell notes (p. 126) that, following the rise in interest in the canonical approach to reading scripture, there has been an increase in concern for the Noahic covenant.

23 Baltzer, Klaus, The Covenant Formulary in Old Testament, Jewish, and Early Christian Writings (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971), pp. 1015. For example, there is an expectation here of stipulations for the treaty (which is not found in Gen 9), and a section for blessings or curses for following the treaty (which does not exist in any real sense as neither the humans nor the animals are called to do anything).

24 Beckwith, ‘Unity and Diversity of God's Covenants’, p. 96.

25 Ibid., p. 96.

26 Ibid., pp. 103–7.

27 James Scott, ‘The Meaning of the Concept of the Covenant in the Holy Scriptures’, thesis, Greenwich School of Theology, 1998, p. 13.

28 Beckwith, ‘Unity and Diversity’, p. 96.

29 Waltke, Bruce, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), p. 146; Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pp. 18–19.

30 Peter Golding, ‘The Idea and Development of the Covenant in the Bible’, thesis, Greenwich School of Theology, 1991, p. 24; Waltke, Genesis, p. 146; Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, p. 26.

31 Murray, Cosmic Covenant, p. 33.

32 Scott, ‘Meaning of the Concept of Covenant’, p. 12.

33 Golding, ‘Idea and Development’, p. 19.

34 Cross, Frank Moore, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp. 321.

35 Cross, From Epic to Canon, p. 3.

36 Cross, From Epic to Canon, pp. 4–5.

37 Amos, Book of Genesis, p. 68.

38 Cross, From Epic to Canon, p. 7.

39 McCarthy, D. J., Old Testament Covenant: A Survey of Current Opinions (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972), p. 33.

40 Westermann, Genesis 1–11, p. 473.

41 Pannenberg, Wolfhart, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, trans. by Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), p. 35.

42 Fergusson, David, The Cosmos and the Creator (Bristol: Arrowsmiths, 1998), p. 69.

43 Lambeth Conference Resolutions 1998, Resolution I.8.a, online at: (accessed April 2014).

44 Murray, Cosmic Covenant, p. 102.

45 Moltmann, Jürgen, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Kohl, Margaret (London: SCM Press, 1999), pp. 133–4.

46 McFadyen, Alistair discusses the practical implications of a relational understanding of humanity, in The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships (Cambridge: CUP, 1990), and in particular of humanity in the state of sin in Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Cambridge: CUP, 2000).

47 See Clough, David, On Animals, vol. 1, Systematic Theology (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2012), pp. 83–8.

48 Isa 11:6–9.

49 McFadyen, Bound to Sin, pp. 207–8, 218–20.

50 It should be noted that we are neither claiming total equality between humans and other animals nor making the excessively ambitious argument that all Christians should ‘live for’ nonhuman animals in all times and places. When Jesus called his followers to ‘be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (Matt 5:48) he did not expect human creatures to become as God through their own power. Our inability to be perfect, however, cannot preclude us from striving to be so as an act of worshipful thanksgiving for grace: ‘we strive for excellence of practice, knowing that we can never earn the excellence of grace’. Jones, Serene, ‘Grace Practices: Excellence and Freedom in the Christian Life’, in Volf, Miroslav and Bass, Dorothy (eds), Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 70.

51 ‘About ASWA’, online at: (accessed April 2014).

52 Lambeth 1998, I.8.a.

53 Ibid., I.8.a.ii.

54 Bauckham, Richard, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), p. 147.

55 Within Christian theology, to cite just a few notable examples, see the work of Linzey, Andrew, Northcott, Michael, Bauckham, Richard (The Bible and Ecology), and Muers, Rachel and Grumett, David (eds), Eating and Believing (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2008). Outside distinctively theological work, Aaron Gross, Stephen Clark, Tom Regan, Carol J. Adams and Peter Singer have all written against the factory-farming industry.

56 See ‘About ASWA’.

57 Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (London: SCM Press, 1994), pp. 50–7.

58 For an in-depth discussion of the similarities and differences between animal theology and ecotheology, see Linzey, Andrew, ‘So Near and Yet So Far: Animal Theology and Ecological Theology’, in Gottlieb, Roger S. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology (Oxford: OUP, 2007), pp. 348–61.

59 The preference utilitarianism of Peter Singer shows us one approach to environmental and animal matters which, although it opposes ‘speciesism’, is not opposed to the harming or death of individual animals (including humans) if such is deemed to serve the greater, environmental interest.

60 The most notable environmental arguments against farming animals for food centre around deforestation to provide grazing land, destruction of minerals and nutrients in soil through overgrazing, and the high levels of methane produced in cattle farming. Cf. Livestock's Long Shadow (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006).

61 Northcott, Michael S., The Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), p. 197.

62 Moltmann, Spirit of Life, pp. 133–4.

63 Catholic Concern for Animals and THE ARK, online at (accessed April 2014).

64 Stephen Webb, On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals (Oxford: OUP, 1998), p. 22; Ruether, Rosemary, ‘Men, Women, and Beasts: Relations to Animals in Western Culture’, in Pinches, Charles and McDaniel, Jay B. (eds), Good News for Animals? Christian Approaches to Animal Well-being (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), p. 17; and Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 14.

65 Hauerwas, Stanley, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), p. xviii.

66 See e.g. Dr Elena Ares’ 2011 report, ‘Badgers Culling’, available online at: <> (accessed April 2014).

67 To take one example, from 10 Oct. 2011 the British Horseracing Authority instituted new restrictions on the use of the whip by jockeys; a move which public opinion was generally – but far from exclusively – in favour of. Responsible Regulation: A Review of the Use of the Whip in Horseracing (London: British Horseracing Authority, Sept. 2011).

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