Our animal companions.
I have a question for those who enjoy watching wildlife or who have ever had a cat, dog, canary, guinea pig, gold fish, or other sentient being as part of their household.
Should we assume these sentient beings are on the same spiritual journey as humans and learning the same thing (spiritually) as humans or are they on a different journey specific to their species? Well, that all begs the question of whether any of us are on a journey and if any of us are sentient.
The Hebrew Bible has a few examples of animals that are extraordinarily sentient: Consider the story of a talking donkey who was able to see an angel of the god Yahweh before Balaam did (Numbers 22:23, 28); a very intelligent donkey who actually saves Balaam’s life by refusing to pass by the angel who would kill him (22:33). The donkey wisely refrains from mentioning the angel to the temperamental Balaam who is incapable even of taking cues from his donkey’s behavior.
Consider the serpent in the Garden who outwitted Eve and through her Adam, and thereby freed them from stasis and propelled them into knowing. The serpent is not the embodiment of evil in Genesis, only in later interpretations. Everything could have gone well for Adam and Eve but for one of the gods (Genesis 3:5 & footnote,* 3:22) who could not abide this change and made their lives temporal, painful, and difficult (3:16-24), thus completing the fullness of the human experience. It was Yahweh who did this, according to the story.
Consider the dove that was able to locate Noah’s ark again after flying around searching unsuccessfully for dry land, and then later, when she found dry land, still returned to him, this time with an olive leaf to let him know she had found a tree to nest in – very kind of her to let him know that Yahweh’s great flood was over (Genesis 8).
Genesis 9 clearly states that Yahweh’s covenant is with “every living creature” (9:10, 12, 15). These other sentient beings rate a covenant, too. I’m impressed by that, but not that people get to kill “every moving thing that lives” for food (9:3).
The rainbow is the sign of this covenant by which Yahweh promises he will never again destroy the entire Earth by a flood – small consolation to victims of flooding from hurricanes, tsunamis, climate change, etc. Personally, I don’t think we should be blaming God for floods and pain, nor do I think there are killing angels or jealous, angry gods or talking donkeys or talking serpents.
The deer in my yard stand still as statues when they see me. I suppose they think that makes them invisible against the woods. I shout, “Go away. No deer, no deer ticks in this yard.” After a while they move off, very slowly. They seem to think I’m harmless. Could they possibly know I have never eaten deer meat? These deer seem to be completely at peace with each other in their herd, unlike humans who prey on each other and on the deer. So who is sentient and who is not?
If we are all learning the same thing on our spiritual journey, I wonder what it is.
(*NRSV in this post.)