Yesterday I took a glorious walk with my wife on one of the ridges of the Appalachian Trail. Jean reminded me, as we smelled the Christmas-like pines and gazed at the rippling rows of mountains stretched out on the other side of valleys below us, that there are only two creatures who disobey God. The angelic (or one third of them at least) and human creatures.
All the rest of themthe stars and planets, the huge panoply of animals, the vaster array of plants, even the rocksobey the laws God has made for them.
Bears obey God’s law prescribing winter hibernation. Eagles obey the laws of physics as they soar on mountain drafts. Planets remain patiently in their prescribed courses as they travel around the sun. Rocks obey the law of gravity, falling dutifully when they get loose, and yielding parts of themselves when commanded by the laws of erosion.
Ah, you protest. These are inanimate! Rocks don’t think! They don’t have a will!
But then why does Scripture say the day will come when the mountains and hills shall break forth into singing, and the trees of the field shall clap their hands (Is. 55.12)?
And that the stars in the heavens fought against the wicked general Sisera (Judges 5.20)?
C. S. Lewis might say we should open up our imaginations to see, as the medievals saw, that the whole cosmos is enchanted. That somehow it joins in praising God and doing his will.
He gave this idea flesh, as it were, in his Narnia Chronicles, where animals and trees talk and join in battles for Aslan against the wicked god Tash.
Yesterday on the mountain ridges we were walking with Jaffa, our dog. She is named after one of our favorite places in the world, the beautiful seaside town of Israel on the Mediterranean Sea. The word means “beautiful,” and our little dog looks like Benjie in the moviea little creature of beauty.
In the first chapter of the Bible we read that every beast of the earth and every bird of the heavens and everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has a living soul, to each of them I have given every green plant for food (1.30).
Admittedly, my way of rendering this is uncertain, because the Hebrew word (nephesh) which I have rendered “soul” can also be translated “breath.” But it is also used for “living being” and “person” in the Hebrew Bible.
And animals in the Bible are more than simply “inanimate.” We are to be their lords, just as God is to be our Lord (Gen 1.28). The ox and donkey “know” their owner (Is 1.3). The rights of animals are discussed, along with the rights of slaves and wives, in Exodus 21 and 22. We are warned against treating them cruelly (Deut 25.4). Jesus says we should help a human person on the Sabbath just as we would help an animal on that day (Luke 14.5).
C. S. Lewis wrote that the animals we particularly get to know and love, become joined to us in a manner of speaking, and so will be with us in heaven, lying down with the other lions and lambs as it were, but in our heavenly yard. Not all animals, but those who become attached to human persons.
Yesterday we let Jaffa off the leash to run at will. And run she did, up and down the ridges we walked up and down. This old dog (about ten years, which we are told means about seventy of our years) who walks with evident pain around our house, was bounding and leaping with joy.
Joy? Yes. Anyone who has owned a dog knows there are times when their dog is having pleasure. Sometimes abundant pleasure. It’s as if you can see her smiling.
And knowing that she was experiencing joy gave me a bit of joy. Even though I was worried about some things, as I gazed with delight on the trees and rocks and mountains, her joy helped lift me up to that realm where there is only joy, because in that realm (dimension?) there is only obedience.
In your presence there is abundance of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures forevermore (Ps 16.11).
Jaffa’s joy as a member of that mysterious part of the Kingdom that is somewhere between inanimate and animate, helped me to taste a bit of that joy that the rocks and stars and, yes, even dogs help communicate.
Gerald McDermott is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College. He is finishing a book on famous stutterers.