Like most of the arguments people have with God, Jonah’s argument over the fate of the godless city of Nineveh ended with God getting the last word. Jonah had told the Ninevites to repent or perish. Secretly, he hoped that they would perish; but to his dismay, they repented. While Jonah was sulking about this, God said to him, “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11).
Jonah was surprised to learn that God cared so much for Nineveh. What surprises me is that he cared about the cattle. God’s primary concern was for lost souls-more than one hundred thousand Ninevites. But he was also concerned about what happened to their cows.
This gives some indication how Christians should respond to the crisis now faced by European cattle and other livestock. For the past six or seven years we have been hearing about the dangers of Mad Cow Disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy; or BSE). But in recent months attention has turned to an epidemic of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), a highly contagious infection that affects cattle and other animals with cloven hooves. As recently as 1995, Europe was virtually free of Foot and Mouth, which probably explains why European livestock are now so vulnerable to the disease.
The symptoms of Foot and Mouth Disease are distressing. As a result of painful blisters on their lips, tongue, gums, and nostrils, cattle suffer salivation, depression, anorexia, and lameness. Because the disease is so contagious, measures for its containment are drastic. When a contaminated animal is discovered, all of the livestock on the same farm are slaughtered. Furthermore, because the virus is wind borne, livestock on adjacent farms are also killed. In Britain the outbreak is so severe that in recent months the British army has been digging huge pits for the mass burning and burial of hundreds of thousands of cows, pigs, and sheep. According to the most recent estimates, well over one million animals will be slaughtered before the disease is brought under control.
Although some measures are being taken to prevent an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in this country, most Americans are relatively unconcerned. It is of course typical for us not to care very much about problems that do not affect us directly, and to date American livestock have not been threatened. Besides, unlike Mad Cow Disease, Foot and Mouth does not infect humans. So in merely human terms, the effect of the disease is primarily economic, with losses now running into the tens of millions of dollars.
Shouldn’t we be more concerned? In fact, as Christians, would it not be appropriate for us to lament this tremendous loss of animal life?
It would help if we had a more robust theology of creation. The Bible actually has a great deal to say about animals in general, and about cattle in particular. For starters, we know that God is the one who made the cattle. God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind” (Gen. 1:24). We also know why God made cattle. Like everything else he made, it was for his own glory. Thus the psalmist invites all the cattle to praise the name of the Lord (Ps. 148:7-13). This does not mean that we should consider cows sacred, the way the Hindus do, but we should respect them for the sake of their Creator.
God not only made the cattle, but in his providence, he also takes care of them. Asaph said that God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:10). Since they are his livestock, “he makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate-bringing forth food from the earth” (Ps. 104:14). Elsewhere the Bible identifies the flourishing of livestock as a blessing from God (Deut. 11:15; 28:4; Ps. 107:38; Isa. 30:23). But in order for cattle to flourish, they need the care of their owners. Thus the Bible commends the righteous man for providing for the needs of his animals (Prov. 12:10). Human beings have a duty of care for their animals, including livestock. This explains why God included farm animals in the fourth commandment, providing for their Sabbath rest (Exod. 20:10).
Sadly, like everything else in creation, cattle suffer the effects of the Fall. On occasion, they endure the effects of divine judgment. Such was the case in Egypt, when as a result of Pharaoh’s sin, livestock were plagued with disease and death (Exod. 9:1-7, 25; 12:29; cf. Hag. 1:11). More often cattle are simply mistreated through neglect or even exploitation. Some modern ranches or more like factories than farms. Livestock are not allowed to roam free, following the normal patterns of animal behavior, but are crammed together for force-feeding. Even Foot and Mouth Disease may be considered the result of the Fall, for it was sin that first brought disease into the world.
The suffering of cattle is part of what the Bible means when it says that “the creation was subject to frustration” (Rom. 8:20) and that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:22). The cattle groan because, like everything else that God has created, they are waiting to be “liberated from their bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:21). If the cattle are groaning as the result of our sin, then it is right for us to raise a lament and perhaps even to pray, not only for cattle farmers, but also for the cattle themselves.
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