jesus and wild animals

With my morning cup of coffee today, I took in a short essay by one of my favorite New Testament scholars, Richard Bauckham, titled “Jesus and the Wild Animals.” It’s too good not to share.

At the beginning of Mark’s gospel, the author has a short prologue (1:1-15) that attempts, in shorthand, to lay out who Jesus is and what he’s all about. He wastes no words: the intro is short, quick, and packed with significance.

We’re told that Jesus is the messianic son of God (verse 1), that he embodies Yahweh coming to rescue his people, preceded by a herald (verses 2-8), that he is the anointed king empowered by the Holy Spirit (verse 9-11). No small set of claims.

The next statement is very curious: the Spirit “impells” (literally, “casts”) him into the wilderness, which in Jewish tradition, set in the culture of the ancient Near East, was a place of danger for humans. The key verse is 13, which makes three simple statements about Jesus:

And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.

The first and last statements about testing and being sustained by divine emissaries are an intentional connection back to a well known narrative about Elijah the prophet (1Kings 17-19) who was in the desert for 40 days, fed by an angel. Mark is clearly trying to depict Jesus as a ‘greater than Elijah’ kind of prophet.

But wild animals? What does this have to do with anything?

Bauckham traces the background of this image in Jewish tradition, which is rooted in the Hebrew Bible and later Jewish thought.

For an ancient agrarian culture, with farms, domesticated animals, etc. “wild animals” represented first and foremost a threat. Ancient Palestine hosted a number of (now extinct) species like lions, bears, leopards, poisonous snakes that persitently threatened to encroach upon human territory. Areas that humans had cultivated (towns, farmland, river banks, water springs, etc)  were seen in opposition to the ‘wild places’ where threatening animals lived. They were not cute, and there were no zoos(!)

However, in Jewish tradition, there was a sense that this enmity between humans and wild animals was not how things were supposed to be. And, in fact, the ancient Hebrew prophets fostered a dream that when the Creator finally acted to set his world right, through sending a messianic deliverer, that this human/wild animal rift would be healed. The most famous prophetic passage along these lines is Isaiah 11:

First the messianic deliverer will arrive (Isaiah 11:1-5) as a branch of new growth out of an old stump, empowered by the divine Spirit, and he will bring justice and peace to a ravaged world. The following image is amazingly powerful:

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little boy will lead them.  Also the cow and the bear will graze, Their young will lie down together, And the lion will eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.  They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD As the waters cover the sea.

In the restored creation, the primal rift between humans and wild predatory animals will finally be healed. This is, of course, poetry, and so we should interpret the passage accordingly: the powerful images of reconciliation and shalom speak to the deep sense that something is wrong in the world, not just with humans, but in how we related to the creation itself, animals included.

In Mark 1:13, Jesus is depicted as the anointed messianic deliverer, who walks out into the middle of the desert, a hostile and inhospitable environment, and spends time with the wild animals. For Jewish readers, this significance of this statement and the allusion to Isaiah 11 is absolutely clear: Jesus is, before his ministry to the human world begins, beginning the story of creation’s healing and reconciliation. Jesus’ amiable relationship with the “wild beasts” is part of the package of the messianic deliverance, creating peace where there was once enmity. He is acting on humanity’s behalf, mending the rift between humans and animals. This is utter poetry.

A final word from Bauckham on how this image of Jesus can speak to our day.

The context to which Mark 1:13 originally spoke was on in which wild animals threatened humanity and the wilderness threatened to encroach on the human world… But our context is one in which it is clearly we who threaten the survival of wild animals, and encroach on their habitat. To make the point we need only notice how many of the animals Jesus would have encountered in the Judean wilderness have become extinct in the last century (bears, leopards, lions, gazelles).

Jesus’ companionable presence with the wild animals affirms their independent  value for themselves and for God. He does not adopt them into the human world, but lets them be themselves in peace, as creatures who share the world with us in the community of God’s creation.

[Jesus raises] the possibility of living fraternally with wild creatures, experiencing the grace of their otherness which God gives us in the diversity of the animal creation, and which is missed when animals are reduced to merely usefulness or threat.

Mark 1:13 offers us a small, but very significant image that Jesus’ mission of messianic redemption exceeds the bounds of the human world, and embraces the entire creation. Paul’s words to the Colossians (1:18-19) should not surprise us:

For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ,  and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.


~ by tmackie on September 25, 2009.

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