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Are animals ‘evil’?

When they found the body of Joy Adamson, the author of Born Free about Elsa the lioness, the immediate presumption was that she had been slain by a lion, though she in fact was murdered by the most lethal animal on earth, man, and in that case even by a former employee. Some years later, George Adamson, Joy’s husband, was similarly murdered by a poacher of animals, but not by an animal!

Nonetheless, the Bible betrays an embedded fright from animals, especially of predators, who are the first to be suspects of atrocities and mayhem, though these are commonly committed by man; why, the first murderers in Torah were Cain and Lamech, not animals.  Still, the Torah uses the term “a vicious animal”, notwithstanding the fact that it was man, not an animal, who acted maliciously. And this transpires for the first time when Joseph’s brothers, upon seeing him approaching them in Dothan, begin to conspire: ‘’Come now therefore, and let’s slay him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say, ‘An evil animal has devoured him’ ‘’. And indeed, Jacob’s spontaneous reaction upon receiving his beloved Joseph’s bloodied striped coat was compatible with his sons’ malicious scheme: “A vicious animal devoured him” (Genesis 37:33).

Jacob presumably believed that his beloved son was “torn to shreds” by a predatory animal, even as that did not happen at all; the real “predators” here were Joseph’s brothers who used an act of skullduggery to make their father infer that a ravenous animal killed his son. Might it be, however, that Jacob subliminally meant that his own jealous sons – two of whom, Shimon and Levi had already displayed their depravity in the atrocious Massacre of Shechem — were the ”vicious animal”, who likely murdered Joseph rather than an actual animal???

Yet, even by expressing these words – whether meaning a real animal or as a metaphor for his own sons – Jacob and sons betrayed an inherent dread of predators, as reflected earlier in Esau’s reasoning why he did not need to be his father’s successor son, thus willingly imparting it to Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup. Esau’s anticipating falsely his own looming death in his hunting fields, effectively concedes an entrenched consternation of animals in the wild, even as the reality for hunters did not warrant it quite a bit; Nimrod being the progenitor of hunters was rather ‘’a mighty hunter before the Eternal’’.

The Torah returns to this concept idiom, ‘’an evil animal’’, in this weekly portion of Bechukotai, when God is the one who uses it, albeit only a single time in the whole Torah, when assuring the Israelites that God will ‘’grant peace in the land, and … make an evil animal cease from the land’’ (Leviticus 26:6). Yet, as God’s imprecatory rebuke of the straying-from-God’s-way Israel continues on, God shuns reusing the word ‘’evil’’ and refers to the same animal as ‘’the animal of the field’’ that would wreak havoc on the Israelites, but only at God’s behest, and not as a matter of course (v. 22), as though calling animals ‘’evil’’ one more time was too much, even for God.

The Rabbis employ this phrase in the petitionary prayer before God upon taking on a road journey: ”May it be Your will…that You should lead us in peace and direct our steps in peace, and guide us in peace, and support us in peace, and cause us to reach our destination in life, joy, and peace. Save us from every enemy and ambush, from robbers and evil animals on the trip, and from all kinds of punishments that rage and come to the world…” Surely, dangers are more likely to encounter us anywhere when they are posed by humans rather than by animals; it should give us a pause before we describe evil folks for having behaved ”like an animal” — after all the Torah does not hide what it thinks of humanity, whether before the colossal flood in Noah’s time: ”And the Eternal saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).

Or especially and dishearteningly after the flood (that would very soon fail as a corrective, and a collective ”ballistic” measure): “…And the Eternal said in His heart: … ‘What the human heart forms is evil from its youth’ ‘‘(8:21) — God never says anything that comes closer to these divine condemnatory comments of humans, even about ravenous animals. It is something to reflect on when we read the sole divine reference to “a vicious animal” in the Torah in this weekly portion.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.
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