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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Beasts in the Bible
distributed 7/6/01 - ©2001

The biblical quotation caught me totally off guard.

It was jarring, though, not just because of what it said, but because of the context in which it was printed.

I saw it in a catalog for choir arrangements from a secular music distributor. The front cover has a pretty rural scene with some Christmas/winter touches. A dove of peace is in flight. And the soothing, hopeful message from Ezekiel (34:25-26, NIV) is printed at the top:

I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of wild beasts so that they may live in the desert and sleep in the forests in safety. I will bless them and the places surrounding my hill. I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing.
Why? Why was that text chosen to grace a collection of contemporary songs for worship?

In these days of mass extinction, is it good news to promise more killing?

In these days of human domination of the earth, are the attacks of wild beasts really a matter of great concern requiring divine intervention?

Why? Why did they pick that obscure text for a music catalog?

For those of us working to build environmental sensitivity in the Christian church, the Bible can be a difficult book. There are many passages that guide me and nurture me in my eco-justice work, and that fill me with hope. But the Bible also is full of texts that are hard to appreciate, that require careful study, and that challenge our enlightened views. Being an environmentally committed Christian calls us to wrestle deeply with our faith tradition.

I'm irked that flipping through the mail makes me confront a challenging passage. But what really bothers me is the way someone could use such a text without any awareness that it is out of touch with today's world. I am troubled by those who can blithely quote God's promise to "rid the land of wild beasts" as an expression of hope and joy.

Most of my contacts are with people who really do want to find a way of bringing together their Christian faith and the current state of the world. This catalog is a harsh reminder that not all people in the church share in that awareness or that hope.

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So what of that odd text from Ezekiel?

Ezekiel is a prophet whose words should rarely be taken at face value. His message was conveyed in wild imagery and strange symbolic actions. In that book of the Bible, especially, the reader does well to do careful study and to look for context.

The quoted lines fall in a section about the shepherds of Israel and their poor care of the sheep. The "sheep" throughout this passage are the people of Israel, and the "shepherds" are the kings. The "wild animals" are the attacking nations, especially Babylon.

The imagery is drawn from a pastoral culture 2,600 years ago, one that understood the predation of lions. But that image was used to point toward problems of corrupt kings and unstable international relations. The theme given voice by Ezekiel is one of justice and security for the nation under the rule of God. It is, beyond the imagery, one that honors the blessings and relationships of the natural world.

This is a fascinating text. It could be great fun to preach on it, and to tie it to both the 23rd Psalm and the parable of the lost sheep. There is wisdom and prophetic truth here, once the imagery is unpacked.

But to quote two verses from this passage without context and without interpretation opens the door to distorted understandings about how God calls us to live in the world.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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