Monday, January 8, 2001

GET WISDOM: Address 8: Ecology: Touring God's Game Park (Prov 30)

Address 8: Ecology: Touring God’s Game Park (Proverbs 30)

I don’t know how you may take this, but it is a fact that when many, many people in the West think of Africa, they think first of animals, indeed wild animals. It is probably the case that these folk think of the whole continent as a gigantic game park. And visiting Africa for them means, above all, going on safari.

I am curious how many of you here have ever seen a lion, a hippopotamus, a crocodile? If so where? I see about half of your have and half have not. I wonder if it is fair to say that to the average African, “animal” means “food.” My wife when we first visited here saw a little goat tied up by our verandah. “Here goat, here goat,” she said, not realizing that it was her supper tied up there.

My subject today from the Wisdom literature has to do with Ecology. Ecology literally means understanding the household. It comes from the Greek word oikos or house. Similarly, “economics” means the rule of household management. But there is a difference between economics and ecology. Economics is directed exclusively to human behaviour, whereas ecology focuses on the interaction of man in his environment. The word ecology is barely a century old, but the issue of how to relate to the environment, and especially the animal world, goes right back to the Bible.

Let’s think for a moment about the place of animals in the Bible beginning olubereberye “in the beginning.” Day by day God creates the inanimate and animate creatures of earth “according to its kind” and he declares each of these creatures good. They have a place in the whole cosmos, which God calls “very good.” Even the “great sea monsters” (Genesis 1:21) that the Hebrews (other than Jonah) would never have seen but only heard about in mythological stories about dragons.

Mankind is created on the same day as the animals; indeed he is an animal. The word animal means creature with a soul. But God gives mankind lordship over the other animals, just as the animals in turn have a kind of natural lordship over the plant world.

And God blessed [the man and the woman], and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:28-30)

The same pattern of relationships emerges in the Garden of Eden account. The Lord God makes plants and animals and mankind (Adam) out of the ground. While the text assumes, I think, that animals have the breath of life, God specially breathes his breath into Adam. God places the man in a beautiful park and tells him to tend the garden, which appears to be rather easy work, like picking ripe avocadoes off the trees. Then God “brought [the animals] to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19).

I like this image of God “bringing” the animals for Adam to name, as he later brings the Woman to him. It is like God is both teaching him and giving him freedom to inquire about the world about him. Later of course the whole relationship between humanity and the creation is distorted. Eve and Adam grab for the one fruit that was forbidden and are cast out of the garden. The relationship between man and the plant world becomes one of hard work – digging and farming. And the relationship of man and the animals after the Flood changes from one of fellowship to fear.

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. (Genesis 9:1-3)

One more important change happens after the Flood. Noah and his sons begin sacrificing animals, and when they do this they also begin distinguishing between clean and unclean animals. Noticing which animals are clean and which unclean became an important duty for the Hebrew priest and people (Leviticus 11:46-47). I cannot at this point get into the distinction between clean and unclean, but in general we may say that most domestic animals are clean (like cattle and fish), and most wild animals are unclean. Indeed one gets the impression that there is a Wild Kingdom out beyond the boundaries of the usual world of the everyday Israelite, just as there are animal parks here in Africa that the average African never sees.

One of the central rituals of the Law is the atonement. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest confesses the sins of the nation over a goat (which is a clean animal) and then sends the goat out into the wilderness, the domain of the unclean animals. The function of the priestly Law of cleanness and the atonement ritual was to keep wildness out of the community.

The sages of the Bible have a more inquiring attitude toward the Wild Kingdom. Let’s begin with “The words of Agur son of Jakeh of Massa” (Proverbs 30:1ff.). Agur begins with a confession of ignorance:

Surely I am too stupid to be a man.
I have not the understanding of a man.
I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.

Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son's name?
Surely you know!

Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
lest he rebuke you, and you be found a liar. (verses 2-6)

Having confessed his human limitations and God’s sovereign wisdom, Agur goes on to make a number of observations about creatures in the world around him. He begins with the leech (Luganda - ekinoso):

The leech has two daughters; “Give, give,” they cry. (verse 15a)

The leech’s two “daughters” are actually twin suckers that it attaches to draw blood out through your skin. Agur is saying that some people – people who are always begging for things – are like leeches, saying “Give me this, give me that.” The irony is that the leech is simply doing his business – just as the mosquitoes here are not intending harm by biting people – whereas human leeches have far less in the way of excuse.

Some few verses later, Agur again makes an odd collection of creatures.

Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden. (verses 18-19)

What do these things have in common? Well, they all have a hidden source of locomotion. The eagle soars invisibly uplifted on the air; the serpent glides leglessly and effortlessly along the rock; the ship is powered by the force of the wind. And then, finally, and this is punch line: a man courts a woman with a mysterious erotic power that no one can fully explain. What this riddle points out is that many things in human and animal life, including the most intimate human relationships, have a mysterious working. Jesus may have had these verses in mind when he spoke about being “born again” or “born from above”: “The wind blows where it wills,” he says, “and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8).

Agur’s next parable goes like this:

Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise:
the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer;
the badgers are a people not mighty, yet they make their homes in the rocks;
the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank;
the lizard you can take in your hands, yet it is in kings' palaces. (vss. 24-28)

In earlier talks, I have commented on two of the virtues of wisdom: diligence and prudence. These two virtues now appear among the small animals. The ants and the locusts are commended for their organization and productivity; the badgers and lizard for their ability to find safe and even fine housing. It is a nice touch to imagine the homely little lizard who shares in the king’s banquets, safely perched on the ceiling.

Finally, Agur moves from little animals to royal animals:

Three things are stately in their tread; four are stately in their stride:
the lion, which is mightiest among beasts and does not turn back before any;
the strutting cock,
the ram,
and a king striding before his people. (verses 29-31)

To us there may seem little resemblance between a rooster and a lion, but if you are a hen, I am sure the rooster looks as magnificent as the lion does to its mate. As with the former riddle about the way of a man with a woman, the clever twist in this comparison is the way it moves from kingly animals to human kings themselves.

What is interesting about the Wisdom of Agur is the way in which the whole world of nature – from leeches to lions, from locusts to lizards, from cocks to kings – all this world is part of one divine kingdom. Old Testament Wisdom lays the groundwork for a respect for the ecology of creation. Respect for God’s handiwork is not the same as nature religion, nor does it exalt animal concerns over those of human beings. But Agur’s proverbs make us stop, look, and think about the wonderful world around us, and to marvel at the mystery of God’s glory. I hope some day those of you have not gotten to visit God’s game parks here in Africa will be able to do so safely and cheaply.


Next week we shall see how God is even to glorified in the worst of human suffering – as we turn to the book of Job.

Address 8: Ecology: Touring God’s Game Park (Proverbs 30)


Surely I am too stupid to be a man.
I have not the understanding of a man.
I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.

Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son's name?
Surely you know!

Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
lest he rebuke you, and you be found a liar. (verses 2-6)


The leech has two daughters; “Give, give,” they cry. (verse 15a)


Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden. (verses 18-19)


Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise:
the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer;
the badgers are a people not mighty, yet they make their homes in the rocks;
the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank;
the lizard you can take in your hands, yet it is in kings' palaces. (vss. 24-28)


Three things are stately in their tread; four are stately in their stride:
the lion, which is mightiest among beasts and does not turn back before any;
the strutting cock,
the ram,
and a king striding before his people. (verses 29-31)



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