Very sadly at the end of September, we lost our beautiful golden retriever Zeta. She was only 7 years old, way too young to die. As a family we are heartbroken, and still coming to terms with her passing. She was a much loved pet, and a massive part of our family unit - a piece that is now missing.
God makes it very clear that from the beginning of creation there is a role for creatures alongside humankind. In Genesis 1:24 it says:
And 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.” And it was so.
The word for creatures here in Hebrew is ‘nephesh’, which can be translated as soul - that which breathes, the breathing substance of being.1 Nephesh can also mean self, person, appetite, mind, desire, emotion, passion, and personality. What is important to note here is that nephesh refers to what is internal - not external.
Aristotle writes in ‘On the Soul’ that the ‘soul is the cause or source of the living body’ (Book 2 part 4).2 In a speech in 1990, Pope John Paul II said that ‘animals possess the divine spark of life - the living quality that is the soul’.3 Could they both be referring to the nephesh?
The creation story continues and in verse 26:
Then God said “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
From the very outset, God intended for there to be a relationship between his creation, with humankind having the overseeing role. In Genesis chapter 2, Adam, the first man, was given the task of naming all the animals, thus cementing his relationship with God’s creation, and also establishing the authority that humankind has over living creatures. We are designed to live alongside all God’s creatures, to care for them, look after them and tend them. This is reinforced in one of the most beloved children’s stories in the Bible found in Genesis 6 - 8: Noah and the Ark. God instructs Noah to take every species of animal onto the Ark with him, strengthening the relationship God established between humankind and creatures.
The Prophet Isaiah also described how it will be when creation is brought together:
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isa 11: 6-9)
We can also take comfort from the words of Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he writes:
But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Cor 15:38-44)
Paul clearly states here that we have different bodies, according to our kind, but he also gives us the hope that after death, there is the resurrected life. Referring back to nephesh there is comfort that animals are more than just their natural bodies.
C.S. Lewis writes about the hope we have in life after death. In his book ‘The Problem of Pain’, he describes how domestic animals, in part, are shaped by their human masters, just as the masters are shaped by their animals. He says:
If you ask, concerning an animal thus raised as a member of the whole Body of the homestead, where its personal identity resides, I answer “Where its identity always did reside even in the earthly life - in its relation to the Body and, specially, to the master who is the head of that Body”. In other words, the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself. 4
Part of who I am is shaped by having had Zeta as my dog.
Just as in the beginning of the Bible, creatures feature at the end of the Bible. In Revelation 5:13 it is written:
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!”
It is abundantly clear that God intends his creation, including animals, to play a significant part of his new creation: the new heaven and the new earth.
So we say, “Goodnight sweet Zeta”. We desperately miss you. We still cry over you. We have overwhelming waves of sadness. You were a big part of our family, and that part is now missing. But I do take comfort that as part of God’s beautiful creation, you are now part of his eternal creation, and we will be together again.