The Prophet Nathan's parable to David gives us insight into how people in biblical days sometimes regarded certain animals: 'The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, "There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him"' (2 Samuel 12:1-3).
One notices that taking a particular animal as a pet and becoming very attached to it must have been fairly common, not only because Nathan used this as an illustration, but also because of David's deep-seated, emotional reaction to the story when Nathan delivered the punch about the rich man stealing and eating the poor man's pet: 'David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity"' (2 Samuel 12:5, 6).
While this is an example of people's reactions to animals, God tells Jonah that he spared Ninevah because he had "compassion on Nineveh , the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals." God specifically asks Jonah in response to the presence of so many little children and animals, "Should I not be concerned about that great city?" (Jonah 4:11) This establishes the fact that God cares for the lives of animals and does not want them to suffer unnecessarily. Indeed, Scripture informs us that God has a covenant relationship not only with humankind but with animals as well (Genesis 9:10, 12, 15, 16). And keeping in mind that the moral law reflects God's own character, we are told that one element in a righteous life involves how one deals with animals: "A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal, but even the compassion of the wicked is cruel" (Proverbs 12:10).
The Hebrew phrase that is used to describe man at his creation, (pronounced NEH fesh kha YAH) "living soul" (Genesis 2:7), is used of animals (Genesis 1:20, 24, 30; 2:19 ). The Latin that Saint Jerome used to translate the Hebrew phrase for the Vulgate, animam viventem, contains two Latin words, vivo (live) and anima (soul or breath) which is the root of our English word, animal. That being said, however, one must keep in mind that there are distinct differences between humans and animals:
1. Only human beings are created in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27) and endowed with the reflective ability to think God's thoughts after him (Colossians 3:10; 2 Peter 2:12).
2. As over against the certainty that Scripture gives us regarding human beings who trust in Christ, that to be "absent from the body" is "to be at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8.), there is no certainty about the souls of animals after their deaths: compare Ecclesiastes 3:21 ("Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?") with Ecclesiastes 12:7 ("Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.").
Yet we are informed that a variety of animals will inhabit the new earth that Jesus remakes when he returns: "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" (Isaiah 11:6-9, et al.).
It is difficult for us to walk the balance between affirming the creaturely worth of other members of the animal kingdom -- that we are all God's creatures, made of the same substance, dirt -- while at the same time remembering that humans alone are created in the image of God, created directly and immediately by God, with his divine breath having been breathed into us, and that the Lord Jesus took onto himself human nature, not that of other animals, nor of the angels (Hebrews 2:16), and only we humans "should be called children of God" (1 John 3:1). Our two dogs, Hamilton and Sawyer, and three cats, Edgar, Emilio and Gertrude, are all creatures of God, entrusted to our care as a stewardship, but they are not sons of God.
In order to protect the dignity of man, some have tended to deny the cognitive abilities of other species, but the account of Balaam's donkey well illustrates the point that higher order animals have feelings, even though they lack the self-reflective abilities of those created with an awareness of God's nature and his moral law. The miracle was giving this animal the ability to express her feelings with a human voice in human language. The Hebrew terms of Numbers 22:28 are identical to those used in Ezekiel 24:27 and 33:22, where God removed the prophet's inability to speak. The Septuagint's translation of what God did to Balaam's beast is reflected in the language of Luke 1:64, where Zechariah's inability to speak is removed once he names his son John.
The soul of this lowly beast of burden abused by Balaam seems pretty reasonable to me. Isn't there every indication that the donkey had been a thinking creature all of her life?
I've observed this with my own pets. One Saturday back in early February of 2001, my canoe capsized in the icy water of our lake, and I came bobbing up, weighted down with two jackets and motorcycle boots, gasping for breath and crying, "Help me, Jesus! Help me, Jesus!" As I reached for the partially submerged canoe, grabbed on to it and tried to swim, the dogs, particularly Ralphie, our now deceased Boston Terrier, began crying and barking from the shore. He and Hamilton deduced that I was in trouble. However, in a true display of the present reality of Romans 8:18-22, none of the beasts dove into the water to help me -- well, they are pretty small and maybe I need to start buying them canned dog food rather than that cheap, dry stuff!
A couple of years ago, I placed some leftovers high on top of a stack of firewood, where none of the dogs could reach them but only Edgar the cat, our only cat back then. As soon as Hamilton went outside, I noticed that he picked up the scent of the food and made a bee-line for the wood pile. A bit later, I looked out and noticed that he was trying to climb the pile, but a particularly large, protruding log was blocking his way. He simply did not have the dexterity to climb out and over that log. Then I looked again and noticed that he was standing on his hind legs, on top of some lower logs, stretched up, with his mouth on that log, biting and pulling, first one side and then the other, slowly dislodging it from the stack. When the log was almost free, Hamilton paused, pulled one last time and jumped away as the log came out and rolled to the ground. He then climbed right up and leisurely enjoyed his meal.
Does that mean that dogs can reason? What would Hamilton say if God granted him the ability to express his feelings in human language?
I don't know, and beyond what I have written, I am not prepared to go because my stance is always that of the believing skeptic. I believe that the Bible is completely trustworthy, but if it isn't clearly taught by the Bible itself, I remain a doubter with regard to everything else. In my quest for truth, I am guided by reason, tradition, Scripture and other things, but only Scripture is completely reliable, only it is the infallible Word of God, not catechisms, creeds or human speculation. So if something does not come from the clear teaching of Scripture, I remain a skeptic, and that means that I cannot be certain that I will one day see my beloved pets in heaven or resurrected on the new Earth after our Lord's return. But I know without doubt that I am going to heaven, and I would like to see my pets again.
I was struck with the poignancy of a comment written in 1907, by Joseph B. Mayor on 2 Peter 2: 15, 16 (". . . they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet."):
'"There is a strange depth of meaning in the appealing eye of an ill-treated animal. It is an appeal, in the first place, to whatever remnant of pity and generosity may still survive in the heart of the man who ill-treats it, but it is an appeal, in the second place, to the justice of the God who made them both, a cry of which we may be sure it has entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. When animals are put to unnecessary suffering, either in the shambles or as beasts of burden, or in the interests of science or sport, or for any other reason, cases are sure to arise in which we may justly apply the words of our Epistle, and say of such poor tortured creatures that with their dying gaze, no less clearly than if they had spoken with man's voice, they forbade the madness of their torturers" (Mayor, p. 203)' [referring to The Epistles of Jude And 2 Peter, by Joseph B. Mayor, quoted here by R. H. Strachan, in loc., The Expositor's Greek Testament, Vol. V, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 140].