Michael Boling – Lessons from the Garden: The Theological Importance of No Animal Death Before Sin

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Other than the discussion over the issue of how long the days of Genesis 1 are, arguably one of the most heated debates among evangelicals on the issue of origins is whether there was any death and more specifically, whether the is a biblical case for animal death before sin. Typically those who aver the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) or Biblical Creationist model of origins unequivocally state Scripture teaches there was no death, animal or human before sin.

Many might ask why this issue is of any importance when interpreting Scripture. After all, what does it matter if animals died as this is a normal course of nature and passages such as Romans seem to only discuss the fact that Adam sinned thus causing the need for the redemption of humanity. What does that principle have to do with the issue of whether or not animal death might or might not have occurred before sin? These are valid questions and as we continue to learn valuable lessons from the formative pages of Scripture, we can understand this issue of death and when it began to rear its ugly head and why this is of such importance.

It certainly does not take a rocket scientist to observe or comprehend we live in a world replete with sin, from ISIS to abortion to famine to all manner of man’s inhumanity to man throughout history. To a large degree, such horror should not be surprising to the reader of Scripture. The Apostle Paul declared in Romans 3:10-11 “”There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” Later in this same chapter Paul notes “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

In the animal kingdom there exists the food chain where some animals prey on other animals for food with humans arguably existing at the top of this food chain. We also readily observe animals and humans eating plants for sustenance. This order of business is accepted as the normal order of things in our present world. What do this have to do with a discussion of whether animal death existed before sin you might ask? In response to such a question one must first establish the current nature of things in order to investigate whether Scripture describes what life was originally intended to be like at the beginning of creation and in the Garden of Eden.

Old Testament Teachings

Was Edenic life the same as we observe it today with a cycle of life and death existing in the animal kingdom or is death an intruder into the original plan God had due to the entrance of sin? The answer to that question is what we will address next.

Much debate centers on how to interpret the nature of the original creation. Was the original creation perfect in every way with no evidence of death among animals and the first humans (Adam and Eve) as averred by YECs or did God merely create everything as good or even just very good with allowance for death among animals? In order to answer this we have to get into some “nerdy” study of the original language. Additionally, we have to look at the overall concept of sin and death to include what the inclusion of death in the original creation might mean in the overall scheme of Scripture.

Five times in Genesis 1 God declares his creative act to be good. On the sixth and final day of creation, God declared his creative act to be very good. The Hebrew word used for good in Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, and 25 is טוֹב transliterated as towb. As with many Hebrew words towb has a large semantic range meaning it has a wide variety of meanings depending on the context. With that said, despite the large semantic range for towb the central essence of the word is a description of something that is excellent, valuable in estimation, upright, excelling, or beautiful just to name a few of the more frequent uses of the word in the Old Testament. At the conclusion of the creation week God declared his creation of man to be very good or in the Hebrew טוֹב מְאֹד transliterated as meh•ōde’ towb. The Hebrew lexicons translate these words together to mean exceedingly or greatly good. With all that said is there still room for a lack of perfection in the original creation where death, at least among the animal kingdom to have existed.

Some suggest that if the original creation was perfect, a different term should have been used, such as the Hebrew word shalom as it is stated by those individuals that the word used for good in Genesis 1 does not indicate or imply a state of perfection.

If shalom means perfection and towb (good) merely means good or very good then why is shalom not used in Genesis 1 to describe the original creation? That is actually a very good question. While shalom does indeed reflect an essence of perfection, the perfection subsumed within the variety of meanings of this word addresses an entirely different aspect of life that what is depicted in the opening chapter of Genesis. It reflects the wellbeing of a person, most notably in their wholeness, whether physical or spiritual. While some might aver there is a similarity in application to what would be described in a perfect creation, the differences in use of shalom and tob are notable and important.

Working our way back to how tob is used in Genesis 1 we must establish what good or very good meant in the context of this chapter. Noted Old Testament scholars Keil and Delitzsch provide some valuable insight into this issue. They note:

”God saw his work, and behold it was all very good; i.e., everything perfect in its kind, so that every creature might reach the goal appointed by the Creator, and accomplish the purpose of its existence. By the application of the term “good” to everything that God made, and the repetition of the word with the emphasis “very” at the close of the whole creation, the existence of anything evil in the creation of God is absolutely denied, and the hypothesis entirely refuted, that the six days’ work merely subdued and fettered an ungodly, evil principle, which had already forced its way into it.”[1]

To insert animal death before sin by the misinterpretation and misapplication of tob is to affirm the existence of evil, in this case death, before the entrance of sin. God quite clearly declared the original creation to be perfect, free from the influence of death.

What then did the original creation, both animals and man eat for sustenance and if they ate plants does that not mean there was death as plants then had to die in order to be eaten. To a large degree there is not much disagreement that plants are not living beings or nephesh chayyah and thus could not have experienced death. Genesis 1:29 states God gave man “every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” Furthermore, perhaps in expectation of those who would claim that animals ate one another prior to the fall God stated in Genesis 1:30 “And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground–everything that has the breath of life in it–I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.”

The first instance where the death of an animal is described in Scripture is in Genesis 3:21 where “God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them,” a clear prototype of the sacrificial covering of sin which found its completion in the death of the perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ on behalf of the sins of all mankind.

New Testament Teachings

Now we will look at what the New Testament has to say about the impact of sin on both mankind and creation. The same naysayers who attempt to allow for animal death before sin look to the New Testament, in particular the teachings of the apostle Paul as evidence that sin only impacted humanity and thus was not relevant or did not impact the animal kingdom. They point to verses such as Romans 8:22 which says: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” as well as Romans 5:14 which states “Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.”

The full impact of sin is noted quite clearly in Romans 8:22 where Paul states “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” In order to fully understand this passage we must back up a couple of verses to Romans 8:20-21 where the full impact of sin can be observed. Romans 8:20-22 states:

”For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

What exactly is Romans 8:20-22 referring to? Biblical scholar James Dunn comments that Romans 8:22 “speaks of a suffering in which all creation participates.”[3] The impact of sin was so great it resulted in a curse upon the entirely of creation to such a degree the entire universe groans under the weight of this sin to this present day. Just in case there was any question as to what is meant by all of creation all one has to do is look at the meaning of the Greek word used for creation in Romans 8:22, namely κτίσις which is transliterated as ktisis. This word refers to all of creation or anything that was created to include both man and animals. The Apostle Paul wonderfully outlined how the sin of Adam impacted not only humanity but all of God’s creation to such an extent that the perfection experienced in God’s original towb creation will not be experience again until Christ comes back to restore all things to perfection.

Some try and get around the completeness of the impact of sin by stating the animal kingdom experienced death prior to sin; however, sin did impact humanity, thus trying to skirt the proper use and application of what is intended by “all of creation”. Such a position demonstrates a lack of understanding of what kosmos means throughout the New Testament. Even a cursory look at a respected Greek lexicon such as Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament would have revealed that in Romans 5:12 kosmos “is synonymous with the Old Testament “heaven and earth” and…denotes here the universe which consists of heaven and earth and in which is found the totality of all individual creatures.”[4] The concept is not that animals sin. Conversely, what is meant is that through the sin of Adam, death became an unfortunate fact of life for not only humanity but for all of creation.

The cycle of sin and death currently experienced by humanity was not the order of the day in the original creation. Man and animals were originally created as vegetarians. After the sin of Adam and Eve, God placed a curse on man, Satan, and the earth. Thus sin impacted not just man but all of creation. Redemption will come to all of creation when Christ returns. To accommodate the presence of death in the animal kingdom before sin is not a trivial thing as making such assertions or accommodations reflects an inaccurate understanding of the grand theme sin and redemption portrayed throughout Scripture. Death, whether that be human or animal death, was an intrusion into God’s perfect creation. Sin is the fly in the ointment if you will and nowhere in Scripture is there a demonstration of the existence of death in the original created order before sin.

References

[1] C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 41-42.
[2] Paul Taylor, Six Days in Genesis (Green Forest: Master Books, 2007), 32.
[3] James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8 (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 472.
[4] G. F. Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Volume III (Grand Rapids: Rm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2006), 884.

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