Animal Rights

By Clarence R. Johnson

Over the past five decades we’ve heard a lot about rights  — human rights, civil rights, states rights, in alienable rights, the right to keep and bear arms, women’s rights, a woman’s “right” to an abortion — and now “animal rights.”

This is a complicated subject and maybe not as “black and white, cut and dried” as some imagine it to be. It involves, among other things, the use and abuse of natural resources.

And though the Bible has little or nothing to say about animals rights per se, it does have quite a bit to say about human wrongs. And it does say a number of things that have bearing on our subject.

God Created All “Natural Resources” 

God created all “natural resources,” including all forms of life: plant, animal, and human. (See Gen. 1:1, 11-12, 20-25.) Man is the crowning glory of the creation. He did not evolve from lower forms of life. His body was formed from the elements of the earth and his soul or spirit was specially created in the image of God himself (Gen. 2:7; 1:26-27).

Man, made in God’s image, possesses intellect, emotions, and will. Though man’s body is subject to deterioration and decay, his spirit survives death to live on in another realm (Eccl. 12:7; 3:18-21).

God’s Place in the Universe Is That of Sovereign Ownership
Though we hear of human rights, civil rights, states rights, and even animal rights, the rights that should concern us most are God’s rights. “For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine, and all its fullness” (Ps. 50:10-12). “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein. For He has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters” (Ps. 4:1-2).

Man’s Place in the Universe Is That Which Has Been Assigned Him by the Creator
Our relationship to God is that of stewardship and we must someday give account for our uses and abuses of the things put within our power. (See Luke 12:42-43, 48.) Man has been given the responsibility of subduing and exercising dominion over the animal creation (Gen. 1:26-27).

Verses That Might Be Used to Teach Animal Rights

Let’s take a look at some verses that might be used to teach animal rights. 

Deuteronomy 25:4: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Note first that this statement is proverbial in its nature. Though it may legitimately have a literal application, it is in a context of discussing human rights (vv. 2-5). Paul’s application of this text in 1 Corinthians 9:9 shows that we are on the right track. Though I certainly would not deny that it would be wrong for a man to mistreat his ox, wrong for him to muzzle it so that it cannot eat as it works, the proverbial statement of Deuteronomy 25:4 was meant to have a higher, human, application (see 1 Cor. 9:7-14).

Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21: These passages forbade the Israelites from boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk. Older commentators saw no significance in these verses beyond that of showing pity, and avoiding cruelty. Though that may make sense of a sort, keep in mind that it did not keep the Israelites from cooking and eating a young goat — they just couldn’t boil it in its mother’s milk. (I understand that Jewish traditions regarding kosher foods does not allow meat to be cooked in milk, or even milk to be served along with meat, to avoid violating these verses.)

In 1930 archaeologists discovered the Ugarit literature, in which “it was learned that boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was a Canaanite [religious] practice used in connection with [pagan] fertility rites” (Wycliffe Commentary).

Again, a look at the context of this command bears out what we have already considered. All the passages that forbade boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk are in a context dealing with worship or sacrifice to Deity. The Israelites were not to mix Canaanitish religious practices with their worship to God. These verses are not really dealing with animal rights, but with human wrongs.

Proverbs 12:10: “A righteous man regards the life of his animal, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” Indeed, this verse, along with general principles suggested in other passages, indicates that it is wrong to practice animal cruelty. In fact, it has been generally observed that those who practice animal cruelty usually graduate to human cruelty. It should be noted, however, that raising and killing animals for food, clothing, and other legitimate purposes, using them as beasts of burden, etc., are not viewed in the Bible as acts of cruelty.

Animal Rights Extremists Protest the Legitimate Use of Animals

Readers Digest, June 1990, had an article detailing vandalism on the part of “animal rights” extremists. And make no mistake about it, when a person refers to killing animals for food or medical research as “murder,” that person is an extremist.

Perhaps the real culprit here is the atheistic doctrine of general evolution. General evolution theorizes that humans are basically no different from the rest of the so-called “animal kingdom” — that we have developed from ape-like ancestors, and someday will be developed out of existence, giving way to some higher form of life — that we as individuals have no greater destiny than the grave.

The Bible repeatedly emphasizes the distinction between human and other life forms and indicates that humans are of much greater value than animals. See Matthew 6:26; 8:31-32; 12:11-12. Jesus said, “And I say to you, ‘My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear; Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him! Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? And not one of them is forgotten before God. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows’” (Luke 12:4-7).

The following uses of animals are in harmony with the revealed will of God, to whom all the animals belong:

  • Animals, both wild and domestic, can be killed and eaten. In fact, under the Old Testament system, eating of certain meats was required in Passover observances, etc. (Gen. 9:3; Exod. 12:1-11; 1 Tim. 4:1-4). 
  • Animals, both wild and domestic, may be killed to provide clothing and/or shelter for man. For Adam and Eve, “the Lord God made tunics of skin, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). John the Baptist wore a leather belt (Mark 1:6). The tabernacle that Moses built, by God’s command, was completely covered with both ram’s skins and badger skins (Exod. 26:14).
  • Animals may be used as beasts of burden. One can ride them, pull chariots with them, pull plows, thresh grain, etc. Even Jesus rode a donkey (Matt. 21:7).
  • There is a Scriptural precedent for penning animals in a stall and fattening them for the precise purpose of slaughter as food. They killed the fatted calf (Luke 15:23).
  • Wild animals were slain for the protection of domestic animals and men (1 Sam. 17:34-37).
  • Dogs were used in guarding and or guiding sheep (Job 30:1).
  • Animals were kept as pets for companionship (2 Sam. 12:1-6; Matt. 15:27).
  • The principles involved in hunting, fishing, and trapping harmonizes with the Scriptures (see Lev. 17:13; Amos 3:5; Matt. 17:27; John 21:6).
  • Though I know of no specific example, it is in harmony with every Bible principle to use animals in research and development of medicines and safety devices. After all, man was told to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
  • Again, though there is no Bible example of such that I can think of, “game management” falls within the scope of subduing and exercising dominion over the animal creation. This is a difficult and complex problem. Use of a resource might be expedient in one area, circumstance, or time, and inexpedient in another. “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up   . . .” (Eccl. 3:1ff).


I am persuaded that it is wrong for us to wastefully abuse and destroy animal life — not so much because animals have rights, but because they belong to God, and we must honor Divine rights. I believe it is sinful for us to be cruel to any creature God has made but this does not preclude our using the things God has put under our dominion to serve and fulfill our needs and legitimate desires.

P.O. Box 463, Marietta, Pennsylvania
Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 4 p20 February 17, 2000