Celine Mangan OP uses the two quotes which follow to bring awareness of how the animal world can teach us humans how our actions are causing destruction to planet earth: ‘The land mourns and all who live in it languish; even the fish of the sea are perishing.’ (Hos.4.3) and ‘Even the stork in the heavens knows the times; but my people do not know the ordinance of the Lord.’ (Jer.8:7)
Prophets in every culture are those who can see into the darkness and interpret the signs of the times better than the rest of us. The prophets of the Bible spoke out from within their own culture about the injustices they saw round about them, whether in State or in religious practices. They critiqued the very institutions which had brought the experience of God to the people in the past.
The prophet Jeremiah looked at the people flocking to the Temple in Jerusalem in a time of crisis. The people thought that the fact that they had the Temple in their midst meant that God would have to deliver them from their enemies. They were using the Temple as a kind of insurance policy. Jeremiah says to them: ‘If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow or shed innocent blood in this place… then I will dwell with you in this place’ (Jer 7:5-7).
The prophet Hosea had similar things to say to the people of his time. He felt that they were out of sync in their relationships with God and one another but he realized that bad human behaviour has consequences for the natural world as well. After listing the wrongdoings of the people, he goes on to say: ‘Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing’ (Hos.4:3). How true this is for us today: our exploitation of the natural resources of the earth has led to devastation on land, in the atmosphere and now increasingly in the seas.
Quite often the prophets of the Bible portray nature as being on the side of God against humans. The prophet, Isaiah, for example, calls on the heavens and the earth and, in particular, animals, to witness what God has done for the people and their lack of response: ‘Hear, O heavens and listen, O earth… I reared children and brought them up but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but my people do not know, my people do not understand’ (Is. 1:1-3).
Animals can be shown to teach humans, even prophets themselves, that their deeds are skewed. A good example can be seen in the wonderful story of the prophet Jonah who was told by God to go and preach repentance to the Ninevites, traditional enemies of the people of Israel. Taking ship to go in the opposite direction rather than fulfilling his mission, the whale he encounters in the story becomes God’s instrument in bringing him to his senses.
There is a real sense in these books that animals have better intuition into the ways of God than arrogant humans. Jeremiah says: ‘Even the stork in the heavens knows the times; and the turtledove, swallow and crane observe the time of their coming; but my people do not know the ordinance of the Lord’ (Jer 8:7).
Looking out recently from a headland near Caherdaniel in Co. Kerry at the storm-petrels skimming the water I was filled with wonder at the fact that they spend summer in our part of the world but are in South Africa by New Year. Many recent TV programmes have helped us all to appreciate the complexities of animal behaviour in the natural world.
But critique was not the only function of the prophets; they were also called upon to encourage the people when they were tempted to despair. Just as they used nature to criticize Israel, so they made use of it to encourage the people as well.
When they found themselves in exile in Babylon, a prophet appeared who used nature imagery to promise them that God would bring them back to their own land again: ‘Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint’ (Is.40:31).
He speaks of God carrying them back from exile like a shepherd carries a lost sheep, a mother her child, an eagle its young, even as a lamb who carries our sins. The canvas of the prophet is wide: ‘When the poor and needy seek water and there is none… I will open rivers on the bare heights and fountains in the midst of valleys’ (Is. 41:17-18).
That saying has great poignancy today, however, as many people in poorer countries seek water and find there is none. Even in a developed country like Ireland how many areas have had to boil water in recent months because of pollution? Modern-day ecological prophets such as Fr. Seán McDonagh have continually drawn attention to the crisis facing the world because of global warming, climate change and the pollution of scarce water resources.
In his most recent book, Climate Change (Columba Press, 2006), he calls on leaders in the Church and all of us to educate ourselves about what is happening in our world. He tells us: ‘We need to be reminded that the earth is finite and that we must live in a way that is just and fair to future generations of humans and other creatures.’ Will we, like the people of Israel of old, not bother to listen to our prophets, or will we heed them and so prevent the disasters that threaten us?
This article first appeared in The Messenger (October 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.