Ethics in the Law of Moses: animal welfare

Many passages in the Bible are typically understood as teaching an explicit ethic of care and concern for animals and the environment, including the commandment that young birds may be taken from their mother, but their mother must be left alone (Deuteronomy 22:6-7), an ox or sheep not to be slaughtered on the same day as their young (Leviticus 22:8), animals used commercially are not to be overburdened or exploited (Exodus 23:5, Deuteronomy 25:4), and the statement that a righteous man takes care of his animals (Proverbs 12:10).

There was no tolerance for animal cruelty or animals being killed for entertainment.

There was no comparable legislation among Israel’s neighbors. The Sumerian law code known as the Reforms of Uru-inimgina, written during the reign of king Uru-inimgina (2351–2342 BCE), includes “hitched goring oxen to the donkey-teams”,[1] in a description of wrongs. However this comment occurs in a list of woes intended to describe the age before the current king as one of disorder.[2] There is no evidence for any law which prohibiting hitching goring oxen to donkeys.

In fact, Mesopotamian laws contained no animal welfare protection, and Mesopotamian society treated animals as objects. It was common for rulers to gather massive collections of animals for the purpose of demonstrating their wealth, even to the extent of driving local species to extinction,[3] and to confine some of these animals within a very small area (guarded by soldiers), in order to hunt them for sport.[4]

These large scale slaughters were considered praiseworthy, and were listed among the greatest deeds of the kings.

Should he take time for recreation in (the form of) hunting in any foreign land, more numerous is the amount which he bags than the take of his entire army! He slew seven lions by shooting arrows in an instant and carried off a herd of twelve wild bulls in one hour after breakfast time occurred, their tails being (displayed) behind him. As he was returning from Naharin, he finished off 120 elephants in the highlands of Ny.[5]

A section of The Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, British Museum
A section of The Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, British Museum

An anachronistic reading?

Biblical scholar Cyril Rodd challenged such readings of the Bible in his work “Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics” (2001). He proposed that not only are Biblical ethics radically different to those of our era, but also that the original writers of the Bible (and the societies in which they lived), shared little or none of the ethical concerns of the modern age.

Theologies of nature are being developed, and the Bible is mined for texts which support current ecological concern.
This is, however, a very late development, and it has been pointed out that far from being in the van of caring for the natural world, the reality is that the Christian church has at last almost caught up with the secular world.[6]

Rodd insisted that the Bible does not contain a distinctive animal welfare ethic, and presented revisionist readings of passages which have typically been understood as illustrating ethical concern for animals.

Finding support in the Bible for a more enlightened ethics of animal welfare has demanded a highly selective approach. The history of the attitude towards animals within the church should alert us to the fact that the teaching of the Bible is highly ambiguous.[7]

As a prime example, Rodd claims the Sabbath rest commandment was not motivated by concern for animal welfare, “even though today we may interpret it this way”. However, early Jewish commentary on the passage provides evidence that this is a natural reading rather than a case of modern ethics being read back into the text. Curiously, Rodd later acknowledges that at least the commandment in Exodus 20:10 to give rest to beasts of burden on the Sabbath, indicates a “genuine concern” for their welfare.

Indeed, ox and donkey are mentioned before the homeborn slave. In contrast to the Deuteronomic decalogue, this appears to reflect a genuine concern for the draught animals.[8]

Citing the requirement that an animal of the herd to be sacrificed must first spend seven days with its mother, Rodd acknowledges that one of the earliest Jewish interpretations of this passage (by Philo of Alexandria in the first century), understood this as a humanitarian act out of compassion for the mother.

The law of sacrificing the firstborn of oxen and sheep declares that the calf or lamb is to remain for seven days with its mother (Ex. 22:29[30]). Philo of Alexandria in the first century CE believed that this is due to kindly consideration for the mother animal.
He suggested that to kill the young animal immediately after birth would show a ‘cruel soul’ by inflicting the pain of immediate separation on the mother so soon after her birth pains, and would cause the mother to suffer still more through the unrelieved pressure of her milk (Virt. 125–130).[9]

Rather than being a late development of modern Judaism, the Law of Moses’ ethic of compassion for living beings and concern for the environment, was recognized and discussed in detail during the early rabbinic era of the first centuries after Christ. From this ethic, the rabbis drew two principles, one of conservation and avoidance of waste, and one of animal welfare.

The principle of conservation is called bal taschchit, which insists that both the natural world and all things derived from it for human use, must be used in a way which avoids waste and unnecessary destruction.

Recognizing that fruit trees are vital to humankind, the Rabbis developed the general principle of bal tashchit—prohibiting the wanton destruction of anything valuable to human existence, including vessels, clothing, buildings, springs, and food.[10]

The principle of animal welfare is called tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the “suffering of all living creatures”. This principle insists that all living creatures must be treated in such a way as to avoid suffering, or at least minimize suffering when it is unavoidable.

This general principle is formulated in Rabbinic Judaism, but its foundation in biblical law are apparent. It underlies the inclusion of one’s animals in the commandment to rest on Shabbat, the fourth commandment (Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:14; Exod. 23:12). Similarly, the Bible prohibits muzzling an ox when it is treading out grain (Deut. 25:4) and plowing with an ox and a donkey yoked together (Deut. 22:10) because these practices would cause suffering to the hungry and to the weaker animal, respectively. Restraint on exploitation and sensitivity to all living creatures are important biblical principles.[11]

Even Rodd acknowledges that this rabbinical principle was drawn directly from the animal welfare commandments of the Law of Moses (specifically Deuteronomy 22:1-4).

In Judaism it was the basis of the Talmudic principle called the duty of relieving ‘suffering of living beings’ (Cosmic Covenant, 118).[12]

Derived directly from the Law of Moses, the principles of bal tashchit and tza’ar ba’alei chayim were articulated and developed further by later medieval rabbis.

To Abravanel the promise of a long life signals an additional aim of the law, conservation of natural resources: releasing the mother enables her to produce more offspring in the future and thus helps maintain the supply of food needed by humans. In a similar vein, Sefer Ha-Ḥinnukh holds that the aim of the law is to teach that God does not want any species to become extinct.[13]

Far from being a modern reinterpretation of an ancient text, the animal welfare ethic of the Law of Moses is inextricably part of the original message. No Mespotamian civilization had laws which were even comparable.


  1. “Reforms of Uru-inimgina”, William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Context of Scripture (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2000), 407.
  2. The fact that other wrongs listed include “the oxen of the gods plowed the onion-patch of the ruler”, indicates that this is a generic list of “things which ought not to be” rather than actual illegal acts
  3. Stephen St C. Bostock, Zoos and Animal Rights (Routledge, 2003), 10.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Armant Stela of Thutmose III, in William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Context of Scripture (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2000), 19.
  6. Cyril S. Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 207.
  7. Ibid., 207–208.
  8. Ibid., 219.
  9. Ibid., 221.
  10. Ronald L. Eisenberg, The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (1st ed.; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 696.
  11. David M. Gordis, “Ecology,” in Etz Hayim Study Companion, ed. Jacob Blumenthal and Janet Liss (Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 185.
  12. Cyril S. Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001).
  13. Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy (The JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 201.

Author: Jon Burke

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