Children around the world dress up as oxen, sheep and donkeys this week in Christmas pageants. Domestic animals appear beside the shepherds and magi in every nativity scene, introduced by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, [1] but not in the canonic Gospels, where no mention is made of the beasts’ adoration of the Christ child. This part of story is to be found in the New Testament Apocrypha, in later texts that Christian authorities consider suspect and misleading. [2] Sometimes, though, the intuition of children is more reliable than the pronouncements of scholars. What would Christmas be without the sheep and oxen?

Not long ago a Chinese diplomat asked me what his country could do to improve its image in the West. I replied that his government should take measures to suppress the sad commerce in dog and cat fur. Television footage of canine and feline victims stirred outrage last year among Westerners, who might forgive Beijing a hard hand against human dissidents, but cannot bear to watch the torment of companion animals. Judeo-Christian culture places great emphasis on kindness to animals, and the ox that kissed the Lord’s foot stood in the manger as a representative of all his fellows.

Children spontaneously identify with animals, and the Bible tells us that God finds an affinity between the innocence of animals and children. He chides Jonah, “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand [ie, small children]; and also much cattle?”

It may seem trivial to worry about the welfare of animals when we might fret more productively about Iranian nuclear weapons or Pakistani suicide bombers. But we must justify ourselves not only to God, but also to our children, and at this time of year we owe attention to a child’s view of things. A deeper point about our own nature is at stake. What is it that makes us different from animals? Contrary to Aristotle, I do not believe it is the faculty of reason as such. I own a terrier who schemes on the level of a Talleyrand. If oxen and asses adored the Christ child, moreover, are we better than the beasts in our capacity to love? Before attempting to answer the question, I will try to show that the answer requires reflection.

Attributing to animals a sensibility for the divine is far more ancient than the New Testament Apocrypha; the notion goes back to some of the earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible. Jews still dedicate two Sabbaths each year to animals, namely to the dogs and birds who aided their liberation from Egypt. Exodus 11:7 states, “But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue [as they left Egypt], against man or beast: that ye may know how that the LORD doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.” Rabbinical interpretation links the Pentateuch’s instruction (Exodus 22:31) to give the dogs meat that is forbidden to Jews as a reward for their kindness to the fleeing Israelites. When Moses’ song of triumph (Exodus 15) is read in synagogues on the “Sabbath of Song,” Jews are instructed to feed birds in recognition of their gift of song, and more broadly to show kindness to all of God’s creatures.

Since ancient times Jews were severely instructed to treat animals mercifully. Animals must be butchered in the least painful way then available, hunting was forbidden (and hunters disparaged), Sabbath rest applied to animals as well as humans, and so forth. Deuteronomy 25:4 forbids muzzling an ox that is threshing grain, because it is cruel to prevent the animal that produces food from partaking of the food. These rules were enhanced in later Jewish practice and celebrated in rabbinical parables. [3] Animals may not be as close to God as humankind, but they are not so far from God that He fails to set down detailed rules of conduct for their treatment.

Now that Pope Benedict XVI has called on a rabbi, Jacob Neusner, to explain Christology in the Gospel of St. Matthew, [4] it does not seem untoward to cite another Jewish scholar to explain the presence of animals in the nativity scene. It is fitting for the animals to be present at the birth of Jesus, the “new Adam,” for they were present at the creation of the first Adam. This idea is developed with startling acumen by the great Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod, whose essay, “The Revenge of the Animals,” appears in the book Abraham’s Promise. [5]

In the Biblical creation story, notes Wyschogrod, God creates Adam and states (Genesis 2:18) that it is not good for man to be alone, and that he needs a fitting helper. We would have expected the story of the creation of Eve to follow directly upon this, but instead, Genesis recounts the making of the wild beasts and birds, and their presentation to Adam for naming. But no fitting helper was found for Adam amongst them (Genesis 2:20). “It seems that God expected that as Adam got to know (name) the animals, one of them would appeal to him and become his fitting helper,” Wyschogrod observes. Only after no fitting helper is found does God put Adam into a deep sleep and make Eve from one of his ribs. Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”, Adam rejoices (2:23) and can be united with her.

Wyschogrod concludes from this exegesis, “While a certain level of friendship with animals is possible, this friendship cannot rise to the level of the union possible between two human beings … We can now understand better the companionship animals can provide human beings, a recognition strengthened by recent research on the beneficial effects of pets on old people living alone or in nursing homes.” Wyschogrod speculates that the Serpent, the most subtle of the animals, took revenge upon Eve (who had replaced the animals in Adam’s affections) by tricking her into eating the forbidden fruit, leading to man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Thus were the animals revenged upon Eve.

Genesis further tells us that humankind was only permitted to eat plants (1:29, 2:9) until the Flood, when God permitted the eating of animals under certain conditions (9:2-3). Wyschogrod sees this as a divine concession to our “innately evil drive”, and concludes, “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that God would prefer a vegetarian humanity.” Although only humans were created in God’s image, he adds, “It does not mean that the gulf between humans and animals is as absolute as that between humans and God.”

The same intuition about animals that places sheep, oxen and donkeys before the Christ child requires Jews to restrict their consumption of animal products, and persuades Hindus and Buddhists to eschew flesh altogether. Anthropologists offer persuasive explanations for these practices in purely material terms (pigs do not thrive in desert climates, and cows in India are more valuable for milk and dung than for meat). But this does not explain why a herding people skilled in the use of weapons would prohibit hunting, for example, or why Jews do not consume both the meat and milk of animals at the same time.

Wyschogrod’s exegesis of the Book of Genesis does not answer the question with which we began: how are human beings fundamentally different from animals? Is it simply a matter of degree, that is, human beings are capable of more rational thought and more selfless love? Nothing elevates humans more than their response to the divine, which is a loving response to divine love, yet we find oxen and asses transfixed in love before the baby Jesus. Animals do not appear to be capable of abstract reason, although a case has been made that the recently deceased African Grey parrot “Alex” learned the use of language. No chimpanzee has learned language, and the “Alex” evidence is disputed. Researchers continue to debate the extent to which animals employ reason, and I do not propose to get involved in the discussion.

Culture, I argued in a recent essay, performs a role among humans equivalent to species nature among animals. What radically distinguishes humans from animals is that we can transform our culture. Humans can befriend a cocker-spaniel but not a coyote; it is not in the nature of coyotes to cohabit with humans. Because animal nature is fixed, the taming of dangerous animals is a sign of the coming of the Messiah (“the lion shall lie down with the lamb”), or the subject of miracles, notably of St. Francis. As a spiritual exercise, the monks of the Buddhist temple at Luangta Bua in Thailand live with tigers they attempt to tame, albeit with occasional mishaps.

But human cultures can suppress those impulses which make us act like coyotes. Most cultures do not change; they persist until their best-used-by date, and then are destroyed by their enemies or die of their own despondency. Fundamental cultural change – a change as it were in human nature – appears in human history as a response to revelation.

Only one nation of the ancient world remembers a sudden and absolute transformation of its culture. I refer to Israel’s belief that the Creator of all flesh summoned it out of the depravity of the ancient world to His service. Every Christian relives this transformation, by forsaking his gentile nature for rebirth into a new People of God. Animal nature changes only through genetic mutation; human nature bears within it the desire to be transformed. “Thou has made us for thyself O God,” St. Augustine began the Confessions, “and our souls are restless till they find their rest in thee.”

Augustine’s “restlessness of soul” distinguishes humankind and animals absolutely, rather than by degree. Animals are content to remain what God has made them; our nature draws us to something higher. Animals love, and animals think, but they cannot transform the way they love and the way they think; this capacity for self-transformation is exclusively human.

Biological evidence, for example, leaves little doubt that our pre-historical ancestors were sexually promiscuous. After one sperm penetrates a human ovum, most of the remaining sperm form a barrier around it to block sperm from another prospective father. Humans who inherited this capacity were more likely to transmit their genes in a society where females had frequent multiple couplings. Marriage as the exclusive union of one man and one woman arose long after our physical evolution as modern humans, and our understanding of erotic love became inseparable from our response to divine love.

Animals may respond to divine love, but they cannot alter their species-nature in response to it. Our capacity for self-transformation brings us closer to God, precisely because we can transform ourselves, the better to imitate God. Humankind thus has the privilege to dominate the animals, who are farther from God than we are – but not past the boundary of divine concern. I am not a vegetarian and do not object to the humane use of animals in scientific research, but I believe nonetheless that the presence of the animals at the nativity teaches us something invaluable.

I do not know whether dogs go to heaven, but I am sure that if I encounter my terrier after I die, I will know that I am not in heaven.
1. St. Bonaventure reports in his biography of St. Francis (1274), “It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed.”

2. The earliest source for the adoration of the animals is the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew: “On the third day after the birth of the Lord, Mary left the cave and went into a stable. She laid the boy in a crib, and ox and ass venerated him. This fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘The ox knows its master, and the ass knows the crib of its Lord’ [Is 1:3]. The animals received him into their midst and venerated him without ceasing. This fulfilled the words of the prophet Habakkuk: ‘In the midst, between two animals, you shall be known.’” Pseudo-Matthew 14:1

3. See for example

4. Benedict XVI’s recent book Jesus of Nazareth devotes a chapter to Rabbi Neusner’s discussion of the Gospel of St. Matthew, in A Rabbi Talks to Jesus.

5. See my review Abraham’s promise and American power