February 15, 2013

The Peaceable Kingdom

Edward Hicks: Peaceable Kingdom
Episcopal Relief & Development has again published a booklet of Lenten meditations this year. The meditation for Ash Wednesday is from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and it offers what I found to be a startling observation. The scripture on which the meditation is based in Genesis 1:27–31, but Genesis 1:29–30 is what I want to highlight here:
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.”
Jefferts Schori observes, “It’s not often noticed, but all the animals, including human beings, are here intended to be vegetarians.”

Apparently, God’s intended “state of nature” is so peaceful that it lacks not only war, but even the violence attendant to one creature’s eating another. (Plants fare less well.) This notion reappears in the well-known passage, Isaiah 11:6–8, the inspiration for the many paintings titled “The Peaceable Kingdom” (see example above) by Edward Hicks (1780–1849):
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
Less familiar is next verse:
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.
The same idea reappears in Isaiah 65:25:
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
   the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
   but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
All this is very poetic, if evolutionarily unlikely. And the “state of nature” in Genesis is simply unhistorical. Nonetheless, one can appreciate the attractiveness of the Isaiah vision to Quaker Hicks.


  1. I might be a little biased here...

    In the U.S. we grown enough corn and soybeans as animal feed to feed approx 8 billion people (calorically, not necessarily in a nutritionally complete way). Factory farms produce outrageous amounts of pollution and add to our growing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria. We have so greatly overfished the oceans that some species populations are so low and immature that they become extinct - endangering the precarious balance of the seas.

    While the arguments from the quoted scriptures are about the morality of killing animals for pleasure (in today's modern first world animals are not needed for sustenance) but large-scale meat eating is a serious problem for people too. The Bible is pretty clear when it comes to treating people well, making sure that everyone has sufficient food, clean air and water, effective drugs, and an overall healthy environment.

  2. The Peaceable Kingdom, by Randall Thompson, will be sung at the Four Choirs (Calvary, East Liberty Pre, Shadyside Pres, St Andrew's) on Sunday, May 5 at 4:30 at East Liberty Pres.

    1. I’m glad to learn about this performance. I’m a fan of Thompson, though I don’t know “The Peaceable Kingdom.”


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