The simple meaning of parshat Breishit indicates that before the flood, animals had a much higher status than at present. They had many characteristics and much of the same role that human beings now have.
Evidence for this assertion includes the following facts:
- Animals could speak, for example the snake.
- Animals could listen to speech: “God blessed them, saying: Be fruitful and multiply...” (1:22)
- Animals were potential spouses for mankind: “God formed from the earth every animal of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man... but the man did not find a helpmate for himself.” (2:19-20)
- Man was not allowed to kill animals for food. (1:29)
- Animals too were not allowed to eat animals, but had to eat plants instead. (1:30)
This depiction is surprising. Our first impulse is to explain away each of the above examples as being metaphorical. But putting them together, it is hard to escape the conclusion that they form, at least, a single and more daring metaphor.
It is equally surprising to see an extremely similar depiction in a different context.
ÅgThe wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and the calf and lion and cattle together; and a little child will lead them. The cow and the bear will graze; their young ones shall will down together; and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The baby will play on the hole of the asp, and the child will put his hand on the basilisk's den.” (Yeshayahu 11:6-8)
Here we have many of the same elements as at the beginning of Breishit: Animals and humans coexist. All animals are vegetarian. Humans and snakes are friends, not enemies.
As hard as it is for us to understand the role of animals described here, the similarity between Breishit and Yeshayahu cannot be accidental. Apparently, we are being told, when God first created the world animals had a much higher status than they do today. Due to some kind of sin, the world had to be destroyed and remade with a different role for animals. But someday, in the messianic era, the world and animals will return to their original state.
When did the change in animals' role occur? Clearly a big change occurred at the time of the flood. The flood is justified by the judgment that “all flesh had corrupted its way on earth” - all flesh, apparently including animals. While Adam and Eve had a task in the Garden of Eden, Noach had to make the world he lived in, saving the animals in the flood and planting grapes after leaving the ark. Furthermore, right after the flood humans are allowed to eat animals and animals may eat each other. From this point on, animals' lives are no longer holy, and humans now rule over animals by force. Granted, even Adam and Eve were told to “have dominion” (1:28) over the animals. But perhaps this expression has less forceful and hostile connotations than what Noach was told - “Your fear and dread will be upon [all animals]... and they are delivered into your hand.” (9:2)
Besides the flood, there is at least one other event in which animals are punished. The snake's behavior in the Garden of Eden earns it a lower status and more hostile relations with humans. This seems similar to the punishment all animals received in the flood. Perhaps snakes lost their status at this point, and other animals lost their status at some later point prior to the flood. In the messianic era, when all these sins and punishments are repaired, perhaps the last to be repaired will be that of the snake. In this final stage of redemption – the final words of Yeshayahu's description, in which humans and snakes once more coexist peacefully – we will truly have returned to the Garden of Eden.
(Heard from R' Baruch Gigi. Possibly derived from R' Kook's writings on vegetarianism.)