The 2,025th Meeting of the Society

March 4, 1994 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Anthropology Looks at the Old Testament

The God-Nature Continuum

Milton Jacobs

Professor Emeritus Anthropology, State University of New York

About the Lecture

It is well known that the Old Testament covers Jewish history and experience of more than a millennium. Although the various books and sections have been written by different authors, it is read in a certain sequence and may be considered a closed narrative system. To talk about its impact seems gratuitous but the Old Testament has become sacred to Christians and Muslims and has remained sacred to the Jewish people.

To understand such a complex and lengthy narrative, one must invent different analytical approaches. What I propose to do is to attempt to gain understanding through a quantitative analysis of the animals in the Old Testament. The analysis attempts to answer the following questions:

How are animals depicted in the Old Testament?
What does mention and function of animals within the narrative passages tell us about the God-man-nature relationship?
Is there a discernable pattern if we examine the animals according to the three divisions of the Masoretic Bible: The Laws, The Prophets, and The Writings? It would be useful to point out that The Laws are considered the most sacred, The Prophets next sacred, and The Writings least sacred.
Is there a discernable pattern if we examine the animals according to the chronology of the books?

About the Speaker

Mr. Jacobs earned a B.A. in 1948 and M.A. in 1950, both in psychology from George Washington University. He became a research psychologist for the federal government upon graduation until 1950 when he resumed graduate studies in anthropology at Catholic University and earned a Ph.D. in 1956. Mr. Jacobs has lectured at the University of Virginia, Catholic University, City College of New York, Georgetown University, and the University of Maryland. In 1966, he founded the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York and served as its chairman for six years. He has also published a number of papers on anthropology and Asian Studies.


The President, Ms. Enig, called the 2025th meeting to order at 8:15 p.m. on March 4, 1994. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2024th meeting and they were approved. The President then read a portion of the minutes from the 417th meeting, March 3, 1894.

The President introduced Mr. Milton Jacobs, Professor Emeritus Anthropology, State University of New York to discuss “Anthropology Looks at the Old Testament: The God-Nature Continuum".

Mr. Jacobs explained that he began this research after reading a book on how animals were treated during the Roman Empire and how that treatment did or did not reflect the values of that society. Animals usually become anthropological research subjects in connection with the creation myths in which they occur, like the work of Alfred Crowler on the myths of the California Uki Indians and the work of Levi-Strauss in distinguishing between myths of nature and myths of culture.

Mr. Jacobs proceeded by reading from and elaborating on his 1976 paper on this research [1]. Between approximately 1000 BCE when a Jewish kingdom in Palestine can be historically recognized and 586 BCE when Jerusalem was conquered by Babylon the population had more than doubled. There had been a concomitant transition from a population that was largely semi-nomadic and agrarian to one that was largely urban. Although the various texts comprising the Old Testament were written by different authors at different times (both as they acknowledge and as scholars agree), the assemblage can be read in a certain sequence and may be considered a closed narrative system. Some of the questions Mr. Jacobs wanted to address in this research were: Are patterns discernible if we examine the text according to the three recognized divisions of the Masoretic Bible, the Laws, Prophets and Writings? Is a pattern discernible if we examine the animals according to the chronology of the books, for example with respect to the role of animals in ecological adjustments during this period? What attitudes toward animals in a God-man-nature continuum were reflected in the narrative passages?

To understand such a complex and lengthy narrative, a quantitative, analytical approach was undertaken. Every passage mentioning animals was categorized by one of five contexts (God-related, food-related, metaphorical, hierarchical, wealth-related), by one of three text divisions (Laws, Prophets, Writings), and by one of two animal states (wild, domestic). Of the 702 references that were found, 676 could be categorized in this way. There were 26 references where the animal could not be identified, or the reference could not be categorized. If the writing, assembly and canonization of the Laws, Prophets and Writings can be said to have followed in roughly that order, then these references to animals in the Old Testament do reflect the trends of increasing secularization and urbanization of the Judaic kingdoms in Palestine.

Categorized Animal References in the Old Testament
source state G F M H W total
Law wild 84 66 8 2 0 160
domestic 36 14 2 6 13 71
Prophets wild 90 5 78 16 7 196
domestic 29 2 15 5 14 65
Writings wild 44 1 61 9 3 118
domestic 32 1 8 6 19 66
combined wild 218 72 147 27 10 474
domestic 97 17 25 17 46 202
total 315 89 172 44 56 676
Although Judaism bars the worship of animals, the references indicate a respect for animals, not merely as property, but as living creatures, and a concern that their suffering be minimized. A notable example of the respect that is accorded animals is at end of the story of the flood; in the narrative a covenant is established by God with man and also with the animals.

[1] Milton Jacobs, Jewish Journal of Sociology, 18(2), 141-153, 1976.

Although Mr. Jacobs had to abbreviate his talk because he felt indisposed, he did kindly remain to answer a few questions from the audience.

The President thanked the speaker on behalf of the Society. The membership chairman was unable to attend, so there was no report on new members. The President announced the speaker for the next meeting, made the parking announcement, and adjourned the 2025th meeting at 9:17 p.m.

Attendance: 66
Temperature: +8.2°C
Weather: partly cloudy

Respectfully submitted,

John S. Garavelli
Recording Secretary