Wednesday, May 14, 2014

An Apology for the Post-Egyptian Ownership of Domesticated Felines

by JaneAnn Kenney

Warning: Historical inaccuracies and possible anachronisms. The writer didn’t feel like doing any fact checking as it would have inhibited her creative process. 

The subject of domesticated felines (for the purposes of this essay, hereafter called “cats” with wavering regularity) is suspiciously lacking in the Jewish and Christian canons. The casual reader might assume nothing of this oversight, not even bothering to note the glaring nature of their absence. This person would not question why David did not offer Michal a cat after he snubbed her, or alternatively why no Persian breeds came strutting back with Judah from the exile. Were there mice in the stable where Jesus was born? The world will never know, because we do not have any sources to tell us if there were any mousing cats lazing about.

A plot far more sinister and nefarious emerges when we consider the great lengths that certain cat-hating scholars have gone to in order to undermine the Imago Cattī in scripture. Admittedly, there are texts that seem to confirm their bias as one considers the facts of the exodus and subsequent exiles. Fact: Israel was Yahweh’s special nation and Egypt was not. Fact: Egyptians worshipped cats. Fact: cats did, in fact, feel entitled to said worship (as many still do, even to this day). Thus it follows, if not logically then at least tangentially, that Israel chose not to own cats because to own cats would be to worship cats and so to adopt the customs of their Egyptian slave drivers, who are portrayed in Exodus as being not so very kind.

Cats are not gods; there is no evidence to suggest that they were at any time genuine deities. Indeed, among all the various diatribes leveled against the deities of surrounding cultures, whether condemnation for offering children to Molech or offering cakes to Ishtar, Queen of Heaven, not once does God seem to have sent a prophet to counter a false prophet of cats. And there is no commandment within the priestly laws that would restrict cat ownership among the people.

Consider, however, what God told Moses on Mt. Sinai: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Yahweh qtd. Exod. 20:4-5, ESV). Cats may not have been actual gods, but like icons and idols, they were images of what was assumed to be sacred, at least in Egypt. Because Israel wanted Yahweh to be faithful to the covenant he had struck with them, they were at least silent on the matter of cat ownership.
The question, then, becomes one of arguments from silence. Some say the Bible is silent on the matter of cat ownership, presumably because Israel understood based on experience in Egypt that such ownership would be tantamount to abandoning faith in the one true God. Others point out that the Bible also never expressly forbids the ownership of domesticated felines. We find ourselves at an impasse.

A new perspective here can help clear up the matter of cat ownership. On the subject of larger animals—lions, say—we can find some conflicting information which might help explain how Christians today can assume the right to own such creatures.

In 1 Samuel, David brags about having killed lions in his days as a shepherd. He did this because they were thieving sheep from him, possibly in cahoots with the bears: “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears” (David qtd. 1 Sam. 14:34-36, ESV). These lions (and their shaggier counterparts) were, pure and simple, enemies of both God and man.

The picture gets more complicated in 2 Kings. The Assyrians had displaced the people of northern Israel and settled foreigners in their homes. However, those new residents neither knew nor worshiped God. “Therefore the LORD sent lions among them, which killed some of them” (Anonymous, 2 Kings 17:25, ESV). The Assyrian king rightly understood that the problem was with the local God (although he would not have known to capitalize his appellation) and so he sent priests to teach the people how to be rid of the lions, acknowledging that the God of the land had sent them in judgment. Thus these lions were doing God’s bidding, punishing those people who lived in the Promised Land with no concern for the covenant.

The final piece of evidence I feel like considering is the image of Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Elder qtd. Rev. 5:5, ESV). This alone should be enough to redeem at least large cats in God’s kingdom plans. If Jesus is a lion, then lions de facto cannot be evil. Given that lions and domesticate housecats of all breeds come from the same…genus? phylum? (someone in biology help me) it follows that cats are also redeemed by the Jesus-lion analog.

Thus we have Christ to thank for the freedom to choose whether or not to own cats today. At the Red Sea, Yahweh delivered the people from the death that awaited them as slaves in Egypt; at the cross, Jesus delivered a multitudes from the death that awaited us as slaves to sin. Just as all things are being made new, so too our relationship with cats is also being renewed. No more must we worry that speaking in higher pitched voices will be considered worship, nor that feeding them scraps from the table will be seen as a guilt sacrifice. Giving our sweet kitties preferential seating is not a mark of religious devotion, but one of wisdom and hospitality. Our cats keep us humble, and without humility we are shall not enter the kingdom of God. So then, as we go forth, let us remember to spay and neuter, for in so doing so we show ourselves good stewards in the household of God, a household that certainly owns a cat or two. 

You can ask JaneAnn about: Nashville, theology, cats. Baseball. Glacial rivers. Her stance on the color purple, and then again the existence of the word "purple." General frivolity and terrible music (for the DANCING!!). Old Stephen King novels, time zones, and toll roads in Oklahoma. She will not, however, answer any questions about that thing living in her fridge. You can follow her on Twitter @JAKof3Ts. 

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