Some research this week took me to Richard Bauckham’s Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Baylor University Press, 2011). I was surprised and delighted by Bauckham’s exploration of Mark 1:13: “He [Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” I must admit that, though I am keenly interested in the Bible and our relationship with (other) animals, I had never really noticed the clause that “he was with the wild beasts.” But Bauckham makes much of it, judiciously and compellingly.
Bauckham notes that in Mark there are three non-human encounters for Jesus in the wilderness. The first encounter is one of enmity, with Satan. The third is one of unalloyed alliance and friendliness, with the angels. The second and in-between encounter, with the beasts, is one of neither unrelenting enmity nor straightforward friendliness, with the wild animals, who “are enemies of whom Jesus makes friends.”
Who are the “wild beasts”? Bauckham says that the Greek here refers to wild animals in distinction from domesticated animals, and usually to four-footed animals rather than birds, reptiles, and fish, though snakes can be included. It may also refer to beasts of prey, that is, animals dangerous to humans. From what we know of the zoology in the ancient Judean wilderness, Jesus may have encountered such animals as bears, leopards, wolves, cobras and desert vipers, scorpions, hyenas, jackals, desert foxes, wild boars, wild asses, and antelopes.
Bauckham finds in Mark’s story undertones of the Jewish eschatological hopes for the healing and reconciliation of all creation, as for example in Isaiah 11:6–9, “The wolf shall live with the lamb . . . The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,’ and so forth. Jesus’ being “with the wild beasts” is rooted in the phrase einai meta tinos, “to be with someone,” and “frequently has the strongly positive sense of close association or friendship or agreement or assistance.” Thus “Mark 1:13 depicts Jesus enjoying the peaceable harmony with wild animals which had been God’s original intention for humanity but which is usually disrupted by the threat of violence.” What Jesus establishes, in his christological role and in early Mark’s context of the inauguration of the kingdom of God, is the representative “messianic peace with wild animals. . . . Jesus does not restore the paradisal state as such, but he sets the messianic precedent for it.”
In sum, “Mark’s image of Jesus with the animals provides a christological warrant for and a biblical symbol of the human possibility of living fraternally with other living creatures, a possibility given by God in creation and given back in messianic redemption. Like all aspects of Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of God, its fullness will be realized only in the eschatological future, but it can be significantly anticipated in the present.”