Has anyone ever noticed how Eve did not question the serpent who spoke to her? She had a plain and simple conversation with him. I don’t know about everyone else, but if a serpent started speaking to me I would think I was hallucinating! Never mind what he said to me, this is a serpent speakingfor crying out loud! Why doesn’t scripture record anything about Eve wondering how this serpent could even be speaking to her!? And what about Balaam?? He didn’t flinch when his donkey began speaking to him, he simply snapped back telling his donkey had embarrassed him! Again, if my donkey started speaking to me out of nowhere, I probably wouldn’t care so much about what he said but the fact that he was speaking!
Talking animals are a point that many unbelievers use to mock the Christian faith, yet they can accept without a doubt that parrots can indeed speak. There are many examples today that some animals have the ability to make human speech sounds, check out this really cool article by BBC that includes recordings of orangutans, beluga whales and elephants! A simple search online will also turn up many spectacular cases of animals being taught how to say human words! Because we see obvious examples of animals being able to make the sounds of human language, a better question should be about the intelligence of animals to be able to understand speech, not just mimic sounds.
Most people who have pets will be 100% convinced that animals can indeed understand commands and show all the hallmarks of emotion. Although animals cannot speak in “plain English” to us, the can most definitely communicate with their families- did you know that cats only meow to humans? Only kittens meow to their mothers when they are newborns but other than that, cats do not meow to each other- it is an exclusive form of communication between cats and humans! It’s easy to tell these things by simple observation and many professional studies have confirmed that many animals are objectively, very intelligent. I once saw a documentary of some apes getting their memory skills tested and I was blown away! They have way better memory than most of us do. I don’t need to argue much for the intelligence of animals, as both scripture and secular science confirm it. In my post Why I’m (mostly) a Vegetarian, I give some examples on how scripture confirms that animals are conscious rational beings.
I believe these facts all point to hints of something that once was but was corrupted by the fall of man and creation in Genesis 3. All things were new to Adam and Eve so nothing would have really surprised them as it would us. They had no preconceived notions about what creatures should or shouldn’t be speaking to them, so a talking snake really wouldn’t have been anything to freak out about. It is clear that Adam and Eve lived a very different reality than we do, they were placed in a creation where all things were in perfect communion with God and with each other- God, humans and animals in perfect communion. Most Christians acknowledge that although the life we live today contains glimpses of beauty of original creation, it is not comparable to it. With some reflection, it should not be hard for Christians to believe in a reality where animals were able to communicate plainly with human beings. Consider this example: 500 years ago, humans lived a drastically different reality- there were no cars, no airplanes, no internet and no GPS devices. If someone told them that one day there would be all those various modes of technology, many would write it off as impossible. Today’s generation never lived in a reality of horse travel and no wifi and they are so far removed from it that it’s hard for them to imagine people could even exist in a world like that! However, just because you didn’t live in that reality, it doesn’t mean it never happened. There exist many historical documents that confirm that people did live this way once upon a time. As Christians, if we consider the Bible to be a perfect account of history- a reality where animals once spoke shouldn’t be hard to imagine. Another example is the movie Bright (spoilers ahead). In this world, there are different kinds of creatures sharing a 21stcentury style life including orcs driving cars, elves going shopping downtown and humans working as law enforcers. Yet, there are a select few who know the history of how the world became what is- a history that’s full of magic, wands and spells. This is a reality that the elite decided to erase from the public’s common knowledge because they believed it would be better. However, once a few common folks discover that the legends are true- that magic exists and once dominated existence- their entire worldview changes. It would be like if Lord of the Rings was the history the people in Bright never knew about! Again- just because your reality is nothing like the reality of 1000 years ago- it doesn’t mean it never happened!
So why don’t we see this reality today? In Genesis 9, after the great flood of Noah, the relationship between animals and humans changed. It states that the fear of man would come upon all creatures and that humans were now allowed to consume animal flesh just as they were allowed to consume plants at the beginning. Clearly this was not God’s original plan, but because sin had already destroyed the reality of humanity, the rules or reality changed. But what about Balaam and his donkey (Numbers 22:21-39)? Didn’t he exist after Noah’s flood? Balaam did indeed exist after the relationship between animals and humans changed yet he too showed no shock when God allowed his donkey to speak for himself. This could be because Balaam was concentrating so much on his own situation and pride that he really didn’t care who or what was speaking to him at the time. Yet, it also points to the possibility that the change in Genesis 9 didn’t necessarily happen over night but was a gradual decline. Just as the curse on humans and nature has been a gradual decline, the changed relationship with animals could also be slow. Think about it, humanity began as a perfect specimen created by God and slowly over time he has declined in every way, as has nature. Today there are many plant and animal varieties that no longer exist because of the effect of human sin and it’s only getting worse. If we can observe this, it’s also possible that animals slowly lost their ability to communicate with humans as they once did. Although scripture specifically says that God opened the donkey’s mouth- implying that the donkey could not speak otherwise- Balaam could have still been aware of animal intelligence and of humanity’s past relationship to them.
A movie I think illustrates perfectly how this possibility could look is the Japanese anime Princess Mononoke. This is one of my favorite movies, although it is heavily influenced by the Shinto religion, it still contains lots of hints of God’s truth when it comes to man’s relationship with nature and animals. In the movie (once again- spoilers ahead.. Sorry!) giant animal “gods” dwell in the forests, they are highly intelligent and can verbally communicate with all creatures including humans. Throughout the movie, there is conflict between these animals and the humans who want to forcefully take their resources without any respect. Amongst the conflict, the humans know that in order to “win” against the animals, they must kill the Forest Spirit- a deer-god that guards the forest and has the ability to give life and death to all who dwell in it. The Forest Spirt is the one who gives the forest and it’s creatures intelligence and life, the humans acknowledge that if they get rid of him- then the forest will become an inanimate place and animals will become dumb beasts unable to speak or communicate. Sadly, the humans in the movie manage to do this and although the Forest Spirit is able to give one last breath of life to the forest, the reality of the forest changes. Humans become aware that he was the one who made the plants grow but it is now too late. What is implied at the end of the movie is that the forest can grow back and the animals will continue to live but it is no longer the Forest Spirit’s forest and that ultimately changes the nature of the forests. The people living at the time of the Forest Spirit’s death were aware that something had changed and would continue to change throughout their life time- it’s easy to see how they would have passed on the story of the past reality to their children. When human’s disobeyed God, the nature of creation changed- He is no longer in control the same way as he was in the beginning, creation- including, plants, humans and animals are now subject to the curse and to the enemy’s corrupt influences. This corruption has been gradual and deepening more and more as time goes by, yet God in His mercy still gives us glimpses of what life was once like and what it will be at the end of time! I don’t think it’s a stretch for people like Balaam to not be too surprised when an animal spoke to them as they would have been acquainted with the history of the past reality. Sure none of this is directly in scripture, all I’m doing is pondering on the possibilities drawing from what scripture does say.
Another argument for the possibility of talking animals is simply that God could have done it because he’s God! If we are willing to believe that God spoke through a burning bush, resurrected from the dead and was born of a virgin woman- why is believing in talking animals such a big deal!? If anything- it should be one of the easier aspects of the Bible to believe!
Something else that can be observed in scripture and I believe sheds light into the intelligence that God has given animals are in the visions that Ezekiel, Daniel and John (in revelations) have. The celestial beings that they observe are not only in the likeness of a human but in the likeness of animals, specifically a lion, eagle, ox, bear and leopard. Obviously these are visions that these people had where God was revealing something to them about the future- which is the main point- but has anyone questioned why these celestial beings have the likeness of animals? These beings are in the presence of God himself and serve him loyally. Why did God choose to create these beings this way? Even if you believe these beings aren’t real and only representatives of something else, it must still be asked why God would choose to represent something coming from His glory through the form of animals. These are intelligent, fully articulate creatures that delivered messages directly from the throne of God. We must remember that God did not only make His covenant with humanity but with the animals and with nature (Genesis 9:8-10). I believe that the representation of animals as heavenly beings can be a reminder that God’s promises are not just for us. Just as we will regain our perfect nature of intelligence and wisdom when we are in God’s presence- animals will too- including communication if it was indeed given to them in the beginning.
Another thought to consider is that there are many other ways communication can happen besides speech. Sign language, body language and facial expressions can all be forms of effective communication. Some chimps have been taught to use sign language which gives us a only a glimpse of their intelligence while dogs and cats can convey a lot with their body language. I say this because another possibility is that animals and humans had no problems communicating at the beginning through other means besides speech. Adam and Eve may have been able to perfectly understand what animals were saying through these other means. Besides, just as humans have different languages, we can say that animals do to, dogs bark and horses neigh- to us they’re just sounds but to them, those sound convey meaning. That’s what language is after all, even in humans! Sounds that convey meaning. Adam and Eve could have simply understood the sounds that animals made. The point is that scripture makes the communication between humans and animals very plausible. Although clear details are not revealed, it’s is not something outlandish that Christians should be embarrassed about believing. If Christ can raise himself from the dead- the possibility of you having a conversation with your dog in heaven isn’t that far-fetched.