(For video version of this blog, see YouTube video below)
In context, Isaiah 11:6-9 and 65:17-25, are describing the time of Messiah’s reign when righteousness, justice, and equity will be restored to the earth, "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind" (Isaiah 65:17 ESV).
Until recently, most commentators connected the benevolent change in animal behavior found in both of these passages to a time before the fall of Adam when animal hostility and predation were absent (Van Ee 2018, Young 1965; Calvin 1559). Using the early chapters of Genesis as a backdrop, commentators would interpret Isaiah 11 and 65 in one of two ways: Either literally, and thus describing a restored creation where the curse of Adam is removed and where animals once again return to herbivorous lifestyles, or symbolically, where the animal behavior describes a change in human disposition—where hatred, cruelty, and human bloodthirstiness no longer reign. Hebrew scholar Edward J. Young (1965, p. 390), in his colossal commentary on Isaiah took the literal approach:
"At the same time, it must be noted that Isaiah has placed great stress upon the animals themselves, and this very fact shows that it is impossible to carry through in detail a figurative interpretation. If all is merely figurative, what is the point of such detailed statements concerning the change in animals?"
Importantly, Young grounds Isaiah’s imagery to the early chapters of Genesis, “It would appear also that we have here a parallelism to comparison with the condition before the fall of man into sin” (Young 1965, p. 390). John Calvin (1559), in his commentary on Isaiah took a more symbolic interpretation:
"Though Isaiah says that the wild and the tame beasts will live in harmony, that the blessing of God may be clearly and fully manifested, yet he chiefly means what I have said, that the people of Christ will have no disposition to do injury, no fierceness or cruelty. They were formerly like lions or leopards, but will now be like sheep or lambs; for they will have laid aside every cruel and brutish disposition (emphasis mine)."
Some have taken Calvin’s symbolic approach to mean that he did not entertain a literal interpretation, but this is not the case. For Calvin, although the symbolic approach is primary, he still concludes that readers incorporate a literal fulfillment as well, “On this subject it is proper to argue from the less to the greater. ‘If Christ shall bring brute animals into a state of peace, much more will brotherly harmony exist among men, who will be governed by the same spirit of meekness’ (Calvin 1559). As with Young, Calvin (1559) also believed that Isaiah’s imagery was derived from a literal approach to the early chapters of Genesis:
"For this reason, he says, that straw will be the food of the lion as well as of the ox; for if the stain of sin had not polluted the world, no animal would have been addicted to prey on blood, but the fruits of the earth would have sufficed for all, according to the method which God had appointed (Genesis 1:30.)."
The use of either a literal or symbolic interpretation is still common today, but most commentators no longer make the connection with the early chapters of Genesis and a pre-Fall world that excluded animal hostility and predation (Van Ee, 2018). Consider this quote from the theistic evolutionary website, Biologos: “Other passages speak of the ‘wolf laying down with the lamb’ instead of killing the lamb (Is. 11:6–7, Is. 65:25), but these verses refer to the future kingdom of God, not the original creation.” This writer is obviously opting for a literal “future” interpretation where animals will turn to herbivory, but rejects any association with the early chapters of Genesis.
Old-earth creationist, Fazale Rana (2000), also opting for a more literal fulfilment, is quick to mitigate pre-Fall connections: “In Isaiah’s prophetic description of the eschatological state, carnivores are going to be supernaturally transformed into herbivores…However, it is incorrect theologically to assume that the eschatological state will be merely a return to the pre-Fall conditions of paradise.”
A more recent analysis by Joshua Van Ee interprets the herbivorous nature of the predatory animals to mean that God will no longer curse Israel with wild and dangerous animals. Van Ee (2018, p. 319) says, “I suggest that the focus of the imagery is not on a restored creation but on the absence of divinely implemented curses.” In other words, the Lion eating straw like the Ox is just an exaggerated way to say that Lions will no longer attack and endanger Israelites, and the imagery should be taken from animal-specific “blessing and cursing” texts (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:24). This treatment is obviously more symbolic, and, as with the other modern commentators, seeks to remove connections with the creation account: “There are no creational texts in the Hebrew Bible or the ancient Near East similar enough in their descriptions to form the background for an allusion in Isa 11:6-8” (Van ee, 2018, p. 319).
So why would modern commentators want to dissociate Isaiah 11 and 65 from the creation account? Well, personally, I think the answer is quite obvious. If Isaiah attributes the future change in animal behavior to the removal of the curse as outlined in the early chapters of Genesis, then that means that the hostile and predatory nature of wolves, leopards, lions, and bears as it exists in the present is not a normal part of the natural world. There was a time, before the present when these kinds of predatory animals were strictly non-hostile herbivores. Of course, Old-earth advocates cannot accept this doctrinal position because according to all old-earth positions, some animals, like predators, were created to kill and eat others for food.
I turn now to Isaiah 11 and 65 to demonstrate that contrary to these more modern assessments, Isaiah did, in fact, use the creational backdrop from the early chapters of Genesis to inspire his prophetic vision of the new heavens and new earth. The texts are completely quoted below. The 'bold,' 'italics,' and 'underlined' words reflect the three groups of animals included by Isaiah (see below for details).
Isaiah 11:6-9 (ESV): “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Isaiah 65:17-25 (ESV), ‘’’For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their descendants with them. Before they call, I will answer; while they are yet speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord.’”
Let’s first look at the three groups of animals used in both Isaiah 11 and 65. Notice that Isaiah includes predatory beasts (bolded), domestic animals (italics), and snakes (underlined). These same three groups of animals are mentioned in Genesis 3:14, “The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field.” Other groups like birds and fish were likely also included in the curse, but for whatever reason, these three; wild animals, livestock, and snakes were specifically mentioned by God. That Isaiah is unambiguously reaching back to this verse is clear from Isaiah 65:25 (ESV) where he says, “and dust shall be the serpent's food.” In Genesis 3:14 (ESV), God cursed the symbol of Satan’s deception, the snake, physiologically altering its mode of locomotion and, as a consequence, that which enters its mouth. God said, “On your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”
This very tight connection with Genesis 3:14 is important because it grounds animal predation to an historic curse that depends on the details found in the first three chapters of Genesis. Given these clear contextual links, it becomes quite obvious why Isaiah believed that lions will one day eat straw like an ox. Isaiah is simply taking Genesis 1:29-30, 3:14, and 9:3 at face value. He believed that all animals were vegetarian before the fall (Gen 1:29-30; 9:3), but due to God’s curse (Gen 3:14), some animals turned to carnivory. By connecting carnivory to the curse, Isaiah is actually filling in some of the missing details from curse’s scope.
Other connections can also be found in the early chapters of Genesis. A divinely imposed hostility between man and beast is first introduced in Genesis 9:2 (ESV), “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered.” This is surely the backdrop for Isaiah 11:6 (ESV), “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.” Isaiah believed that the hostility or enmity that presently exists between man and beast will one day be removed. This reversal will even include the enmity that exists between man and the symbol of Satan’s ultimate deception—snakes, “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.” The removal of this divinely inaugurated enmity is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, “And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety” (Hosea 2:18 ESV). Although not specific, I think the apostle Paul’s marvelous eschatological vision for the redemption of creation in general incorporates many of these OT allusions, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21 ESV).
Some old-earth advocates object to this assessment by erroneously equating Genesis 9:2 with God’s “subdue” and “rule” mandate from Genesis 1:28. Rana (2000), for example says, “The post-flood account in Genesis 9:1-4 is best explained as a re-issuing of the same general lordship over creation that was given to Adam prior to the Fall.” Yet the words “subdue” (Kabash כָּבַשׁ) and “rule” (radah רָדָה), found in Genesis 1:28 are absent from Genesis 9:2. It is true, the words, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” do occur in both Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 9:1, but the latter is not a “re-issuing” of the Genesis 1:28 mandate. The details demand that Genesis 9:1-4 be viewed as a contrast and not a comparison. The world has changed, and so God adapts His original pre-Fall mandates and provisions to incorporate these new changes.
Isaiah 11 and 65 are meant to draw the reader into the new world; where God’s knowledge will somehow cause predatory animals to become herbivores, and where the hostility between beasts and snakes and humans will be vanquished. All of nature, it would seem, is going to somehow change as many aspects of the historic curse are reversed.
These eschatological changes, in my opinion, will most likely occur in the millennium. Notice that the symbols of Satan’s deception, snakes, will continue to eat the dust. This is a time when most, but not all of the curse’s impact is lifted. And this explains why humans get to live long lives, but still die, and why “sinners” continue to thrive, “no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed” (Isaiah 65:20 ESV). Only in the eternal state, will absolute righteousness reign.
In summary then, Isaiah 11 and 65, in conjunction with Gen 1:29-30, Gen 3:14, and Gen 9:2-3 clearly teach us that before the fall of Adam and Eve, all animals were herbivores, and that God’s curse on creation somehow altered the biological make-up of animals in rather dramatic ways. But one day, in the new eschatological reign of Christ, many aspects of this curse will be reversed.
Biologos website. No author. No date. Accessed 9/20/22 https://biologos.org/common-questions/did-death-occur-before-the-fall
Calvin, John. 1559. "Commentary on Isaiah 11". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/isaiah-11.html. 1840-57.https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/isaiah-11.html
Fazale Rana, 2000, accessed 9/20/22. https://reasons.org/explore/publications/articles/animal-death-before-the-fall-what-does-the-bible-say
Joshua J. Van Ee; Wolf and Lamb as Hyperbolic Blessing: Reassessing Creational Connections in Isaiah 11:6–8. Journal of Biblical Literature 1 July 2018; 137 (2): 319–337. doi: https://doi.org/10.15699/jbl.1372.2018.360383 Page 319