Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast,
but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.
Prov. 12:10, ESV

The standard interpretation seems to relate to animal welfare, but this website disagrees:

This proverb is not for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, red.). The lesson is not the care of animals, but the illustration of compassion.

Furthermore Genesis 1:28 uses the word 'Radah' to describe our 'ruling' animals, which is the word used for harsh rulership.

What is going on here?

  • Radah, translated 'dominion' [KJV] in Gen 1:26/28 is also translated 'reign' and 'rule'. In the Hebrew there is no suggestion of 'harshness' though efficiency of rule is suggested and even chastisement, where necessary. It seems to be the Arabic and Syriac versions of the word (see Strong 7287) which carry the meaning of 'tread' and 'trample', but not, I understand, the pure Hebrew.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 10 '18 at 11:19
  • 'Beast' in scripture often relates to humanity that have no understanding of spiritual things. Animal comparisons in prophetic and spiritual allusions indicate this. But the righteous man even cares for the life of such persons, not despising them. So did God, regarding Nineveh. See 'much cattle'. So, no, it is not just animal welfare that is in view, I would say.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 10 '18 at 11:22
  • Although i agree with Keelan answer, i think that Prov 12 10 can be understood more with comparing to Prov 11 17: Both verses can be understood that righteous person also need to setisfied his "desires" or "lust" sometimes, but when evil person setesfies his ones the outcome is sin.
    – A. Meshu
    Jun 10 '18 at 17:20
  • @NigelJ, the phrase 'his' beast implies ownership of the 'behemah' Jun 10 '18 at 19:50
  • 1
    Perhaps a better and less ambiguous way to phrase it would have been: This proverb is not primarily for PETA.
    – Lucian
    Jun 11 '18 at 13:09

I would say the verse can be read on both levels, similar to the following verse:

Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread,
but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.
Prov. 12:11, ESV

Somebody who puts effort into his land will have his reward, as the land will yield harvest. Similarly, if you take care of your animal, you will have your reward, since the animal will be healthy, provide food and multiply. This is also explained in verse 12 (the b-part):

Whoever is wicked covets the spoil of evildoers,
but the root of the righteous bears fruit.
Prov. 12:12, ESV

It is well possible that this series of proverbs has its origin in agricultural society and may be used in agricultural contexts. However, you may also use it in a more abstract context. Compare the English idiom "we reap what we sow": it can be used in a farmer context, but since most of us aren't farmers it is also frequently used in a more abstract context.

In that way, Prov. 12:10–12 can definitely be read more generally than regarding animal welfare / care of nature alone. Also consider that the verses explicitly refer to the reason for this treatment: you will "have plenty of bread" and "bear fruit". Thus, the reason for this treatment is not some intrinsic value of animals which animal right activists might advocate, but rather a cost-benefit analysis.

This usage of צדיק "righteous" is not odd. Hebrew has several words for righteousness. This one indicates something that matches with the world order. E.g. ישׁר is more 'straight, consequent'. I find צדיק appropriate here: act according to the way the world is meant, and you will benefit from it. The same idea is behind lots of text, Psalm 1 comes to mind for instance.

As a side note: you note correctly that רדה is traditionally taken as "the word used for harsh rulership". One may wonder whether this meaning does not actually depend on the traditional reading of Gen. 1:26,28. Then applying it there would be circular reasoning. Like Nigel J, at first sight I'm not convinced the Hebrew implies harshness. In cases in Leviticus (25:43,46,53), פרך "rigour" is added to indicate harshness; in Isa. 14:6 אף "anger". Why would it be necessary to add these words if harshness is implied by רדה? In Jdg. 14:9, the root is used with the meaning "to take", no harshness implied. In the other cases it means to have dominion, but not necessarily harshly so. To make any claims one would have to dig deeper, but at first sight it looks as though the meaning of רדה may have been influenced by a traditional reading of Gen. 1:26,28.

  • Is there a Hebrew word equivalent to 'pragmatic'? For that would be a much more appropriate word than 'righteous' if you are correct. Jun 10 '18 at 19:53
  • @ReggieO'Donoghue thanks for your question. צדיק "righteous" is not that odd here, it is the English which is awkward because it doesn't really have a word for צדיק. I added some discussion to the answer.
    – user2672
    Jun 11 '18 at 14:31

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