[Note: I am available for scholar-in-residence engagements in Florida for Shabbos of November 4-5 through Tuesday November 8th. If you are interested in arranging a presentation, please email me at director@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org]
The new Disney movie Zootopia depicts an idyllic world in which predatory animals have evolved to live in peace together with their prey. This brings to mind the well known prophecy that in the Messianic Era, "the lion will lie down with the lamb." In fact, no such prophecy exists. It's the wolf that is said to lie down with a lamb; the lion lies down with a calf instead:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a small child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6-7)
The wolf and the lamb shall graze as one, and the lion shall eat straw like cattle, and the snake shall eat dirt. They shall not cause harm or destruction in all My holy mountain, says God. (Isaiah 65:25)
There is a famous dispute regarding the interpretation of these prophesies. Some explain them literally, to mean that predatory animals will actually change their nature and become herbivorous (Metzudos and Malbim to Isaiah 11:7; Abarbanel to Hosea 2:18). Rambam and others, however, interpret them metaphorically. Instead of referring to actual animals, these verses refer to wicked people and nations that are symbolized by these animals. Such people will no longer pose a threat, and will live in peace with us.
Why does Rambam take this position? It stems from his view that the Messianic Era will not involve a radical change in the natural order:
Do not presume that in the Messianic age any facet of the world's nature will change or there will be innovations in the work of creation. Rather, the world will continue according to its normal order. Although Isaiah 11:6 states: 'The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the young goat,' these words are a metaphor and a parable. The interpretation of the prophecy is as follows: Israel will dwell securely together with the wicked gentiles who are likened to a wolf and a leopard, as in the prophecy Jeremiah 5:6: 'A wolf from the wilderness shall spoil them and a leopard will stalk their cities.' They will all return to the true faith and no longer steal or destroy. Rather, they will eat permitted food at peace with Israel as Isaiah 11:7 states: 'The lion will eat straw like an ox.' Similarly, other Messianic prophecies of this nature are metaphors. In the Messianic era, everyone will realize which matters were implied by these metaphors and which allusions they contained. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 12:1; see too Ibn Ezra to Isaiah 11:6; cf. Radak to Isaiah 11:6-7; see too my article Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists)
This in turn reflects Rambam's general rationalist preference to see God running the universe through the orderly system of nature as the ideal way for God to do things, rather than interfering with acts of supernatural intervention. He writes about this in the Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead:
…Our efforts, and the efforts of select individuals, are in contrast to the efforts of the masses. For with the masses who are people of the Torah, that which is beloved to them and tasty to their folly is that they should place Torah and rational thinking as two opposite extremes, and will derive everything impossible as distinct from that which is reasonable, and they say that it is a miracle, and they flee from something being in accordance with natural law, whether with something recounted from past events, with something that is in the present, or with something which is said to happen in the future. But we shall endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, leading events according to the natural order wherever possible; only with something that is clarified to be a miracle and cannot be otherwise explained at all will we say that it is a miracle. (Rambam, Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead)
Rambam then proceeds to discuss the zootopian prophesies. He repeats his preference that they be interpreted allegorically, and says that he has proved the concept of allegory in Scripture so clearly that no arrogant ignoramus could contradict it. He then adds the alternate possibility that it is an exaggeration, and also suggests that it might refer instead to the land increasing in fertility and thereby causing less competition for resources amongst the animal kingdom. Finally, he says that even if it literal, it would be limited to animals on the Temple Mount alone. All this further demonstrates how Rambam was entirely unwilling to posit a complete change in the nature of predators.
Rambam strongly tries to avoid positing that God changes the natural order that He created, and therefore he does not want to adopt a literal interpretation of the prophecy of zootopia. After all, that would require a massive divergence from the natural order. It's not just a matter of changing the lion to have a desire for straw rather than wildebeest. You'd also have to change the entire physiology of the lion. A lion is perfectly designed/evolved for eating meat. And it's terribly designed/evolved for eating plants. It doesn't have either the dental apparatus or the digestive equipment for processing cellulose.
Then there's the herbivores. They'd have to be modified, too. After all, by nature, herbivores are engineered to have a very high reproductive rate. Normally, it is predators that keep the herbivore population down. Without predators fulfilling that role, the population of herbivores would spiral out of control. In the Zootopia movie, the rabbits live in a town called Bunnyburrow, population 81,435,816 and rising every second. The growth would in fact be exponential! Since this is not viable for the world, God would have to sterilize herbivores after their second offspring. This would be yet another reason why Rambam and other rationalists prefer to interpret the messianic zootopia non-literally.
So far, while Rambam's position regarding the predators of the Messianic Era is certainly controversial, I'm not aware of anyone who actually denies that this is his position. After all, his statement is completely explicit, and it's in the Mishneh Torah, not the Moreh Nevuchim, so it can't be dismissed as a forgery or as a false view only intended for kiruv. I haven't even seen the usual crowd of Rambam revisionists attempt to deny that was his view.
But here's where things get really interesting. The account of a zootopian world is not limited to the Messianic Era. It is also described in the Torah as having been the state of the world at the time of Creation:
"And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:30)
Can we presume that here, too, Rambam adopted a non-literal approach? I think that the answer is clearly yes. If he didn't want to interpret this literally at the conclusion of history, presumably he likewise would not have wanted to interpret it literally at the dawn of history. If God created lions with huge canines but weak chewing ability and no rumen, presumably He created them to eat zebras, not grass. And if He created rabbits with the ability to give birth to ten babies every month, presumably that was with the intent that they would actually be able to do so. Accordingly, Rambam would not have interpreted the zootopia of creation literally.
All this would fit right in with Rambam's general statement about creation:
The account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal. (Guide for the Perplexed 2:29)
The classical interpreters of Rambam (whose views are entirely ignored by Rabbi Meiselman in his book) explain this (together with various cryptic statements in the Guide) very broadly. Rambam did not believe that the Six Days of Creation describe a period of history (whether 144 hours or 14 billion years) in which there was an anonymous person, a magic tree, and a talking snake. Instead, Rambam understood that the six days of creation represent a conceptual portrayal of the world, and the episode of man in the Garden of Eden is an allegory for the perpetual struggle within man between his sensation, his moral faculty, and his intellect. (For further discussion of this, see this blog post and my book The Challenge Of Creation.)
It would thus appear that according to Rambam, not only are the prophecies of the Messianic zootopia not to be taken literally, but likewise the account of the Genesis zootopia. Rabbits reproduce like rabbits, and foxes hunt like foxes. Animals are designed to eat and be eaten. And don't forget that if you'd like to participate in the ultimate experience relating to this, join the Exotic Biblical Dinner at the Biblical Museum of Natural History!