While we speak about seven Noachide commandments, Jewish tradition has it that six of them were already commanded to Adam. According to this, the only new commandment given to Noach was not to eat a limb from a living animal.
And yet when Noach gets off the ark, we read about much more than one new law. Rather, there seems to be a whole new world order that surrounds and incorporates that law (9:1-7). That order speaks to the sanctity of life more generally, as well as to the gradation of sanctity that marks a new and clearer distinction between men and animals.
Within this section, there is a phrase that troubles many of our commentators. That is that God promises that He will seek out (and punish) any animal that dares to kill a man (9:5). Two major problems are raised about this: 1) As noted by Ramban, animals do not have free choice or knowledge of good and evil. If they kill, it is not malicious in the same way as it would be for humans. So why should it be punished? To make things even stranger, a midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 8:9) posits that even plants or inanimate objects get punished when a man is hurt by them. 2) This punishment is not something that we see in the animal kingdom as a rule. Though some animals and insects do die or get killed in the process of attacking people, this is not a universal rule that we can easily affirm.
Regarding the first issue, punishment is not always meant to teach a sinner or to exact retribution from him. Sometimes the point of punishment is to make a statement about the great importance of the person or object that has been injured. In our case, this seems to be exactly the gist of the verses. It is due to man’s elevation and domination over the animals discussed here that he is not to be touched. An obvious parallel would be a human king warning his servants not to offend his viceroy in any manner. The point would less be the crime than the importance of the office. So too, when God now gives man more complete stewardship over the earth, this upgrade is registered by the more serious punishment meted out to those (other humans as well as animals) who would hurt him.
As for our second problem, it is not is easily answered. Perhaps God is not speaking about punishing individual animals but species as a whole: Species that hurt people will be hunted and eliminated by them much more than species which do not. (By extension, we can apply this idea to the midrash by saying the same thing about thorny or poisonous plants, jagged and sharp substances, etc.) This is in line with our understanding that God’s providence over animals is over species as a whole and not over individual animals, and that it is only with people that He is directly involved with individuals.
Getting back to the punishment’s message, however, we should note that God spoke to Noach and not to the animals; and it is not something they would have understood even if He had addressed them. For its ultimate message was for people, not for animals.
That message that is a basic one, but one that has often been lost: There are many valid comparisons between people and animals. But that does not make them the same. Confusion about this difference is what allowed Adam and Chava to get too close with the primordial snake. It is also what, according to tradition, led animals and people to have sexual unions during the generation of the flood.
The way to address this problem was either to downgrade animals or to upgrade man. God chose both. Nevertheless, the emphasis seems to be on upgrading man, to have him realize that he is closer to God than to animals.
Hence how we treat animals is a tricky business. On the one hand, the Torah wants us to be humane and not hurt them needlessly, nor completely ignore the sanctity of the life that they do possess. On the other hand, it is critically important that we do not place them on the same level as humans. Given the state of things before the flood, we see that when man fails to understand his place in the order of things, corruption and improper behavior quickly follow.
Accordingly, there was a famous question asked in a random survey a few years back asking who the participants would try to save first if both a stranger and their pet dog were drowning. The answers were not encouraging.
But the problem is not just an issue of lifeboat ethics. Rather, it is an issue of understanding man’s very essence. And those who do not truly understand what it means to be human will more generally not act like one.