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Vegetarianism and the Bible
By Gary F. Zeolla
NOTE: This article was revised and expanded for a chapter in the book God-given Foods Eating Plan. See the book for further details on the Biblical evidence and for scientific research that shows meat can and should be included in a healthy eating plan.
There are some who teach that the Bible teaches human beings should follow a vegetarian diet. This can be seen in some books on nutrition and the Bible. Also, some vegetarian and animal rights groups will proclaim that the Bible teaches vegetarianism or even that Jesus was a vegetarian as a means of furthering their agendas.
By "meat" in this article is meant all kinds of flesh foods, like red meat (beef), poultry, and fish.
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture verses are taken from The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1982.
The Book of Genesis
Those who claim the Bible teaches vegetarianism base their theory on the following verses from the Book of Genesis:
29And God said, "See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food" (1:29).
9And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. ... 16And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat" (2:9, 2:16).
"And you shall eat the herb of the field." (3:18).
The claim is these verses describe God's "original" or "ideal" diet for human beings. And these verses only give human beings permission to eat plant foods. No animal foods are included. Such a diet is known as a "vegan" diet and is even more restrictive than a standard vegetarian diet, which usually includes eggs and dairy foods (more specifically called a ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet).
And if one stops reading here, that would be an appropriate interpretation. However, there are 1182 chapters in the Bible. And it is simply faulty exegesis (method of interpreting the Bible) to base a theory on just three chapters while ignoring the other 1179 chapters. All of what the Bible teaches on a subject should be considered. This is where many go wrong on this subject.
So what else does God have to say on this subject? The next passage that addresses the issue of food occurs after the flood.
God tells Noah and his family:
3"Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs" (9:3).
So after the flood, God definitely gives permission to humans to eat "every moving thing that lives." This would include meat. But why the change? This is hard to say. It could have something to do with the changed environment after the flood, or maybe some change in human physiology that occurred at that time. Remember, before the flood people lived over 900 years. So "something" happened.
Now, some vegetarian advocates claim this "something" was the very eating of meat; that this change in diet somehow caused human beings to go from living over 900 years to today's usual less than a century. But if this is all it was, then we should see today's vegetarians living to be 900 years old, or least a few hundreds years, but this, of course, is not happening. The "something" was much more fundamental.
The point is, God knew what He was doing. Maybe a vegan diet was "ideal" before the flood, but if it were still the ideal diet for human beings after the flood, He would not have given us permission to eat meat. This would have God telling us it is okay to do something He knows will harm us, but this is totally out of character for God. A more logical conclusion is God knew that in the post-flood world, human beings would be better off eating meat, and so He gave us permission to do so.
In fact, it seems God had planned for this change when he instructed Noah about the bringing of animals into the ark.
1Then the LORD said to Noah, "Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation. 2You shall take with you seven each of every clean animal, a male and his female; two each of animals that are unclean, a male and his female; 3also seven each of birds of the air, male and female, to keep the species alive on the face of all the earth" (7:1-3).
Noah is often pictured as taking two of every animal into the ark, but in fact, it was only of "unclean" animals that two were taken. For "clean" animals, seven of each was to be taken. But why the "extra" five for clean animals?
One reason would be for sacrifices (see Gen 8:20). But another very possible reason is that these would be the animals that people would now be eating. So their populations needed to expand faster than that of unclean animals that would not be eaten. And in fact, it seems that hunting very quickly became a valued activity:
8Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one on the earth. 9He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, "Like Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD" (10:8,9).
So shortly after God gave permission to eat meat, Nimrod was noted for his hunting abilities. In the genealogy list in Genesis 10, no other person is given special recognition for his skill in a particular activity. So the people of the time seem to have found the eating of game meat to be so prized as to want to give special recognition to those who were especially skilled at hunting.
1Then the LORD appeared to him [Abraham] by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day. 2So he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing by him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the ground, 3and said, "My Lord, if I have now found favor in Your sight, do not pass on by Your servant. 4Please let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5And I will bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh your hearts. After that you may pass by, inasmuch as you have come to your servant." They said, "Do as you have said."
6So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, "Quickly, make ready three measures of fine meal; knead it and make cakes." 7And Abraham ran to the herd, took a tender and good calf, gave it to a young man, and he hastened to prepare it. So he took butter and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree as they ate (18:1-7).
Three men appear to Abraham. Apparently, one of these was the LORD Himself, possibly a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. The other two were apparently angels (see Gen 19:1). And Abraham's reaction was to prepare them a special meal. And this meal included the preparing of a calf. And this meat was then given to the three men, and they ate it.
So Abraham had a calf slaughtered for food, and God Himself and two angels ate the meat. So it would seem that neither Abraham, the angels, and most importantly God Himself were vegetarians. If in fact a vegetarian diet were God's "ideal" diet for people then God would be setting a rather poor example by eating meat Himself.
Abraham later fathers Isaac. And Isaac marries Rebekah, who becomes pregnant. The story then continues:
24So when her days were fulfilled for her to give birth, indeed there were twins in her womb. 25And the first came out red. He was like a hairy garment all over; so they called his name Esau. 26Afterward his brother came out, and his hand took hold of Esau's heel; so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 27So the boys grew. And Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a mild man, dwelling in tents. 28And Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob (25:24-28).
So once again we see someone singled out for his skills at hunting. And very obviously Isaac was not a vegetarian as he partook of Esau's game meat. In fact, his love of game meat later caused some problems. The story is told in chapter 27. It is too lengthy to quote here, but basically, Isaac tells Esau to hunt some game for him and he will then bless him. But Rebekah overhears and has Jacob disguise himself as Esau and has him bring meat to Isaac. And thus, Jacob steal Esau's blessing.
So the eating of meat is central to stories involving Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So none of these patriarchs appear to have been vegetarians. Even the LORD Himself and angels eat meat. So the eating of meat was done as a matter of course of life. This is simply what would be expected given God's decree after the flood. There is no hint that God expected people to remain vegetarians.
So just the reading of the rest of Genesis would show that the Bible does not teach vegetarianism. But there's much more.
The Book of Exodus
Next we will investigate the second Book of the Bible, Exodus.
1Now the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, 2"This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. 3Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: 'On the tenth day of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household. 4And if the household is too small for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the persons; according to each man's need you shall make your count for the lamb. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats.
6Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. 7And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it. 8Then they shall eat the flesh on that night; roasted in fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. 9Do not eat it raw, nor boiled at all with water, but roasted in fire -- its head with its legs and its entrails. 10You shall let none of it remain until morning, and what remains of it until morning you shall burn with fire. 11And thus you shall eat it: with a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. So you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD's Passover'" (12:1-11).
These are God's instruction to Moses in preparation for the first Passover prior to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. And this ceremony was not to be done just once:
14"So this day shall be to you a memorial; and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD throughout your generations. You shall keep it as a feast by an everlasting ordinance" (12:14).
So God commands that Jews keep this ceremony in perpetuity. And what was central to the Passover? The eating of lamb. And it should be noted that this was not just a permission; it was a direct command by God to the Jews. They are to eat lamb. It was not an option. So once a year, all Jews were to eat lamb. As such, it simply would be impossible for a Jew to be a vegetarian. They are commanded to eat meat at least once a year.
Moreover, it should be noted the number of lambs that would be slaughtered for this ceremony-one lamb per household or at least per two households. Now the number of Israelites exiting Egypt is debated, but most authorities believe it was at least one million. So for each household or two to have a lamb would require the slaughtering of probably tens of thousands of lambs.
And again, this was not done once, but continued on down through the centuries. By the time of Christ some authorities estimate that as many as one million lambs were slaughtered for Passover. So when some animal rights groups claim that God disapproves of the slaughter of animals for food, they seem to ignore the fact that millions upon millions of lambs have been slaughter throughout the centuries due to God's direct command in regards to just this one ceremony.
2Then the whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3And the children of Israel said to them, "Oh, that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." …
11And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 12"I have heard the complaints of the children of Israel. Speak to them, saying, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. And you shall know that I am the LORD your God.' "
13So it was that quails came up at evening and covered the camp, and in the morning the dew lay all around the camp. 14And when the layer of dew lifted, there, on the surface of the wilderness, was a small round substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15So when the children of Israel saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, "This is the bread which the LORD has given you to eat. (16:2-3,11-15).
This episode was when God first gave the Israelites manna to eat. But note that before the manna, God provided quails to them for food. So God Himself provided meat for His people. Also note that the Israelites fondly remember the "pots of meat" that had while still in Egypt.
13"Thou shalt not kill" (20:13; KJV).
Animal rights groups will sometimes try to quote this commandment to show that God disapproves of the killing of animals for food. But if this were the case, then this verse would be contradicting all of the verses cited above. Moreover, the word "kill" here is better translated as "murder" as can be seen in the NKJV and just about any other modern-day Bible version. This commandment regards the unjustified killing of another human beings. There is nothing in the context to indicate it is referring to animals; all of the Ten Commandments are referring to the actions of human beings towards God or other human beings.
1"And this is what you shall do to them to hallow them for ministering to Me as priests: Take one young bull and two rams without blemish …
31" And you shall take the ram of the consecration and boil its flesh in the holy place. 32Then Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram, and the bread that is in the basket, by the door of the tabernacle of meeting. 33They shall eat those things with which the atonement was made, to consecrate and to sanctify them; but an outsider shall not eat them, because they are holy (29:1,31-33).
In Exodus 29, the LORD instructs Moses as to how Aaron and his sons are to be consecrated to be priests before Him. As part of this consecration, Aaron and his sons are to kill, boil, and eat one of the consecrated rams. So once again, God commands the killing and eating of an animal as part of a religious ceremony.
So in the Book of Exodus, God provides meat for His people to eat, and He commands the eating of meat as part of two different ceremonies.
Limitations on Animal Foods
4"But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood" (Gen 9:4)
31"And you shall be holy men to Me: you shall not eat meat torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs" (Exodus 22:31).
17This shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwellings: you shall eat neither fat nor blood" (Lev 3:17; see also Lev 7:23,24).
46"'This is the law of the animals and the birds and every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps on the earth, 47to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten'" (Leviticus 11:46,47).
Throughout the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), God places limitations on the eating of meat. The blood must be drained from the meat, the cover or outer fat of the meat must not be eaten, animals that are found dead should not be eaten, and only clean animals should be eaten.
There are sound health reasons for each of these limitations. These reasons are discussed in depth in Chapter Six of my Creationist Diet book, so I will not pursue the discussion here. But the important point here is, God gave these limitations as He assumed people would be eating meat. Moreover, if the very eating of meat itself were somehow wrong, God could have just forbid the eating of meat, and that would have been that. But instead, He tells us the healthiest way to go about consuming meat.
"you may eat as much meat as your heart desires"
15"However, you may slaughter and eat meat within all your gates, whatever your heart desires, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, of the gazelle and the deer alike. 16Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like water.
17"You may not eat within your gates the tithe of your grain or your new wine or your oil, of the firstborn of your herd or your flock, of any of your offerings which you vow, of your freewill offerings, or of the heave offering of your hand. 18But you must eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God chooses, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all to which you put your hands. 19Take heed to yourself that you do not forsake the Levite as long as you live in your land.
20"When the LORD your God enlarges your border as He has promised you, and you say, 'Let me eat meat,' because you long to eat meat, you may eat as much meat as your heart desires. 21If the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, then you may slaughter from your herd and from your flock which the LORD has given you, just as I have commanded you, and you may eat within your gates as much as your heart desires. 22Just as the gazelle and the deer are eaten, so you may eat them; the unclean and the clean alike may eat them" (Deut 12:15-22).
This passage is absolutely damaging to the idea that that the Bible teaches vegetarianism-"you may eat as much meat as your heart desires." How much clearer could God have been? But to be sure we don't miss it, God repeats this statement in some form three times (verses 15,20,21).
Now in this context, God does give some limitations. If the meat is part of the tithe that is given to the LORD, it must be eaten in the area where the tabernacle was located ("before the LORD"). And again, the restriction on the eating of blood is repeated. But God places no restrictions on the amount of meat that may be eaten-"you may eat as much meat as your heart desires."
Note also that God refers to animals from the herd and flock and to gazelles and deer. So God approves of eating both domesticated animals and game animals.
Part Two of this article will look at the attitude of additional prominent figures from the Old Testament towards the eating of meat. It will then move to the New Testament and investigate the relationship of Jesus and the apostles to the eating of meat.
The above article was posted on this site June 3, 2005.
It was first published in my Darkness to Light email newsletter,
published through my Christian Darkness to Light Web site.
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