What does eating have to do with death and murder? God allows us to eat animals, so aren’t we entitled to eat meat? The vast majority of society considers meat a normal part of the human diet. Many Christians support the idea that diet is insignificant in matters of faith, but a reexamination of God’s permission to eat animals might lead us to the opposite conclusion.
In Genesis, humans are commanded to be vegetarians:
And 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.Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food”; and it was so.Genesis 1:29–30, NKJV
While God prohibits meat-eating in the beginning, He seems to retract His original position by later granting permission to eat animals:
So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs.Genesis 9:1–3, NKJV
It appears that God changes His mind by permitting mankind to kill any living thing for food. What Christians tend to overlook, however, is that permission to eat animals is far from a prescription. According to Hebrew scholar John Walton, the Genesis text does not indicate “every moving thing” but rather “one category of creatures” (The NIV Application Commentary on Genesis, pp.341–342). Furthermore, the verse that follows clearly limits the animals allowed to be eaten:
But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man.Genesis 9:4, 5, NKJV
Thus, flesh is not to be consumed with its blood, a directive directly related to the flood experience. Man’s desire for violence and disregard for life is what made a mess of God’s original intentions for creation. Noah needed permission to gather the now freed animals that God had preserved (Genesis 8:20; 9:3). The author of Genesis, expressing concern for the unjustified spilling of animal blood, puts forth the conditions that clarify God’s original ideal. God modified His original command in light of mans circumstances, while still maintaining a life-sensitized vision that extended to animals. Permission to eat the animals God had rescued comes with a recognition that they belong to Him. Humans are held personally accountable to God, who will take notice of any unjustified bloodshed.
This reading is a striking parallel to the concerns about animal abuse and slaughter we face today. Jesus warns about the days of Noah, in which eating and drinking intemperately contributed to bringing the catastrophe of the flood (Matthew 24:37–39). Some estimate that worldwide, more than 200 million land animals are killed for food each day. That adds to 72 billion animals per year. That’s a lot of killing across the planet. That’s a lot of blood spilled on the floor of our slaughterhouses.
God knows that the human heart can get used to violence. Exposure to bloodshed can easily make us insensitive to life. It was the cumulative effect of seemingly insignificant acts of injustice and cruelty that caused the threat of destruction to slowly rise around the generation of the flood. Killing animals to enable today’s large-scale consumption is an indication that we have forgotten our obligations in taking the lives of animals.
In Leviticus 11, the dietary restrictions prescribed by God limit the number of animals that can be killed for food—in part as a way of improving the injustice of killing animals. I can’t help but see the creation pattern reflected by Leviticus’s often-repeated phrases “you may eat” and “you shall not eat” (Leviticus 11:3–21), which echo’s the dietary prohibition given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:16; 3:2). God told them they could eat from any tree in the garden, with one exception. Even after the fall God clearly specified they were to eat only “the plants of the field” (Genesis 2:16–17; 3:18-19). This may explain why God limits humans to eating herbivores—prohibiting the eating of carnivores, who are out of sync with His original benevolent vision for creation.
God’s original ideal was not to have animals become “red in tooth and claw” and provides promises for them in the coming future (Hosea 2:18; Isaiah 11:3). The dietary laws dictated by God reveal His deep concern for the value of animal life and the Genesis ideal. Though God allows meat-eating, His people were to maintain respect for life and for the Creator (Leviticus 17:13–15).
Next, God further restricted the practice of eating meat by limiting it to one location and by prohibiting the Israelites from slaughtering animals outside the sanctuary. The animals eligible for food could only be eaten in the sanctuary as part of the offerings (Leviticus 17). Thus all meat eating came from an act of worship, an event that needed ritual mediation. While this did not eliminate animal slaughter, it did mitigate the effects of impurity and the injustice of killing animals—a step toward a death-free world. The animals were God’s, and He required that they be brought to His sanctuary. The offerings were first and foremost about drawing near and its portions became sacred to a certain degree. The killing of animals outside the sanctuary was explicitly forbidden—equated in the following quotation with bloodshed and murder:
Whatever man of the house of Israel who kills an ox or lamb or goat in the camp, or who kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting to offer an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, the guilt of bloodshed shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people.Leviticus 17:3–4, NKJV, emphasis mine
In Deuteronomy chapter 12, God recognized a new situation had developed. The Israelites were to enter the land of promise, which spread deep into the country, taking them too far to limit slaughter to the sanctuary:
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. Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like waterDeuteronomy 12:15,16, NKJV
As there was a clear need to slaughter animals for sustenance, God adapted by expanding slaughter and consumption to any location, as long as the life of the animal was regarded as sacred. God always meets us where we are—and this is what we see happening in this case. The conditions of expanded territory required a more permissive approach, but God remained true to His original intention. The ideal first presented in Genesis was modified due to the complexities of our human limitations. Nonetheless, God remains true to His ideal, lovingly encouraging us to recognize this ideal in each occurrence where He permits eating meat—suggesting that eating animals is something less than desirable.
In our daily practical living we can’t afford to lose touch with the higher and more noble way of life that God expects. He sees and feels the pain of every animal slaughtered—the sheer cruelty of it. Jesus told us that a sparrow does not fall to the ground without God taking notice (Matthew 10:29). When God gave mankind permission to eat animals, He meant it only under conditions of necessity, not as an absolute right to kill or abuse animals. God never authorized the wholesale slaughter that is happening today. This alone should challenge us to take the vegetarian motif in Genesis a little more seriously. God does not want us to commit our lives to a system of injustice and bloodshed.
Believing that God’s permission to eat animals entitles us to abuse or exploit them, because we have dominion over them, is an affront to the Creator. According to the texts, we may have to answer to God when choosing what to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We must be sensitive to animal abuse because God is watching the suffering and slaughtering of animals for our sustenance. If we are living so extensively as to eat the world to death, there is a problem with the way we are living; we are treating life cheaply. When we realize what is happening today on factory farms and in slaughterhouses, perhaps we will reflect more on the sanctity of life when choosing the foods we eat.
So, what has become of the original vegetarian ideal for creation? While vegetarianism is a logical advancement of Old Testament dietary principles, it is not a requirement in a world that struggles for its sustenance. Someday, God’s ultimate will for creation will prevail. In the fulfillment of time, the world will once again become vegetarian (Isaiah 11:6–9; 65:25). What and how we currently choose to eat should keep as much as possible to God’s original intention. The message of God’s dietary regulations preserves His original desire and calls us all to greet His creation in a whole new way.
Perhaps choosing a vegetarian diet more closely manifests God’s original design for us. The final goal of a world without slaughter or pain is vegetarian. There will be a “new heaven and a new earth,” in which all the signs of suffering and death will be eradicated (Revelation 21:1). While recognizing that eating animals for food is a current reality, God has clearly expressed that it was not His ideal. In the world to come, the death of animals will be no more. Life and peace will characterize everything, echoing the benevolent vegetarian scene from the beginning of our world (Revelation 21:4; 22:2).
Craig Ashton Jr.