by Matthew Priebe
When was the last time you were sitting across from someone who claims to be a Christian and they were chowing down on some sad remnant of a once living being? If you ask how they can eat an animal that was cruelly raised and killed, the usual answer is that God gave humans dominion over animals and it was God’s plan that we eat them. If they are right, then that pretty much does it for Christianity, doesn’t it? But are they right? Maybe the problem isn’t with the Bible but with human twisting of the Bible. What if the Bible was the best evidence ever given for the proper treatment of animals?
There are many things that could be said on this topic and I have done so in my book Animals, Ethics & Christianity. In a second article, I look in general at cruelty to animals and the Bible. But I will narrow the focus greatly here to our diet. In Genesis 1-2, Moses described the perfect creation in the Garden of Eden. No death or killing of any kind took place, as everything was immortal. All animals were vegetarian. And so were Adam and Eve. In Genesis 1:29 they were given plants for food rather than animals. They were in fact totally vegan. This was supposed to be forever, but sin occurred and that changed everything. (Genesis 3) Death became the dominant feature of our world, infecting everyone.
Did permission to eat animals occur immediately after the Fall? No. For nearly two thousand years, all those faithful to God remained at least vegetarian. They may have been vegan as well but we have no scriptural evidence one way or the other. Those who defied God’s will began to kill animals and this actually increased their bloodthirsty nature. Eventually, wickedness became so great that the faithful were in danger of being wiped out and God started over with the Flood. (Genesis 6-7) Only eight survivors remained, along with the animals on the ark. (Genesis 8) With the land ruined and plant life destroyed, food became a critical issue. For the first time in the Bible, God gave permission for humans to eat animals for survival. (Genesis 9)
But how do we know meat-eating was only for survival? Key restrictions were imposed by God when He gave permission to eat meat. Only specifically listed “clean” animals could be eaten. This is mainly a health provision, but also limits what can be taken. But by far the most important rule is found in Genesis 9:4: “But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” No blood was EVER to be eaten. Why? Health again is a factor, as most of the diseases and contamination of meat comes with the blood. But so does the flavor. Without blood, meat loses most of its appeal and becomes tasteless. It has been described as like eating cardboard. Yummy!
This is crucial to our understanding of meat eating in Scripture. Meat eating was allowed only when there was nothing else available and was never supposed to be enjoyable. Many cultures in all ages since have had a justifiable need for meat, when better food was unavailable. Without refrigeration, fresh fruits and vegetables, and proper nutrition sources, people often can’t survive without some meat. But the removal of blood was a perpetual safeguard against addiction to meat.
We don’t know when permission to eat dairy products began. Until modern factory farming enslaved and tortured cows and chickens, milk and eggs were a reasonable way of getting nutrients without causing cruelty. But now with the disease and abuse inherent in the modern dairy and egg industry, we now need to shun them as we do meat in general.
After the flood, another thousand years goes by with no further discussion of diet in the Bible. When the children of Israel were led out of Egyptian slavery by Moses, God had to start virtually from scratch in teaching them. At Mount Sinai, God gave them His eternal law and then spelled out specific details for daily life. (Exodus 20 and onward) He listed the clean and unclean animals for food, reinstating the restrictions in effect for a millennia. (Leviticus 11) Blood eating was again completely condemned. (Leviticus 17:10-14)
For about the next 1500 years, faithful Jews could be recognized by their diet. If they ate any blood they were considered apostate. But often Israel turned away from worship of God to idol worship and sin. Ezekiel 33:25-26 lists the eating of blood with idol worship, murder, and adultery as Israel’s chief sins. This indicates how serious God considers this sin.
After Christ’s death and resurrection, the Jewish religion was rejected by those who followed Jesus. Soon important discussions began among the leaders of the new movement to decide which of the Jewish rules would be enforced in the new faith. A statement was sent out as a result of their decisions: “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well.” (Acts 15:28-29, repeated by Paul in Acts 21:25) The great moral law of the Ten Commandments was never questioned by Christ’s followers, as Jesus had told them that these laws were eternal. But of all the ceremonial and civil laws of Israel, only a few were carried over to Christianity. The key ones for us here are no eating of meat containing blood and no eating of strangled food (because no blood would be removed from a strangled animal).
This is a crucial fact of Christianity that is usually ignored. At no point in the history of Scripture, Old or New Testament, is permission to eat blood granted by God. During the centuries that followed, this was lost sight of and ignored, first by the Catholic Church and later by the various Protestant groups. This is a tragedy, since it has turned meat eating into a constant vice that is addictive and destructive.
One other point must be briefly mentioned, even though it could be studied in depth. People badly misuse Paul’s writings to defend indiscriminate meat eating. But meat-eating vs. vegetarianism was never discussed at all by Paul. He dealt with a controversy among early Christians about whether it was acceptable to eat any food that had been offered to idols. Paul, raised a strict Jew, would never have considered eating unclean meat or blood. Any other interpretation is a total misrepresentation of Paul’s meaning.
In this brief overview of diet in the Bible (and much more could be examined) we see a new picture of meat eating. Not as a gluttonous convenience that destroys both the eater and the eaten, but as an unfortunate last resort for survival. And today, with all the food options and food preservation and meat substitutes available, meat eating becomes for the true Christian something to be abhorred, rather than defended. Only then will we approach as closely as possible to the Peaceable Kingdom described in Isaiah 11, where no one hurts anyone else and all live together in God’s love. As the only lifestyle that comes near to that now, veganism is a valid goal for all Christians to strive for. May that day come very soon where once again all are vegans like God’s creation was in Eden and will be in the New Earth to come. (Revelation 21-22)