Systematic Vegetarian Theology

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About Judeochristianity and the Eating of Meat
By: Jerry Friedman [email protected]

Among others, Prof. Richard Schwartz, Rev. Andrew Lindsy, and Rev. J. R. Hyland have each written more scholarly work than what is summarized below. This serves as a good introduction to why Jews and Christians should not eat animal flesh and arguably all animal products, enough of an introduction at least to open the subject for discussion. (All quotes are from the Revised Standard Version)

Genesis 1:25; And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

Each stage of Genesis through 1:25 describes creation and ends with God's judgment that what he made was good. This is the core of thinking that what God makes is good, and what is good we should protect. By virtue of the creator, we are responsible to be caretakers of everything that is good, so to harm or destroy the land, the water, the air, or "the beasts of the Earth" is to harm or destroy what is good. Without specific instruction otherwise, the default position for any Jew or Christian should be to protect nature.

Genesis 1:29; And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.

This is the most important passage about how humans are to eat. We already have instruction to protect nature, but God gives the exemption that we are given plants to eat. We may harm plants to survive. This is important not only as instruction from God, but it indicates what all of science knows: that humans are anatomically similar to plant-eaters. Every segment of our digestive tract, how our whole anatomy corresponds with eating plants, and how we maintain better health as exclusive plant-eaters, are all powerful reminders that in Genesis, God made us to eat plants.

Moses Cassuto (1883-1951), for example, in his commentary "From Adam to Noah" (p. 58) states: You are permitted to use the animals and employ them for work, have dominion over them in order to utilize their services for your subsistence, but must not hold their life cheap nor slaughter them for food. Your natural diet is vegetarian... This opinion is consistent with the Talmud, which states that people were initially vegetarians: "Adam was not permitted meat for purposes of eating."

Had God made us to eat meat, God would be more likely to have made us as more effective hunters and killers. We would have large incisors like lions, large claws like bears, not the insignificant teeth and nails which even among other plant-eaters are small in proportion to our body and mouth size. God made us to eat plants as Genesis and our bodies reveal.

Combined, Genesis also shows the love God has for all His creation. God elevates the moral standing of animals over plants as we are instructed to eat one, not the other. Unlike what Descartes believed, had animals had no sensation of pleasure or pain (sentience), there would be no clear reason why God would instruct us to eat only plants. Descartes does indicate that humans and other animals are anatomically identical -- as far as he could determine -- which goes to say that like humans, animals can suffer, and this is most likely the reason why God made humans to eat only plants.

Also consider "of every tree of the garden, thou mayest freely eat..." (Gen.2:16) "...and thou shalt eat the herbs of the field." (Gen. 3:18). [KJV]

Chapter 5 of Genesis tells of the long lives of people in the generations of the vegetarian period from Adam to Noah. Adam lived 930 years; Seth (Adam's son) lived 912 years; Enosh (Seth's son) lived 905 years; Kenan (Enosh's son) lived 910 years; and so on, until Methuselah, who lived 969 years, the longest time of life recorded in the Torah. After the flood, people lived for much shorter periods. Abraham, for example, lived only 175 years. Why the tremendous change in life spans? Before the flood, people were forbidden to eat meat; after the flood it was permitted (Gen. 9:3). A partial explanation, therefore, may be that it was the change in diet that contributed to the change in life spans. This view was held by the Jewish philosopher and Bible commentator Maimonides.

Genesis 9:3; And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935) has a common view of why this message was given to Noah. Kook believes that through the time of Noah human morality had degenerated so much that a concession was made to humans . Permission to eat meat was God's means of softening the rules to make moral living easier for men who had previously corrupted. "And God saw the earth, and behold it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth" (Gen. 6:12, KJV). Despite God's instructions in Gen. 1:29, the people of Noah's day did eat meat. Eating meat is one of many corruptions of those people.

However this passage may be interpreted, it is significant both that Noah and his sons were granted permission to eat meat -- God does not declare everyone does -- and permission is not an admonition like God gives Adam in Gen. 1:29. It is more likely that this passage is a temporary measure or easier rules for the morally weak than a complete change of God's immutable moral sense as we see in Isaiah 11:9.

Isaiah 11:6-9; The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

"My holy mountain" describes heaven as a place where all animals eat plants, as in Eden, and all animals do not harm another, even humans. Isaiah reminds us that despite any permission given to Noah or all of mankind, heaven is a place of peace. For lions to eat straw like the ox says that peace is in vegetarianism.

This adds considerable credibility to Rabbi Kook's understanding of Gen. 9:3. If God's new instruction was permanent for Noah and all descendents, we would expect that the lowered moral standing of animals (to be equal to plants) would continue into heaven. As heaven remains a place of no meat eating, this represents that God's attitude has not changed, but some concession was made to humans.

To believe that God is good is to believe that He makes good laws, and the best of humans will follow them. While we may have permission to eat meat depending upon your understanding of Gen. 9:3, it is clearly moral to abstain from meat. And as there is considerable reason to believe this instruction does not endure to this day, to eat meat is to risk making a grave moral mistake.

Mark 7:18-23; And [Jesus] said to them, "Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?" And he said, "What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man."

The question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees was about washing one's hands before eating. The Pharisees said Jesus and His followers were not obeying the kosher law because they did not wash their hands. Jesus said it's not what enters the body that makes one a sinner, but what comes out of the heart.

This will be applied to the morality of meat-eating however the reader wants to assume it. Invariably, those who look for justification to eat meat will cite this passage, for at face value a sophomore will use this passage solely to justify eating meat.

It is more sophisticated to read this as Jesus saying that "what" you eat does not make one moral, but "why" you eat does. Here, for example, Jesus could be saying that cannibalism is moral because what passes through one's stomach does not make one moral. But cannibalism is murder, and Jesus says murder, among other things, make one (im)moral. Hence, eating anything is moral if you are not contributing to the evil in the world. Eating meat when you do not need to is certainly immoral considering the Bible as a whole. Eating meat, or not washing your hands, et al., is moral when it is necessary.

Romans 14:20-21; Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.

Apostle Paul was concerned that Christians were using pride to divide the church. He used as a specific example the eating of meat. The point of Christianity, says Paul, is to be good to another. If the other is troubled by something you do, don’t do it.

Paul does say in Romans 14 that it is forgivable to eat meat, but we are not commanded to eat meat. Each of us is able to make that decision, hopefully within the guidelines of what Jesus said in Mark 7.

Significance is drawn from Paul declaring that is it fine to be vegetarian, which reverses anyone's belief that after Noah's Flood we are required to eat meat.

Final Thoughts

The Bible should not be used to override good medical sense. Like Noah, you may have permission to eat meat, but the animals that are raised for meat, dairy and eggs these days are nothing like the animals two thousand years ago. Visit a slaughter house and ask if Jesus would condone the brutal conditions these animals are forced to endure. Go to the emergency room of a big hospital and watch how many people die from heart attacks and strokes, evidence that we were created as vegetarians and how our bodies haven't changed from that.

Consider how gluttony is one of the cardinal sins, and how American culture is one of gluttony over meat, dairy and eggs. We are one of the highest consumers of animal flesh in the whole world contrary to good medical advice and sound Biblical understanding. It is probable that the early Christians ate significantly more plants than modern Americans do. They didn't have the meat and dairy industries telling us how to eat -- much like the multinational oil companies telling us to drive more because God told us to have dominion over the earth.

Remember what Jesus said: blessed are the merciful. Jesus promoted charity and healing. And when the Roman government and Jewish religion thought he was a bad man, they laughed at him, they ridiculed him, and they killed him. Just like Paul said in Romans 14, be good to another. Be good to all creatures and God will be good to you.

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