What does the Bible say about eating meat? 4 essential things you need to know

What does the Bible say about eating meat? 4 essential things you need to know

When considering veganism, those who reference the Bible as a spiritual guide often question whether eating meat in the Bible provides moral justification to do so now. So, what does the Bible say about eating meat?

1. “Dominion” over animals in the Bible means “stewardship.”

What does the Bible say about eating meat? 4 essential things you need to know

People often use the concept of “dominion” over animals and the fact that ancient Israelites ate animals to justify eating animals today.

The often-misunderstood concept of dominion means humans have a responsibility to be stewards of creation. This passage does not provide a license to plunder it. The Hebrew words used in Genesis 1 to describe having dominion over animals include ‘abad,’ which means “to work or serve; to cultivate,” and ‘shamar,’ which means ‘to exercise great care over.’  Furthermore, it occurs in the context of humans being made in God’s compassionate image and likeness.

Furthermore, even if interpreted as permission to kill animals, it is not a mandate. In fact, no major religion mandates eating animals.

We must also ask ourselves: would a compassionate and benevolent god condone the extreme suffering we inflict on animals? Many passages in the Bible urge us to be merciful stewards of animals, to have regard for their lives, and to humbly recognize all that we share in common with them. They convey a vision of animals being at peace with humans.

Moreover, would a selfless creator want us to genetically breed and modify them to make them more profitable? To destroy the planet by raising animals for food? The passages that encourage humans to respect and protect the environment suggest otherwise.

2. Messages about eating meat are contradictory in both the Old and New Testaments.

What does the Bible say about eating meat? 4 essential things you need to know

When looking at the “letter of the law,” the canonical books of both the Old and New Testaments are filled with contradictory messages about killing animals and eating meat. 

Many Christians eat meat believing that God intended animals for human consumption. Yet when we question and examine the Biblical foundation on which this belief rests, we find it to be on shaky ground.

Biblical passages against meat consumption

The following passages in the Bible recommend against or prohibit consuming meat:

“And God said, ‘Behold, I give you every plant that produces seeds upon the earth and every tree that has fruit with its seed inside of it: these shall be your food.  And I give all green plants to every wild animal and to all the birds of the air and to all creatures that move upon the surface of the earth and that have the breath of life in them.’ And it was so.”

—Genesis 1:29-30

This chapter records God telling Adam and Eve to each the seeds and fruits of plants and trees, suggesting God only gave permission for humans to eat vegetation. Although Genesis 9:3 quotes God as saying, “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat,” its context indicates that God is only begrudgingly giving humans this permission.

As the story goes, this happened right after The Flood. Humans had sunk to such immorality that God eradicated life and started over. To keep the promise of never again unleashing such a flood, a disappointed God lowered the standards for human behavior, making some concessions to our baser instincts.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel during the British Mandate era, interprets the passage this way: “Because people had sunk to an extremely low level of spirituality, he wrote, it was necessary that they be given an elevated image of themselves as compared to animals, and that they concentrate their efforts into first improving relationships between people. If people were denied the right to eat meat, they might eat the flesh of human beings due to their inability to control their lust for flesh.” He views the permission to slaughter animals for food as a “transitional tax” until a “brighter era” is reached when people would return to plant-based diets. 

Genesis also speaks of God treating humans and animals in an equitable way. When God saved Noah and his family from destruction, God treated the animals in a similar manner:

“And God remembered Noah and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.”

-Genesis 8:1

“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth.”

-Genesis 9:8-10

God made this covenant not only with Noah and his descendants but also with “every living creature.” God made no distinction between people and animals in establishing God’s covenant “between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:12-17).

While the follow may not seem like a vegan Bible quote on its face, don’t forget the context: God only begrudgingly gives humans permission to eat animals, and this permission comes with a curse.

“The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands… Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat.”

-Genesis 9:2-3

The permission to eat meat comes with a curse. The animals, who were created to be Adam’s companions, will now “fear and dread” humans. Before “The Fall,” Adam and Eve were given the wealth and abundance of plants to eat.  After sin entered the world, they were told they could eat animals, and that those animals would live in fear of them. According to Christian Vegetarians and Vegans UK, “From a biblical perspective the concept of eating anything but plants by any animal – human or otherwise – only entered the world after The Fall. That surely should tell the reader something.”

“I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.”

-Isaiah 1:11-13

“He who slaughters an ox is like he who kills a man …”

-Isaiah 66:2-3

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.”

-Hosea 6:6

“Your offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices pleasing to me”

-Jeremiah 6:20

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

-Micah 6:8

Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast.

-Proverbs 12:10, ESV

“The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. … he satisfies the desire of every
living thing.”

Psalm 145:9

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.

-Luke 12:6-7

I desire mercy and not sacrifice.

Matthew 9:13, 12:7

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?”

-Luke 13:15-16

Here Jesus uses the Biblical laws of humane treatment of animals to justify healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath.

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.”

-Matthew 21:21

“It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.”

-Romans 14:21

“Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go to the gardens,Following one in the center, Who eat swine’s flesh, detestable things and mice, Will come to an end altogether,” declares the Lord.”

Isaiah 66:17

“Whatever crawls on its belly, and whatever walks on all fours, whatever has many feet, in respect to every swarming thing that swarms on the earth, you shall not eat them, for they are detestable… There are some that only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you. The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.”

Leviticus 11

Under Levitical law, pork was not allowed,as pigs have the parted-hoof but do not chew their cud. 

Jesus feeds bread and fish to the five thousand. But Jesus also speaks of compassion toward animals in multiple passages (Matthew 12:10-12, Luke 12:6-7, 13:15-16), seeming to hint at avoiding meat. Mark 6:34-44

Biblical passages permitting meat consumption

“These are the animals which you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat.”

-Deuteronomy 14:4

“Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat.”

-Leviticus 11:3

“These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you.”

-Leviticus 11:9-10

“And these you shall detest among the birds; they shall not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the falcon of any kind, every raven of any kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the seagull, the hawk of any kind, the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture,  the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.”

-Leviticus 11:13-18

“Of them you may eat: the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind.  But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you.”

-Leviticus 11:22-23

“Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household… all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it.” 

-Exodus 12

“There is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” Here Jesus explains that the old notions of clean and unclean food are done away with, seeming to lift restrictions on food.

“And [he] saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.  And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’  But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’  And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’” Apparently, this passage indicates that the “Covenant of the Christ” made everything clean, doing away with the Levitical notions of clean and unclean food.

-Acts 10:11-15

“Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” 

-1 Corinthians 10:25

Reflections on eating meat from modern day religious leaders

Akiva Gersh, known as the “vegan rabbi,” also encourages Jewish people to consider veganism to fulfill the Torah’s mandate of causing pain to animals and wasting resources, as well as protecting one’s health. He too says that the Garden of Eden was a plant-based environment, as God gave permission only to eat vegetation before the Flood. He also interprets Torah’s permission to eat meat as a concession rather than an ideal.

The Christan philosopher, Simon Kittle, says that most modern-day beliefs Christians have about animals “stem not from the Bible but from cultural habit.” Recognizing that “might enable us to evaluate honestly the violence we are now implicated in… so that we can turn… from the evil of causing unnecessary violence to animals.”

Dr. Andy Alexis-Baker, who is a vegan, author and lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies, says, “When I looked at how God calls people to live, I knew that the arc of my life had to bend toward justice, toward peace, toward compassion.” Finally, Reverend Tom Harris, a vegan Christian pastor, says that he struggled as a child having to deny his compassion towards animals. His internal compassion is ultimately what led him to veganism.

3. “The spirit of the law” is peace and compassion.

What does the Bible say about eating meat? 4 essential things you need to know

The Bible is full of contradictory messages like these about eating meat because it is a collection of books written by many different authors and edited by countless others. What most spiritual people take from the Bible to apply to their lives are the values of love, compassion, peace, gentleness, kindness, and selflessness. When using the Bible to determine whether it is acceptable to eat meat and animal products, consider this “spirit of the law.”

Let us reason here for a moment: does it not seem morally preferable to eat food that does not first have to be killed? Does it not seem that avoiding killing God’s creation for dinner shows more honor than killing it?

4. Eating meat was a necessity in the Bible, but it is a choice now.

What does the Bible say about eating meat? 4 essential things you need to know

Yes, Jesus and other figures in religious texts ate meat. Ancient Israelites lived in a time of limited resources and frequent famine. Eating animals may have been a necessity for them to survive. Today, it isn’t. As such, eating meat in the Bible out of necessity does not justify it now. We now have the freedom to choose. Why, then, would we choose to do harm?

Ask not, ‘What does the Bible say about eating meat?’ but, ‘What would Jesus do today?’

What does the Bible say about eating meat? 4 essential things you need to know

Referencing the Bible is a logically unsound justification for eating meat and animal products. This is because the Bible has contradictory messages about eating meat; the concept of “dominion” refers to stewardship, not exploitation; eating meat was a matter of necessity in ancient times; and the “spirit of the law” encourages compassion.

So, for those who ask, “What does the Bible say about eating meat?”, consider what seems consistent with the teachings of this prophet of compassion and peace. Would Jesus participate in or radically oppose a system that degrades the Earth and violates human rights and animal rights? Never mind what Jesus and his disciples did thousands of years ago when eating meat was a matter of survival – what would Jesus do today?

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