Vegetarianism as Divine Ideal?

Jews and Christians consider the Hebrew Bible[1] a guide to their faith and practice; some practitioners of these faiths even find support for their diet from these time-honored texts. Does the Bible substantiate the Creator’s preference for a specific diet based upon religious and ethical reasoning? A survey of scriptural texts reveals the importance of the human diet. According to Genesis for instance, the Creator chose to disclose the first man’s diet shortly after He created him (Genesis 1:29). Initially, according to the narrative of Genesis, man’s diet consisted of vegetation only. Following the flood of Noah, man was permitted to eat the flesh of animals but not without restrictions. Several sections of texts deal at length with permitted and forbidden animals (e.g. Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14). The Hebrew Bible contains rules for the ritual slaughter of animals, but this practice of killing animals seems to attract the disdain of the ancient prophets of Israel. Can we make sense of these seemingly divergent views of diet found within the Bible? Does this corpus of sacred Scriptures suggest that one diet is better than another? Was mankind created to eat a specific diet? Key biblical and religious texts related to diet seem to suggest that vegetarianism was the original human diet, and may even present the meatless meal as the ideal, and the future diet for all of humanity.

After blessing the first man, commanding reproductive activity, and charging him with the care of all living things (Genesis 1:28), God gave Adam a diet. The diet consisted of “every seed bearing plant and every tree that has seed bearing fruit” (Genesis 1:29). For man as well as animal, the Creator gave “all the green plants for food” (Genesis 1:30). We read further that man was placed in a paradise known as the Garden of Eden where trees, “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:8) grew. In the midst of the garden there were two trees: one was called the tree of knowledge of good and bad[2], and the other was called the tree of life. The fruit of the former was forbidden to the man, since partaking thereof would lead to death (Genesis 2:16-17). Temptation is, interestingly enough, introduced to the human race through a story related to human diet; and ironically, food has served as a great temptation ever since. The first humans violated a dietary rule and this led to a chain of events resulting in humanity’s wandering east of Eden in a world gone awry.

The human condition is depicted in the stories that follow as growing progressively worse until finally we learn that God regretted that he had made man (Genesis 6:5ff). Ten generations after creation, the Creator decreed a new beginning: this time with a man named Noah and his immediate family. A massive flood wiped out all but the passengers on a boat. The passengers on this storm-tossed vessel included both humans and animals. Upon departure from the ark, a new diet is described, a diet that permitted the eating of animals. Like the vegetation diet of the first man, this one too had restrictions. Blood was forbidden even though flesh was allowed. Noah built an altar and offered one of the animals as a sacrifice and the narrator reports, “the LORD smelled the pleasing odor [of the burning sacrifice]” (Genesis 8:21). As the biblical stories continue we find sacrifice playing a dominant role in the religious life of humanity. Is this the ideal? Or is it the result of man’s physical and spiritual distance from the paradise that once was his home? The ancient prophets of Israel seem to suggest the latter.

The world in which the prophets lived accepted the killing of animals and the eating of flesh, but several passages attributed to them suggest that they saw a higher way towards holiness. They began to share a conception of the Deity that preferred a peaceful existence; they envisioned a time when even the “lion will eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:7b): a time when “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 (Isaiah 11:9 and 65:25). Later exegetes would follow suit. Throughout the sections of the bible known as the Prophets and the Psalms, we get glimpses of a bloodless way towards holiness. While the Torah[3] contains rules and regulations related to proper sacrifice (e.g. The Book of Leviticus), these prophets and their stinging words suggest that the slaughter of animals is not the ideal. What was it that they found so distasteful about the killing of animals? The prophet Jeremiah contains a message purportedly from the LORD that says he did not “speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice” rather that they listen to his voice (Jeremiah 7:21-23). This dichotomy is illustrated in numerous other passages of the Hebrew Bible. Hosea says plainly that God “desires mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). The famous prophet Samuel says much the same, rhetorically asking whether or not the LORD delights in the killing of animals, and then declaring, “obedience is better than sacrifice” (I Samuel 15:22). So what does God require? Micah says that the LORD requires ONLY that man “do justice, love goodness and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:6-8). This statement, in context, clearly insinuates that sacrifice is not required or perhaps even desired. The prophets saw a restoration of the ideal that did not include the killing of animals. The Psalmist says plainly, “you [God] do not want me to bring sacrifices; you [God] do not desire burnt offerings” rather a contrite and a crushed heart is what is desired (Psalm 51:18-19).

Later Jewish writers confirmed that humanity’s first diet consisted of vegetation only and the flesh of animals was only permitted in a world outside the boundaries of the paradise known as Eden. Shemesh, referencing the Babylonian Talmud, says that several of the sages confirmed the belief that from Adam until Noah, humans did not eat meat (p.144). Isaac Abravanel suggests that meat was only permitted after the flood because the flood destroyed the vegetation, leaving no alternative but to eat the flesh of animals as a means of survival (Shemesh, p. 148). Abravanel went so far as to suggest, “meat is not an essential food, but is rather a matter of gluttony” (Shemesh, p. 149).  Shemesh also reports that Abraham ibn Ezra made the point for avoiding the consumption of meat based upon the fact that there “is no commandment to eat meat” (p. 158).

Prophets and sages saw vegetarianism as representative of the peaceful existence that was known before the fall. The prophet Isaiah’s words are especially relevant in this regard. He describes an earth that is “full of the knowledge of the LORD” where they “will not hurt or destroy” (Isaiah 11:9 and Isaiah 65:25). He envisioned a return to Eden when he saw a world in which the “wolf shall dwell with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6). This idyllic scene is only depicted in one setting in biblical literature: the Garden of Eden. Accordingly, the picture that emerges from this survey of the Hebrew Bible and the literature produced by its greatest sages suggests that the meatless meal will once again be the diet in the palengenesis[4].


[1] The designation, Hebrew Bible, refers to the collection of sacred documents known as the Old Testament by Christians and the TaNaK by Jews. TaNaK is an acronym formed from the initial letter of three Hebrew words designating the three sections of the Jewish Bible: Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim (Law, Prophets, and Writings respectively).

[2] The popular translation of good and evil has been replaced by the phrase good and bad. This translation more accurately represents the Hebrew word ra’.

[3] By Torah, I mean the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It is commonly translated as Law, but a better definition of the Hebrew term would be instruction.

[4] This is the transliteration of a Greek word indicating a “new beginning.”

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References

Berin, A., Brettler, M.Z., & Fishbane, M. (2004). The Jewish study bible . New York, New York: Oxford University Press.

Berry, R. (1998). From cowherd to cornflakes: The religious roots of modern ethical vegetarianism. The Animals’ Agenda, 18(6), 44-45.

Barilan, Y. M. (2004). The vision of vegetarianism and peace: Rabbi Kook on the ethical treatment of animals. History of the Human Sciences, 17(4), 69-101. Retrieved from http://hhs.sagepub.com/content/17/4/69

Shemesh, Y. (2006). Vegetarian ideology in Talmudic literature and traditional biblical exegesis. Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 9, 141-166.

 

 

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