Does the Bible Command Vegetarianism? An Ideal Diet in a Non-Ideal World

Animal Theology Does the Bible command a vegetarian diet?

One of the ongoing discussions in animal theology pursues this very question of whether the Bible can provide practical guidance regarding consumption of animal flesh and product. Notably, Andrew Linzey has published numerous books and articles on this very issue, illustrating that we have no biblical justification for consuming animals flesh and product in a developed society where alternatives are readily available.

Yet, contrary to Linzey’s biblical research, one of the dominant defenses of carnism is rooted in biblical scripture. As the objection goes: “humans can eat meat because the bible says so.”

Responding to this defense of carnism requires us to critically evaluate the so-called biblical evidence, starting with the following influential passage from Genesis:

Genesis 9:1-4: “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them “…Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”

This is perhaps the most significant passage from the Bible which seems to endorse carnism. As Linzey points out, many take this passage as settling the matter of whether humans can be justified in killing animals for food. Yet there are a few points to keep in mind when considering this passage:

(1) Context, context, context. This passage comes after Genesis 1:29-30, where God commands a vegetarian diet (And God said, vegetarianism and the flood“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. And to every beast of the earth, and to everything that creeps on the earth, and to every bird of the air, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food”). Why, then, would God change His mind and permit humans to eat flesh? The first point to keep in mind is that this “permission” came after the Fall and the Flood which seems to entail that eating flesh is a result of humanity’s fallen state. In the ideal state, before the Fall, God commanded a vegetarian diet. Yet, after the Fall and Flood, God has now allowed humans to consume flesh given their fallen state and violent world they live in. In the present circumstances, it is allowed (Linzey 1993). Furthermore, since this “permission” was granted AFTER the flood, we might consider that the reason why God permitted humans to eat flesh is because the vegetation and means of growing a staple plant based diet was destroyed from the flood. In other words, in this state of necessity, humans were granted a conditional permission (but not a “right”) to eat flesh. Yet the fact that humans were granted a conditional permission to eat flesh back in these circumstances does not justify our eating flesh NOW when we have plenty of substitutes widely available.

(2) Certain animal theologians, like Rynn Berry, point out that the word “shall” in Genesis 9: 1-4 can be interpreted in two ways: (1) God grants permission that every living thing “shall” be food, or (2) God makes a prediction that humans shall, i.e. will, eat living things now that they are in a fallen state. Thus, we can’t even be sure if God actually granted permission to eat flesh in the first place! Perhaps, then, God was just describing what will follow from the fall and flood—men will embrace violent methods of eating.

(3) The Hebrew word that was interpreted as “living thing” is Remes, which actually means, in its literal translation, reptiles. Keeping this in mind, there is a continual distinction between “cattle,” “beasts,” and “creeping things” in Genesis (Genesis 1:24, 1:29-30) which seems to indicate that “creeping/moving things,” i.e. reptiles, are in a category of their own. So if we take Genesis 9: 1-4 seriously, the most we can say is that God granted us permission (in cases of necessity) to use reptiles for food– not mammals. In addition, pay attention to the words …”Every living thing shall be food for you”—this in no way implies that we can KILL *any* animal for food. At best, we can use REPTILES for food, such as by using them for the eggs they lay (This response comes from John Vujicic).

In conclusion, we have significant reason to doubt that there is a biblical justification for our current widespread practices of carnism. For one, we can’t even be sure God ever granted humans even a conditional permission to eat flesh, since there are two contrasting interpretations of “shall.” Second, even if God granted a conditional permission to eat flesh, it doesn’t seem that this permission pertains to animals other than reptiles. Finally, even if there is a conditional permission to eat mammals themselves, this permission is only granted in cases of necessity. Clearly, eating animal flesh is not a necessity in developed societies like ours.

Finally, a vegetarian diet is clearly the ideal diet. This was the diet commanded before the fall, and furthermore, as Linzey (1993) bible and meatpoints out, it is the diet of the “Messianic Age,” where there will be a return to the conditions before the Fall and the Flood: “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 should lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” (Isaiah 11:6-9).

As good, devout Christians, we should strive to reach the perfect state God has intended for us. Of course, our world is corrupt and we are a far ways away from achieving the state of the Messianic Age, yet just because our world is corrupt, does this mean that we are off the hook? That we should just give up hope of obtaining the state of the Messianic Age because we are doomed to fail, thus engaging in actions which are clearly imperfect and not part of God’s original plan before the fall? Or should we, as individuals, do our part to achieve what God has intended for us by practicing an ideal diet in a non-ideal world?