By Marcello Newall, August 2014
In our interpretation of the Bible we should always take into account that the Scriptures represent a complete narrative that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation. When Christians or others attempt to surgically remove isolated passages from their context and from the entire scriptural story they are opening themselves up to false and sometimes even bizarre interpretations that go against the authors’ message. Taking into account the entirety of Scripture it becomes evident that God’s original plan and his ultimate goal for creation are total Shalom(1), or peace, in which mankind made in his image are supposed to enjoy Him, the source of all beauty, and rejoice in his creation benevolently looking after the animal kingdom. All violence and death are in reality inherently antithetical to God’s gracious character and far from his ideal, and represent the negative effects of human and angelic rebellion. That entire segments of the Christian faith should miss this fundamental aspect of the gospel is absolutely astounding and is telling of how even Christians can be blinded to foundational trajectories present in the Bible. Entire books have and could be written on this subject and I will try to briefly summarize my understanding of the matter and answer the main objections to vegetarianism.
2. In the Beginning
In Genesis 1, the opening chapter of the Bible, we are told:
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so(2).
Whereas in modern societies we tend in general to value that which is “new”, or recent, in the ancient world what was older or had a longer history had more prestige and therefore was more authoritative. In this context when asked about remarriage by the Pharisees, who wanted to send away their wives simply with a divorce certificate, Jesus answered:
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning(3).”
In this passage Jesus introduces a very important hermeneutical key to understanding Scripture: the principle of accommodation. According to this concept God is willing to lower his standards in order to meet people where they are, much like what a missionary might do in a very primitive tribe. The Law of Moses, like much of the Old Testament, represents in this sense many aspects that are in fact inferior to God’s ideal and simply concessions made to the culture and the hardness of people’s hearts. Often these themes can be discerned through a careful reading of Scripture, for example notice the striking similarities between these two passages found in Deuteronomy:
When the Lord your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you crave meat and say, “I would like some meat,” then you may eat as much of it as you want(4).
When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses(5).
And now relate them to how the Lord considered Israel’s request to have a King:
So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights(6).”
These passages clearly show how God actually gives to the Israelites what they desire even though this does not reflect his perfect will: God often tolerates certain cultural aspects for a time in view of their eventual elimination. We see that the concession to eat meat was made not after the Fall of man but subsequent to the Flood(7): some interpreters believe this may have been due to a scarcity of plant food after the devastation that occurred and because of spiritual weakness (8).
3. Animal Sacrifice
One argument that is often mustered against vegetarianism is the difficult topic of animal sacrifice: why does God issue commandments in regard to this practice, sometimes almost seeming to encourage it? As discussed previously animal sacrifice represents a concession made to fallen man, that the Lord, taking into consideration the ignorance of human beings, accepted for a time as a form of worship. The Bible itself actually ends up rejecting the practice of animal sacrifice as a possible form of atonement or even as something pleasing to God:
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats(9)?
“The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats(10).
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have opened,
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart(11).”
In light of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of himself, the fact that animals prefigured spiritually his torment and death should actually lead us to consider their innocence and value in God’s eyes. The suffering of an innocent animal symbolizes no less than the death of Jesus himself: this alone should bring a greater respect to their plight. Animal suffering and pain is in reality symptomatic of a world gone horribly wrong and practically the first sign of a broken relationship with God in Genesis is animal death. We are specifically told in Scripture that God cares for every creature he has made and that their pain and suffering grieve him(12). Both in the Old and New Testaments a cruel disposition towards animals is actually considered a moral defect that does not reflect God’s benevolence and compassion(13).
In Isaiah’s vision, echoed by Hosea(14) and by the authors of the New Testament(15), one of the signs of the coming of the kingdom of God will be the elimination of predation amongst animals and the restoration of complete harmony within creation. The reason given is that in the future Age there will be a new and greater understanding of who God really is: ‘They will neither harm or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea’ (16).
4. The Teaching and Example of Christ
But what about the teaching of Jesus himself? For many Christ’s teaching that it is not what enters the mouth that defiles man is an explicit rejection of vegetarianism(17), which would therefore be considered sub-Christian. In reality Jesus’ teaching of holiness(18) of the heart in no way precludes this choice but simply bases it on the inner motivations of the individual or what is defined as the ‘heart’ as opposed to external laws or ritual purity. For me it is quite surprising how this teaching has been twisted to mean that a Christian’s food choices are wholly indifferent when in reality Jesus simply internalized God’s law to an inner personal dimension of faith.
The example of Jesus himself is at times cited as evidence that Christians should indeed eat meat. The fact that Jesus ate fish and participated in the Passover meal can be explained by his role as the fulfillment of the Law of Moses(19) and by the concept of God’s gracious lowering of himself in order to meet his human creatures where they were culturally. Jesus entered a fallen world and moved within the ignorance and limitations of the Israelite culture of the time(20) and as a Jew Jesus had to fulfill the Law of Moses(21) which was in and of itself a concession to human weakness: Jesus’ own teaching accepted the inspiration of the Law but pointed beyond it towards the higher ethic of God’s ideal and towards love as the essence of God’s being(22). In Jesus we find a form of continuity with the Law but also a transcending of the Law, which is seen as anticipatory and typological: ‘for the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ'(23). In reality the teaching of Jesus far from basing itself on ritual purity or a series of laws and prohibitions is a radical ethic of agapé love lived in personal fellowship with the Father that finds its ultimate manifestation in the cross(24).
(1)Genesis 1-2, Isaiah 55:12, John 16:33, Revelation 21:1-5.
(6)1 Samuel 8:4-8.
(8)ANDREW LINZEY, DAN COHN-SHERBOK, After Noah, Mowbray 1997, Great Britain, p. 57.
(12)Luke 12:6, Deuteronomy 22:6.
(13)Proverbs 12:10, Luke 14:5.
(15)Isaiah 65:25, Revelation 21:4-5.
(18)The entirety of Scripture teaches the concept of heart holiness: Dt 10:16, Ps 51:10, Mt 5:8.
(19)Romans 10:4, Galatians 4:4.
(20)Galatians 4:4 says Jesus was «born under the law».
(22)Matthew 5:17-48, Matthew 22:36.
Bibliography for the entire article following this message. We will continue with Part Two of this post next week; please stay tuned! For those who want to read the whole article now, you can do so here: Is Vegetarianism Biblical_
Thank you for reading and following our blog! Your thoughts are always welcome! ~Marcello