Does Genesis 9:3 “Trump” Christian Vegetarianism?

(I apologize for the length of this post. I had considered breaking it up into smaller posts, but decided against it so as to avoid “serializing” so soon after my botched attempt at a series. I hope it won’t deter you from reading to the end. One note to bear in mind as you read: what I offer here is not an argument for vegetarianism, but a much more modest case that Genesis 9:3 cannot be used as a “trump” against Christian vegetarianism.)

I. INTRO

Genesis 9:1-4 is one of those “notorious” Biblical passages that is often deployed in conversations as a kind of “trump” against any suggestion that killing and eating animals might be morally problematic from a theological perspective. Usually, the passage is read as a universal “blanket permission” for all people, at all times, in all circumstances to “kill and eat”, even when such killing is not strictly necessary for survival.

“God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will be on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. However, you must not eat flesh with it’s life, that is, it’s blood.” (Genesis 9:1-4)

Of course, Christian vegetarians and vegans have offered a variety of interpretations. The co-founder of the Seventh-Day Adventists, Ellen G. White, for instance, argued (with reference to Genesis 6:3) that the permission to eat meat was a “divine judgement against sinful humanity by cutting their days short with a[n unhealthy] meat-eating diet” (Young 59). Subsequent Adventists, as if to lessen the harshness of White’s reading, insisted that this was really an act of mercy: God was effectively limiting the amount of suffering that any one person could perpetrate or endure by limiting their time on Earth.

II.  A “TEMPORARY DISPENSATION”?

A much more popular interpretation has been to suggest that the massive “global flood” described in Genesis 7 and 8 effectively rendered a vegetarian diet impossible. This line of reasoning is developed by Judith Barad in her essay, “What About the Covenant With Noah?” in A Faith Embracing All Creatures. There Barad argues that such a devastating, global flood would have no doubt reduced the face of the earth to a “barren wasteland”. While Adam and Eve may have had the benefit of the lush and abundant Garden in which God had placed them, Noah would have had no vegetation to eat at all. So, If God’s will was that humans, despite their violence (Gen 6:11), should nevertheless continue to exist (as Gen 9:1 implies), they would have had to eat other animals. Given their dire circumstances then, Noah and his family are granted a “special dispensation” to eat flesh. This dispensation, however, differs from the admonition to eat plants in Genesis 1:29 in that the former, unlike the latter, is not intended as a practice for all humans at all times. As Barad is aware, “What is permissible in times of emergency is not necessarily permissible in ordinary times.” (Barad 18). In sum, Genesis 9:3 is not to be understood as a universally applicable permission to eat meat, but only a temporary concession granted to Noah out of the necessity of his immediate circumstances following the flood.

While Barad’s essay provides a number of valuable insights into the meaning of the text – such as her emphasis on the importance of the narrative context for a proper interpretation of the passage, or the practical point that those in desperate circumstances cannot be held to the same standard as those who can easily live without killing animals for food – nevertheless, her account faces a number of difficulties, that cannot easily be surmounted. Her literalistic approach to the story, for instance, raises the need for a satisfying account of how the various herbivorous species aboard the ark might have survived in the absence of any plants. As Richard Young points out, “If there was enough vegetation to sustain them, surely there would have been enough to sustain a human family of eight persons.” (Young 59). While one might be tempted to offer miraculous explanations, such answers will inevitably be speculative, going well beyond what the text itself warrants. Furthermore, Barad’s conclusion that the permission is to be understood as a temporary dispensation meant for Noah and his immediate family alone conflicts with a much less circumscribed understanding that seems to be presupposed throughout much of the rest of the Bible. David Horell has noted, for instance, that Genesis 9:3-4 is “fundamental to the Torah’s food regulations”, which presume the acceptability of eating, at least, some (i.e., “clean”) meat, despite placing significant restrictions on Israel’s freedom to kill for food (Horrel 44). A number of passages in the New Testament, moreover, seem to take the freedom granted in Genesis 9:3, as well as the restriction placed on it in the following verse, as applying to all humankind and not just Noah and his immediate family (see, e.g., Mark 7:19, Romans 14:14, 1 Corinthians 10:25-26, and Acts 11:3-12). While Barad’s insights into the hermeneutical significance of the passage’s narrative context are largely correct, her ultimate conclusions cannot easily be squared with the general thrust of the Biblical narrative. Ultimately, then, Barad’s account is largely untenable.

III. TOWARDS AN “ACCOMMODATIONIST” READING

The account offered by Andrew Linzey gives equal importance to the narrative context of Genesis 9:1-4, but is able to avoid many of the problems that confront Barad’s account. For Linzey, the fact that Genesis 9 immediately follows an account of the fall of humankind into deeper and deeper sin and violence is not without significance:

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart….the earth was corrupt [i.e., ruined, destroyed] in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted it’s ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.’” (Gen 6:5-6, 11-12)

For Linzey, “It is in this context – subsequent to the Fall and the Flood – that we need to understand the permission to kill for food in Genesis 9.” The interpretive significance of this point is that the apparent contradiction between the vegetarian diet prescribed in Genesis 1:29 and the permission to eat meat in 9:3 can be resolved only when we recognize that the former (i.e., vegetarianism) is characteristic of creaturely life absent sin and violence, whereas the latter (i.e., freedom to eat meat) represents a divine accommodation to a fallen and deeply compromised world.

Linzey’s account shares much in common with a view of Genesis 9:3 that was prominent among early Church Fathers like Tertullian, Basil the Great, and St. Jerome. In his treatise, On Fasting, for instance, Tertullian asks, “why was the limit of lawful food extended after the flood?” Tertullian argues that this was a necessary compromise given that humankind had proven too weak and sinful to be held to a strict standard of vegetarianism: “it was not suitable for man to be burdened with any further special law of abstinence, who so recently showed himself unable to tolerate so light an interdiction—of one single fruit.” A similar interpretation is found in the writings of St. Jerome who argues in a letter, Against Jovianus, that meat-eating, like divorce, was only conceded because of the hardness of men’s hearts. “At the beginning of the human race,” he states, “we neither ate flesh, nor gave bills of divorce, nor suffered circumcision for a sign. Thus we reached the deluge. But after the deluge, together with the giving of the law which no one could fulfill, flesh was given for food, and divorce was allowed to hard-hearted men.” Likewise, St. Basil’s homily On Fasting, explains, “There was no wine in Paradise, nor any slaughter of animals, nor any consumption of meat. After the flood, there was wine; after the flood came the ordinance: ‘Eat all things as the green herb.’” For Basil the rationale for this sudden change is clear. “When hope of human perfection was abandoned, then enjoyment was permitted.”

To be sure there are important differences between Linzey and the Early Church Fathers. For the latter, abstinence from flesh was primarily an ascetic and spiritual matter, whereas Linzey’s concern is primarily the well-being of animals. The Fathers seem to have assumed that humans remained vegetarian until after the flood. This is particularly the case in Jerome. Linzey, on the other hand, places the turn away from vegetarianism prior to the flood. In this respect, he is much closer to Jewish commentary than to early Christian interpretation. The midrash on Genesis 6 in the book of Jubilees, explains, “lawlessness increased on the earth and all flesh corrupted its way, alike men and cattle and beasts and birds and everything that walks on the earth – all of them corrupted their ways and their orders, and they began to devour each other.” Not only did humans kill and eat animals prior to the flood, then, the Jewish tradition maintains that this carnivorousness was part and parcel of the very violence and corruption that incited the wrath of God and precipitated the flood. Despite there differences however, the Church Fathers corroborate Linzey’s basic view that Genesis 9:3 is an “accommodation” to some form of human failing, for instance, sin, weakness, hardness-of-heart, or imperfection.

The upshot of this accommodationist account of Genesis 9:3 is that while meat-eating, like divorce, is regarded as permissible (i.e., not a “sin”), it nevertheless remains a symptom of the fall, essentially bound to the present age, and so remains a form of life that in some way runs counter to the direction in which God is drawing creation (there’s no space to develop this argument here, but see, e.g., Isa 11:6-9 and Hos 2:18). Unlike Barad then, Linzey offers an account of Genesis 9:1-4 that preserves the vegetarianism of Genesis 1:29 as the “ideal” toward which Christian ethics should strive without thereby contradicting subsequent passages that presume the compromise reached in Genesis 9 remains operative.

VI.  AGAINST “PERMISSION”

Richard Young’s position is similar to Linzey’s. He argues, for instance, that the narrative context of Genesis 9:3 indicates that the passage is to be understood as God’s “condescending to the state of disorder, violence, and death” described in the sequence leading up to the flood. For Young, God’s grace is manifest in his condescension to a fallen human race that insists, against his will, to live violently towards other creatures.

“When God says, ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.’…it is obvious that the statement is somehow related to the fallen state of humanity….Because of this, we should dismiss the idea that God is commanding us to eat meat. God’s commands are designed to inspire us toward divine ideals, whereas God’s concessions and permissions are designed to deal with us the way we are.” (Young 56).

Young warns against thinking of Genesis 9:3 as a “permission”, however, since, “permission does not carry a hint of divine reservation.” (Young 56). But, we could ask, what reason might there be to think that God has any reservations about humans eating other animals? Unfortunately, Young offers little argument in support of this presumption; he briefly mentions the “vegetarian ideal” of Genesis 1:29-30, to indicate that this “concession” of meat to Noah is at odds with God’s original plans for creation. However, I think that much more can be said to bolster Young’s claim that Genesis 9:3 must be understood as a “reluctant concession” rather than a “permission”.

Consider the preceding verse (9:2) in which God tells Noah that, as a result of his altered relationship with other creatures, “the fear and dread of you will be on every animal of the earth.” Reading Genesis 9:3 as a “permission”, rather than a reluctant concession, might imply that God somehow wills that his creatures should live in fear and dread. This fits awkwardly however, not only with the general picture of God as a loving savior, but more specifically, with the picture of God’s particular concern for the well-being of nonhuman animals throughout the Bible. The Psalms, for instance, speak of God’s compassion for all his creatures (145:9), and his care to provide for the wants and needs of all living things (145:16). Psalm 36:6 affirms that God saves humans and animals alike. Numerous laws and passages throughout the Torah display God’s concern for the well-being of animals as well. Leviticus 22:27, for example, forbids separating a calf from her mother too soon after birth, so as to spare the mother unnecessary grief. Deuteronomy 22:4 and Exodus 23:5 bid us to help animals that have fallen down on the road or under a heavy burden. Exodus 23:11 commands us to provide even for wild animals. Animals are to be given time to rest on the Sabbath (Exod 20:8-10, 23:12; Deut 5:12-14). Deuteronomy 25:4 prohibits muzzling an ox as it threshes grain out of respect for the animal’s natural urges to eat as it works. And of course, there are Jesus’ famous words in Matthew 10:29, about the sparrows, who, whatever their worth to humans, are attended to and cared for even in death, by the God who made them.

In light of this, the “fear and dread” referred to in Genesis 9:2 cannot be a matter of indifference to God. Describing Genesis 9:3 as a “permission” then, is problematic, insofar as it misleadingly implies that God unequivocally endorses our choice to kill and eat His other creatures. Understanding Genesis 9:3 as a “reluctant concession” however, enables us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of this “fear and dread”: it is a description of the consequences of man’s unfortunate insistence on killing other animals for food. Indeed, this description even appears to have certain parallels to the Genesis 3 description of Adam’s altered relation to the earth as a result of his disobedience: where Adam once enjoyed the abundance of “every tree of the Garden”, after the fall, he is warned, “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground…” (Gen 3:17-19). Similarly, Noah now finds that the animals, which, in Genesis 2:18-20 are created for relationship with humans, will no longer easily yield to him their cooperation, becoming wild, fractious, even hostile towards him. Both cases – Adam and Noah – seem to represent a definite loss, and not merely a modification, of the dominion that humankind was originally given over the created order. In any case, the “fear and dread” mentioned in Genesis 9:2 indicates a falling away from the peaceable relations between humans and other animals that God calls “very good” in Genesis 1:31.

V.  THE BLOOD PROHIBITION

One final indication that the language of “permission” is inadequate to describe what’s going on in Genesis 9:3 follows from an examination of the urgent prohibition against the consumption of blood that immediately follows in verse 4:

“However, you must not eat flesh with it’s life, that is, it’s blood.”

What’s going on in this verse? What does it mean to eat flesh “with it’s life”? And how does this translate into a prohibition against consuming “blood”? The key resides in the fact that, for the ancient Israelite, life (nephesh) was equated with, or at least closely associated with blood. This connection is made explicit, for instance, in Leviticus 17:

“‘I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood…” (Lev 17:10-11)

Here, life – the  ‘nephesh’, ‘soul’, or ‘animating life-force’ common to humans and animals – is said to reside in the blood. Christian vegetarians and vegans have not overlooked the significance of this symbolic connection for the interpretation of the prohibition in Genesis 9:4. Sometimes, this has led to implausibly exaggerated readings such as when Linzey suggests that the prohibition “might be seen as obliterating the permission [to eat meat] itself… To kill was to take blood. And yet it is precisely this permission which is denied.” Nathan MacDonald has criticized Linzey on precisely this point, noting that his “erroneous” and “selective” reading of these verses, involves him in “exegetical conundrums that are quite unnecessary” (MacDonald 22). Barad too, makes similarly exaggerated claims: “Since we cannot remove all the blood from animal flesh,” she argues, “this verse is not simply telling us to drain the blood before we eat an animal. In fact, whenever a person eats meat, he or she is eating blood.” She concludes, therefore, that “If this is the case, then God has not permitted us to eat meat even temporarily in a great emergency!” (Barad 18). As Matthew Barton explains,”Such a reading…runs close to what [Stephen] Webb calls the “conspiracy-theory” model. Given the broad consensus in the Jewish tradition about what the prohibition of blood constitutes, to argue that the real intention was a total prohibition of meat is a bold and contentious claim, lacking historical and scriptural support.” Richard Young also notes that such interpretations obviously contradict the clear meaning of the verse that occurs just before (Gen 9:3), and instead, focuses on the function the blood prohibition had in the liturgical formation of Israelite conscience:

“Blood symbolizes life, and in Israelite understanding, life belongs to and is under the jurisdiction of God. Before eating an animal, the Israelites symbolically gave the life back to God by pouring the blood on the ground (Deut 12:24). The ban against eating blood therefore functions as a constant reminder that animals belong to God and are to be treated accordingly. As such, animal life is sacred and has inherent value…” (Young 60).

In other words, in prohibiting the consumption of blood and demanding it be “returned to God” (specifically at the altar, in Lev 17:11, and later by burying it in the earth in Deut 12:24), the Torah acts to shape the Israelite’s conscience, instilling a sense of the sacredness of animal life. This is the conclusion reached by the Jewish Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom in his rather technical analysis of the dietary laws of Leviticus. For Milgrom, these dietary laws (i.e., the blood prohibition, the ritual slaughter, and the prohibition of “unclean” animals) are not simply a collection of disparate and ad hoc rules, but actually constitute a coherent system that functions to

teach the Israelite reverence for life by (1) reducing his choice of flesh to a few animals; (2) limiting the slaughter of even these few animals to the most humane way…and (3) prohibiting the ingestion of blood and mandating its disposal on the altar or by burial… as acknowledgement that bringing death to living things is a concession of God’s grace and not a privilege of man’s whim.” (Milgrom 735).

Interestingly, despite being neither a vegetarian nor ostensibly concerned with issues of animal ethics, Milgrom actually makes a much stronger case than Young does that the spilling of an animal’s blood is a grave matter within the Torah. Not only does he argue, as Young does, that the blood prohibition is put in place specifically to counteract the violence that has hitherto corrupted the earth (Milgrom 705), he also argues, on the basis of a close analysis of Leviticus 17:11, that “slaughtering an animal constitutes murder unless [the Israelite] offers it’s blood upon the altar to ransom his life.” (emphasis added). In examining Leviticus 17:3-4 (which declares that for any Israelite who slaughters an animal but does not bring it to the altar as an offering of well-being, “blood guilt shall be reckoned to that man: he has shed blood”), Milgrom notes the idiom “dam sapak” (translated as “shed blood”), is not merely a figure of speech but rather a precise legal term. “The idiom sapak dam is the well-attested accusation of murder” (e.g., in Gen 9:6; 37:22; Num 35:33; Deut 19:10, etc., etc.). Milgrom concludes that “he who commits profane slaughter is reckoned to be a murderer because he has shed blood.” (Milgrom 710). Indeed, the blood of the slain animal is brought to the altar, not as some general atonement for the Israelite’s sins (since the well-being offering is the only offering that does not have an atoning function), but precisely in order to ransom the life of the one who otherwise incurs “bloodguilt” as a result of spilling the animal’s blood.

The Point should be clear: within the worldview of the Pentateuch (or at least the so-called “Priestly” material, of  which Genesis 9:1-4 is a part), taking the life of an animal is a grave and serious matter. This point is understood even by Karl Barth, who criticized vegetarianism as a “wanton anticipation” of the future Kingdom glimpsed in Isaiah 11 (Barth 355-356):

If there is a freedom of man to kill animals, this signifies in any case the adoption of a qualified and in some sense enhanced responsibility. If that of his lordship over the living beast is serious enough, it takes on a new gravity when he sees himself compelled to express his lordship by depriving it of its life. He obviously cannot do this except under the pressure of necessity. Far less than all the other things which he dares to do in relation to animals, may this be ventured unthinkingly and as though it were self-evident. He must never treat this need for offensive and defensive action against the animal world as a natural one, nor include it as a normal element in his thinking or conduct.” (Barth 352)

This then provides the final support for our understanding of Genesis 9:3 as a “reluctant concession”. If the Bible treats the killing of animals, even under circumstances of necessity, as a grave and serious matter, then the language of “permission”, which implies God’s approval, or at the very least, his indifference or neutrality, is woefully inadequate to describe Genesis 9:3. On the other hand, Christian vegans and vegetarians, if they hope to be persuasive to their their omnivorous brothers and sisters, should avoid weak, implausible, or otherwise theologically problematic arguments that simply sweep passages like Genesis 9:3 under the rug. My hope is that the considerations offered in this lengthy post can provide a kind of “third way” that takes seriously the clear meaning of Genesis 9:3 but in a way that makes clear that this “reluctant concession” of meat does not supersede the vegetarian “ideal” of Christian eschatology as an ethic to be proleptically enacted in the present wherever possible.

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NOTES

Barad, Judith  “What About the Covenant With Noah?” in A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals,  Andy Alexis-Baker and Tripp York (Eds) 2013

Barth, Karl  Church Dogmatics III.4

Barton, Matthew  Dietary Pacifism: Animals, Nonviolence, and the Messianic Community (unpublished dissertation, University of Leeds) 2013

Horrel, David  “Biblical Vegetarianism? A Critical and Constructive Engagement” in Eating and Believing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology, David Grummett and Rachel Muers (Eds), 2008.

Linzey, Andrew  Animal Theology 1994

MacDonald, Nathan  “Food and Diet in the Preistly Material of the Pentateuch” in Eating and Believing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology David Grummett and Rachel Muers (Eds), 2008.

Milgrom, Jacob   Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible, Vol. 3) 1998

Young, Richard Alan  Is God a Vegetarian? Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights 1999

 

 

‘Noah’, the Bible, and Animal Theology (Part 1)

Reviews of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah have been flooding the internet for two weeks now, and feelings appear to be mixed. Religious critics, in particular, have expressed much concern over what they feel are excessive creative liberties, suggesting that Aronofsky has not shown sufficient respect for a text that many regard as sacred. A few have even accused the film blasphemy or of promulgating heretical views like Gnosticism. Most of these criticisms, however, have come from Christians who are unfamiliar with many of the Jewish traditions – like the Talmud, the Rabbinic commentaries and Midrash – that Aronofsky draws from to fill out the details of the sparse Biblical account. The “watchers”, for instance, are Aronofsky’s Tolkein-esque take on the “giants” or “nephilim” mentioned in Gen 6:4 and which are often understood as fallen angels in some parts of the Jewish Midrash (see here). Likewise, the movie’s villain, Tubal-Cain, who is only briefly mentioned in Genesis 5:22 as a decendant of Cain, brother of Naamah, and as an “instructer of every artificer in bronze and iron”, has been discusssed and elaborated on in the Midrash (Genesis Rabba, for instance, names Tubal-Cain’s sister, Naamah, as Noah’s wife) and is later discussed by the medieval Rabbi Rashi who claims his work in bronze and iron “refined the Cain’s craft to make weapons for murderers.” (see, his comment on v. 22, here) Aronofsky is clearly aware of this tradition, and many of the other unbiblical, or perhaps we should say extrabiblical, details can be similarly traced to Jewish tradition, though Shem’s wife, “Ila” as she’s called in the film, is all an invention of Aronofsky’s apparently added simply for dramatic interest later on in the movie (without, I think, fundamentally distorting the story).

Yet what seems to have upset some Christian moviegoers the most is the suggestion that God’s wrath and judgment (in the form of a monstrous deluge) could have had anything to do with a fallen humanity’s violence, devastation of God’s Creation and wanton destruction of nonhuman animals. Wesley J. Smith of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Human Exceptionalism (yes, that’s a real thing), has denounced the movie for being “anti-human” and “radically environmentalist”. For Smith, Aronofsky’s Noah is just the most recent conspiracy in Hollywood’s carefully coordinated “war on humans”. But while many religious commentators have either dismissed the movie wholesale, or have sought to defend it’s every innovation, few have taken the time to explore the potentially illuminating theological questions it raises. Why exactly does God send a massive flood? If humans are somehow responsible, why did so many non-human animals die as well? What is the nature of mankind’s “dominion”? Does God give homo sapiens carte-blanche over the rest of creation, or does it somehow imply responsibility and stewardship of the earth? What about meat-eating? Was Noah really a vegetarian? What about the animal sacrifice at the end of the story (which Aronofsky conveniently omits)? And what are we to make of God’s statement in Genesis 9:3 that “Every living thing that moves shall be food for you”? Doesn’t this conflict with the vegetarian diet God prescribes in Genesis 1:29,30?

In order to make reading here a bit less of a Herculean effort than it has tended to be in the past, I have decided to explore these questions in a series of three shorter posts, instead of all at once. The next post will discuss a focal conflict in the movie over the meaning of dominion. The following post will explore, what, if anything, this story might mean for Christian vegetarians and vegans, who see their “dietary pacifism” as rooted in their Christian faith. The series will end with a third and final post exploring what this passage (along with recent ethological research) might have to say about morality, sin and atonement in relation to nonhuman animals.

Why Did God Create Animals?

Many Christians assume that God created animals as ‘natural resources’ for human use. Some even believe it was so that we humans could kill them and eat their flesh. As has been commonly pointed out by Christian vegetarians, that’s not what the Bible says. According to the creation narrative in the opening chapter of Genesis, God gives humans and animals alike, only plants for food:

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. (Genesis 1:29-30)

While Genesis insists that humans are specially made in the “image and likeness” of God, and that God gives humans dominion over the other creatures, it is equally clear that neither implies any right to kill and eat animals. “But,” some may ask, “if animals were not created by God to be food for humans, then what, according to the Bible, is God’s purpose for creating them?” While it’s important to approach the question with great humility, since as Job 39-41, reminds us, we know little of God’s purposes for and relations with God’s nonhuman creatures, the Bible itself seems to suggest a possible answer: Animals are made for companionship,community and relationship with humans:

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” – Genesis 2:18-19

While the issues surrounding the theology of animals, and in particular the proper treatment of animals, is admittedly complex, and underdeveloped, and while there arte many other biblical texts to be considered, Christians would do well to recall these passages, when making judgments about the “purpose” or “nature” of their nonhuman neighbors.

Andy Alexis-Baker on ‘Jesus in the Temple’

Andy Alexis-Baker has a nice article at The Mennonite on Jesus’s actions in the temple (you know, turning over tables, whipping people, and driving out the money changers). He argues that careful consideration of Jesus’s reaction to the doves – pausing to tell the dove sellers to take the caged birds out of the temple – not only pose a challenge to the idea that Jesus was throwing an unrestrained and violent tantrum, but might also suggest that the Christian ethic of non-violent peacemaking needs to be expanded to include God’s other creatures as well as humans. The article is short and worth a read.

Beginnings and Ends: Evolution, Creation and Eschatology in Christian Arguments for Vegetarianism

While the majority of theologians today don’t believe that there is any contradiction between the theory of evolution and their Christian faith (the emerging consensus among Biblical scholars is something like this), the story that evolutionary biology tells us about the origin of species emerging from an agonistic process of competition, death and the ‘survival of the fittest’ appears to present a problem for some Christian vegetarians who have argued that an ethical commitment of nonviolence toward nonhuman animals can be grounded in the “original” peace of creation as depicted in Genesis 1:29-30. Theologians like Andrew Linzey, J.R. Hyland, Richard Alan Young and others, have defended a “protological” rationale for vegetarianism, based on the idea that relations between human and nonhuman animals were “originally” intended by God to be peaceful; no animal (including man) was originally meant to depend upon any other for food. The problem however, is that it’s not clear just how this claim can be squared with an evolutionary account in which no such “original” state of peace appears to have ever existed?

These problems are taken up in Christopher Southgate’s essay on “Protological and Eschatological Vegetarianism” in Eating and Believeing: Intersiciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology. Southgate maintains that these protological arguments are based in a crucial way on a “particular exegesis” of Genesis 1:29-30 according to which “what God created was a vegetarian world, which was damaged by the fall of the first humans.” (Southgate, 247). This is especially apparent, he thinks, in Linzey’s work where an “eschatological ethic of vegetarianism must be based on the presumption that the natural world is not as God intended.” (Southgate, 248). Such claims, Southgate notes, fail to take seriously the findings of modern science:

“The scientific record of the Earth’s long history before the advent of human beings calls into profound question any account which regards human sin as the cause of struggle and suffering in the nonhuman creation in general. Predation, violence, parasitism, suffering and extinction were integral parts of the natural order long before Homo sapiens.” (Southgate, 249).

While Christians might do well to retain the idea of human “fallenness”, which he sees as crucial for theology, they ought to reject the idea of a literal, historical, fall – a real point in time at which our ancestors turned from God to sin, disrupting the original peace of God’s creation. This means, of course, that a theological argument for vegetarianism based on the idea that death and predation in nature are the outcomes of an historical fall, rather than God’s original intentions for creation, must be squarely rejected.

While there’s much in Southgate’s essay that I tend to agree with (e.g., that evolutionary theory is sound, if incomplete, science, and should be brought into constructive dialogue with Christian theology), I don’t find his case against “protological vegetarianism” ultimately compelling for a number of reasons. First, while he implies that proponents of such arguments rely on an idiosyncratic interpretation of Genesis 1:29-30, he fails to offer any alternative reading, implying then that this text has no enduring theological significance. Most Biblical scholars and theologians, however, even when they object to a literal, historical reading of Genesis 1, still insist that it has a significant role to play in the shaping of theology. While they may argue that certain textual considerations like genre, literary style, and authorial intent suggest Genesis 1 should not be read as offering “scientific truths”, they don’t usually end the discussion there (as Southgate does), but go on to argue that it offers “theological truths” instead, truths conveyed in a narrative format common to the literature of the ancient near east (see, John Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One). And these “theological truths” are presumably normative for theology today. In fact, Southgate himself clearly agrees with this when he says that the concept of “fallenness” is “brilliantly described by the myths of chapters 3-11.” (Southgate, 249). But if the ahistoricity (and even “mythology”!) of Genesis 3-11 does not preclude it’s theological significance, then it is entirely inconsistent to think Genesis 1:29-30 cannot similarly inform a theological ethic of vegetarianism.

The second problem with Southgate’s argument is that it comes dangerously close to “sacralizing nature” (to use Linzey’s language). For by displacing an historical interpretation of the fall without offering an alternative account, he seems to just assume that the processes of predation and death are simply the instrument of God’s creative process. In fact, this is stated more or less explicitly, when he says that he sees “value and disvalue, enrichment and catastrophe” as “functions of the same creative process” (p. 250). But why assume that this is the only option for Christians who want to take seriously the claims of both evolutionary theory and the Christian doctrine of creation? David Clough illustrates the problem nicely in his sermon at St. John’s College on “Animals and Creation”:

“I, like most Christians, see no contradiction between evolutionary theory and the Christian doctrine of creation: the creation theology of the Bible…addresses very different questions to those of Darwin. But how would things look if we rejected Christianity and tried to construct an alternative account of the world solely on the basis of a Darwinian evolutionary narrative? ….Instead of thinking of all things as willed into being by a good God, we might tell a story of life as competition between rival organisms in which only the strongest survive. On this account, our existence as humans is not God’s gift, but the triumphant victory of our ancestors, and our radical subordination of other species to our needs is the appropriate ordering of power relationships between successful and less successful species. On this account, we might feel justified in breeding other animals to make them ever better suited to our needs, slave species to the master species, and raise them in whatever the most efficient environment is for our ends.” (Clough, 2)

Even if we must reject a literal, historical fall, as Southgate maintains, I suspect retaining a slightly qualified notion of “cosmic falleness” is at least as important for theology as Southgate insists the idea of human “fallenness” is. At the very least, the idea of “cosmic fallenness” would simply function as the theological equivalent of the “is/ought” gap in philosophical ethics, keeping us from “too blithe an affirmation that all is as it should be.” (Southgate, 250).

Christopher Southgate

Nevertheless, I am in agreement with Southgate that there are much more compelling theological arguments for vegetarianism than those based on an inference from what God supposedly “originally” intended. He is right to suggest that a Christological ethic informed by a kenotic (i.e., “self-giving”) love that genuinely desires the flourishing of the other “in his, her or it’s otherness”, is a much richer theological rationale for abstaining from meat for the sake of God’s nonhuman creatures. I also agree that the Bible’s general concern for justice for the poor, and for God’s creation should lead us to avoid contributing to the demand for food products derived from livestock, given all the evidence concerning livestock’s inefficient use of food resources, and it’s massive contributions to climate change. But unlike Southgate, I also think that there are compelling eschatological (or at least teleological) arguments that favor Christian vegetarianism. As Neil Messer’s essay “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends” argues, “a theological account of the proper ends of humans and non-human animals, and the proper relation between them, must get it’s bearings from God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling, and redeeming the world” (Messer, 217). Insofar as we are called, as Christians, to “witness to those purposes – specifically, in this case, to the promise of the peaceable kingdom” (Messer, 224), we ought to take more seriously the implications that an eschatological vision like Isaiah 11:6-9 may have for how we choose to live in the present, including, of course, what we choose to eat.

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Clough, David, “Animals and Creation” http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/creation-animals-and-creation

Linzey, Andrew. Animal Theology. University of Illinois Press. 1994.

Messer, Neil. “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends” in Creaturely Theology: God, Humans and Other Animals. Ed. Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough. SCM Press. 2009

Southgate, Christopher. “Protological and Eschatological Vegetarianism” in Eating and Believing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology, Ed. David Grummet and Rachel Muers. Continuum UK. Kindle Edition. 2008

Andy Alexis-Baker Interview on ‘Animal Voices’

Andy Alexis-Baker, co-founder of Jesus-Radicals, and co-editor of A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Care for Animals has an interview with Erin O’Sullivan on ‘Animal Voices’ about this anthology and about Christian vegetarianism in general. The audio is available here, and is worth a listen.

The only thing I would like to have heard a bit more about, was the distinction that Alexis-Baker sort of started to make (when asked if he thought Jesus was a vegetarian) between the somewhat superficial “Christians-should-do-everything-Jesus-did” approach, and a more Christologically informed imatatio Christi. In particular, I would like to hear from him, what such a Christological vegetarianism would look like: is it a form of kenotic asceticism rooted in the self-emptying of Christ for the sake of others? Does it stem from an understanding of the Incarnation as a radical solidarity with the weak and suffering? I assume that the answer is yes. But it would have been nice, for those listening who might not think to make such a distinction, to hear a bit more on this.