(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.)
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.
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