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Vegetarianism in the Bible
By Denis Giron   |  Mar 30, 2013


When I first began to study the bible, the people I studied with told me that it was wrong for me to be a vegetarian. I have found a common attack by Christians, and even Muslims on vegetarianism goes along the lines of “God said we could eat meat. Are you trying to say you are more merciful than God?” The answer to that question is “surely not”, God should be the most merciful being. To help faith-based vegetarians, this article will discuss how vegetarianism relates to the bible, animals, and God. I will be quoting from the NIV translation of the bible, unless otherwise noted.

In The Beginning

According to the bible, the first people were vegetarians. The first two chapters of Genesis tell a story of man and animal being companions, and trees being the source of food. In Genesis chapter 1, verse 29, God commands man to only eat fruits and vegetables…..

Genesis 1:29 “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.”

It is very clear, that right there it says God gave the first people the plants and the trees for food. Some people try to twist this scripture to mean other things, and try to argue that this does not prove people were eating only the fruits and plants. One popular argument is that it was allowing man to eat vegetables as well as meat, but this is wrong. Humans did not meat eat until after the flood. To prove this we need to turn to the 9th chapter of Genesis…..

Genesis 9:3: “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”

Now notice God says “just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything”. This is proof that before this point, people were only eating fruits and vegetables. At any rate, at this point God allowed man to eat meat, which opens up the argument that abstaining from meat is a subconscious form of questioning God’s mercy. This is not true at all. In fact, vegetarians who believe in the bible are merely preparing themselves for heaven. When the kingdom of heaven is established, all beings will become herbivores. Some might argue that we will not need to eat in heaven, but the bible teaches that even in heaven, beings must eat. For example, in Genesis 19:1-3, angels from heaven ate a meal made of bread. So in heaven, beings will continue to eat. The prophet Isaiah gave many descriptions of this kingdom, and all his visions point to all beings being vegetarian. If all beings in heaven are going to be herbivores, then it would be safe to say that vegetarians living today are merely more prepared for that time. Isaiah chapter 11 gives a lengthy description of the peaceful kingdom, and the 65th chapter has a particular verse that strongly supports the idea of a kingdom filled with nothing but herbivores….

Isaiah 65:25: “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither hunt nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.

Man’s Dominion over Animals

The bible, on many occasions, says that man was given “dominion” over the animals. People have twisted this to mean that they can do anything they wish to animals. What is meant by “dominion” is the ability to impose our will. We do indeed rule over all animals, as we are the most powerful species on the planet. This however, does not mean it is okay to abuse this power, through animal abuse, and other wicked acts. God, without a doubt, wants us to show mercy for animals.

Throughout the bible there are many stories that have a strong moral value. Whenever you read a story in the bible, ask yourself what the moral of that story was. It has to have a moral, because if there is no moral, then the story has no relevance. Surely nothing in the bible is irrelevant. In the 22nd chapter of the book of Numbers, there is the story of Balaam beating his donkey. Within in these verses is a strong story about animal abuse, suffering, and animal rights. Lets look at this story closely (the story of Balaam abusing his donkey can be found in Numbers 22:21-33)

Numbers 22:21-23: “Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat her to get her back on the road.”

Now, it should be noted that God was not angry with Balaam only because he abused animals. No, God was angry for many other reasons as well, but in the above verses, the angel tests Balaam’s morals by diverting the path of his donkey. Balaam failed this first test as he beat his donkey for not staying on the path.

Numbers 22:24-25: “Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between two vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat her again.”

So, the donkey kept on moving, but the angel again diverted her path. This time the donkey’s weight crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall of a vineyard. In his rage, Balaam again beat the animal, not knowing that an angel was watching his wicked act.

Numbers 22:26-27: “Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her with his staff.”

This third time, the angel makes sure that the donkey cannot go left or right, and she therefore chooses to lay down. This time Balaam beat the donkey with his staff. This is particularly viscous, as in those times staffs were usually used by shepards to fend off wolves. They were made to protect sheep by severely hurting predators, sometimes even breaking bones, so the donkey must have been in terrible pain when Balaam beat her with his staff. The beatings are getting worse and worse, and both God and the angel have seen enough…..

Numbers 22:28-30: “Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said.

So God allowed the donkey to speak. The donkey expressed her suffering, showing that the bible teaches that animals indeed suffer and feel pain. In verse 29, Balaam lets the donkey know how cold his heart is, telling her he would have killed her if he had his sword. In verse 30, Balaam agrees that the donkey had never before disobeyed orders. Those beatings were rather severe for first time offenses…

Numbers 22:31-34: “Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.” Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me.”

Once Balaam saw the angel, he realized he had made a mistake. The angel is disgusted by Balaam’s actions, and tells him that had the donkey kept walking he would have killed Balaam, but spared her. Abusing is animals is wrong, and the angel even asked Balaam why he would do such a thing as beating his donkey. In verse 34, Balaam said to the angel “I have sinned”. What was Balaam’s sin? It is clear his sin was beating his donkey. Even Balaam realized this. So, these verses show us it is wrong to abuse animals, and abuse the power we have been given over them.

Animal Sacrifices

We have just discussed the concept of God having mercy on animals, and not wanting us to abuse them. The idea of animal rights being expressed in the bible comes under fire from those who point to instances of animal sacrifice. I admit the many mentionings of animal sacrifice in the bible have troubled me in the past. How can a merciful God command us to sacrifice animals? The truth of the matter is, we are NOT supposed to sacrifice animals. God does not command us to do this. The truth is, in Moses’ time, after the Jews came out of Egypt, God allowed animal sacrifices for that time period.

The great Jewish philosopher Abarbanel believed animal sacrifice was briefly allowed by God in order to end the idolatry the Jews practiced in Egypt. He cited a Jewish writing that indicated that the Jews had become accustomed to sacrifices in Egypt. To wean them from these idolatrous practices, God tolerated the sacrifices but commanded that they be offered in one central sanctuary:

“Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said “Let them at all times offer their sacrifices before Me in the Tabernacle, and they will be weaned from idolatry, and thus be saved.” (Rabbi J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 562)

This was after the Jews had come out of Egypt. One Jewish theologian indicated that God did not want the Israelites to bring sacrifices; it was their choice. He based this on a biblical verse read on the Sabbath when the book of Leviticus (which discusses sacrifices) is read:

Isaiah 43:23: “I have not burdened thee with a meal-offering, Nor wearied thee with frankincense.”

The bible teaches that animal sacrifices were voluntary. Many have taken the scriptures to mean that we must sacrifice animals in order to please God. This is not what pleases God. We are commanded to obey his laws. This can be see in the book of Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 7:22-23: “For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices; but this thing I commanded them, saying, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people; and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you.”

God never commanded us to sacrifice animals. His message was “obey my voice”. Nowhere in the Ten Commandments is there any reference to sacrifice, and even when sacrifices are first mentioned (Leviticus 1:2) the expression used is “when any man of you bringeth an offering,” the first Hebrew word ki being literally “if”, implying that it was a voluntary act.

I say it again: animal sacrifices were never a law of God. Infact God prefers we don’t sacrifice animals. That is what is meant by “To do charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3). Also, in Hosea 6:6, God said “What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.” As was stated before, animal sacrifices were permitted only for a brief time after the exodus from Egypt. After that, God began to hate animal sacrifice. Consider the following verses from the book of Isaiah….

Isaiah 1:11-16: “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. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong!

Jesus was a vegetarian

Now this is a touchy subject. Across the globe, there is a small handful of vegetarian Christians who assert that Jesus was a vegetarian. The bible, and other sources, seems to support this belief. Vegetarianism is not without precedent in the Christian, or even Catholic faiths: Many early church fathers were vegetarian, including St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Francis of Assisi.

Many Biblical scholars believe Jesus was a member of the Nazarene Essenes, a Jewish religious sect that followed a vegetarian diet and rejected animal sacrifices. This is possible when one looks at the Shroud of Turin, a centuries old linen cloth that bears the image of a crucified man, whom many believe to be Jesus. If Jesus was indeed a member of the Nazarene Essenes, he would also have taken the vow of a Nazarene, thus not cut his hair (Numbers 6:5). In the imprint found in the shroud of turin, there is a man with west-asian features (Nazareth is in west Asia), who has long hair, further supporting the claim Jesus was a member of the Nazarene Essenes.

Of course, there is no definite proof the Shroud of Turin is legitimate, so in order to prove Jesus was a Nazarene Essene, or a vegetarian, we need to look into the bible. Now Jesus was loved by some, and hated by others, and accused of blasphemy by the priests of his time. This was because he claimed to be the Jewish Messiah that was prophesized about in the TaNaKh (Jewish bible, or “old testament”). Lets take a look at the Old Testament description of the Messiah to come…

Note: For these scriptures, I will use the King James Translation, which I feel is more accurate.

Isaiah 7:14-15 (KJV): “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, so that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.”

First of all, it says God’s sign of the Messiah will be a virgin giving birth to a son. Jesus was born of a virgin mother. It says his name shall be Immanuel, which means “God is with us”. Jesus’ real name was Yeshua, which means “God is salvation”. The name “Immanuel” is meant to signify that this will be the Messiah, regardless of what his name is. At any rate, in verse 15, the pre-messianic prophesy of Jesus, it says he will eat butter and honey, so that he can know the difference between good and evil.

Now the question is, what does eating butter and honey have to do with knowing how to choose between good and evil. To answer this question, we must have an understanding of Jewish beliefs about dietary laws, and vegetarianism. Throughout history there has been many vegetarian jews. Even today, only India has more faith-based vegetarians than Israel. These vegetarian jews believed meat corrupted your soul. Eating meat was permitted by God, but so was drinking alcohol. Infact, just like alcohol, the bible teaches, meat makes you “stumble”, or corrupts your heart. That is why Jesus, the Messiah, would eat butter and honey, instead of meat, so that his heart would not be corrupted. Before, during, and after Jesus’ time Jews argued wether or not meat was good for people. Consider the 14th chapter of Romans…

Romans 14:21; “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause any man to stumble.”

There were many vegetarian jews, so why not Jesus? Especially considering he was from Nazareth. Jesus is even called a Nazarene in Matthew 2:23. Want an example of another vegetarian Jew from the bible? How about the prophet Daniel.

The name Daniel means “God is my judge”, showing how confident he was that his actions were righteous in the eyes of God. Well, Daniel also was a vegetarian. In the first chapter of the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon has imprisoned Daniel. In verse 8, Daniel refused to defile himself by eating the meat being served to him in the prison. Some have said that this is because the meat was offered to Babylonian gods, but this is incorrect, as vegetables were also offered in the name of these same Gods. Daniel abstained from the meat offered because he was a vegetarian. He knew the benefits of such a diet. Consider the following verses…

Daniel 1:11-16: “Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over him: “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days. At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So the guard took away their meat and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.”

It’s pretty clear Daniel was a vegetarian. So why not Jesus? The prophesy in Isaiah 7:15 said he would eat butter and honey (rather than meat) to be able to know the difference between good and evil. If Jesus ate meat, then he does not fit the Messianic prophesy of the Jews. Nowhere in the bible does it ever mention Jesus eating meat. In the King James translation, there are a few verses that mention Jesus eating meat, but in those cases, meat is translated from the Greek word “Broma” which literally means “food”. All other translations of those same exact verses do not use the word “meat”, rather they say Jesus sat down and ate “food”.

Nowhere does it say Jesus ate meat. Now, knowing that the bible never mentions him eating meat, and taking into account the fact that Jesus taught love and kindness, how hard is it to assume he might have been a vegetarian? Also, Jesus was against animal sacrifice. He quoted Hosea 6:6, saying “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” He quoted Hosea in Matthew 9:13, and Matthew 12:6-7. He did this in a challenge to the Pharisees. Could this have been a hint into him being a vegetarian?

What about Fish?

In the 14th chapter of Matthew (verses 13-21) Jesus takes his boat to a remote island. Thousands follow him there. Jesus tells his disciples to feed these people, but the tell him that they only have five loaves of bread and two fish (verse 17). Jesus gave thanks for the food, and it multiplied into enough to feed five thousand people. Now the question is, if Jesus was a vegetarian, why was he giving fish to his followers?

It should be noted that some scholars contend that the Greek word for “fish weed” (a dried seaweed) has been mistranslated in this story as “fish”. It is certainly true that dried fishweed would be more likely in a basket with bread, and fishweed remains a popular food among Palestinian peasants like the people to whom Jesus was speaking. Also, in the beginning of the story (Matthew 14:13) it says Jesus got to this place by boat. These people were right by the sea. If they were out of fish, why not just go on a quick fishing expedition? Surely with 5,000 men present it would not be that hard to go fishing. With this in mind, it further supports the thought that fishweed was being used, not actual fish.

Also, when one considers that the disciples did not even think about trying to catch some fish, this helps explain Matthew 4:18-20, where Jesus gets his first disciples by telling some fishermen to give up their profession and follow him. Jesus even says to them “I will make you a fisher of men”. Could this be Jesus was having them give up their barbaric line of work to do something more righteous? It may sound absurd, but it starts to make a little more sense when you take it in the same context as the story of feeding five thousand, where the disciples never even considered trying to catch some fish, despite being beside the sea. Why didn’t they go fishing? Did Jesus teach it was wrong to eat fish?

Finally, there is the story of after the resurrection, in Luke 24:42-43, where Jesus eats some fish. This is an interesting story. Some scholars however, have stated that in this verse, the Greek word for fish is “ixous”, which happens to be an acronym for the phrase “Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.” Indeed, the fish is still a symbol of Christianity today. This argument could go on and on. I would not totally dismiss the concept of Jesus eating fish. Maybe it was possible. There are vegetarians who eat fish, they are called “pesco-vegetarians”. Also, it should be noted that in the Catholic church you are not allowed to eat meat on Fridays, but you are still allowed to eat fish. Could this be the result of Jesus’ pesco-vegetarian life-style?

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