Dear Straight Dope:
I have a friend who is very religious (in an offbeat unfathomable way). The other day we were talking about diet. According to my friend Adam and Eve were vegetarians - God gave permission for people to eat meat after the Flood. I am skeptical, since I seem to remember a lot of shepherds in the Bible and to me shepherds = meat eaters. My friend says that they just sacrificed those animals to God without eating them. A quick Internet search left me even more confused. Was everyone in the Bible vegetarian before Noah? And if so were they strict vegans?
This is an easy one. Answer: Yes, your friend is correct – the Bible presupposes a pristine state of vegetarianism.
In the creation story, God creates people (male and female) and says to them (Genesis 1:29), "See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit, they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food."
So, the image presented – the plain reading of the text – is that in the Edenic state, people were to be vegetarians. And not only people; all the animals were vegetarians as well.
The question of what shepherds did is not addressed. There clearly are shepherds during this period, since Abel (son of Adam and Eve, the one who got killed by Cain) is one. One supposes they got various other products from their sheep and goats, such as wool and milk, that didn’t require slaughtering the animals. And, as your friend says, they did do sacrifices. But the bible is mute on this subject.
Skip a few chapters to Noah. After the Great Flood, Noah and family emerge from the Ark, and God tells them (in Genesis 9:3), “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it."
Remember, up till now people had only been permitted to eat vegetarian foods. Now God expands this. Humankind had been given power over the animal kingdom, but now there is a concession that people can eat meat.
The prohibition of life-blood is unclear. It could mean not to eat the meat of a still-living animal. It could mean not to drink blood, hence to drain meat of any blood. Interpretation here depends on which traditions or authorities you want to follow. The prohibition against “meat with its life-blood” is repeated in Leviticus 17:11 and 11:14 and in Deuteronomy 12:23: "But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat."
Some commentators read much between the lines. The Etz Hayim Torah commentary says, “Originally, God expected people to be vegetarians and not kill living creatures for their food. But God then compromised the vegetarian ideal, permitting the eating of meat.” The dietary laws from Leviticus, which are still practiced in traditional Judaism, serve as a reminder that eating meat is a compromise. Later, of course, Paul and the early Christians (at the Council of Jerusalem, reported in the book of Acts) decided that belief in their Messiah obviated the need for any such dietary laws, and so “eating flesh with its life-blood in it” was no longer prohibited.
Many centuries after the text of Genesis was written, we find the prophet Isaiah predicting a Messianic era, in the famous verses 11:6-7:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard lie down with the kid,
The calf and the beast of prey shall feed together,
With a little child to lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
Their young shall lie down together,
And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw.
The last line is the object of our attention now. In the Messianic age, as at the Beginning, every creature will be a vegetarian. Isaiah repeats this in 65:25: “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” So, according to the Bible, all creatures were vegetarians in the Edenic state and will be so again in the eventual Messianic era. It’s consistent with the notion that death will be abolished in the Messianic era.
For me, I’d be content when we can get people to sit down together in peace, even if we don’t let small children play with lions and leopards.
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