17 Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is
than a fatted ox and hatred with it.
In this post, requested by my fabulous friend Emma Lang, I shall attempt to describe the complex relationship between the Abrahamic faith traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity & Islam) and animal ethics. My wife and I are largely vegetarian these days, which is the reason I thought this topic would be interesting to address.
There are three lenses I can apply: (i) the sheer scale and cruelty of animal sacrifices in the Bible; (ii) the status of animals in the Bible; and (iii) a simple yet logically sound biblical argument for Christians to strive towards vegetarianism.
1. Scale and Cruelty of Animal Sacrifices
One, admittedly unqualified, evangelical commentator sums up the official Tabernacle and Temple sacrifices mentioned in the Book of Numbers and comes to the suspiciously round symbolic number of 1,260.2 Multiplying this by the number of years during which the Tabernacle and the Temple stood, this gives around 1.7 million animal deaths attributable to Yahweh.3 One should note that this is ‘in addition to your votive offerings and your freewill-offerings’, which I propose could have reached well into the thousands each year.4 If anything, I would argue the figure is way too small – it presumes the sacrificial heart of an ancient economy only slaughtered an average of 3-4 animals per day. Take Numbers 18:17, for example, where it says that:
17 But the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall dash their blood on the altar, and shall turn their fat into smoke as an offering by fire for a pleasing odour to the Lord…
That’s every firstborn calf, lamb and kid. That’s a lot of dead animals for a primarily illiterate population dependent upon agriculture to survive.
Thus, we can be confident the magnitude of the number of animal sacrifices is many millions. For the purpose of empathy, imagine being restrained and having your throat slit. That is the extent of the cruelty and pain experienced by animals being slaughtered. It should also be noted that many sacrifices were not eaten and were simply killed to give God the benefit of a ‘pleasing odour’; e.g. burnt offerings.5
The largest number of animals ever sacrificed in the Bible is 142,000 during King Solomon’s dedication of the Temple in c. 959 BCE.6 There are many problems with a literal reading here. This is the equivalent of ‘20 sacrifices a minute for ten hours a day for twelve days’.7 If stacked in a perfect column, the pile of dead animals would be 12 times the height of Mount Everest.8 Think of the awful stench, the pools of blood, not to mention the exhausted priests!
At Hezekiah’s later re-consecration of the Temple, we are told it was difficult enough to deal with just 3,970 offerings!9 Nevertheless, Hezekiah is somehow able to deal with 19,000 offerings for a celebration of the Passover just a few chapters later. Equally, Josiah seemed able to sacrifice 41,000 in a single day.10
The conservative perspective here is that animal sacrifices were required, as ‘without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins’.11 In particular, the annual Yom Kippur (‘Day of Atonement’) ritual, where one goat is killed and the other set free, is a foreshadowing of Jesus and Barabbas in the gospels, in which Barabbas represents humanity.12
Even if you believe that animals do not have ‘souls’, you know that they feel pain. As a utilitarian, morality to me is the sum of happiness minus the sum of misery. Animals experience suffering and therefore matter to the moral universe. It is a somewhat depressing thought, I confess, but it is important to recognise the huge amounts of unnecessary suffering caused by ritualistic slaughter, a practice which continues in many parts of the world today.13 A thought being “depressing” is no excuse for failure to act on it; homelessness and water poverty are depressing, but there are positive steps you can personally take, regardless of your means, towards ending both.
2. The Status of Animals in the Bible
Fortunately, however, there are various non-conservative perspectives on the purpose of sacrifices, which reconcile far more harmoniously with animal ethics than conservative ones. The primary one concerns the interpretation of Leviticus 17:7, where God ordained the sacrificing of animals ‘so that they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves’. Thus, in this view, God did not require animal sacrifices but as an act of progressive revelation to wean the Israelites off the trappings of paganism. It is much like Moses only giving a “partial version” of the Law:14
It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so.
Whether one takes early Genesis literally or metaphorically, one can easily see that ‘at the beginning’ animal sacrifice was also ‘not so’. Animals were ‘good’ in creation in a way that made Elohim simply apply the adverb ‘very’ when he created human beings ‘in [their] image’.15 Therefore their killing may be considered a lesser evil than killing a human being, but still a morally undesirable outcome nonetheless.
It is undeniable that animals are frequently considered property in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Certainly, it is written: ‘One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.’16 However, so are human beings; it is also written:17
20 When a slave-owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21 But if the slave survives for a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.
Many Christians see the “Old Testament Law” as broken up into moral, civil and ceremonial law, with only the first of these being applicable to “post-Jesus” times. This idea comes from Calvin in the Reformation.18 The above command is one of many reasons why this threefold distinction breaks down. Is this moral or civil law? What is the Sabbath: moral, civil or ceremonial? Is it not all three?
Let’s assume we accept the modern classification system. How could we objectively tell what type of law we are dealing with without letting our preconceived ideas take over? The context of the verse would be one way. Exodus 21, where the “slaves are property” comment occurs, has multiple commands which we would presume are ‘moral’ in the immediate context: murder, kidnapping, striking a pregnant woman.
Another method would be to look at the word used to introduce the laws; in this instance, the entirety of Exodus 21 is introduced with the term hammishpatim (הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים), indicating ‘decisions’ or ‘judgements’, which is normally connected with moral law. This stands opposed to ‘ceremonial’ law which is usually denoted by chuqqah (חֻקָּה) or similar words. There is no distinction in the Hebrew Bible between ‘civil’ and either ‘moral or ‘ceremonial’ law; this is a modern idea.
As I have pointed out previously, there is much reason to think that Jesus was fully in favour of retaining commands and punishments associated with the Law of Moses. Slavery is not unambiguously declared ‘sinful’ in the New Testament. I happily concede that slavery in Israel was most likely better regulated than other nations, but nowhere does it clearly indicate that Yahweh was against the practice and intended to abolish it in the future.
Simply put, if you defend the abolition of slavery as a Christian by virtue of ‘biblical values’, you should also re-evaluate your stance on animal ethics, even if you come to the same conclusions.
3. Why Jesus Wants YOU to be a Veggie
2 The fear and dread of you shall rest 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.
While it is easy to hand-waive and proclaim that this is part of the time when ‘God blessed Noah and his sons’, and that this was a ‘gift’, and gifts are there to be used, the context should be borne in mind. This is part of God’s promise not to flood the whole earth again and is a concession rather than a normative statement of what is “good”, let alone “perfect”.
Are you not called to love animals? If, as the author of 1 John puts it, ‘there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear’, why is it good that ‘the fear and dread of [humanity] shall rest on every animal’?20 Are you not to imitate God, who ‘feeds the birds of the air’ and ‘preserves both people and animals’?21
41 Who provides food for the raven
when its young cry out to God
and wander about for lack of food?
If one reads the story of the Garden of Eden literally – and why not if the Flood story is being read literally here – it is quite clear that Adam and Eve were vegetarians. Both passages were probably written by the same person: the ‘Priestly’ (P) source.23 Is it likely that the same author idealised vegetarianism and then promoted the idea of meat-eating as an equally perfect lifestyle? Vegetarianism, perhaps even veganism, is undeniably the biblical ‘gold standard’.24
Clearly, the Paradise of which Jesus spoke is intended to be “even more perfect” than Eden. If you believe you are going there one day, what will you eat? John of Patmos envisions a return to the diet of Eden, i.e. fruit. In Revelation, Jesus says to the Ephesian church:25
7 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
The tree of life is associated with an endless supply of food, as well as ‘the healing of the nations’.26 An endless supply of food implies no need for any other kind of nourishment. Notice that there is no mention of sacrifices or meat-eating. In truth, Revelation makes no mention of animals at all, at least of an earthly kind.27 Nevertheless, the prophet Isaiah’s vision was that:28
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Perhaps you agree with me that veganism is the biblically ideal state of affairs, but that I am ignoring a difference between moral permissibility and optimality (i.e. what is morally “allowed” vs. what is morally “best”). I cannot see how Jesus ever recognised such an artificial divide, however. Perhaps the centrepiece of Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and consequently the apex of his ethics, was to:29
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus implicitly commends the ‘wish to be perfect’, Paul and Timothy pray that the Corinthian church ‘may become perfect’ and the anonymous author of Hebrews, ‘let us go on towards perfection’.30 Perfection is an ideal which any Christian should strive for.
Why not ponder for a minute, as my wife and I have done, about what little positive step you could take towards perfection in this area?
At the very least, the above should give my Judaeo-Christian readers pause for thought about our treatment of animals. My logically deductive argument, utilising a simple ‘universal elimination’ step, is as follows:31
P1: Vegetarianism belongs to the set we could call ‘moral perfection’.
P2: A Christian is ethically obliged to strive toward ‘moral perfection’.
C1: A Christian is ethically obliged to strive toward Vegetarianism.
Do you agree or disagree? Why? Please do comment below. Also – subscribe via the button, or like the Facebook page, or send me a message! I would be delighted to hear your thoughts, questions, heckling and so forth! Please also suggest ideas for future posts.
As ever, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post. It is for you that I write them!
P.S. I am so happy that someone clicked on the link for Goat Simulator. ❤
- Proverbs 15:17. ↩
- Martin, Ernest L. (1995). ‘The Sacrificial System of Israel’. askelm.com. The section he uses to calculate the annual sacrificial number is Numbers 28-29. The number 1,260 is mentioned in both Daniel (7:25; 12:7) and Revelation (11:2-3; 12:6, 14; 13:5). It is worth noting that Ernest L. Martin was a meteorologist and his PhD was not only from an unaccredited institution, but was also in Education, rather than a relevant discipline. The only reason I use it is because I could find no other calculation and the figure seems to be approximately correct. ↩
- If you believe in the historicity of the Exodus, then the construction of the Tabernacle took place in either c. 1440 BCE or c. 1284 BCE. Solomon’s Temple stood until 587 BCE, when it was destroyed by the Babylonians, resulting in the Exilic Period of Israelite history. This gives a range of 697 – 853 years of the first period of sacrifices under the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple. The Temple was rebuilt around 537 – 516 BCE and continued to operate until its eventual destruction by Rome in 70 CE. This gives a range of 607 – 586 years of the second period of sacrifices. Thus, the total range for the number of years of annual Tabernacle and Temple sacrifices is 1,283 – 1,460 years. Multiplied by Ernest L. Martin’s calculation, this means that the sacrificial system would have caused between 1,616,580 and 1,839,600 animals’ deaths. ↩
- Numbers 29:39, emphasis added. ↩
- This idea is mentioned in 43 Hebrew Bible verses. It is found in Genesis (8:21), Exodus (29:18, 25, 41), Leviticus (1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9, 12; 3:5, 16; 4:31; 6:15, 21; 8:21, 28; 17:6; 23:13, 18; 26:31), Numbers (15:3, 7, 10, 13-14, 24; 18:17; 28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27; 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36) and Ezekiel (6:13; 16:19; 20:28, 41). In the Pentateuch, this is primarily used by the ‘Jahwist‘ (J) source to personalise and humanise God; he breathes, he walks, he wrestles. And even speaking as an almost-vegetarian, who doesn’t like the smell of bacon? (Okay okay, apart from some people…) ↩
- 2 Chronicles 7; 1 Kings 8. The classical Rabbinic dating for the construction of Solomon’s Temple is 832 BCE, based on the 2nd century CE Seder Olam Rabbah chronology. Modern scholarship puts the date of Solomon’s rule between 970 and 931 BCE. If we accept the Temple was built ‘in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel’ (1 Kings 6:1) and that it took 7 years to build (1 Kings 9:10), then that places the great sacrifice of 142,000 animals in 959 BCE. All of this presumes a literal interpretation (i.e. perfect historicity), which many Jews and Christians do not subscribe to and for good reasons. See: The Mad Maths of Inerrancy and Why the Bible Cannot be Taken at Face Value. ↩
- Wenham, John W. (1967). ‘Large Numbers in the Old Testament’. Tyndale Bulletin. Vol. 18. London: Tyndale Press. p. 32. The argument that the Hebrew Bible contains impossibly large numbers has been made as far back as Bishop Colenso’s The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined in 1862. Wenham’s article – and similar ones since – contains entirely plausible rationalisations of many large and/or inconsistent figures: addition and removal of 0’s, symbolic significance (e.g. 7, 12 and 40), counting different classes of object, hyperbole, and so on. There remain a small group of difficult to reconcile numerical differences across biblical books or within the same book, though this is hardly surprising to one not committed to biblical inerrancy. On that topic, see: The Mad Maths of Inerrancy. ↩
- This is my own calculation, based on three assumptions: (i) the average height of a sheep is 4 ft (1.2m); (ii) the average height of an oxen is 10 ft (3m); and (iii) a dead animal would stack as half as high as an alive one. The height of Mount Everest is 29,029 ft. Thus: Dead Animals Stack Height = (22,000 x 10 2) + (120,000 x 4) = 700,000 ft. This is just over 12 times the height of Everest. ↩
- 2 Chronicles 29:32-36. ↩
- 2 Chronicles 30:24; 35:7-9. ↩
- Hebrews 9:22. ↩
- Matthew 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:38-19:16. The account of Barabbas (‘Son of the Father’) is one of the few stories which appear in all four canonical gospels. The Yom Kippur (‘Day of Atonement’) ritual is detailed in Leviticus 16. We have no records outside of the New Testament to verify this supposed custom. It is dubious on two counts: (i) the symbolic nature of the incident where one ‘Son of the Father’ is killed and the other ‘Son of the Father’ is set free; and (ii) the uncharacteristic generosity of Pilate, who is described by Philo as having ‘vindictiveness and furious temper’, and was notable for ‘his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity’. (On The Embassy of Gaius, Book XXXVIII, 299-305, emphasis added.) ↩
- For example, mass animal sacrifice used to occur annually during the three-day-long Gadhimai festival in Nepal until 2015, with animals massacred in the tens of thousands. It has been reported that the 2019 festival will be blood-free, but whether or not this will become realised is another matter. ↩
- Matthew 19:8. ↩
- Technically, the word ‘very’ is also applied by God to animals by virtue of being a part of ‘everything that he had made’ (Genesis 1:31). ↩
- Leviticus 24:21; the standard of the ‘restitution’ for killing both animals and humans is given in the same chapters: ‘life for life’. (24:18) ↩
- Exodus 21:20-21; see also Leviticus 25:44-46, which not only permits the inheritance of slaves as property but also sets up an ethnocentric (racist?) distinction between Israelite slaves and those taken from surrounding nations. ↩
- Calvin, John (1962 ) Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. London: James Clark & Co.. Vol. 2, Bk. 4, Ch. 20, Sec. 14, p. 663. ↩
- Genesis 9:2; the context of this statement is 8:20-9:17, while the whole story can be found in chapters 6-9. As covered in my very first post, there are actually (at least) two flood stories in the Bible: the ‘Jahwist’ (J) and the ‘Priestly’ (P) accounts. As for externally, there are a plethora of Mesopotamian flood stories which are clear literary ancestors of the Hebrew Bible’s narrative. For a demonstration of this, see: Finkel, Irving (2014). The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. London: Hodder & Stoughton. pp. 192-197 ↩
- 1 John 4:18. ↩
- Matthew 6:26; Psalm 36:6. ↩
- Job 38:41. ↩
- We can add the ‘Priestly’ (P) source to three other voices to get to the famous Documentary Hypothesis: the ‘Jahwist’ (J), the ‘Elohist’ (E), the ‘Deuteronomist’ (D) source. While the finer details of the hypothesis are furiously debated among scholars, the fact that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (‘Pentateuch’) were edited together from numerous sources written at different times has been beyond a shadow of a doubt since the 18th century CE. ↩
- Technically, Adam and Eve were vegans. This argument is focused on vegetarianism, though the argument can and should be extended to cover animal products too, given the strong connection between animal cruelty and animal products in mass agricultural production. For example, egg production involves the mass slaughter of male baby chicks, which are of “no use” to the business of egg production. While I am not a vegan – I am not even a full vegetarian yet – these thoughts provoke me to move in that direction. ↩
- Revelation 2:7. ↩
- Revelation 22:2. ↩
- The Book of Revelation (4:6–9; 5:6–14; 6:1–8; 14:3; 15:7; and 19:4) features four bizarre living creatures which worship in close proximity to the throne of God. This most likely a reference to the beings mentioned in Ezekiel (ch. 1; 10) and Isaiah (6:1–3). ↩
- Isaiah 11:6-9; this is the prophet’s joyous eschatological vision, i.e. the excellent and wonderful things which will occur in ‘the End Times’. ↩
- Matthew 5:48. ↩
- Matthew 19:21; 2 Corinthians 13:9; Hebrews 6:1. ↩
- A ‘universal elimination’ step is where you move from one premise stating “every x is a y” and another stating “this z is an x” to “this z is a y”. Example: “All men are male. Nebuchadnezzar is a man. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar is a male.” ↩