The Veggie Police
We've all heard of the thought police, from George Orwell's 1984, and most of us from time to time will have come across the health and safety extremists who are sometimes dubbed the "fun police", but have you ever come across the veggie police? If you are one of the small minority of vegetarian Christians, you will most likely have come across these people at Christian social events, where they lie in wait, ready to pounce as soon as they see you picking up a piece of cheese. Briefly they pretend to take an interest in the vegetarian lifestyle, then they bring the conversation round to topics such as "God told Noah he could eat meat" and "Jesus ate fish" and "Paul says he who is weak eats only vegetables". Their theological pot-shots are actually an attempt to cover up their own self-indulgent lifestyle, as they stuff their faces with dead animal three times a day, apparently oblivious to the relentless march to the slaughterhouse that makes it possible. The nicely packaged products on the supermarket shelves disguise the fact that countless numbers of animals are born only to die. The apostles, prophets and patriarchs of Biblical times would have been horrified by the distortion of their words into anti-vegetarian theology, to try and justify this industrial scale mass killing machine.
The original diet of all humans and animals was vegetarian (Gen. 1:29-31). When Christ returns, the world will return to its original vegetarian state so that humans will be at peace with animals, and animals will be at peace with each other (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:25), and the paradise of creation will be restored (Rev. 22). In the meantime, we continue to live in the world in its present corrupted state, and it is not vegetarian because of sin. Does this mean that vegetarians are attempting to live according to a paradise that does not yet exist? Possibly yes, but itís hard to imagine what is wrong with looking forward to the next phase of Godís plans and purposes for the world, and living a lifestyle that does nobody any harm.
The first death of an animal was the consequence of sin, because Adam and Eve needed animal skins to cover themselves (Gen. 3:21). At first they tried to use fig leaves (Gen. 3:7) but it was inadequate because without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin (Heb. 9:22).
Cain and Abel
God accepted Abelís offering of an animal, but not Cainís offering of vegetables (Gen. 4:3-7). This makes sense because vegetables were originally created as food for humans, and there is no reason why God should want it as an offering for himself.
After the flood, God told Noah that he was allowed to eat meat, but not the blood because it represents the life of the animal (Gen 9:3-4). The normal method of killing an animal was to cut its throat and drain out the blood, so the blood represents the life.
Note: In the KJAV, the word "meat" means any kind of food including vegetables, but in this article we use it in its modern sense, to mean the flesh of animals.
Moses elaborates on the requirement to drain out the blood as an offering to God, and gives dire warnings to anyone who eats it (Lev. 7:26-27; 17:10-14; Deut. 12:13-28).
The requirement to drain out the blood applies to all humanity, not just the Israelites or the Jews, because the command was given to Noah, the patriarch of all humanity.
Moses differentiates between clean and unclean animals (Lev. 11; Deut. 14:1-21). However, this can be traced back to the time of Noah because seven of every clean animal and two of every unclean animal went into the ark (Gen. 7:2). The reason for the odd number of clean animals was that one of them was to be sacrificed after the flood (Gen. 8:20).
The Israelites were shepherds, looking after sheep and cattle, first in the land of Caanan, then in Egypt, then in the wilderness of Sinai and probably Arabia, then back to Caanan. They were also farmers, growing arable crops, or at least they knew how to do it (Gen 37:7), and the reason they went to Egypt is because they had no grain.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had sheep and cattle and various other animals (Gen. 13:2, 21:27, 24:35, 26:14, 32:5) and they killed their clean animals for food (Gen. 27:9). Jacob and his sons took their animals with them to Egypt and went to Goshen in the Nile Delta because it was good pasture land. (Gen. 46:6; 32:24). When Moses asked Pharaoh to allow the people to leave Egypt, at first Pharaoh refused altogether, then after some of the plagues he said they could go, but only if they leave their livestock behind. Moses insisted that they should go with their livestock, and eventually after the last plague, the death of the firstborn, and the Passover, Pharaoh relented and allowed them to leave with their livestock (Exodus. 10:9, 24-26; 12:1-32). They went out of Egypt in great numbers, 600,000 men, with their families, and their "flocks and herds, even very much cattle". (Exodus 12:37-38).
Taking all these verses together, cattle are mentioned most frequently, and it appears that they had more cattle than sheep, a situation that prevailed since the time of Abraham who was "very rich in cattle" (Gen. 13:2). This suggests that the lands of Caanan and Goshen must have been very fertile, otherwise it would have been the other way round, with more sheep than cattle, because sheep can survive better in dry conditions. Even in the so-called "wilderness", there must have been some vegetation, otherwise they would not have been able to keep both cattle and sheep. The Israelites, therefore, were accustomed to living in fertile conditions, and it would not have been necessary for them to eat meat on a regular basis, purely as a matter of survival. There are good enough reasons for keeping cattle and sheep, for dairy products and wool, without making it into a slaughterhouse industry, and if they wanted to eat meat in moderation, they could have done so by slaughtering the young bullocks to avoid having a field full of mature bulls.
During their wanderings in the desert, the Israelites complained that in Egypt they had meat and bread, but in the wilderness they had nothing, so God gave them quail in the evening and bread from heaven in the morning. The quail were migratory birds that nest on the ground and are easy to catch, and they arrived on that specific occasion, but the bread from heaven came continually every morning, except on the Sabbath when a double quantity could be collected the day before. The bread was called "manna", which in Hebrew means "What is it?" (Exodus 16).
Again, the Israelites complained that in Egypt they ate fish freely, and various types of vegetable, but now they had only manna. The Lord was angry with their complaint, and promised them they would get "flesh" (meaning meat or fish), not just for one day, but for a whole month until it comes out of their nostrils. Moses couldnít understand how it was possible to feed them with meat or fish for a whole month, and he wondered if perhaps the flocks and herds would have to be killed, or all the fish of the sea would have to be gathered together. Then the Lord sent a wind that brought quails from the sea, so that they dropped out of the sky in great quantities, but they caused a plague and many people died. (Num. 11:4-34). Not surprising, considering that these birds were already dead when they hit the ground, and the blood had not been drained out. The Lord sent them dead birds to see if they would eat them, contrary to his commandments.
This story is mixed together with the story about the appointment of the 70 elders, and how the Holy Spirit fell upon them and they prophesied, and the desire of Moses that all Godís people should prophesy (a desire that was fulfilled by the early church). Obviously if all the people had known the mind of God, they would not have gone out collecting dead animals.
The story of the quail tells us something very interesting about the diet to which the Israelites were accustomed, even in times of abundance. Moses was surprised at the suggestion that the people could be given meat or fish every day for a whole month. In particular, his remark about the fish was a euphemism, based on his surprise, rather than a calculation of the amount of fish actually available. He must have known that all the fish in the sea would have easily fed all the people, not just for a month, but for a whole lifetime, but he had never seen people eating large quantities of fish. Even when they lived in Goshen, in the Nile Delta, they didnít have a fishing industry like we have today, where trawlers go hundreds of miles out to sea. They went out in small boats and fished near the coast, and came back with small quantities of fish, and it obviously wasnít their daily diet. The same must have applied to meat. They kept cattle and sheep in quantities that would be considered modest by todayís standards, and occasionally they would kill an animal for food, and they didnít eat meat every day.
The Sacrificial System
During the time of Moses and the Israelites, there was an elaborate system of sacrifices, so that different types of offering were made according to the circumstances. During the consecration of the priests, a bullock and a ram would be slaughtered and the blood drained out, and then the whole carcass of the animal was burned up so that there was nothing left. (Exodus 29:10-18). Then they would kill another ram, and some parts of the animal were burned up, but other parts were given to the priests to eat, but if anything was left until the next day, it would also be burned up. (Exodus 29:19-34). After that, a bullock would be slaughtered every day for seven days, and two lambs would be sacrificed every day continually. (Exodus 29:35-46). In addition to the daily sacrifices, people would bring their own offerings, for various reasons, and the priests would eat part of it (Lev. 7:29-36). There was one occasion in the year, at Passover, when every family would kill a lamb and eat it (Exodus 12).
The slaughter of animals was always considered to be a sacrifice, and the Israelites were forbidden to kill a domesticated animal, unless they brought it to the Tabernacle. (Lev 17:1-6) They could then take home the dead animal for their own consumption, but it had to be eaten the same day, or the next day, and anything left over until the third day had to be burned up. (Lev. 19:5 8) They could kill and eat a wild animal in the open field while out hunting, provided they poured out the blood onto the ground and covered it with dust. (Lev. 17:13). However, considering that the wild mountain goat was probably the only land-based animal that was clean, the main purpose of hunting would be to obtain furs and skins, and to reduce the population of nuisance and dangerous animals such as lions, bears and foxes. We have already seen that the Israelites ate meat in moderate quantities, but under these conditions, it was virtually impossible to develop a commercial meat industry, and most Israelites would only eat meat on special occasions such as Passover. The main purpose of keeping domesticated animals must have been for dairy products and wool, and to fulfil the need to make an occasional sacrifice. In that case, where did the modern-day meat industry come from? Not from the Israelites, and probably not from any other ancient tradition. Itís a habit that has gradually developed, based on greed, and has probably been encouraged by the industrial revolution which has given easy access to transport and refrigeration.
The sacrificial system, practised by the Israelites, probably saved the lives of more animals than it slaughtered, because it emphasised that the life of an animal has a value, and the blood in particular has a value to God. Consumption of meat must have been very limited, but at the same time it must have been difficult to be entirely vegetarian, because it would have hindered participation in major festivals such as Passover. The sacrificial system continued throughout the history of Israel, as long as they had the Temple in Jerusalem. It was temporarily suspended during the exile in Babylon, and finally discontinued in AD 70 when Titus invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. By that time, it was already obsolete as far as the Christians were concerned, because the blood of Christ was the final sacrifice for sin.
The Resurrection of Christ
Jesus, after his resurrection, had a different kind of body, able to appear to his disciples, apparently from nowhere, and then vanish from their sight, and he could change his appearance so that they would not immediately recognise him. He gave us a glimpse of the incorruptible bodies that we will also have, when he returns and we rise from the dead. His disciples wondered if he was actually human, and to prove that he was, he asked for some food and they gave him a piece of fish and he ate it (Luke 24:42). We are also told that he helped his disciples to catch fish by asking them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and by the time they got to the shore he was already cooking some fish (John 21:1-14).
Some people would argue that this is the proof that you canít be a Christian vegetarian, because Jesus ate fish even after his resurrection. However, they are mistaken. Jesus left the world in pretty much the same state as he found it, except that salvation was freely available without the need for animal sacrifices, and the Gospel was to be preached to all the world, Arguments about food were not on his agenda, and the world will continue in its present carnivorous state (except for a minority of vegetarians) until he comes again and abolishes the consequences of sin altogether.
The Early Church
In New Testament times, the distinction between clean and unclean animals was set aside for the purpose of evangelising the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-16; 11:1-10), but the prohibition on blood still remained, and Gentile believers were told to abstain from "things strangled and from blood" (Acts 15:20,29). The early church recognised that the blood of animals could not take away sins (Heb. 10:4), but it still belonged to God and was not available for human consumption.
The New Testament gives no specific instructions about whether or not the distinction between clean and unclean animals should be set aside for all time. It was necessary for evangelism of the Greeks and Romans, and is in accordance with the Jewish tradition of precedence, that if there are circumstances where two laws are in conflict with each other, one of them will take priority. In this case, the Great Commission, to preach the Gospel to all the world, takes priority over the laws about unclean meat. However, in parts of the world where the food laws do not hinder the preaching of the Gospel, they might still be maintained.
The Second Century Church
Tertullian, in his Apology (published in 197), wrote to the Roman rulers and judges in defence of the Christians as follows:
Blush for your vile ways before the Christians, who have not even the blood of animals at their meals of simple and natural food; who abstain from things strangled and that die a natural death, for no other reason than that they may not contract pollution, so much as from blood secreted in the viscera. To clench the matter with a single example, you tempt Christians with sausages of blood, just because you are perfectly aware that the thing by which you thus try to get them to transgress they hold unlawful. And how unreasonable it is to believe that those, of whom you are convinced that they regard with horror the idea of tasting the blood of oxen, are eager after blood of men; unless, perhaps, you have tried it, and found it sweeter to the taste! (Apology, chap. 9)
Whatís So Special About Blood?
All of creation belongs to God, but he has allocated certain things for our use. Plants have been for our use from the beginning. Animal skins have been for our use as a covering since the fall, and the whole carcasses of clean animals (excluding the blood) have been for our use since the flood. Just to make sure there was no misunderstanding, when God gave Noah the right to kill animals for food, there was a specific prohibition on killing other humans, and there had to be a death penalty for murder (Gen. 9:6). All life belongs to God, and we can only do with it what God permits. We are appointed as managers of Godís creation, not as owners (Gen. 1:26-28).
All life comes from the earth or from the sea, including plants, animals, fish and humans. (Gen 1:11, 20, 24; Gen.3:19). It all eventually returns to where it came from, and this is how God takes back what he has given. The carcasses of animals can pass to the earth through the human digestive system, but the blood must go directly to the earth because it represents the life, and God wants it for himself. It had to be poured out as a sacrifice to God, and in Old Testament times it was counted as a sacrifice for sin, although in reality it was only a way of looking forward to the only effective sacrifice for sin, which is the blood of Christ.
The Modern Meat Industry
The meat industry today operates for profit, so that every part of an animal is put to commercial use, if it is possible to do so. Certain parts have to be discarded, including intestines, excrement and blood, but some of the blood is put to commercial use, such as fertilisers, pharmaceuticals and blood sausages (otherwise known as black pudding). It could be argued that fertiliser production is an indirect way of discarding the blood to the ground, although in reality itís a way of processing it for human benefit, contrary to Biblical standards. Pharmaceutical use is more easily justified by the Jewish tradition of precedence, already mentioned, and in this case it means that saving a life is the highest law, taking priority over all other laws, and Jesus affirmed this when he healed the sick on the Sabbath. (Luke 6:6-10)
There is no way that the use of blood sausages can be justified from the Bible, and Christians who have these on their breakfast table should cease to do so. Otherwise, meat is permitted which has the blood drained out at the time of slaughter.
To what extent is blood drained from animals by the modern meat industry? The normal procedure is to electrically stun the animal and cut its throat, and then hang it up, and the process is effective enough to maintain the standards of industrial and commercial hygiene, and enable them to cut and package the meat for distribution. Otherwise, there would be blood dripping from the butcherís chopping board and the customerís shopping bag. However, they donít remove the blood completely, and if a steak is cooked "rare" and you stick your fork in it, blood will come out.
In Jewish households, they take the process a stage further by salting the meat. First they cut it into slices, then soak it in water, then sprinkle salt over it (coarse salt, so that it doesnít dissolve in the meat). The salt draws the blood out of the meat, then they shake the salt off, then soak the meat again. Obviously this will not remove every last drop of blood, but it removes most of the blood left behind after draining. If you go to a kosher butcher, you can get meat that has already been salted, and you will also have the satisfaction of obtaining it from a butcher who does not make profits from blood products (although it means paying a higher price for the meat).
What can Christians do, if they want to obtain their meat according to Biblical standards? There are a number of options:
There are various passages in the letters of Paul that are misunderstood to be about some kind of pro or anti-vegetarian debate within the early church (Rom 14; 1 Cor. 8 & 10). However, no such debate existed, and these passages are about entirely different issues. The early church understood that meat is permitted, provided the blood has been taken out.
One verse in particular (Rom. 14:2) is misunderstood to mean that vegetarians are weak, when it has nothing to do with vegetarians as we would understand them.
The early Christians had been converted to Christ out of paganism, and in many cases it took some time for a new believer to dispense with all the trappings of paganism. There were many new believers who thought that the pagan gods still had some power, and if they ate a piece of meat that had been offered to an idol, they might become infected by demons. It wasnít always possible to tell whether or not a piece of meat, bought at the market, had been offered to an idol, so some new believers refused to eat any meat at all. Paul considered this to be a position of weakness and fear, and he tried to persuade them that the idols have no power, and a piece of meat offered to an idol was the same as any other piece of meat. So meat was permitted, regardless of where it came from, but he discouraged people from eating meat in circumstances that would offend a weaker brother.
At the other end of the scale, there were people who were so convinced that idols had no power, they would have no inhibitions about eating meat at an idolís temple. Paul also discouraged this, because it might cause confusion and offence.
Generally, he encouraged people to eat whatever was set before them if they were invited out for dinner, to avoid offending their host, but if someone pointed out that the meat had been offered to an idol, it was better to politely refuse it. Circumstances often arise when there is more than one way of offending people, and the believers were expected to do a balancing act on the question of meat offered to idols, to try and cause the least offence. This appears to be at variance with Acts 15:29 which tells us plainly to abstain from meat offered to idols, but the general prohibition is about the act of idolatry, not the uncertain history of the meat before it was bought at the market. Thus, if you were invited to a feast, and you knew that part of the proceedings would be the offering of meat to an idol, you would politely decline the invitation.
The question of meat containing blood was never discussed in any of these passages by the Apostle Paul. Thatís because it was never a matter of debate in the early church. Everybody knew that blood was forbidden, and there was never any need to discuss it.
In many parts of the world, vegetarianism is misunderstood, simply because there are very few vegetarians. In Germany, they will think you are a green freak and you will bring the country back to the stone age. In some parts of Africa, they will think you donít eat meat because you are poor and canít afford it.
In Britain, about 20 years ago, vegetarians were considered to be a nuisance because we ate different food from everybody else and nobody knew how to cook it. For example we would go to a restaurant and find there is nothing vegetarian on the menu, and then we would walk out, together with all our meat-eating friends and try somewhere else. Things are much better now. You can go wherever you want and ask for something vegetarian and people will know what to do. Everybody understands it, except for some Christians who have misunderstood the letters of Paul and indulge in a kind of banter, to see if they can score a few theological points against vegetarians.
In some places, being vegetarian causes so much trouble, itís not really worthwhile. In particular, if you travel a lot it can become very tedious, having to explain the same things in different ways to many different cultures who will all misunderstand it for different reasons. In some places itís actually impossible to be vegetarian because the required variety of vegetables, including nuts, pulses and beans do not exist. All they have, especially in dry climates, is enough grass to feed sheep and goats, and you have to eat meat because there is hardly anything else. So the choice to be vegetarian is an opportunity to be taken only when it is available.
There are various reasons why someone would want to be vegetarian. Some people do it for health reasons, and others for philosophical reasons. Some people feel a sense of harmony by attempting to be at peace with both humanity and nature. It avoids the double-standard of trying to be nice to our fellow humans, and then killing animals, who have done us no harm, just because they taste good.
When people ask "Why are you vegetarian?" (and in Britain I find that only the Christians ask that question now), they donít realise that another question needs to be asked. The question is "Why do you eat so much meat?". Some people eat meat three times every day, bacon and eggs for breakfast, ham sandwiches for lunch, and a cooked meal in the evening with beef, lamb, pork, chicken or fish. Even now, after vegetarians have had some influence, you only see one or maybe two vegetarian dishes on a restaurant menu and itís rather disdainfully called "vegetarian option". Everything else involves meat or fish of some sort, and itís hard to find a reason why animals have to be slaughtered on such a massive scale.
Is this what God intended when he permitted Noah to eat meat? When Noah came out of the Ark, he offered sacrifices to God, and the blood was poured out over the altar, but the bloodless carcass was retained by Noah and his family for their own consumption, as God had permitted. This ritual must have been repeated many times, as it was in the days of the Israelites, but for reasons I have explained, itís unlikely that every household slaughtered animals every day just to satisfy their appetite for meat.
The consequence of over-consumption is a world food shortage. People who eat meat are indirectly consuming about three times as many vegetables as vegetarians. Arable crops that are needed for direct human consumption are fed to farm animals to fatten them up for slaughter, often in countries far away from where the crops are actually grown. The rich industrialised nations have dead animals splattered over every dinner plate while people in poorer countries have neither meat nor vegetables. In an ideal world, cattle and sheep would be out in the fields eating grass, but it uses up too much land, and it doesnít fatten them up quickly enough for an industry that runs for profit, so additional animal feed has to be brought in from elsewhere.