How do I respond to religious Christian or Jewish teachers/parents/leaders who question going vegetarian due to biblical verses against it?
By Anna Balfanz
In certain religious communities, you may face a unique set of questions and oppositions surrounding your decision to stop eating meat. Rather than questioning how it will affect your health or create extra work, religious leaders, teachers, or parents may emphasize biblical verses and ideas to attest to what’s ‘right’ or ‘natural.’
Instead of simply denouncing religion as a whole, even if you want to, speak the language of those questioning you. Religion can be one of the most important, guiding, and resolute aspects of peoples’ lives. Undermining an entire belief system or stating that G-d is incorrect or outdated isn’t going to persuade anyone. In fact, it’s more likely to worsen the situation. Instead, approach it from their angle. If religion teaches the ideal way to live, what better way to promote vegetarianism than to explain how their/your religion supports it? While certain passages in Jewish writings and Christian Scriptures assert the acceptability of meat-eating, more speak about compassion, caring for G-d’s creations, and even the ideal of a vegetarian diet. Really, you’ve got the most support on your side. When crafting an argument, knowing what the opposition thinks helps greatly. This FAQ will first contain commonly cited verses that seemingly reject vegetarianism, before covering the many verses and ideas that support or promote it.
The Tanakh (Jewish Bible) offers a few key verses which people often cite in reference to G-d creating animals for meat. Genesis 1:26 states, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth.” Genesis 9:3 proclaims that, “Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything.” Literally interpreted, these appear to mean that G-d first allowed humans to rule over animals, and then to eat them. In Leviticus 11: 1-31, G-d explains the laws of Kashrut, Kosher dietary laws, which clearly sanction the consumption of certain animals, including cows and chickens.
Don’t feel overwhelmed. The Tanakh states fairly clearly that, beginning with Genesis 9:3, we’re allowed to eat meat. However, prior to Genesis 9:3, G-d only granted permission to eat food grown from the land. In the Garden of Eden, after G-d created man, He declared, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you” (Genesis 1:29). Notably, this verse, which only bestows vegetation as food, immediately precedes the verse about ruling over “every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Therefore, “ruling over” animals may translate closer to stewardship than domination, or at least not a domination that includes eating animals. In the story of banishment from the Garden of Eden, G-d punishes Adam by forcing him and his descendants to work for food and “eat the herbs of the field…until [they] return to the ground” (Genesis 3:18-19). Therefore, many religious scholars and leaders argue that G-d originally commanded people to eat a vegetarian diet.
So, what changed in Genesis 9:3, when G-d decided to give people permission to eat meat? Genesis 9:3 occurs immediately after the story of the Flood that covered the entire world. Commentators have written that, arguably, the Flood obliterated all suitable plant-life. In order to survive, those emerging from Noah’s ark needed to eat meat to survive. This makes meat, at most, a dire measure responding to a dire circumstance (Rabbi Isaak Hebenstreit Graves of Lust). Today, we’re lucky to have plenty of edible plant life, and can return to the ideal in the Garden of Eden.
In the book of Isaiah, messianic verses imply that, when the Messiah comes, carnivorous and omnivorous behavior will cease to exist. Instead, all living beings will live in harmony. As it states, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox…They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:6-9). We have a vegan diet in the Garden of Eden, a vegan diet during the time of the Messiah, and meat-eating only in the middle after a natural disaster. Both the Garden of Eden and the Messianic period are thought to represent perfection. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to say that veganism represents the ideal.
Even during this ‘middle-phase’ between the Garden of Eden and the Messiah, a prophet ate a vegan diet with great success. In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzer imprisoned the prophet Daniel and his three friends. Daniel and his companions refused to consume the royal meat and wine, and instead suggested a ten-day trial of vegetables and water. After ten days on this diet, the four appeared much healthier and handsomer than those who eat meat (Daniel 1:15). Daniel not only faced no Divine opposition for abstaining from meat but also ended up superior to those who consumed it. G-d granted Daniel and his companions superior knowledge, and King Nebuchadnezzar “found them ten times better than all the necromancers and astrologers in all his kingdom” (Daniel 1:20).
Animal consumption occurred differently in Biblical times. No factory farms existed; the animals lived naturally until the moment they were slaughtered. Today, with such a radically different approach, the issue of animal cruelty must dominate the discussion. The Torah forbids cruelty to animals multiple times. The verse immediately after the one granting human permission to eat meat states, “But, flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat” (Genesis 9:4). In Deuteronomy, as part of the Ten Commandments, G-d prohibits both people and animals from working on Shabbat, the day of rest (Deuteronomy 5:14). The same book also commands that, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4), and forbids you from removing a baby bird in the presence of her or his mother. If you follow the baby bird commandment, “you should lengthen your days” (Deuteronomy 22:7), which, interestingly, reflects the reward for honoring your parents (Exodus 20:12). Proverbs 12:10 encapsulates this when it states, “A righteous man knows the soul of his animal.”
The reasons for vegetarianism extend beyond animals rights. People turn to vegetarianism for environment, health, or world hunger reasons. Fortunately, the Tanakh impresses the importance of these causes.
The Tanakh offers numerous verses regarding hunger and charity. The book of Proverbs includes the verses, “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse” (Proverbs 28:27) and, “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9). The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus emphasize this through the laws of harvest. According to Deuteronomy 24:19, anything you forget to reap “shall be [left] for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.” Leviticus 19:10-11 agrees, commanding, “And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you collect the [fallen] individual grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” Finally, the book of Isaiah, when speaking about banishing wickedness and bringing in light, declares, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and moaning poor you shall bring home; when you see a naked one, you shall clothe him, and from your flesh you shall not hide?” (Isaiah 58:7).
In terms of protecting the environment, immediately after G-d created man, even before He created woman, He placed Adam “in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it” (Genesis 2:15). Therefore, our very first responsibility as humans was to protect G-d’s creation, to work with it rather than against it. To harm the environment is to defy the first duty G-d gave to us, and to ignore, potentially, the reason we were put in the Garden in the first place.
Jewish and Christian Scriptures each offer unique sources regarding maintaining our health, as well as individual sources regarding kindness to animals and the environment. The next four paragraphs reference Jewish sources, the following six address Christian ones, and the last three conclude the idea for both religions.
Prominent rabbis and Torah scholars have expounded on the Torah verses regarding animal welfare. In The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Rabbi Joseph Hertz explains the verse, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4), by explicitly stating that “it is a refinement of cruelty to excite the animal’s desire for food and to prevent its satisfaction” (Hertz 854). After Deuteronomy 11:15 expresses, “And I will give grass in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and be sated,” the Talmud, a prominent Jewish text, asserts that it is therefore “forbidden to eat before feeding one’s animal” (Berachot 40a). Sages have understood the verse, “But, flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat,” to mean that animals must be killed as humanely as possible (Genesis 9:4). Kosher law, therefore, requires slaughtering animals through a process called shehita, which involve a single stroke of the knife to minimize suffering.
Influential rabbis have spoken passionately about not harming and eating living creatures. Nachmanides, a significant medieval Jewish scholar, explains that humans could not originally consume flesh because “living creatures possess a moving soul and a certain spiritual superiority which in this respect make them similar to those who possess intellect (people) and they have the power of affecting their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death.” Rabbi Joseph Albo, from the mid-2nd CE, agrees, stating in Sefer ha-Ikkarim that, “In the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood.” The Torah scholar Rabbi Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, strongly supported vegetarianism. He felt that G-d granting permission to eat meat after the Flood was a concession only because humanity had degenerated so greatly. Rabbi Kook believed that, if not provided with meat, humans may have eaten human flesh. He also believed, however, that when the Massiach arrives, people will return to vegetarian diets.
Judaism stresses that we must care not only for others but also for ourselves. From the Deuteronomy verse declaring, “And you shall watch yourselves very well,” many Torah scholars have extrapolated that we need to stay safe and healthy (Deuteronomy 4:15). For example, Maimonides, one of Judaism’s most influential Torah scholars, wrote in his book The Guide for the Perplexed that, “The well-being of the soul can be obtained only after that of the body has been secured.” In Maimonides’ other book, The Mishneh Torah, he writes, “Since by keeping the body in health and vigor one walks in the ways of God – being impossible in sickness to have any understanding or knowledge of the Creator – it is a man’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor.” Therefore, we’re supposed to maintain our well-being as best as possible. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has explained the health benefits of eating a well-rounded vegetarian diet, including a lowered risk of diabetes, obesity, and cancer. By eating a vegetarian diet, we’re striving to watch ourselves and remain healthy.
Lastly, Judaism strongly values protecting the environment and resources. Deuteronomy furthers the Genesis verse about guarding the earth when it states that, “You shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down” (Deuteronomy 20:19). From this, Jewish rabbis and scholars have gleamed the concept of bal tashchit, the prohibition against destruction. The Talmud affirms that, “Whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs up a fountain, or destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashchit” (Kidushin 32a). Considering all the water, land, and food resources waste stemming from meat production, one could say that eating meat in the current day certainly violates bal tashchit. Furthermore, the Jewish community strongly encourages the idea of tikkun olam. Tikkun olam, oringinating in Kabbalah, literally translates to repearing the world. In the 20th century, Jews started using the term to refer to social action, including tzedakah (charity), acts of kindness, and repairing the environment. What better way to follow tikkum olam every day than to eat mindfully and preserves the environment and its resources?
These sources only introduce the wide range of relevant verses, commentaries, stories, and opinions. Look to the conclusion section for final advice!
In Christian communities, while the Genesis verses about ruling over animals often dominate the discussion, Christian Scripture includes additional sources which seemingly encourage eating meat. In Romans 14:1-2, Paul states, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables.” At one point, four-legged creatures descend from Heaven to Peter and a Heavenly voice commands that Peter kill and eat (Acts 10:9-16). Jesus Himself has eaten fish at least once, as it states in Luke that “they gave him a piece of broiled fish and He took it and ate before them” (Luke 24:42–43). According to these sources alone, G-d and Jesus appear to clearly sanction, and even encourage, eating meat.
However, Christian texts and saints have upheld the values of vegetarianism. St. Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals, although not a vegetarian, was known for his connections with all living creatures. He’s celebrated for speaking to birds and taming a wolf, and is associated with declaring, among other animal-friendly rhetoric, that, “All things of creation are children of the Father and thus brothers of man. God wants us to help animals, if they need help. Every creature in distress has the same right to be protected.” St. Clement of Alexandria, born 150 CE, reportedly proclaimed, “It is far better to be happy than to have your bodies act as graveyards for animals. Accordingly, the apostle Matthew partook of seeds, nuts and vegetables, without flesh.” A third saint, St. Basil, the Patron of Hospital Administrators, is credited with writing, “The steam of meat meals darkens the spirit. One can hardly have virtue if one enjoys meat meals and feasts. In the earthly paradise, no one sacrificed animals, and no one ate meat.” Many early and influential Christians, therefore, strongly supported a vegetarian diet.
The current Catechism of the Catholic Church also propagates animal welfare. Section 2415 states: “Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.” Other sections also speak about compassion towards animals, including sections 2416-18 and 2457. While the Catechism also sanctions eating meat, given the way the agribusiness obtains meat, it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to reconcile the two instructions.
In a 2002 book-length interview titled God and the World, Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, reflects the Catechism when declaring, “Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
Christian Scripture and Jesus adamantly support and command helping those in need. For a few example verses, 1 John states, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:17-18). Romans 12:13 stresses, “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” As Jesus encapsulates this when he states, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, and I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35). This list of verses exemplifies an overarching point; we’re supposed to care for the poor and hungry. If everyone practiced a vegetarian diet, giving grains and crops directly to humans instead to animals for slaughter, we could feed a much greater quantity of people. Researching these ideas is just as important as knowing the verses — it all ties together.
Christianity stresses caring for our bodies as well. 1 Corinthians 3:17 declares, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.” One can pair this with 1 Corinthians 3:17, which reminds us that, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” Therefore, we’re supposed to maintain our well-being as best as possible. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has explained the health benefits of eating a well-rounded vegetarian diet, including a lowered risk of diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Therefore, vegetarianism allows us to protect G-d’s temples.
Remember the Golden Rule. In Mathew 7:12, Jesus summarizes the most important lesson in the Bible. ”So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” What does G-d ultimately want? According to this, He wants us to treat others as we would want them to treat us. Given the understanding that factory-farmed animals suffer greatly, it seems reasonable to extend this rule, the rule that summarizes our existence, to animals.
All of these are only examples of verses and commentaries supporting vegetarianism or veganism. Aside from those mentioned in this answer, there are numerous other sources easily found on the internet. Just remember to check your facts for accuracy. Factory farms didn’t exist during Biblical times, so we can only piece together existing verses to assume how G-d would have felt about them. While all of these sources offer relevant and interesting information, it’s important to remember that, no matter what, G-d never commands eating meat. At the most, He permits it, but permission does not represent the ideal or necessary. Permission translates to a choice. If we have a choice, why not chose the option that follows the actual commandants of kindness to animals, preserving the environment, maintaining our health, and helping those in need?
If anyone tells you, “But the Bible says we can eat meat!” that’s far from the whole story. You’re engaging in a lifestyle built on compassion and awareness for all of G-d’s creatures: nothing you need to worry about defending.
For more sources, begin by visiting: http://www.vrg.org/links/Religion.htm
Anna Balfanz wrote this piece while interning with The Vegetarian Resource Group.