Practical Issues > Things to do > Religion and Animals

Response to this article, May 2006

God to Noah: "Can't You See That This is Your Punishment?"

The Bible practically has a "Thou shalt be vegan" commandment: God prescribes a vegan diet immediately after granting us dominion over His earth as though to clarify that what He means by "dominion" is caring guardianship, not exploitation. But other passages in the Bible are more ambivalent. Which makes it challenging to use the Bible as a religious basis for veganism. Challenging but not impossible. I do believe that applying the principle of mercy, expressed throughout the Bible, on any fellow living being that can benefit from mercy, compels us to refrain from harming creatures that don't want to be harmed and from killing creatures that want to live.

Meat-eaters often point to the portions of Genesis in which God tells Noah, "Every moving thing that is alive I give to you; I give all to you as I gave the green plant," and "The fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all of the fish in the sea, into your hand they are given" as an unambiguous Biblical sanction for eating animals. I don't see it that way at all. Not even close.

When God speaks to Noah after the Flood, He has just finished delivering severe punishment to His children, who have converted the earth into an orgy of savagery and immorality. He is not in a good mood. He is not rewarding humanity for good behavior. He is not thinking, "Maybe my ideal vision of a world in which no creature is harmed has some flaws." He is disappointed in the species that was entrusted with the care of His Creation, but fell prey to its own greed and brutality, and turned beauty into ugliness.

He is the angry parent, giving a stern, "one more chance" lecture to his debauched and disobedient son. This, I believe, is the context in which God's post-Flood statements must be viewed.

"Dread." That's not Eden. That's disharmonious. Definitely not the original plan. This verse is a lamentation; a scolding, with no small measure of frustration.

God is saying, "Is this what you want? Fine, you got it. Go ahead with your violent ways. Your relationship with the rest of Creation will be estranged, contemptuous, adversarial."

God isn't going back on His Word, saying "I command you to eat flesh." He's describing, not prescribing. He's officially and regretfully confirming that humans have abandoned the principles of Eden.

Like a father calling his rebellious teen's bluff: "Fine; stay out all night. Don't call. In return, those closest to you will suffer. No more family dinners. No more going out as a family to restaurants and movies." Just to make sure the wayward son doesn't get too carried away just to impose limits on the son's behavior the father, like the Father, sets some inviolate rules. "You must drain all the blood first." "You can go anywhere you want as long as you take a polygraph test afterward and tell us what you did." Both restrictions are formidable, and convey the seriousness of the authority's disapproval with the situation.

Over and over, God tells Noah how important the animals are to Him; how they have an independent relationship with Him, and are highly valued not because of utility value but because they are part of Creation. He's not-so-subtly hinting to Noah that humans' insatiable taste for flesh and for killing (many meat-eaters refuse to try veggie chicken even though it is virtually indistinguishable from cruelly-produced actual chicken) is a remnant of the Fall, a disease that must be kept under control until cured.

God puts bounds on behaviors He clearly didn't want in the first place.

If the violence inherent in eating flesh ruins Creation, then abstinence from eating flesh and, more importantly, exorcising the desire to eat flesh or harm animals, which leads to abstinence of eating flesh is what makes Creation whole again.

But humans interpret God's words in the most selfish and irresponsible manner: "Oh, good, we don't have to be friends with the animals any more, or be fellow vegetarians. Now we can kill them yeehaw!"

To this day we haven't gotten the message: "Live by violence and this is what you get." We reap what we sow. Our fall from grace darkly persists in slaughterhouses that are so full of suffering we can't bear to think about them. We can't stand that part of ourselves, but we won't give up superficial benefits, thus we perpetuate the same greed-induced violence that preceded the Flood.

Meanwhile, God waits... for his fallen children to replace pride and selfishness with humility and charity, to lift themselves back to the ideals showed to them at the Beginning of time and promised at the End: boundless fellowship, loving stewardship, and resounding harmony with God's magnificent Creation.

Ben Zion Bokser on Abraham Isaac Kook, former chief Rabbi of Israel: "The universal man, he [Rabbi Kook] believed, would abandon the eating of meat and return to a vegetarian diet, to which he had been confined before Adam's disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit. The permission to eat meat was a concession to man's moral weakness, but he would rise out of it when his spiritual development reached the level of true universality."

Author Norm Phelps in The Dominion of Love points out that God at other times makes concessions to human stubbornness or moral failings. In I Samuel 8:4-22, God relents to demands for secular rulers, and in Matthew 19:8, Jesus "describes divorce as a divine concession to the hardness of the human heart."