KENNETH ROSE studied at Bob Jones University. He received a B A. in philosophy from Ohio State University. He is now preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry at Harvard Divinity School. He is a ministerial intern at the First and Second Church (UUA) in Boston.
A traditional proof-text for Biblical vegetarians is Genesis. 1:29 where God says,
Behold. I have given you every plant yielding seed which isupon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; youshall have them for food. (Revised Standard Version)
This was a universal vegetarianism, not limited to human beings, as the next verse” (Gen. 1:30) indicates. In the beginning, when the Lord had created the heavens and the earth, the relationship of predator and prey did not exist. Flesh was not a lawful food for any creature. The careful student of the Bible, however, is aware that after the great flood. God revised His earlier prohibition against eating flesh. As the flood waters receded. God said to Noah and his offspring,
The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth. . . , Into your hand they are delivered, Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you [in Genesis 1:29] the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat the flesh with its life, that is, its blood. (Gen. 9:2-4)
For the vegetarian looking to the Bible for guidance, this passage is a source of perplexity, whereas for the nonvegetarian, it is a divine warrant for eating meat. Both of these views, however, fail to comprehend the scope and complexity of the Bible’s outlook on the history of human corruption and redemption.
According to the Bible, the disobedience of Adam and Eve destroyed the peace of the first human society, the Garden of Eden. Since God was, in the beginning, the central interest of all the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, human beings and animals could live at peace there. But true and lasting peace—whether individually or collectively—is possible only when there is no taint of selfishness. Therefore, when Adam and Eve broke God’s commandment against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the peace of the garden was destroyed (Gen. 3:17). This was the beginning of the conflict between human beings and animals (Gen. 3:15).
After falling into sin, human society, which began rapidly growing, became increasingly violent. Animal sacrifice began (Gen. 4:4), the skins of animals began to be used as clothing (Gen. 3:21), and human beings began to murder one another (Gen. 4:8, 4:23). This violence increased to such a degree that God was sorry He had created humankind (Gen. 6:13, 6:16). So God decided to destroy the human race. God’s wrath, however, is always tempered by mercy, so He chose Noah and his family to survive the great flood (Gen. 6:8).
After the flood, God revised His original ban against eating flesh (Gen 9:3). Human beings since the fall into sin had proved incapable of obedience on this point. Since the consequence of disobedience to God’s will was death (Gen 2:17), and since God’s aim for human beings was their ultimate restoration to perfect obedience, God resorted to an expedient so that sin-weakened human beings might learn at least some degree of obedience. This expedient was a less stringent version of the original commandment. The amended commandment, though less strict, is still redemptive insofar as it is obeyed, for in obedience to God’s will does the ultimate welfare of human beings lie. But despite God’s lessening the rigor of the original commandment. His ultimate desire for peace between animals and human beings remained unchanged.
In other words, God allowed flesh-eating, but only as a temporary measure, to redeem humanity from the consequences of disobedience. Full obedience, however, will ultimately require full renunciation of the predatory principle. Until this occurs, the kingdom of God cannot be established. God has made known through the prophet Isaiah what this kingdom will be like:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the falling together,
and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp.
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
In that kingdom of perfect peace, where the knowledge of God will dissolve all evil, we won’t kill animals for food, because our food will be provided by God Himself. In the coming kingdom of divine peace, a river “bright as crystal” and carrying the water of eternal life will flow from the throne of God. On both sides of the river will grow “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelations 22:1-2).
This peace will be based not upon human caprice, but upon God’s will; therefore, it will be universal and enduring. All of God’s creatures will be included in it:
And I will make for you a covenant on that day [when the Lord renews the earth) with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow. the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you [all creatures] lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. (Hosea 2:18-19)
Despite the general human forgetfulness of God’s original desire for peace between humankind and the animal kingdom, some memory of it was maintained by Israel’s prophets. Animal sacrifice was a part of the ancient religion of Israel, but the prophet Isaiah reminded the Israelites of God’s ancient vision of justice and peace by vehemently criticizing these bloody acts of “worship”:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of he-goats. (Isaiah 1:11)
And the prophet Amos speaks similarly:
I hate, I despise your feasts. . . .
The peace offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not look upon, . . .
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing
stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
At present vegetarianism among those who base their lives on the Bible is quite rare. Nevertheless, vegetarianism remains God’s ultimate will. Through the practice of vegetarianism in obedience to God’s will as revealed in their scriptures, the devotees of the Krsna consciousness movement are being true to a long-neglected aspect of Biblical revelation.
Since, according to the Bible, the goal of history is the transformation of the predatory principle into the principle of universal love, it seems reasonable to suppose that people who take the Bible seriously should strive to bring their lives into accordance with the righteousness and nonviolence that will prevail in God’s kingdom. Surely we can’t in this life fully escape the consequences of the Fall, but we can try, with God’s grace, to live in accordance with God’s perfect will as expressed in the above-quoted passages.
Some might challenge this view by citing the following passage from the New Testament:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (I Timothy 4:1-2)*
[*It should be noted that this passage gives evidence that there were, at the time ot its writing, groups of Christians who did not eat meat.]
To use this passage to discredit Christian vegetarianism, however, is really a misapplication of these verses, since the issue here is not food but Christian freedom.
Most Christians over the centuries have not believed that what they eat has any effect upon their salvation. They have believed that they are redeemed through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from the observance of any body of specific rules and regulations, such as the law of Moses (Ephesians 2:8). It would be an unusual Christian teacher indeed who insisted that what one eats or doesn’t eat affects one’s salvation (Colossians 2:16, Matthew 15:11), especially considering that, as we have already discussed, Genesis 9:3 indicates that God was willing to ammend His original commandment regarding meat-eating to a lesser one, which human beings in their weakness have a better chance of obeying.
Nevertheless, no rational or scriptural reason can be discovered that would prohibit the teacher of Christian truth from encouraging believers to go beyond the concession to human weakness granted in Genesis 9:3 so that even now, before the full dawning of God’s kingdom of peace, they may begin living according to the ethics of that kingdom. To live in this way must be considered as part of God’s ultimate intention for humanity, for how else can one account for the fact that the Bible both begins and ends in a kingdom where the sound of slaughter is unknown?
Despite the certainty that this is God’s ultimate plan, the fact remains that most of those who base their lives on the Bible are eaters of animal flesh. This, I think, is due to the ambiguity of the Bible on this issue. For just as the Bible reveals God’s vision of a peaceable kingdom free from predators, so also does it contain justifications for continuing the practice of eating meat.
Vaisnavism Points Beyond Biblical Ambiguity
Vaisnava devotees of Lord Krsna find no ambiguity on this issue. They base their vegetarianism on the Bhagavad-gita (9.26), where Krsna says,
If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, speaking out of the Vaisnava tradition, explains,
One who loves Krsna will give Him whatever He wants, and he avoids offering anything which is undesirable or unasked. Thus meat, fish, and eggs should not he offered to Krsna. If He desired such things as offerings, He would have said so. Instead He clearly requests that a leaf, fruit, flowers, and water be given to Him, and He says of this offering, “I will accept it.” Therefore, we should understand that He will not accept meat, fish, and eggs. Vegetables, grains, fruits, milk, and water are the proper foods for human beings and are prescribed by Lord Krsna Himself.
Srila Prabhupada’s comments follow logically from a story in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, a scripture of central importance for Vaisnavas. In Chapter Seventeen of the First Canto, a righteous king of ancient India. Pariksit Maharaja, happens upon an evil king, Kali, who is beating a cow and a bull with a club on the bank of a sacred river. In this story, the cow stands for the earth (the giver of the necessities of physical existence), the bull for dharma (true religion), and Kali for the degradation (adharma) of our current age of slaughter—the Age of Kali.
All Vaisnavas agree on countering the mercilessness and violence of the Age of Kali, and so they practice strict vegetarianism. Rather than succumb to the cruel dietary preferences of the age, they look to Krsna, the restorer of true religion in times of religious decadence (Bg. 4.8), to instruct them concerning what to eat. As we have seen, Krsna has clearly indicated the foods He will accept: vegetables, grains, fruit, milk products, and water.
Clearly, on this issue the Vaisnava tradition does not suffer from the ambiguity that afflicts the Biblical tradition. So since the Supreme Lord of the universe speaks to the human race through all of the world’s genuine religious traditions, perhaps we can overcome the Biblical ambiguity about eating meat by bringing the Biblical tradition into dialogue with the Vaisnava tradition. Just such a dialogue took place in 1973 between Srila Prabhupada and Jean Danielou, a French cardinal [see BACK TO GODHEAD, Vol. 19, No. 10].
The issue of vegetarianism in the Biblical tradition arises when Srila Prabhupada charges that by killing animals, Christians are regularly disobeying Jesus’s commandment “Thou shall not kill” (see Matthew 5:21, where Jesus alludes to the Mosaic commandment stated in Exodus 20:13). Danielou counters Srila Prabhupada by asserting that only human life is sacred. But Srila Prabhupada dismisses this interpretation and affirms that Jesus’s words refer to all life. A few moments later, Danielou claims that what one eats is not “an essential point. The important thing is to love God. The practical commandment can change from one religion to another.” Srila Prabhupada brushes this assertion aside: “In the Bible. God’s practical commandment is that you cannot kill; therefore killing cows is a sin for you [that is, for all Christians].”
This disagreement over how broad is the scope of the commandment—whether it is limited to human beings or should extend to all living beings—finds its source in the divergent values placed on life in the
Biblical and Vaisnava traditions. For most Jews and Christians, only human beings, who are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), share in the divine nature. Therefore, animals have no claim to the rights such as the right to life, accorded to beings made in God’s image. Animals have value only insofar as they serve human interests (Gen. 1:28-29).
This is also Danielou’s view. He denies that animals have souls and asserts that human hunger justifies the eating of animal flesh. But Srila Prabhupada cites a passage in the Bhagavad-gita (14.5) that affirms a totally different view of the sacredness of life:
It should he understood that all species of life are made possible by birth in this material nature, and that I am the seed-giving father.
In this view, the parental care of God extends to all living beings, from the highest to the lowest. The seed of divine life has been placed in human beings and animals alike; to eat an animal, therefore, is no less sinful than to eat a fellow human being.
The argument between the cardinal and Srila Prabhupada continues through a few more rounds. Ultimately, Danielou tries to place the blame for meat-eating by humans on some fault in the creation, whereas Srila Prabhupada sees meat-eating simply as our own moral failing. Danielou argues that human beings may eat animals because some animals do so, but Srila Prabhupada replies that if human beings want to act like carnivores, God will give them fangs and claws in another life to fulfill that desire. Srila Prabhupada seems to be asking. How shall we act: like savage beasts or divine children of God? I feel that Srila Prabhupada gets the better of the argument.
The primary result of this dialogue between the Biblical and Vaisnava traditions is the insight that the scope of the commandment “Thou shall not kill” should be widened to include all living beings. If we apply this insight to the Biblical tradition, then its ambiguity on the issue of vegetarianism will be transformed into loving concern for all life. For those of us who take the Bible seriously, our obedience to God will then become greater as it aspires to live out the vision of the peaceable kingdom the Bible points to. Then we will be strong enough to forsake the concession to human weakness granted in Genesis 9:3. To the degree that we stop slaughtering innocent creatures for food, to that degree we will nullify the predatory principle, a principle that structures the injustices characteristic of this fallen age. And seeing all creatures with equal vision (Bg. 5.18) we will enter more deeply into the kingdom of God.