One of the things I love about teaching is that I always learn. My favorite session in the series I just taught was the one on Bible, and as happens almost every time I read the passages from the first three chapters of Genesis, I had new insights. This time as I approached the text, I was thinking about food, and I realized: the Bible and the dietary laws which it generated introduced the idea of “conscious choice” in relation to what we eat.
But that’s not all I thought about. I’ve also puzzled for many years, as have many others, about the meaning of the lists of creatures permitted for human consumption in Leviticus 10 and 11. I had an idea about those lists today…something that fits within the framework of the biblical symbolism, worldview and message, as I understand it.
The Bible tells us three things about food, all profoundly relevant to our lives today:
- It describes the “ideal” human diet.
- It describes the human diet as it is in the “real” world.
- It provides a framework for “conscious choice” about what we eat.
The Ideal Human Diet
The creation accounts of Genesis 1-3 provide us with an ideal vision, creation according to a plan with meaning and purpose. There are three “elements” in the cosmos of these stories, God, human beings and the rest of creation. The second creation account, the Garden of Eden story, describes the relationships between these elements. These relationships are basically food-based.
God tells the creatures who inhabit creation what they can eat. It is a vegan world. In Gn. 1:29, the first creation story, God says, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food; and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.” Every creature is vegan, even the animals!
In the Garden, everything is in harmony. There is no death, no fear, no bloodshed, no violence. God plants a Garden, humans “dress it and keep it”, a river waters it, and creation thrives. In Gn. 2:16, God again ordains a vegan diet but with a further restriction: “And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying: ‘Of every tree of the Garden you may eat freely eat…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat thereof you will surely die”.
When Adam and Eve do eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are exiled from the Garden into life, preventing them from taking from the tree of life, eating and living forever. A flaming sword bars reentry to the Garden.
There is so much to say about this story and its meaning, but focusing just on the food, I’ll note some imagery associated with this ideal world of the Garden. As we’ve said, it’s vegan; there is no violence and no bloodshed. These phenomena go together. Since there is no violence and no bloodshed, there is no fear. Life is eternal. The job of the human being is to tend the Garden, and food is endlessly available.
A forbidden “meal” seems to bring God back into the Garden in the heat of the day, and part of the punishment levied on the human beings following their transgression is also food-related: “…cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and also thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground…” (Gn. 3:17-19) Still vegan, it seems, but not quite a nurturing, vegan feast.
The Human Diet in the Real World
The human beings who exit the Garden are like God in having ethical consciousness. They are unlike God in that they do not live forever, nor does any other part of creation. The two trees in the Garden symbolize these two aspects of human nature. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which the first humans eat, confers on them their ethical consciousness. They do not eat from the Tree of Life but rather are exiled and prevented from reentering the Garden.
The biblical code language for the theology and anthropology described in these stories is “holy” and “pure”. Adam, the human being, is created “in the image” of God, that is, Adam is both holy and pure. Holiness has to do with the human beings’ ethical consciousness. Purity has to do with their place in the natural world, a place that changes when they are exiled from the Garden and no longer have the potential to transcend nature. Specifically, purity and impurity are associated with natural processes, ultimately life and death.
The world of exile is very different from the world of the Garden. Not only is it disharmonious and difficult, with nature and human beings in an antagonistic relationship, but it is a world that includes death and is filled with violence and bloodshed. The first story following exile is one of fratricide, as Cain, the gardener, kills his brother, Abel, a shepherd. Abel kills his firstlings for a sacrifice — and God favors the meat sacrifice despite having ordained a vegan diet for God’s original creation.
As disharmony and violence overwhelms this world in exile, beyond the Garden, God brings a flood and a new creation. Noah sacrifices animals as a sign of thanksgiving, and God in return promises to never again destroy the earth. And then…even as God issues a first commandment to this new creation, “be fruitful and multiply,” God formally decrees a new diet, which signifies the nature of this world in exile.
This diet is described in the Noah story in the new creation following the flood (Gn. 9:2-4): “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all where with the ground teems, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall you not eat.” The world in exile is one dominated by disharmony, fear, violence, and blood — and this world is no longer vegan.
The life thereof, which is the blood thereof. Blood signifies our physical existence, our life in this world. It signifies the profound difference between God and human beings, the fact that human beings are part of nature and do not live forever. Yes, humans can now kill animals and eat them, but they cannot eat the blood, which is the life thereof. Contact with blood and death renders a human being “impure”. A state of impurity is a reminder of human transgression.
Biblical “Conscious Choice”
How can human beings live in this new world where sustaining life requires taking life? Where life is limited and fragile, and hunger, violence, bloodshed and warfare form a constant backdrop to existence?
The Bible tells us that human beings are like God in that they have ethical consciousness. This ethical consciousness makes navigation through the complexities of this world beyond exile difficult. How do we know what choice is the “right” choice?
We have two visions put before us, one of an ideal world, a world as it was intended to be, and one of the real world in which we live, a world in exile, a world of disrupted relationships between nature, human beings and God. The Hebrew Bible provides a framework for how to live in that world. The framework once again includes a dietary plan.
We have already seen one of the fundamentals of this plan in Gn. 9:2-4, the prohibition against consuming the blood of a creature. More details come out in many places in the biblical text, but Leviticus 10-11 provides a list of which animals, fowl, fish and insects are permitted for food. Closer examination of these lists and the habits of these animals reveals they are all vegan.
In the symbolism of the biblical text, though, veganism isn’t a relevant category. It is a contemporary concept that camouflages a deeper truth, namely that these are all creatures that don’t consume the blood of others. Those creatures “fit” for eating, kasher, are those which are most pure, eating according to the ideal of the Garden. Humans, themselves impure, except in the temporary world of a ritual framework, can only eat animals that are pure.
Characteristically the Bible presents us with a nuanced, layered, complex view of the world, filled with subtle paradox. Humans, in the image of God (almost), are exiled from the Garden with part of their likeness, their ethical consciousness, but are compelled to leave behind another part, the possibility of living forever and thus transcending nature. In the real world beyond the Garden’s borders, they eat meat, associated with their transgression and exile. No longer continually pure as in the Garden but rather enmeshed in blood guilt, these humans nonetheless can only eat meat from animals who are pure, who do not kill other creatures for food and do not consume blood.
One scholar suggests that the original motivation for sacrifice was to deal with this issue of blood guilt: In his “Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Israel” (from Biblical Archaeology Review), William H. Hallo “discusses not only the evidence for ritual sacrifice in ancient Mesopotamia, but also some of the possible motivations for the development of such a practice. He suggests that ritual sacrifice to the gods in Mesopotamia developed as a means of justifying meat consumption by human beings–a privilege generally reserved for the elite of society”. It appears that meat eating may have been a troubling concept in the ancient world, including in the world of the ancient Israelites.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
A speaker in the National Geographic special series, “The Future of Food”, in commenting about the stress on our resources as our world population reaches toward 9.7 billion in 2050, tells us we could easily feed everyone if we stop wasting and all become vegan. Immediately he acknowledges this is not likely to happen just yet. In this way, his comments are reminiscent of a biblical text that tells us of an ideal world but within three chapters moves beyond it to look at the world as it is and to provide a framework for living in it. And that world as it is looks a lot like our world today.
We can learn a great deal from the Bible about our connection to the rest of creation, about a way to live in harmony with the rest of our world, tilling the Garden. We can also learn about how to live in the often harsh reality beyond its borders. We can find tools to help us maintain our awareness of the value of all life. These tools are part of an ethical and a ritual system that continually reminds us of our place in creation and provides us a vision of harmony to keep in our sights as we make conscious choices in every moment.
One of those choices today will be about what we eat. The Bible tells us to make that choice with full awareness. In rising above mere opportunistic eating, we become most fully human.
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