Q: I think it’s time to encourage Christians and Jews to be vegetarians. The Fifth Commandment says, “Thou shall not kill.” If God meant only people, he would have said so. What part of “not kill” don’t people understand? — C., via cyberspace.
A: Let’s begin by remembering that the Bible was written in Hebrew, not English. The commandment translated into English in the King James Version as “Thou shalt not kill” actually means something quite different in Hebrew. The Hebrew word for killing is harag, but the word used in the commandment is ratzach, which means “to murder.”
Therefore, the prohibited action is murder, not killing. The difference is huge. Killing is obviously taking a life — any life — for any reason. Murder is the unjust taking of a human life, and that is what God forbids us to do. Some of the permitted acts of killing human beings include killing in self-defense, killing to defend one’s country in wartime and capital punishment.
Killing animals for food is not murder by any normal or biblical understanding. It may be wrong, of course, and I deeply respect your vegetarian instincts. However, I’ve heard many vegetarians chant the slogan, “Meat is murder,” which is not biblically valid. The case for vegetarianism must be made outside the biblical commandments.
What is the best case that can be made for not eating meat? The strongest argument, I believe, is the clear fact that animals feel pain and it’s wrong to cause needless pain to an innocent sentient being. The need for food doesn’t meet this objection because vegetarian diets can provide all necessary proteins and fats, thus making the inflicting of pain on animals a cruel and unnecessary act.
This is a very strong spiritual and moral argument for vegetarianism. Another good argument for not eating meat is that meat animals are subjected to pain and suffering long before they’re slaughtered. Meat processing plants, factory farms and transportation systems all subject food animals to terrible suffering.
There’s also the ecological argument for vegetarianism. Rain forests have been chopped down to open up grazing land for cattle. Slaughterhouses and factory farms release massive amounts of animal waste into the ground water. In addition, it takes about 30 pounds of grain to raise 1 pound of meat. If that grain were distributed to human beings as food, much of the food shortage in the world could be eliminated.
Finally, eating large amounts of highly saturated animal fat in red meat is bad for our health.
These are all powerful arguments and must be taken seriously by those seeking moral and physical and spiritual integrity in our world.
The case against vegetarianism is also strong. We’re clearly carnivorous animals evolved to eat meat like lions and tigers and bears — oh my! Our canine teeth are different from the crushing molars of grazing animals. We don’t have two stomachs like ruminants that evolved to eat grasses and digest the cellulose in plants. Sugar and corn syrup come from plants, and they cause us far more health concerns than eating animal protein.
If we decide that animals are full and complete bearers of moral rights, then we also have no right to domesticate them and use them for hard work, put them in zoos or hold them prisoners as pets. The moral distinction between animals and people is clearly not arbitrary or immoral.
Animals are important creations of God, but they are not ensouled beings made in the image of God. Animals are not on our level of moral rights. This is confirmed by our biology, our moral intuitions and our sacred texts.
The solution to this powerful moral dilemma, it seems to me, is to go back to the Bible and realize that God set before us not just permitted and prohibited acts, but also a range of acts that, while permitted, can be transcended in favor of a higher, more virtuous life. God sets before us many levels of moral virtue, and we can choose the higher path even if we’re not commanded to do so.
War is permitted, but we’re urged to seek peace. Meat is permitted, but we’re encouraged to eat oatmeal. In the biblical text, meat is not given to man to eat for the 10 generations from Adam to Noah (see Genesis 1:29. Adam’s diet is clearly vegetarian).
It’s only after God realizes our deep carnivorous desires (in Genesis chapter 9:3-6) that God reluctantly allows people to eat meat. Killing animals for meat is not murder, but meat is one thing we could surrender to reduce animal suffering and purify our bodies and our world for God’s higher law.
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