Several Bible passages are often cited to show that “natural evil”, particularly in the form of meat eating, was never intended in God’s original creation. From the literalist perspective, that means it did not actually happen before the fall. If Genesis is taken metaphorically, maybe it refers to what God would have preferred if … well, if he’d created things different, which is problematic in itself. Certainly, in any old earth understanding, it’s not possible to argue that the world actually was free of animal death or predation when man existed on earth. But today I want to start examining these passages specifically by looking at the apparent vegetarianism in the first chapters of Genesis. Why does God give the beasts “every green plant” for food? Does it make some kind of comment about “natural evil”?
A general observation first. Given, as I showed in my last post, the lack of any strand of Bible teaching on an altered, fallen, natural world, the fact that all the passages cited are at most allusive or tangential to the matter is significant. If a fallen creation were demonstrable positively, they might well act as supporting texts. But alone they are quite insufficient to establish a major doctrine. A parallel example might be the allusions, at several points in Scripture, to Yahweh’s defeat of the sea monster Rahab. These could hark back to a primitive myth, even one derived from non-Israelite cosmogeny, and they are certainly in their context metaphors for historic events. But they are quite inadequate to build, say, a doctrine of a dualistic origin for the universe.
So in Genesis, were it the case that the key message is that eating meat is somehow tied in to sin or, at least, “natural evil”, one would expect some other teaching on the matter elsewhere. For example, vegetarianism might be associated with holiness, as in eastern religions. Instead we find an Israel founded on pastoralism and shared meat-sacrifices, including the passover meal. Even in the New Testament, Jesus neither advocates nor practices vegetarianism, despite the contemporary practice of the Essenes. He eats (and even procures and cooks) fish after his resurrection. So a vegetarian world in Genesis 1, with no later commentary, is rather surprising.
In fact, there are a number of hints in the text that, in the context of the narrative of both Genesis 1 and 2-3, animal death and meat eating were assumed. Principally these revolve round the numbers of references to “livestock” as distinct from wild animals. This distinction first occurs in 1.26, and is repeated at Adam’s naming of creatures at 2.20, as well as in the animals taken on to the ark, and those detroyed by the flood. Abel, too, is named as a keeper of flocks. Livestock implies animal husbandry, which in the absence of killing the animals means milk and wool alone. Milk-drinking is actually excluded since the textual issue is a diet restricted to vegetables, and it’s hard to see why Abel needs to specialise in building up whole flocks merely to clothe his family. A pet lamb would do, and he could then have helped with the agriculture. Besides, “livestock” is a broader word than merely sheep. The early chapters of Genesis are clearly assuming livestock is kept for meat from the earliest times.
The answer, in my view, lies in a strand we seldom see in Genesis because we are not pastoralists. In both creation accounts, it’s God’s bountiful provision, especially for mankind, that is stressed. Even within the animal world, the account is more interested in nature in relationship to man than in the wild outback. Genesis 1.29 is therefore best understood as God’s providing “every seed-bearing plant” to man, and quite distinctly, “every green plant” to the rest of the creatures. In shorthand, that means grass and leaves for animals, and cerials for man – the classic distinction of early agriculture. This is a crude distinction, of course – both can eat fruit, livestock can have a feast if it wanders into the wheat field and both animals and man can and do eat meat. But the staple basis of the food chain is seed-crops for man, green plants for livestock.
This wild/domestic distinction is also seen in ch2, though we miss it. V5 talks about no “shrub of the ground”, literally bush or wild plant, and “plant of the field”, implying cultivated crops. In the next phrase God has not yet sent rain, and man is not there to work (or irrigate) the ground – the main task of agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia. Two kinds of irrigation for two kinds of foodstuff for two divisions of the sixth day’s creation.
With this background, the passage in ch9, after the flood, is not for some obscure reason granting carnivorous rights to Noah’s descendants (and it says nothing to change the animals’ diet at all), but is primarily about the sacredness of human life, and the atoning role in ritual of animal life-blood. Both animals and man are to be held accountable for shedding human blood – but no moral issues are raised over the killing of animals by either man or beast.
Like the doctrine of falllen creation, the teaching that there was no animal death before the fall is of relatively recent origin, though it has come to dominate the Creationist debate. Augustine, for example, not only accepted that animals died before the fall, but like others before and after, considered the idea that Adam was mortal before the fall, losing not so much eternal life itself as the potential for immortality. The early Church never really considered seriously that the “death” brought about by the first sin affected any creature beyond humanity. This is because they had no reason to suppose that immortality was ever provided for mere animals, which did not receive the image of God. Genesis itself, as I’ve shown, gives us no grounds to suppose it either.