mincing our words: animals, vegetables, and scriptural selectivity
photo credit: tvtropes.org
I am an imperfect vegetarian, and have even been a vegan at times. While for the most part people in my life are supportive, I have been told that it is unchristian to be vegetarian, shamed as being rude for declining meat and had a family member go out of their way to let me know that the church is okay with my lifestyle choice. Even though I am only vegetarian about 3/4 of the time, give or take, I was interested to see what our scriptures and prophets really say about eating meat. The domination of supposed gentler or softer creatures is a product of patriarchal society, and often justified by the Bible. I wanted to go to the source and read what was actually written about dominion over and consumption of animals. Just as the scriptures contain verses that suggest women are lesser than men, there are also verses that affirm our equality in the eyes of God. I promise not to turn this into a moral lecture about the ethics of eating meat, because that would be really hypocritical of me. Instead, I want to shine a light on how easy it is to selectively interpret scripture to fit a certain world view.
Jesus: Son of God, Redeemer…Vegetarian?
There is compelling evidence that Christ followed a vegetarian diet. In Isaiah 7:14-15(or 2 Nephi 17:14-15) Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign—Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son and call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and to choose the good. One interpretation of the butter and honey is that Christ would belong to a lower socio-economic class. However, some vegetarians believe that refusing the evil and choosing the good means refusing to consume animal flesh. What about the loaves and fishes? Apparently it’s possible that fish was mistranslated from fishweed, which does seem a little more likely to be in a basket with bread. He also asked Simon called Peter and Andrew to give up fishing to become his disciples. Perhaps more than an invitation to serve, this was a subtle condemnation of the trade. Many people believe that Jesus belonged to the Essene sect of Jews, a group that was against animal sacrifices. If this is true it is very likely that Christ did not eat meat. Vegetarian Jews certainly existed in Jerusalem at the time, and it isn’t too far-fetched to think that Jesus was one of them.
50 Shades of (Doctrinal) Gray
There are still references throughout the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants to animal consumption and sacrifice. A common theme I found when I went through the Topical Guide references was that animals should only be eaten when people are really desperate. We’ll start with the Old Testament. I will be using the King James Version for all of my references, as well as some of the Joseph Smith translation. Also, meat and food are often interchangeable, while flesh is the word used to describe meat in our understanding of it. I don’t know enough context of Ancient Israel to be able to tell for sure what is meant when, but to illustrate my point, I’ll use the meaning that best supports the idea that God meant for us to be vegetarians.
Genesis 1:29-30 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of the tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
And to every beast of the earth and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat; and it was so.
So, ALL creation were given green herbs for food, and herb bearing seeds, and fruit. A few verses up man is given dominion over all the animals. There is a foot note on the word dominion that leads to Proverbs 12:10.
Proverbs 12:10 A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.
It is not until Genesis 9, after the flood, that God says it’s okay to eat animals. Sometimes the archaic language makes it seem to me like one verse is saying one thing, and the next verse says something entirely different. Apparently Joseph Smith also thought the passage was less than clear, so I am going to use his translation.
JST Genesis 9:10-11 But, the blood of all flesh which I have given you for meat shall be shed upon the ground, which taketh the life thereof, and the blood ye shall not eat.
And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands.
I am not well-versed in kosher laws, but I know that blood has to be drained from animals and disposed of properly in order for meat to be kosher. It is tied into the idea that the soul, or life, is in the blood. The next verse lays it out pretty clear that even though God has given direction on the proper way to prepare an animal to be eaten, it should only be done in really, really, dire situations. And even then, God is still going to require the blood of that beast at your hands. This is a little more extreme than what we have in the Doctrine and Covenants, but it is still the same basic message.
Section 49 is specific revelation to Leman Copley, a Shaker who was looking into Mormonism. Shakers did not eat pork, and many were strict vegetarians, something that Leman wanted to hold onto. Joseph inquired of the Lord and was told in verse 18: And whose forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God. I understand this to mean that if someone tells you not to be a vegetarian they are not ordained of God. While it is no statement against eating meat, it tells us that it is not wrong to avoid it. The next verse specifically says that the beasts and fowls were made for consumption and apparel, but right after that we have another warning against excess consumption. Verse 22: And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need. This echoes not only the JST translation of Genesis 9, but it also lines up with the Word of Wisdom. Section 89:12-13: yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air,I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with Thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing to me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine. I used to view these verses as permission to eat meat, and always ignored the sparingly, winter, cold, and famine part. What constitutes need? And how should we define famine?
Lessons from Another Faith
About 35% of Seventh-Day Adventists practice vegetarianism. Their religion is about as old as Mormonism, but among their famous founders are the Kellogg’s brothers, of Kellogg’s Cereal. They pioneered the process of making flaked cereal, and tried to change people’s breakfast habits to ready-to-eat cereal rather than eggs and meat. The general availability of food in the early 1900s meant staying nourished without eating meat was suddenly much more plausible, and since meat was no longer a necessity, it made sense to become herbivores. The choice to practice vegetarianism seems to echo the Word of Wisdom. In America at least, most of us have not and will not experience a famine. Most of us work and live somewhere with a heating system, never fully subjecting our bodies to winter and cold in the sense of the 1830s. Under this interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, I for one should not be eating meat at all.
More Doctrinal Gray Areas
Many Latter-Day prophets have also made remarks endorsing a vegetarian lifestyle. President Lorenzo Snow at a meeting with the First Presidency in the temple “introduced the subject of the Word of Wisdom, expressing the opinion that it was violated as much or more in the improper use of meat as in other things, and thought the time was near at hand when the Latter-day Saints should be taught to refrain from meat eating and the shedding of animal blood.” (Journal History, 11 March 1897 p. 2) President Joseph F. Smith, who also opposed hunting for sport, said “We are a part of life and should study carefully our relationship to it. We should be in sympathy with it, and not allow our prejudices to create a desire for its destruction. The unnecessary destruction of life begets a spirit of destruction which grows within the soul. It lives by what it feeds upon and robs man of the love that he should have for the works of God. It hardens the heart of man… The unnecessary destruction of life is a distinct spiritual loss to the human family. Men cannot worship the Creator and look with careless indifference upon his creation. The love of all life helps man to the enjoyment of a better life. …Love of nature is akin to the love of God, the two are inseparable.” (Juvenile Instructor, April 1918, p. 182-3). In the March 1977 an Ensign reader asks “Do animals have spirits and are they resurrected?” Gerald E. Jones, of the Institute of religion in Berkeley California replies “Yes. The Prophet Joseph Smith received information concerning the eternal status of animals. Answers to questions he posed are in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 77. He also spoke about the resurrection of animals in a sermon but did not expand on the subject.” Animals will be resurrected, and they do have spirits. From an eternal perspective one could say that they are lesser spirits whose mortal purpose is to be our food, but this would conflict with 1 Nephi 17:35 where we are told that the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one.
Choosing our Words
During my research, I found that passages that supported vegetarianism were often surrounded by words that could be used to justify slavery, racism, rape, and violence. This just shows that words spoken by prophets can be used to justify many positions. It speaks to the universality of scripture. I often get frustrated by the seemingly conflicted messages. It is impossible to believe all scripture and modern revelation to be literal truth without holding views that directly oppose each other. One of my favorite passages of scripture comes from the New Testament. Romans Chapter 14 is Paul talking to the saints about avoiding getting caught up in the letter of the law. Many church members argued about and judged each other based on their adherence to kosher laws. Verses 13,15-16: Let us not therefore judge one another anymore: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest though uncharitably. Destroy not him with meat, for whom Christ died. Let not then your good be evil spoken of.
My intention is not to create a stumblingblock with these verses. I believe in helping remove stumblingblocks. I can think of many stumblingblocks in church culture today, from modesty rhetoric, to structural inequality, and the official stance on homosexuality. By remembering that Christ died for all of us it makes it much easier to be charitable in our words and actions as we strive to lift each other up rather than finding occasions to trip people.
I found most of my information about Christ being a vegetarian at http://www.thenazareneway.com/biblical_ vegetarianism_denis_giron.htm. There is a lot more information about Essenes, and biblical vegetarianism than what I included here. As far as vegetarianism in Mormonism this article by Jim Catano has many more resources and examples http://www.vegsource.com/articles/catano.htm. The Ensign article can be found at LDS.org.
4 Responses to “mincing our words: animals, vegetables, and scriptural selectivity”
I have a testimony of a “meat sparingly” diet! My family has been working on removing meat from our diet for the last 2 years (we do eat fish and seafood once a week) and we’ve had a lot of health-related blessings for it. We used to eat huge helpings of meat with every meal and gagged at the thought of beans and tofu. But we couldn’t ignore the scriptures anymore. Now we’re up to about 95% meat-free. Even by worldly health standards, most Mormons eat way too much meat. Daily recommended amount is 6 oz per day – no bigger than a deck of cards. We have mountains of scientific evidence linking heavy meat consumption to obesity, heart disease, and colon cancer. In this day and age don’t even need to kill things in order to survive – we really don’t have an excuse anymore.
I was a vegetarian while I went to BYU for a couple years. In one of my religion classes when we were discussing the Creation, someone raised their hand and said “People who are vegetarians are willfully disobeying God’s law.” Luckily my teacher jumped on that quickly and said absolutely not true. I wonder what that person would make of this idea!
For a correct understanding of D&C 49:18 you need to read this recently published article in Interpreter. http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/whoso-forbiddeth-to-abstain-from-meats/
“Apparently it’s possible that fish was mistranslated from fishweed, which does seem a little more likely to be in a basket with bread.”
No this is in accurate. There is no basis for it except for a corner case from a nitch translation. If you are to follow the prophetic guidance of revelation and study then its as follows.
**** Doctrinal Research methods. ****
1. The standard works;
2. the inspired words of the Presidents of the Church, particularly the living Presidents;
3. and the promptings of the Holy Ghost.
You will see that
1. JST shows fish not fishweed.
2. JS, BY, and other prophets said fish was allowed in WoW.
3. Multiple prophets have used the fish/bread example and have never corrected it. To have this be eluded throughout every prophet is very unlikely.
There is nothing in LDS doctrine that makes ANY claim to “fishweed”.