By Charles W. Moore
© 1998 Charles W. Moore
Unlike peoples farther to the east, the monotheistic ancient Hebrews did not deify
food or reverence it as, for example, the Orientals did rice. Nevertheless, food
has a great deal of significance in the Bible, ritualistically, symbolically, and
From Genesis to Revelation, food plays a vital role in the Biblical account. The forbidden
fruit is elemental the Fall of mankind from grace, and Jesus ate broiled fish when
He appeared to His disciples after the Resurrection--evidence that He had indeed
risen bodily from the dead.
The Old Testament implies that God originally intended man to be vegetarian. In Genesis
1: 29, God tells Adam:
"Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth
and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be
God also grants Adam dominion over fish, birds, cattle, and every creeping thing,
but makes no suggestion that the man should eat them. The indication that under ideal
circumstances dietary needs would be met without blood and death, even in the animal
kingdom, appears again in Isaiah 11: 6-7:
"And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed;
their young ones shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox."
First mention of eating flesh foods comes after the flood, in Genesis 9: 3, when God
blesses Noah and his sons and decrees (more as a concession than a command):
"Every moving thing that liveth shall be food for you; as the green herb I have given
Even with that Divine imprimatur for meat-eating, people in Bible times were mainly
vegetarian by necessity--if not conviction. Royalty and the very wealthy could feast
on meat to their hearts' content, and so they did, but for the common people, vegetable foods made up the bulk of day to day diets.
Nomadic Hebrew patriarchs were herdsmen who kept such domesticated species as cattle,
goats, sheep, donkeys, camels, and horses, but these animals were considered too
valuable to be used as regular table fare. Meat eating was a luxury reserved for
special feasts and entertaining.
Cattle, both bulls and cows (1 Sam 6: 7) were used as draft animals. Cows, goats,
camels, and possibly horses provided milk. Sheep's wool was spun into fabric. Donkeys,
camels and oxen were employed as beasts of burden. A man's material wealth was calculated in terms of how many cattle (the word is used generically in the Bible in reference
to all livestock) he owned. "Cattle" in this context is the origin of the English
word "chattel" --meaning possessions.
There was no ethical proscription against meat eating, although the Biblical implication
is that it was more permitted and recommended:
"When the Lord thy God shall enlarge thy border, as he hath
promised thee, and thou shalt say 'I will eat flesh,' because thy
soul longeth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh, whatsoever thy
soul lusteth after." (Deuteronomy 12: 20)
There is little doubt, however, that meat held highest status in terms of gustatory
satisfaction, as Proverbs 15:17 illustrates:
"Better a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and