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Chapter 6


As noted previously, the ancient Hebrews were vegetarians mainly out of necessity and not by choice. One reason for this was logistic. There is an awful lot of meat in a cow, and since there was no practical way to preserve it, beef was usually reserved for holiday feasts or receptions when enough people would be present to polish off a whole carcass.

Size may also have had something to do with the Hebrew partiality for veal-- the "fatted calf" mentioned on several occasions (eg: Genesis 18: 7; 1 Samuel 28: 24; Amos 6: 4; Luke 15: 25-32). A calf represented a smaller, more manageable amount of meat to consume without waste. Goats were also sometimes eaten, as noted in the story of Jacob and Esau, and lamb was a fairly common meal since it was the preferred sacrificial offering.

Temple priests received the right thigh, a choice cut, from each sacrifice. This portion could be eaten by the priests themselves, and shared with their families provided it was consumed within two days (Leviticus 7: 28-29). Unfortunately, the priests ate so much red meat that their health apparently suffered--a common circumstance in our modern Western meat-eating culture-- but rare in those days. A special temple doctor was assigned to treat these diet-induced ailments.4

Sheep and calves were usually slaughtered for the table only when the household was entertaining guests. The broad-tailed sheep, a popular species in Biblical Palestine, was highly valued for the fat content of its massive tail. The Hebrews thought well enough of sheep to name their daughters after them; Rachael means "a ewe." Lamb was of course part of the Passover meal, and would have been included in Jesus's Last Supper.

While meat was eaten sparingly in ancient Palestine, at least by regular folk, dairy products were widely consumed. Camels (Genesis 32: 15), sheep (Deuteronomy 32: 14; 1 Corinthians 9: 7), and goats (Proverbs 27: 27) were all milked. Goats were reared principally for their milk, which was preferred to that of any other animal. Cows were milked on a limited basis, but goats and sheep were the most important dairy livestock.

The Hebrews made butter from milk (Proverbs 30: 33), and something called leben--a sort of runny yogurt--prepared in leather bags from the milk of goats or camels. Curds and cheese were also popular dairy foods. Many modern scholars believe that "curds" is a more accurate translation than "butter," even when the latter has been traditionally cited in English language versions of the Bible. Cheese is mentioned at least three times in the Bible (2 Samuel 17: 29; 1 Samuel 17: 18; and Job 10:10).

As in most traditional cultures to this day, the Hebrews didn't customarily drink milk as a liquid after infancy (cf: 1 Corinthians 3: 2; Hebrews 5: 12-13; 1 Peter 2: 2)

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