Genesis 9:3 -- Permission to Eat Meat?

At Jewish Veg, we stand on very solid theological ground when we say that meat-eating is frowned upon by God, according to the Torah.

Let’s look directly at Genesis 9:3, the verse that Jews have cited countless times over the millennia to justify the eating of meat.

Yes, Genesis 9:3 does quote God as saying, “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat.”

But when you look at the verse in its context, it is clear that God is only grudgingly giving humans this permission.

Consider, first of all, that the granting of this permission occurred immediately after The Flood, immediately after human beings had sunk to such a low point of immorality that God deemed it necessary to eradicate life and start over.

In the same chapter of Genesis, God promises to never again unleash a flood of such proportions. But, to keep that promise, a disappointed God would have to lower the standards for humankind’s behavior, to make some concessions to our baser instincts.

This is the context in which the permission to eat meat is granted.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel during the British Mandate era, offered this interpretation of Genesis 9:3:

Because people had sunk to an extremely low level of spirituality, he wrote, it was necessary that they be given an elevated image of themselves as compared to animals, and that they concentrate their efforts into first improving relationships between people. If people were denied the right to eat meat, they might eat the flesh of human beings due to their inability to control their lust for flesh, according to Rav Kook. He regards the permission to slaughter animals for food as a "transitional tax" or temporary dispensation until a "brighter era" is reached when people would return to vegan diets.

It’s been about 3,000 years. Haven’t we reached that “brighter era”? Shouldn’t this temporary dispensation have expired long ago?

Chapter 9 conveys God’s dim view of meat-eating in other ways.

Remarkably, the permission to eat meat is accompanied by a curse. We're told in Genesis 9 that the animals, who were created to be Adam's companions, will now "fear and dread" humans.

With meat-eating now permitted, animals feel that humans are acting with "animosity and evil designs," in the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick, one of the most prominent of the 20th Century.

Then there are the effects of meat-eating on longevity.

According to the Torah, people adhering to the vegetarian diet that is prescribed in Genesis 1:29 lived phenomenally long lives before The Flood. Genesis 5 tells us that Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan and Methuselah all lived past their 900th birthdays. After the permission to eat meat is granted, longevity declines precipitously. 

Abraham, for instance, died at the relatively tender age of 175.
Whether you take these ages literally or not, the point is the steep decline in longevity among meat-eaters.

Then there’s fact that in Genesis 9 itself, God states no fewer than five times that the Divine covenant applies to animals as well as people. God does not want us to think of animals as furry or feathered vegetables.  Animals are much more than that in Jewish thought. In fact, they have souls and they praise God, too.

Lastly, Genesis 9:3 cannot be understood apart from Leviticus 11, in which the laws of kashrut are laid out.

What is the overarching message of Leviticus 11? God wanted to make it difficult for us to eat meat, in hopes that we wouldn’t eat too much of it. You can only eat certain animals slaughtered under certain conditions.

And even then, it’s not the Torah ideal of Genesis 1:29.


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