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When animals became food: Let them kill animals instead of one another

[This segment follows Part 1 that was posted on April 29th— see here:

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/torah-why-do-we-eat-meat/]

When God nixed His prohibition on killing animals — a divine veto that lasted ten (human) generations, even from Adam’s first day — God embarked on a new direction for humans in the aftermath of the flood.  God, thus, tells Noah to wield over animals “fear and dread… they are given in your hands, every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything ’’ (Genesis 9:2-3)

Still, how did this radical change on God’s part come about?

The traditional argument that Noah merited the killing of animals for food due to his saving their species on the ark is morally untenable; why, Noah did not need animal flesh for his sustenance. Indeed, he had ‘’green plants’’ to feed on, just as humans (and animals) did before the flood.  Even the dove, returning to the ark with a fresh olive tree leaf, indicated that fruit trees were already yielding produce.  We also must presume that God would not have called Noah to disembark unless food security was assured.

Rabbi Yosef Albo (15th C) reasoned that the original prohibition on eating animals led indirectly to the murder of humans. People believed that “The fate of human beings is like that of the animals…. [and that] humans have no advantage over animals” (Eccl. 3:19). Hence, God permitted, albeit not requiring, killing animals for their meat in order to highlight the difference between slaying a human being – ‘’for in God’s image He Made the humankind’’ [9:6]– and the dispatch of animals for food.

Though God cited no reason whatsoever for this dramatic reversal, it is evident that prior to the flood man’s slaying of his fellowmen (e.g., Cain and Lamech), — that did not even incur adverse consequences — was not directed against animals too. Such rampant homicide was obviously unsettling and terribly upsetting to God.

Ergo, if humans could now turn their unabated bloodthirstiness unto animals, they might kill, perchance, less people, if not avoid manslaughter altogether.

As we continue and explore what might have brought God to pivot and allow Noah, upon his disembarkation from the ark, and humankind thereafter, to kill other species for food, the laws pertaining to Deuteronomy 21:1-14 might shed further light on God’s about-face on the matter. The issue here is a war booty of a “woman of comely features”, desired by an Israelite warrior when in battle with her people.

Hence, though the capturing Israelite combatant might bring his captive to his home he must stay totally platonic with her for “a month of days” before marrying her, or else send “her away on her own”.

Why did God permit an Israelite to abduct an innocent (pagan) captive woman from her parents, and even to marry her with or without her consent?

The Rabbinic commentaries admit that what God was up against here was man’s immanent evil impulse.  Namely, without this lesser-of-two-evils compromise, the Israelite warrior would sadly do what other victorious warriors did throughout war history up to the very present time, namely, having free rein to abuse and brutalize captive women.

With such significant restrictions imposed on an Israelite warrior, he could still abduct such a desired woman.  But he also had to meet a slew of rituals and limits on his actions that would impart a measure of self-respect to the woman captive.

This compromise between idealism and realism found its precedent in God’s permission for humans to kill animals for food — a major deviation from God’s authentic plan for meatless human diet — in order to help and flatten the homicide curve.

As Rabbi Yossef Albo has it, both killing animals for their meat and the abduction of a beautiful woman from the battle zone occur because of man’s evil impulse that cannot be reversed, but only contained, as the Torah tries to do in both of these instances.

If God’s abrupt backtracking from plant to flesh had been a mere concession — an attempt to  trade animal blood for human blood — then in hindsight it was a failed tradeoff. As it transpired, humans did not end, or even mitigate, shedding human blood, albeit now massively butchering animals as well.

Eating meat – Man’s self-destruction?

Does the Torah try and bring us another message when it  informs us that Noah had lived 950 years, with the first 600 prior to the flood. While we need not necessarily take these numbers by their face value, Noach’s eldest son, Shem, lives to be “only” 600 years, and his own son, Arpachshad “only” 438 years, while his son, Shelah lives to be 433 years. Though Ever, Shelah’s son, lives 464 years, Peleg and Rehoo, the next next two generations, live to be “only” 239 years each. Next, Serug lives to be 230, while his son, Nachor lives to be 148. And even as Terah, his son, lives to be 205, his own son Abra(ha)m will plummet to age 175 at the end of his life. Ultimately, Psalm 90 will note that “the days of our years are three-score years and ten, [i.e., 70, King David’s lifespan], or even by reason of strength fourscore years [80]”.

What had happened, then, between Noah’s and Abraham’s lifespans, especially when we consider the immensely longer lifespans prior to the flood, whether Adam’s 930 years, or Shet, his third son’s 912 years, not to mention Metuselah’s record of 969 years? While possibly it is only circumstantial evidence, meat was added to man’s diet, with Noah still belonging in the main to the nine generations that preceded him who had never tasted meat and lived much longer than their meat-eating descendants.

And like we saw before in the case of Daniel, the Bible, albeit not a medical or scientific guidebook, seems to suggest again the evident superiority of the plant-based food over the meat option.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.
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