Eating meat is a hotly debated topic among Christians today. Some believe that God intended humans to be vegetarian from the beginning. Others see evidence that meat eating was permitted or even encouraged at certain points in biblical history. In this post, we’ll take an in-depth look at what the Bible really says about when humans started eating meat.
Meat eating is often associated with sin and death in the Bible. Many associate it with the fallen world after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. However, a careful reading of Scripture shows that the Bible does not condemn meat eating outright. There are even instances where it seems to be permitted or encouraged.
To understand the biblical perspective, we must examine key passages in their proper context. We’ll look at Genesis 1-3 to see God’s original intent for human diet. Next, we’ll survey examples of meat eating in the Old Testament. Finally, we’ll examine whether the New Testament changes perspectives on meat consumption.
By the end of this post, you should have a fuller understanding of the biblical timeline for human meat eating. The goal is not to promote any agenda regarding diet. Rather, it is to clarify the Scriptural teachings that Evangelicals and Charismatics view as authoritative.
- Genesis 1 suggests humans were originally intended to eat plant foods only.
- Genesis 9 and Old Testament examples show that meat eating was permitted after the Fall.
- New Testament teachings on meat eating are complex, but do not prohibit it outright.
- Context is key when assessing biblical diet instructions. They often relate to deeper spiritual lessons.
With this foundation laid, let’s dive into the biblical text and trace the development of human meat consumption from Genesis to Revelation.
In the Beginning: Genesis 1-3
To start at the very beginning, we turn to the Creation story in Genesis 1-3. Here we find clues regarding God’s original intent for the human diet.
Genesis 1:29 shares God’s first words to Adam and Eve regarding food:
And God said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food.” (NKJV)
This passage has led many to conclude that humans were meant to eat a vegetarian diet in their original state of innocence. The text emphasizes herb-bearing seeds and fruit as God-given foods. There is no mention of meat from animals as being included in this first diet allotment.
If we read on through Genesis 2-3, the Creation and Fall narrative continues with no overt mention of humans consuming animal products prior to sin entering the world. Some read Genesis 3:18 as implying that thistles and thorns only entered plant growth after sin corrupted the natural world. If so, this could suggest that meat eating was not part of God’s “very good” design in Genesis 1, but came about only after death and corruption marred creation.
However, this is an argument from silence. Genesis does not explicitly prohibit Adam and Eve from eating meat before the Fall. Some believe God’s instruction to “rule over” the animals may have included using them for food. But others counter that this rulership refers to caring for creation as stewards, not exploiting it destructively.
Ultimately, Genesis 1-3 leaves some ambiguity. A vegetarian template for the human diet is present, but meat abstinence is not overtly commanded. At minimum, the text signals that plants should be a normal part of the human menu. But whether meat was permitted or prohibited before the Fall cannot be definitively resolved from Genesis alone.
Old Testament Examples of Meat Eating
After Genesis 1-3, examples of meat consumption become more common in the Old Testament scriptures. However, these instances must be understood in proper context.
A major turning point comes in Genesis 9:3, where God speaks to Noah after the Flood:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. (NKJV)
Here, for the first time, we have an explicit statement of permission from God to consume meat from living animals, just as plants were previously permitted.
Does this mean that meat eating was prohibited prior to this post-Flood decree? Not necessarily. As covered above, the text is inconclusive on that question. Some scholars take this as a new allowance granted by God in the changed world after the Flood. But others suggest it may have been formally permitting something that humans already practiced.
Regardless, Genesis 9 marks a milestone in formally allowing meat to be included in the human diet according to biblical revelation. However, limitations and stipulations soon followed…
Mosaic Law Regulations
Later in the Old Testament, under Moses’ leadership, God instituted many laws regulating human behavior. Some of these relate to diet and meat consumption.
For example, Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 outline categories of “clean” and “unclean” animals. The Israelites are permitted to eat clean land animals (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.) but prohibited from eating other types of meat deemed unclean (pigs, shellfish, birds of prey, etc.).
Meat from ceremonially unclean animals was not to be consumed under Mosaic Law. But clean meat was permitted. In fact, certain feast days like Passover involved eating sacrificial lamb or other clean animals.
Some paint these dietary restrictions as burdensome. But their intent was actually to benefit Israel’s health and hygiene, setting them apart from neighboring peoples with unsafe dietary practices. The regulations promoted moderation, not abstinence. Meat, in and of itself, was not condemned.
Beyond the clean/unclean distinction, God instituted other temporary restrictions on meat eating:
- Priests had to abstain from wine/meat prior to tabernacle duties (Leviticus 10:9)
- Nazirites swore off wine/meat for spiritual discipline (Numbers 6:1-21)
- Meat with blood still in it was prohibited (Leviticus 17:10-14)
These were special cases of temporary denial, not permanent vegetarian decrees. Overall, the Mosaic Law permitted meat consumption within proper boundaries for health and holiness.
Old Testament Examples
Beyond the dietary laws, we also find examples of faithful Israelites consuming meat in their daily lives:
- Abraham holding a feast of roasted lamb for angels (Genesis 18:7)
- Jacob stewing a kid goat to feed Isaac (Genesis 27:9)
- Israelites eating quail and mana in the wilderness (Exodus 16, Numbers 11)
- Samuel’s parents bringing a bull to sacrifice and eat at Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:25)
- Elijah fed meat by ravens (1 Kings 17:6)
- Elisha serves his prophets stew with meat (2 Kings 4:38-41)
While vegetarianism was certainly possible in Old Testament times, these examples show that average Hebrews considered meat acceptable to eat within moderation.
Prohibitions against gluttony and overindulgence applied to all foods, including meat. But meat itself was not viewed as inherently immoral or “unclean” in all cases per se.
Summary of Old Testament Perspectives
In summary, the Old Testament begins with no clear stance on early human meat eating in Genesis 1-3. Genesis 9 formally permits meat after the Flood. Moses’ Law regulates consumption, emphasizing holiness and health. And daily Israelite life integrated meat in moderation, within the boundaries of God’s covenant.
There is a tension between the ideal of vegetarian paradise in Eden and the allowances for meat after the Fall. But the Old Testament does not condemn meat altogether. With mindfulness of health and holiness, it was considered acceptable.
New Testament Teachings on Meat
We’ve surveyed some key Old Testament foundations regarding meat eating among God’s chosen people. How did things change or develop under the New Covenant in Christ?
Several New Testament passages provide wisdom and warnings related to meat consumption. As we assess the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and others, two key themes emerge: freedom and conscience.
Freedom in Christ
The most prominent New Testament teaching on food comes from Mark 7, where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their strict traditions:
“Listen,” he told them, “nothing that goes into a person from the outside can defile him but the things that come out of a person, these are what defile him. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” (CSB)
In this teaching, Jesus asserts that no food we take into our bodies can spiritually contaminate our hearts or distance us from God. External regulations matter far less than the internal motivations of our conscience.
This stood in stark contrast to the detailed dietary restrictions of the Old Covenant Law. Jesus frees his followers from strict mandates about food, emphasizing spiritual purity above ritual cleanness.
Paul reinforces this principle multiple times, particularly in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. He exhorts Christians to exercise freedom with wisdom and not get caught up in fruitless debates over food regulations:
“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (Romans 14:14, ESV)
“Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” (1 Corinthians 8:8, ESV)
Freedom in Christ allows believers to eat meat with a clear conscience. But Paul cautions that love for others should take priority over personal rights (1 Corinthians 8-10).
While Jesus and Paul teach that Christians are not bound by dietary restrictions, they balance this freedom with wisdom. In specific circumstances, one’s own conscience or care for others may call for abstaining from meat.
For example, some Corinthian Christians abstained from meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols. Others understood their freedom to eat it, since idols have no real power. But Paul warns those who eat against flaunting freedom that could wound the conscience of the abstainers (1 Corinthians 8).
In Romans 14, he takes a similar mixed approach. The “strong” in faith can eat anything with thankfulness. But the “weak” abstain, not fully assured of their freedom. Paul instructs both groups to follow their conscience but not despise or judge one another.
So while meat eating is permitted for Christians, it is not always spiritually beneficial. In specific relational contexts, vegetarianism may be advisable out of consideration for others and preservation of peace and unity in Christ’s body.
Summary of New Testament Principles
In conclusion, Jesus and the apostles maintain a nuanced posture regarding meat consumption in the New Testament:
- No food, including meat, is spiritually offensive in itself
- Followers of Christ have freedom to eat according to their conscience
- Care for others’ sensitivities may at times call for voluntarily abstaining from meat
- Avoid useless debates over diet mandates and divisions over doubtful matters
The governing principles are love and wisdom, not strict regulations. Matters of diet and meat eating are secondary concerns compared to virtues like compassion, justice, and unity among believers.
Reviewing the biblical perspective across both testaments provides helpful principles for Christians today sorting through questions of diet and meat consumption. Here are some potential takeaways:
1. Reject a legalistic approach
Trying to construct exclusive mandates about diet from Scripture is unwise. Biblical teachings aim for our hearts more than our menus.
2. Focus on higher priorities
How we eat can become distracting and divisive. Keep the emphasis on sharing the Gospel, godly virtues, and caring for others’ needs.
3. Make personal applications
Consider your health situation, ethics about environmental/animal stewardship, and conscience convictions to shape your diet wisely.
4. Allow flexibility in the body
If meat-free Christians and meat-eating Christians extend grace to one another, diversity in diet practices can enrich unity in Christ.
5. Eat in moderation
Gluttony and overindulgence of any food is never biblical. Practice healthy self-control and temperance with all eating habits, including meat.
6. Offer thanksgiving
The biblical standard regarding any food is gratefulness—blessing God as the giver rather than condemning His gifts as unclean (1 Timothy 4:3-5).
As this survey has shown, the Bible does not give one straightforward verdict on meat eating throughout all times. Contextual insights help us apply biblical values to this complex issue. With prayer and wisdom, diversity in diet can strengthen our witness when it flows from Christian love.
This thorough examination reveals that the Bible does not outright condemn meat eating as inherently wrong for all people in all times. While a vegetarian template was present in the beginning, allowances for meat came after the Fall.
Regulations changed across biblical history according to various covenantal stages. God permitted people like Noah, Abraham, and Moses to eat clean meat in moderation. As long as it did not contradict other spiritual commands or impede love for one’s neighbor, consumption was not prohibited.
New Testament teachings remind Christians to avoid judgmentalism and legalism concerning diet. Matters of food and drink are not core to salvation. Yet with our freedom, we must balance personal choices with care for others’ consciences.
In the end, the answer to “when did humans start eating meat according to the Bible?” is complex, as is the decision today about meat eating for biblical Christians. By God’s design, vegetables have been on the menu since creation. But the Bible does not equate responsible consumption of meat with inherent sin.
With the Spirit’s wisdom and guidance from Scripture, we can make careful diet decisions according to conscience and for the common good. Our bodies and world need healing—that concern outweighs disputes over food regulations. May our “appetites be guided and restrained to serve the relief of need, not our own pleasure and greed.”*
*Quote from Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers)