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Animal Rights and the Bible

by Darryl G. Treat
(With special thanks to Jeff Hamilton and Dana Treat)

Is it morally wrong to hunt, kill and eat animals?  Do you or someone you know believe that it is?  Some animal rights activists have even made the claim that Jesus was a vegetarian, and in order to show respect for God's creatures, we should follow His example.  Well, they're not the first to misuse Bible scripture to push an agenda, and certainly won't be the last.  As a Christian, it’s up to me to examine the Bible to see if my actions are morally acceptable by God's standards.

Why should I even care to answer the animal rights extremists?  I think the apostle Paul said it best in I Timothy 4:1-7, "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.  If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed. But reject profane and old wives' fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness."

An examination of this ethical question begins by defining the word moral. Included in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of the word moral, are the definitions “of or relating to principles of right and wrong,” and “conforming to a standard of right behavior.”  As a Christian, I strive to derive my standards and principles of morality from the Holy Bible.  Where do hunters, ranchers and animal rights activists get their standards and principles of morality?  

Does the hunting, killing and eating of animals stand up to the litmus test of Bible-derived morality?  Let me share with you what I have found.

Before we examine specific biblical evidence on this topic, it’s important to understand God’s authority.  We are not to add to or take away from God’s commandments.  Please see Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32.  In addition, among other things, the apostle Paul wrote to the young preacher Timothy, that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.  Please see II Timothy 3:16-17

If you have a problem accepting the authority of the apostles’ words, please see I Thessalonians 2:13, II Thessalonians 2:15, II Timothy 2:2 and II Peter 3:1-2.    

For those who fail to understand the reasoning of the Almighty, remember what God said in Isaiah 55:8-9.  For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.

Now that God’s authority on the matter is established, let’s examine His revealed will.  A proper discussion must begin in the book of Genesis.  In the first chapter, God created the earth and all its inhabitants and God saw that it was good.  That statement is important to note, especially for those who needlessly and recklessly abuse God’s creation. God created the earth and saw that it was good.  Let’s keep it that way.

Near the end of the first chapter of Genesis God explains that man was set apart from the animals, made in God’s image, and told to have dominion over creation.  The command from God included the instruction to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth.  This has turned out to be a great responsibility for humans -- one to be handled wisely and not emotionally. In Psalms 8:3-9, David repeated this theme by saying the Creator of all things made man a little lower than the angels and made him to have dominion over the works of God’s hands and put all things under man’s feet.

In Genesis 3:7 Adam and Eve tried to cover their body with fig leaves sewn together.  Notice God’s response in verse 21. God, Himself, made coats of skins and clothed Adam and Eve. If the Lord God could choose to clothe Adam and Eve with whatever He desired, but chose animal skins, what right do I have to protest another person’s desire to wear furs and leather products?  Wasn’t the tabernacle covered in ram and badger skins, Exodus 39:34?  Didn’t John the Baptist clothe himself in leather and camel’s hair, Matthew 3:4?  Is wearing an Elk robe morally wrong? Not if your morals come from the Bible.

It’s true God initially made man a vegetarian as we can read in verse 29 of the first chapter of Genesis.  However, God gave new instructions to Noah and his family after the flood in Genesis 9:1-7.  In these verses, God says the fear and dread of man will be on every animal on earth and that every moving thing that lives should be for food, with the exception of the blood.  Remember, God destroyed the world, except for Noah and his family, because of their great wickedness.  Now no longer would God require man to be a vegetarian.  

Reading further, God even gave hunters amongst His chosen people specific instruction regarding the proper disposition of the blood, Leviticus 17:13.  To place a distinction between God’s people and the heathens, God also established food laws.  In Deuteronomy 14:2-21, God listed the animals His people would now be allowed to eat, such as sheep and deer, and those forbidden, such as camels and eagles.  These food laws remained until God changed them.

We read of God’s change in the food laws in the book of Acts.  In Acts 10:10-16 God tells the apostle Peter that he was no longer under the restrictive food laws of the Old Law and that once again all animals were clean to eat.  The analogy was meant to show that as all animals would now be considered clean to eat, all people were now accepted into God’s family, as had been the Jews.  When the apostle Peter protested God’s instructions to Rise, Peter, kill and eat”, God said that what He has declared clean to eat, do not call unclean.  Are you going to tell God it’s morally wrong to hunt, kill and eat a deer, or that it’s wrong to raise fish, chicken, or beef for our dinner table?  I for one will not.

Likewise, the apostle Paul explained that no food is unclean unless it personally offends your conscience to eat it, or causes a brother to stumble, Romans 14:13-15, 21-23.  Paul says Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. I can second that statement as my family and I partake of the many culinary delights of wild game.  Paul also explains in the same chapter in verses 1-3 that our vegetarian brothers are weak, and we should show the proper Christian spirit toward them.  Also please see I Corinthians 10:24-33.

Those of us who hunt with bow and arrow have our own set of antagonists who declare our methods to be cruel.  What does God say?  In Genesis 21:20 Abraham’s son Ishmael was described as an archer and God dwelt with him in the wilderness.  Likewise, when I am in the outdoors hunting, I’m comforted to know that God is with me.  However, only Nimrod received the title from God as “a mighty hunter before the Lord” in Genesis 10:9.

Remember the famous Bible story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 27?  Isaac had plenty of livestock to eat, but had a special love for the taste of venison.  He told his son Esau to take his quiver and bow out to the field and hunt game for him and then prepare it for him to eat before he blessed Esau and before he died.  I sure can’t think of a better last meal than venison.  Under the Old Law, in Deuteronomy 12, God specifically mentioned the native Middle Eastern deer as a clean animal to eat.

Just like Isaac, we today could find other things to eat besides venison.  We could eat a strictly vegetarian diet and live, but as the Bible shows us, every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving.  Please see I Timothy 4:1-6.  The wise man Solomon, who had wealth and wisdom provided to him by God, had provisions consisting of both domestic animals and wild game, I Kings 4:22-23.  

Next, let’s examine the often-misunderstood sixth of ten commandments found in Exodus 20, “Thou shalt not kill.”  People who grew up reading the King James version of the Bible, and whose intent was to simply understand God’s will and obey it, should have known beyond a shadow of a doubt that Thou shalt not killdid not prohibit all killing.  Any thorough student of the Bible could learn that there were animal sacrifices under the Old Law, (please see Leviticus chapters 1– 8), that God sanctioned the eating of meat in Genesis 9:3 and Acts 10:10-15, (also, please see Deuteronomy 12:20-25,) that God at times guided his armies in battle as found in Joshua 6, and commanded capital punishment in Genesis 9:6.  

God also sanctioned self-defense as we read of the young David slaying both lion and bear in defense of his flock in I Samuel 17.  In verse 37 David said it was the Lord who delivered him from the attacking beasts and he would likewise deliver him in battle against the Philistine (Goliath.)  Remember the apostle Paul killing the attacking viper in Acts 28:1-5?  It must then be obvious that “Thou shalt not kill” means “You shall not murder.”  

However, if the Biblical application of the sixth commandment doesn’t convince the animal rights extremists, we should examine the original Hebrew word ”ratsach” used for kill in Exodus 20:13 and the Greek word used for kill “phoneuo,” found in Matthew 5:21 and Mark 10:19.  In each case the word for kill translates “murder.”  Newer translations such as the New American Standard and New King James Bibles clear up any misconceptions and accurately translate the famous command as You shall not murder.”  This is both honest with the original source texts and the Biblical context in which the command was given and observed.

By the way, one can only be a murderer if he kills another human.  Why?  For in the image of God He made man,” Genesis 1:26 and “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man,Genesis 9:6.

No theologian has any right to contradict God.  In fact, Jesus spoke of hypocrites who pretend to worship God but instead teach as doctrines the commandments of men.  Matthew 15:7-9.

Do animals have the same rights as man?  Some extremists say it is morally wrong to use animals for pets, in zoos, in agriculture or as beasts of burden.  We don’t have the space to examine the complete use of animals in the Bible as sacrifices, livestock, beasts of burden, and personal property, but anyone with a good knowledge of the word of God knows that these uses were a part of life in the Bible.  Didn’t Jesus ride a donkey in Matthew 21?  Remember Peter lodging with Simon the tanner in Acts 9 and 10?

Is it wrong to drink milk as some claim?  The apostle Paul didn’t think so. See I Corinthians 9:7.

Did Jesus as a Jew believe in animal sacrifice?  Didn’t his heavenly Father initiate the practice?  We know by Matthew 5:17-19 Jesus did not come to destroy the Old Law, but to fulfill it.  In so doing, he broke no laws and committed no sin, I Peter 2:22, II Corinthians 5:21, and Hebrews 4:15.

Did Jesus eat the Passover lamb as commanded in Exodus chapter 12?  Then they shall eat the flesh on that night; roasted in fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs they shall eat it,” Exodus 12:8.  In verse 21, Moses called for all the elders of Israel to pick out lambs for their families and slay them.  Also see II Chronicles 35:1-14, and verses 26-27.  If Jesus did not eat the lamb, he would have violated the Law and would be guilty of sin.  See Numbers 9:10-13.  On the contrary, Luke 22 records that Jesus did indeed eat the Passover.

The Bible doesn’t say if Jesus hunted or not, but we do know that He helped Peter catch fish and then recruited several fishermen to be apostles, Luke 5:1-11, 6:13-16 and Matthew 4:18-22.  Jesus fed the 5,000 in Matthew 14 with only five loaves and two fishes.  Matthew 15:34-37 and Luke 24:41-43 both say that Jesus ate fish.  John chapter 21 says Jesus defined fish as food and tells the story of Him cooking a breakfast of fish and bread for His disciples.  In addition, please see what Jesus said in Matthew 7:9-11.  No, Jesus was definitely not a vegetarian!  Is it apparent, that the positions of the Bible and of the animal rights movement are at polar opposites?

Animal rights extremists have complete freedom to either believe and follow God’s word in the Bible, or not.  But to purposely twist, distort, and exploit the Bible for their extremist agenda is shameful and out of touch with God. They would do well to heed Proverbs 30:5-6, Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him.  Do not add to his words, lest He rebuke you and you be found a liar.

Have you ever heard of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son?  In Luke chapter 15 the fatted calf was killed in great joy over the return of a spiritually lost son.

In Matthew 6:26 and 12:11-12 Jesus proclaims the special place of man in the heart of God by saying that we are much better than the animals.  After all, the animals were not created in the image of God, only we were.  This contradicts the notion that animals have equal or greater rights than man, as some proclaim.

Finally, I’d like to balance things by remembering that God’s creation was created good from the beginning for the use of man, but not the abuse.  To wantonly destroy God’s created plants and animals would be a violation of the responsibility God gave us when we were given dominion over creation. We can understand more about God by seeing what He has made.  Please see Romans 1:20.  Mankind is so fortunate to have been granted dominion over this beautiful tapestry of life.  To destroy it would be to deny future generations the ability to fully understand the greatness of God.

In Proverbs 12:27, King Solomon said that the slothful man roasteth not that which he took in hunting, but the substance of a diligent man is precious.  I couldn’t agree more.  Great care is taken in my household when taking the kill from the field to the kitchen.

In the same chapter of Proverbs in verse 10 Solomon made another observation, this time about those who own animals.  The wise king said “A righteous man regards the life of his animal, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.

Psalms 104 should be mandatory reading for those who study nature.  Verse 24 says O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all, the earth is full of Thy riches.  Can you dispute that that pearl of wisdom?  The wise man in Ecclesiastes said there is a time to kill and a time to heal.  The poetic truth from God found in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 stresses moderation and balance in the world.  Extremism on either side of this important issue is out of step with God.  I for one want to stay in step with God when I teach my children to hunt, to respect nature, and to practice wise conservation.  That’s not too much to ask of oneself.  After all, God is watching.