Why I think “meat from a living animal” is the/a simple reading of Genesis 9:4
For me, this article has been long overdue. It’s been in my mind to do on my blog for some time. Even though I wrote an article on the same subject elsewhere, I wanted to re-do it here, keep the mental juices flowing rather than mechanically copy-pasting it from its original source.
So here goes.
When I was in the final phases of being a christian, before I rejected Jesus as any sort of messiah or prophet or anything of practical relevance, I believed it was forbidden to eat blood and that it was wrong to eat meat with blood still in it. I would take steps to remove any blood that was in the meat I bought to cook and eat.
And I thought the source of this conclusion was Genesis 9:4. Here’s what it said in the King James Version, which I would read.
But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.
Now although some would say that this isn’t a terrible translation, I was led to interpret it like this:
“Don’t eat blood!”
“Don’t eat meat with blood in it.”
Now people who can actually read the text would notice that I was not really taking meaning from the text. The text did not say “don’t eat blood.” So that “interpretation” was not really proper exegesis. It says nothing about blood on its own.
But some may agree with my other conclusion, that a person should not eat meat with blood in it.
But years later, before I had wholesale accepted the oral tradition or the seven laws (but I was learning about them) I spotted an error in my reading.
You see I was reading it like this:
“But flesh with its blood you shall not eat.”
But what does it really say?
But flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.
Each word has a meaning and has importance. So why had I ignored those words “its soul?” Or better yet, what did that word mean?
The Hebrew word, nefesh, is rendered a number of ways in English. The KJV and the JPS render it here as “life.” Others translate it as “soul.” Hebrew dictionaries available online like Brown-Driver-Briggs, Strongs, Gesenius use words like “soul, living being, life, vitality.”
So the word seems to have something to do with being alive.
So the text seems to be talking about flesh with its life, flesh that is alive.
I could have just stopped here and thought that the text is still talking about blood, the red stuff, and thus it still says, don’t eat flesh with its life, its red stuff. And thus nothing has changed.
Now the question to ask is this: does the context mention blood? And if so, how is it used?
Let’s look. Genesis 9:3-6.
3) Every moving thing that lives shall be for food for you; as the vegetation I’ve given you everything. 4) Only flesh with its life/soul, which is its blood, you shall not eat. 5) And surely your blood of your lives I’ll require; at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man. 6) He who sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man.
Now what I have to ask myself is if the word “blood” here simply refers to the blood, the red stuff, regardless of whether an animal or man is alive or dead? Is verse 4 really telling me that if I have a dead animal, any red stuff is forbidden?
When God says, “I’ll require the blood of your lives,” is he simply talking about any speck of the red stuff? When he says “he who sheds a man’s blood,” are we talking about any release of red stuff? If I slip and cut my knee so that it bleeds, have I sinned by shedding my own blood? If someone else cuts me, have they transgressed this law?
Now the odd thing is that it’s widely understood that the usage of “blood” in the verses that follow verse 4 refers actually to the life or, loosely, lifeblood. And we’re not just talking about drops of blood either. The text is still talking about “life.”
For example, if I strangle someone to death, and not one drop of blood is shed, I would still have transgressed the law against “shedding blood.” Now this would seem odd only if I had ignored what verse 4 seems to really be saying and understood “blood” in a hyper-literal way to speak of any of the red liquid in an animal or human.
What do I mean by ignoring what verse 4 said?
Didn’t verse 4 warn me how it was going to be using the word “blood?” Didn’t it tell me that “life” is “blood?” Or that I’m supposed to understand “blood” as “life?” Didn’t it say “flesh with its life, which is its blood …?” That’s not simply “the red stuff.”
The use of “blood” in the text should tell me that we’re not talking about “any red stuff” neither in verse 4 nor in verse 6. In this context, it’s talking about an element of life.
So based on the context, I’m not being told to wash meat before I eat it; just like I’m not being told specifically not to remove any blood from someone else.
I conclude, like the sages of old, that this passage forbids eating flesh taken from a living animal. I now reject the idea that this text isolates “the red stuff” and forbids its consumption.
In other words, the prohibition of eating meat taken from a living animal seems closer to the simple reading of the text than a simple general prohibition against any blood. That may be in the law for Jews but not for the descendants of Noah on a whole.
I could have quoted rabbinical sources, but I’m focusing on my own conclusions here.