Meat in Leviticus


This afternoon I was re-reading Leviticus 19, the chapter that contains the commandment at the crux of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  However, after back-pedaling into Leviticus 17, I got wrapped up in the proper slaughtering of animals.  After consulting Jacob Milgrom’s Leviticus commentary on the matter, I learned some things that I either hadn’t heard before or hadn’t remembered.

Milgrom believes that the Israelite dietary laws were not about esoteric religious observance, or ancient health codes, but about ethics and values.  Specifically, after presenting the first humans as vegetarian (Genesis 1:29), the Hebrew Scriptures concede, through the Divine covenant with Noah after the flood, that humans will kill and eat animals (Genesis 9:2-4).  OK, I knew that.  But then Milgrom writes that “the Bible’s method of taming the killer instinct in humans is none other than its system of dietary laws” (p. 103).

The Torah does this by 1) severely restricting the kinds of animals that can be eaten  2) requiring that the slaughter be done with skill (reducing or eliminating pain in the animal) and piety 3) requiring that the blood be drained from the animal since, as Leviticus frequently repeats, the life is in the blood.  Milgrom: “Humans have a right to nourishment, not to the life of others.  Hence the blood, which is the symbol of life, must be drained and returned to the universe, to God”(p. 103).

In Leviticus 17, an animal killed from the flock for meat must be brought before a priest at the altar before it goes to the family table.  Animals, like humans, have a nefish (Hebrew for soul or life-force).  And so the person who has killed the animal has become guilty of bloodshed (Lev 17:4).  The guilt is cleared, expiated, covered in the offering of the blood of the animal back to YHWH.  This completes the loop of the nefish, life force, returning it to its Source.  The life/nefish/blood of the animal is returned to the Creator at the altar, and the family is now permitted to take the meat home to eat.

This law was written at a time when there were many such altars throughout the land of Israel, before consolidation in the Jerusalem temple, so it was accessible to all Israelites.  Eating meat was to be associated with reverence and gratitude and an acknowledgement that the nefish of all creatures cannot be possessed by the human but must be returned to God.  Failing to eat meat through this ritual process endangered one of being cut off from Israel (Lev. 17:9).  In other words, there was no such thing as “common” slaughter.  It was all “sacred.”

In the passage it is not that God requires animal blood to forgive human sin.  No, the shedding of animal blood itself is what incurs the guilt, and offering the life/blood back to God enables one’s killing instincts to be tamed, the human to become more holy, and the flow of Creation to continue despite the violent act.

That was my Leviticus detour this afternoon.  Now back to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which apparently is not entirely unrelated to ethical treatment of animals and a reverence for life.