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Per Genesis 9:3, man is given the animals as food after the flood. A reasonable implication of that statement is that prior to this, man was supposed to be vegetarian.

That said, Genesis 4:2 clearly states that Abel kept flocks, and of course God was pleased by the sacrifice of meat that Abel brought.

So, is the implication of 9:3 justified, or did Abel keep flocks for some other reason?

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It is possible that he kept sheep for wool, since after the expulsion from the garden (Gen 3:23) people needed to clothe themselves. (God made clothes for Adam and Chava (3:21), but it doesn't say he continued to do so for everyone else, nor does it say God killed an animal to do so.1) Additionally, as pointed out in comments by Flimsy, sheep and goats provide milk and goats can be used for (some) labor. Where Abel got the idea to offer an animal sacrifice is not clear to me, since there has been no command or suggestion along these lines thus far in the text.

Rabbinic tradition does understand that man was vegetarian until after the flood; as noted in the question, Gen 9:3 implies a change from previous practice.

1 It says God made them clothes of skins, but surely the God who created all is capable of creating skins without first creating and then killing an animal. We don't know that this is what happened; some (non-Jewish) traditions understand it as the first killing of an animal. I'm just saying the text doesn't tell us.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of any religious belief or doctrine.

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Flocks are often kept for many reasons other than wool, as well: Milk, animal skins, beasts of labor, etc. –  Flimzy Mar 25 '12 at 2:49
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@Flimzy, good point -- especially milk, and if flock = herd then beasts of labor make sense (e.g. oxen for plowing). –  Gone Quiet Mar 25 '12 at 4:18
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@MonicaCellio The Bible never says explicitly (so I don't hold this tightly), but I have always thought that they got the sacrificial offering idea when God made animal skin clothing for Adam and Eve. God killed an animal to cover their sins. They repeated later. Just an idea I've had. –  Frank Luke Mar 26 '12 at 15:11
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@MonicaCellio, but all the paintings of the event I have ever seen have a slain animal off to the side. ;) –  Frank Luke Mar 28 '12 at 1:46
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@FrankLuke, and if we can't trust renaissance art, what can we trust? :-) –  Gone Quiet Mar 29 '12 at 0:07
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The context of the commandment to Noah is important. If you read it in context, it is not for the first time allowing meat as food, it is simply forbidding eating meat that is not slaughtered, meat which is still alive, with blood coursing through it's veins. I suppose this is why swallowing live goldfish was a popular fraternity hazing practice in the 1950s.

Anyway, here is the passage:

Bear fruit and multiply, and fill the land. And your peculiar feats will awe all the land animals and all the fowl of the sky. All that will crawl the land, and all the fish of the sea; into your hands they are given. Every land crawler that lives, will for you be for eating, of green plants, I give you all. But flesh, with its soul still in its blood you will not eat. And even the life-blood of your soul I will demand, by the hand of every animal, I will demand it, and by the hand of man, in the hand of a man and his brother, I will demand the soul of man. Who spills man's blood, will that man's blood be spilled: because in the image of God, is man made. And you, bear fruit and multiply; infest the land and be many there.

First, the permission is granted to eat plants, which is not a new thing. The "Bear fruit and multiply" is not new either. The new thing here is the commandment for killing killers and to not eat things that are alive.

The nature of this commandment is simple: don't murder and eat whatever you want, so long as you kill it first. It is this governance for non-Jews, to be contrasted with the more detailed Mosaic law that follows, which applies to Jews. The Mosaic law is very detailed regarding what one should do in this circumstance or that, the Noahide law is the religious version of anarchy.

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