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Genesis 9:2-4 reads (NKJV, emphasis mine):

And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

I'm wondering about what this would ban eating in practice. I've heard three main interpretations of what is being prohibited here:

  1. Blood (i.e., blood is forbidden and therefore must be removed from meat before the meat can be consumed)
  2. Only blood that is still in the flesh (i.e., blood can be consumed by itself, just not while inside flesh)
  3. Flesh taken from a living animal (i.e., the flesh is prohibited if the animal hasn't died yet)

I've traditionally held the first understanding, but for clarification, my question pertains to the third position (an interpretation that I don't think is mutually exclusive from the other ones). I haven't heard of this understanding of the text until recently, but it's held by many rabbis, apparently. Is there exegetical (as opposed to eisegetical) support for such an interpretation? I'm not seeing such a meaning in the text itself, but if I had to guess, perhaps it's connected to the word "life." However, it seems to be simply referring to "blood" as "life." In other words, the verse seems to prohibit meat with blood (called "life") in it, not directly addressing meat taken from a living animal.

How does the "flesh taken from living animals" interpretation hold exegetically (as opposed to eisegetically)?

Related

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  • @NigelJ What do you think of Dottard's answer? Does it appear that the verse is talking about blood, not flesh taken from a living animal? While the verse does say not to eat flesh with its "life," is it actually a reference to"its blood"? It appears the verses Dottard listed confirm that life is in the blood, so the blood itself is what must be drained. Does it appear that "life" is being used symbolically, but that the literal thing not to eat flesh with is "its blood"? That would explain why, after using the word "life," the verse explains, "that is, its blood" (NKJV). What do you think?
    – The Editor
    Apr 10 at 12:55
  • 'Flesh with its life blood not shall ye eat', see My Other Question appears, to me, to preclude flesh from a living animal. The wording is unusual. In any case it is distasteful. The concept of sacrifice is that which governs our eating of flesh.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 10 at 14:06
  • @NigelJ For clarification, are you saying the wording seems to "preclude" in the sense of banning flesh from a living animal, or does the wording preclude flesh from a living animal from being part of the ban? I'm guessing you mean the latter since the accepted answer on the other question supports the NASB (in addition to NKJV)'s "flesh with its life, that is, its blood" rendering, which identifies the life as being "the blood" itself. Is this correct? Apologies for my uncertainty as to your meaning.
    – The Editor
    Apr 10 at 19:13
  • Yes. The command precludes flesh from a living animal as well as precluding flesh from a dead animal still with blood dripping out of it.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 11 at 9:20
  • Wonder if it means that we should kill the animal before we start eating from it. The opposite would be to start eating the tail and the ears, and possibly the toungue. Continuing with the legs, where after one would kill the animal and go for the rest of its body. Apr 19 at 0:03

4 Answers 4

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+250

Scenarios 1 & 2 described in the OP are reasonably straightforward:

  1. Blood must be removed before meat is eaten. This is true.

For example, Leviticus 17: 13

And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust.

See additional passages in the excellent appendix provided by Dottard.

--

  1. Can blood no longer in the flesh be consumed? -- this was not permitted

The preceding verse in Leviticus leaves litter room for doubt:

12 Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood.

Whether or not it was still in the flesh was not relevant; consumption of blood was prohibited.


The third scenario is less obvious, hence the development of rabbinic exposition on the matter, as discussed by Nhi. Later rabbinic tradition declared explicitly what was implicit in the command in Genesis 9/Leviticus 17: don't eat the flesh of an animal that is still living.

But how would this conclusion have been reached?

I suggest the key word in Genesis 9:4, and indeed in the aforementioned passage in Leviticus, is "nephesh" (נֶפֶשׁ) or "life". The Torah indicates repeatedly that the life is in the blood of the creature. Nephesh is a word that, like its Greek counterpart ψυχή ("psuché"), carries several meanings.

Nephesh is sometimes used to refer to a living being, self, emotion, or to life itself, and, interestingly, even to the breath of life or the being that breathes (see discussion by BDB here).

The emphasis here is that one should not consume a living being. Ellicott's commentary is insightful:

The words are remarkable. “Only flesh in its soul, its blood, ye shall not eat.” The Authorised Version is probably right in taking blood as in apposition to soul, which word means here the principle of animation, or that which causes an animal to live. This is God’s especial gift; for He alone can bestow upon that aggregation of solids and fluids which we call a body the secret principle of life. Of this hidden life the blood is the representative, and while man is permitted to have the body for his food, as being the mere vessel which contains this life, the gift itself must go back to God, and the blood as its symbol be treated with reverence.

The body is for man to eat; the nephesh is not.

This is implicit in the words used in the Torah; it was made explicit in later rabbinical teaching--option 3 is prohibited; one should not consume the flesh of a living animal.

  • The practical effect is merciful: draining the blood is a foolproof way to make sure the animal is dead before it is dismembered
  • The symbolic effect is instructive: life is a gift from God, to be treated with reverence. Indeed, the passage in Leviticus teaches:

it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul (Lev. 17:11)

This finds Old Testament application in the Levitical sacrifices and New Testament application in the atoning blood of Christ.

--

Conclusion

The reverence for life taught in the Torah explicitly bans the consumption of blood, and implicitly bans consuming anything until its life has been removed/extinguished. This would therefore rule out swallowing an animal whole, removing & consuming a limb from a living animal, or biting into a corpse without proper preparation. The command is hygienic to humans, merciful to animals, and symbolically instructive: life is a gift from God and is to be respected.

The scenario posed of skinning fish alive is not directly addressed in Genesis 9:4, but I struggle to see how one who understands and adheres to the symbolism above could do it. It may not be spelled out in the letter of the law, but it certainly runs contrary to the spirit of the law.



Appendix--a point of scientific interest

The Biblical concept of "breath" or "spirit" (same word in Hebrew, also same word in Greek) is the entity that gives life--it is combined with inanimate clay to make a living being.

In modern times we are aware that the substance in the air that permits animal life is oxygen, and it is carried by the blood to provide life-giving sustenance to the cells throughout the body. The blood literally does carry the breath of life.

Whether this means the breath of life is in the blood (oxygen carried by the blood), or it means that the blood is the thing that allows the breath of life to interact with the flesh, the Biblical parallel is striking.

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  • Thanks for your thorough answer! To make sure I understand, do you agree that the "life" identified in this verse "is the blood," meaning that as long as you drain the blood, you've drained the life out of the meat, and now the meat would be fit for consumption? To illustrate by example, say I catch a bunch of fish, and bring them to someone to harvest the meat. However, say that one of the fish is still living when skinned. While that act seems cruel, would I still be able to consume the meat so long as the "life, that is, its blood" is drained from this cruelly harvested meat? Thanks!
    – The Editor
    Apr 22 at 16:47
  • @TheEditor as long as you drain the blood, you've drained the life out of the meat - Yes, that sounds consistent with the cited passages. Re the skinned fish, I'm probably not qualified to give personal advice...I also don't see anything in Genesis 9:4 prohibiting eating such meat; seems like discarding the meat would be a greater waste of the animal, whereas eating it is in line with the purpose given in Genesis. Of course, if the harvester follows practices that you believe are cruel, that could certainly be an argument for not using that vendor in the future. Apr 22 at 19:11
  • While an OT passage, Exodus 22:31 commands meat torn by beasts in the field to be thrown to the dogs, so wastefulness may not be an inherent concern. That said, I completely agree that, so long as the blood is drained, I see nothing in Genesis 9:4, a pre-Mosaic commandment, to prohibit eating meat so long as the "life, that is, the blood" is drained out of it. Thanks, that answered my question!
    – The Editor
    Apr 23 at 14:08
  • While we're at it, what about oysters eaten raw? From what I can tell, they're eaten alive in this state. Would Genesis 9:4 prohibit such, then? If so, then since I'm not an expert on how the following is prepared, what about oyster stuffing, common at Thanksgiving get-togethers? Do cooks drain the blood out of oysters and clams before serving them?
    – The Editor
    Apr 23 at 14:16
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The rules about prohibiting the eating of blood in any form are quite unambiguous - see the appendix below.

The rules are fairly uncomplicated and simple - there are no exceptions: blood must not be eaten in any form whether by itself or in meat. That is, the prohibition against eating blood applied whether the blood was alone (ie, bled from the animal) or still in the meat. It also said nothing about whether the animal was alive or otherwise.

APPENDIX - Prohibition about eating blood

The following references repeat the blanket prohibition against eating blood.

  • Gen 9:4 - But you shall not eat flesh with its life [lit: "soul"], that is, its blood.
  • Lev 3:17 - It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, in all your dwelling places, that you eat neither fat nor blood.
  • Lev 7:26, 27 - You must not eat the blood of any bird or animal in any of your dwellings. If anyone eats blood, that person must be cut off from his people.
  • Lev 17:10-14 - If anyone from the house of Israel or a foreigner living among them eats any blood, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from among his people. For the life [lit: "soul"] of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for your souls upon the altar; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner living among you eat blood.’ And if any Israelite or foreigner living among them hunts down a wild animal or bird that may be eaten, he must drain its blood and cover it with dirt. For the life of all flesh is its blood. Therefore I have told the Israelites, ‘You must not eat the blood of any living thing, because the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it must be cut off.’
  • Lev 19:26 - You must not eat anything with blood still in it.
  • Deut 12:16, 23, 24 - but you must not eat the blood; pour it on the ground like water ... Only be sure not to eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat. You must not eat the blood; pour it on the ground like water.
  • Deut 15:23 - But you must not eat the blood; pour it on the ground like water.

See also Ps 50:13, Eze 33:25, and Acts 15: 20, 29, 21:25 for similar restrictions in the NT.

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This answer is based on the theory that the consecutive placement of the three nouns – flesh life blood – in Genesis 9:4 reflects a profound truth about all living creatures (see this answer to related question). Life, at the center, is bounded by flesh on one side and blood on the other. Flesh is seen as representative of the physical/mutable aspect of life and blood, the spiritual/immutable.

Only flesh in its life - its blood - ye do not eat (Genesis 9:4 YLT)

The way the text is constructed, with its triad of nouns, frames life under these two aspects: the physical and the spiritual. Two dietary implications follow from this dual framework:

  1. The flesh of an animal should not be eaten that is still alive, or that still has its physical life.
  2. The flesh of an animal should not be eaten that still has its blood, or that still has its, for lack of a better word, spiritual life.

In Jewish teaching, these two dietary prohibitions are represented by two distinct negative commandments:

  1. The prohibition against eating the limb of an animal that is still alive (Mitzvah 182, Sefer Hamitzvot – also see note)
  2. The prohibition against eating the blood of any animal (Mitzvah 184, Sefer Hamitzvot)

Notes

The prohibition against eating the flesh of a living animal is based on Genesis 9:4 and is one of the seven Noahide Laws, which are considered universal moral commandments that apply to all people regardless of background or faith.

Genesis 9:4 speaks to the sacredness of life in every aspect. Thinking about this verse and the Jewish dietary laws has made me rethink the way we eat and our treatment of the animals that are raised for human use and consumption.

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  • Thanks for your reply! What about cases where blood isn't involved? For example, if a person skins a fish before it's completely dead, but then the blood is drained, would the flesh removed before death be forbidden, even if any blood has been drained from it? So long as the lifeblood is removed, would such avoid what this passage bans? (Granted, I don't endorse skinning fish alive. My questions is simply whether such an act would make the fish's flesh unlawful to eat.) Also, what about oysters? Would the common method of eating them qualify as eating a live animal, violating Genesis 9:6?
    – The Editor
    Apr 19 at 17:12
  • While the example of the fish would likely go against Jewish dietary law (and also a general understanding of cruelty), would it violate Genesis 9:6 exegetically? I ask because I'm not seeing where in the text that flesh from a living animal is condemned. We might not always know if the fish meat that is on our plate was taken before or after a fish died. Do we need to know? What in the text specifically addresses live meat? I see the prohibition of meat with blood, but I don't see the prohibition of meat from a living animal in this text. So far, therefore, I'm favoring Dottard's answer.
    – The Editor
    Apr 21 at 19:16
  • The text does not address specifics but is a general principle to guide. There are countless situations that it does not cover. I myself thought about the situation where bears are kept alive but just barely and only for the purpose of harvesting their bile. My interpretation is that the text expresses a truth about life, that it is sacred and God-given, not just the spiritual but the physical aspect as well. Though we are permitted to eat the flesh of animals, we are not free to treat them however we want.
    – Nhi
    Apr 22 at 4:00
  • 1
    If the author simply wanted to prohibit the eating of meat with blood, then he could have stated it much more clearly. He could have simply written, "But you shall not eat flesh with its blood" or "But you shall not eat flesh with its blood, that is, its life." The puzzling structure of the three nouns is at the heart of Nigel's question (hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/75375/…).
    – Nhi
    Apr 22 at 4:23
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    Beyond your question, the beauty of the verse lies in how it manages, in Nigel’s words, “the precision of wording within old testament revelation yet not fail to hint at the coming revelation of the New.” In my own words, the text lays the foundation for the laws of the OT, while foreshadowing the spirituality of the NT. From the perspective of the NT, it does not make sense to prosecute the legality of eating the fish.
    – Nhi
    Apr 23 at 1:46
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Wanted to give a brief context first that may shed some light on the verses in Genesis 9:3-4

In the beginning Adam and the animals have a similar beginning. Each were formed out of the dust of the earth and each were given the breath of God and each became a living soul. (5315 nephesh) Genesis 2:7, 19

The animals were brought to Adam by the Lord and his first job reigning over them was to name them. He had a relationship with these animals, probably much like we have with our pets. At that time there was no fear of man in the animals towards Adam.

Before the flood there was so much violence on the earth that even the animals had been corrupted.

Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and full of violence. And God looked upon the earth and saw that it was corrupt; for all living creatures on the earth had corrupted their ways. Genesis 6:11

Now behold, I will destroy both them and the earth. Genesis 6:13

The Lord saved in the ark animals as well.

Two of every kind of bird and animal and crawling creature will come to you to be kept alive. Genesis 6:20

a male and a female, to keep alive seed on the face of all the earth; Genesis 7:3

And they come in unto Noah, unto the ark, two by two of all the flesh in which is a living spirit; Genesis 7:15

Now that the earth has been cleansed from the previous corruption God has put a fear on the animals towards man.
Animals now can also be food for man.

The fear and dread of you will fall on every living creature on the earth, every bird of the air, every creature that crawls on the ground, and all the fish of the sea. They are delivered into your hand. 3Everything that lives and moves will be food for you; just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you all things.

Prior to the flood animals and man ate only greens from the earth.

and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.' And it was so. Genesis 1:29-30

This new world now had been given a new food source from God. He gives instructions on eating this new food source.

You must never eat any meat that still has the lifeblood in it. Genesis 9:4

Like many others have stated that basically means don't eat the animal when it is still alive. Why would He say something like that? It seems obvious to most of us that would be obscene to eat something that was still alive, yet that goes on today in various places.

In conclusion God had given animals for food at this time.

Honor the life of an animal you may eat by making sure it is dead first, the life blood is drained out, then you know it is not alive, no longer a living soul.

In the future on God's holy mountain (Isaiah 11:9 ) There will be no more evil or destruction and that's when the animals will no longer eat each other but only straw. Gentleness will be seen once again between animal and man and there will be no fear from either of them.

God cares for all His creatures that have his breath in their nostrils.....They too are living souls

Even Corinthians 15: 33-39 gives a hint of an animals life is in a seed form today that may be changed into another form later on.

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  • Thanks for your reply! What about cases where blood isn't involved? For example, if a person skins a fish before it's completely dead, but then the blood is drained, would the flesh removed before death be forbidden, even if any blood has been drained from it? So long as the lifeblood is removed, would such avoid what this passage bans? (Granted, I don't endorse skinning fish alive. My questions is simply whether such an act would make the fish's flesh unlawful to eat.) Also, what about oysters? Would the common method of eating them qualify as eating a live animal, violating Genesis 9:6?
    – The Editor
    Apr 19 at 17:14
  • @The Editor . From what I understand the sense of pain is extinguished when the blood is withdrawn from the veins. Therefore fish would feel pain if skinned alive and would suffer. Eating oysters alive would be the same for them as well. God made man in His image and wants man to show mercy to the creatures he is to rule over and not be cruel to them. That's what separates us from the animals that eat each other alive. It makes one wonder how much violence was done to animals before the flood. God is protecting the animals from undo cruelty, since mans heart can be so cruel.
    – Sherrie
    Apr 19 at 20:11
  • I can see how skinning a fish alive would be cruel. From a hermeneutical perspective, can be it be shown to violate Genesis 9:6, though? Eating the limb of a living horse, by contrast, would be both 1) cruel and 2) in violation of Genesis 9:6. (This is because Genesis 9:6 specifically prohibits eating meat with blood in it, which would happen when eating the limb of a living horse.) As for taking flesh from a living fish and then draining the blood before eating it, is there anything in the text that specifically condemns such (aside from our general opposition to such as cruel)?
    – The Editor
    Apr 21 at 18:59
  • Relatedly, what do you think about oyster stuffing? I don't know how oyster stuffing is made, but does it involve taking flesh from a live animal in a similar manner that's at play when eating oysters raw? (I'm asking since I don't know the answer.) Also, apparently, there aren't strong laws preventing people from taking meat from live fish: huffpost.com/entry/have-animal-rights-groups_b_811668. Does this mean that we should avoid eating fish at restaurants and such, lest any of it was taken live, thus being contaminated according to Genesis 9:6?
    – The Editor
    Apr 21 at 19:07
  • To me it the scripture is saying just make sure whatever you eat is dead. Things changed in time, especially the Israelites were given special dietary laws. God then showed Peter that nothing is unclean. Paul in speaking to the Gentiles goes further to show us the liberty that we have in Christ. In other words be convinced in your own mind and live according. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who eats does so to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. Rom. 14:5-6
    – Sherrie
    Apr 21 at 19:26

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