This week's question comes from a reader with a penchant for meat. He asks, "I have a vegetarian friend who says that her way of eating is not only biblically sound, but preferred. I say that animals were put on earth for out own use-including eating them. Who's right?"
There are literally thousands of reasons for being a vegetarian. Aside from the obvious health benefits. The present farm industry could literally feed the whole world if only the citizens of the U.S. refrained from eating meat (it takes ten pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat). However, the question asks about the biblical perspective.
According to the creation account in Genesis 1.21, 24 God created the animals and gave each a nephesh chayah, the Hebrew translated as "soul" in the King James Version (cf.., Genesis 2.7).
However, in an apparent attempt to keep us from being confused, since the modern conception is that animals do not have souls, the translators chose to translate nephesh chaya "living beings" wherever it suited them to do so-i.e., whenever the creation account speaks of animals. Nonetheless, it is clear that in the minds of the early biblical writers that humanity and animals were, at least ideally, equally important in the creation.
For instance, in the creation account of Genesis 2, animals were created specifically to be "helpers" for the first human, a word we find translated elsewhere "partner," "companion," and "protector." Though no animal was found suited as the humans mate, it is clear the animals were not created to be exploited, especially not as food.
Of course there are those who cite Genesis 1.26 which says humanity shall have dominion over the animal world, thus concluding that eating them is here sanctioned. But not so! Indeed, just three verses later in 1.29-30 God specifically commands that humans shall eat only, "plants yielding seed and the trees with seed in its fruit," while the animals may eat only , "the green plants."
So where do we get off eating animal flesh? In Genesis 9, after the animals disembark from the ark, Noah is finally given permission to eat the animals who will now innately fear humans. However, this command is given by way of permission and is a concession to a practice already in place rather than a new ideal.
So today we have biblical "permission" to eat from the animal kingdom, but this doesn't change the fact that in the ideal world, in Eden, humanity and animals were to be vegetarians.
But before we stop there, in the future paradise pictured by Isaiah, animals and humans shall one day return to their former ways and refrain from eating the flesh of the other. "The world shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 11.6-7).
So, your friend is correct in her assertion that vegetarianism is biblically sound and even biblically preferred. God bless the vegetarian.