Ethics refers to the moral principles that govern behavior. Synonymous terms include standards, core values, and rules of conduct. Food ethics addresses a number of questions, including What should we eat and how much? What responsibility do we have to share food with others who have little or none? How much are we willing to pay for food and how much can we charge? Is it moral to cage and slaughter animals for food? Will we buy locally or globally? Should government pay subsidies to farmers for not growing food when half the world is hungry? Should food be used as a tool for power and wealth?

The ethics of food is a relatively new area of research. Wendell Berry, the Stanford-trained environmental activist, cultural critic, farmer, and lifelong Baptist, was one of the first to address the issues of agribusiness and the industrialization of food (1977). Peter Singer, professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, has been a long-time advocate for animal liberation and vegetarianism. Along with coauthor Jim Mason, he wrote The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (2006). More recently, Nathan MacDonald, Reader in Hebrew, St. Andrews University, penned Not Bread Alone (2008), the first detailed academic study on food and its symbolic meaning in the Old Testament.

Since food is part of everyday experience, it is not surprising to find “food” (’ōkel) mentioned often in the scriptures. Because it is essential for survival, the Bible also speaks of food in ethical terms. For instance, God instructed his people “to eat” (’kl) certain foods at certain times in specific ways; hence, there were right and wrong protocols, that is, proper behavior when it came to eating. Food served as an identity marker that distinguished God’s people from those who did not recognize or serve him.

The Hebrew Bible portrays God as the universal sovereign who provides his creatures with food for life (Gen 1:29–30). In the Genesis account food and ethics go hand in hand. Among his first instructions to humankind, God spoke about the right and wrong use of food: “From all the trees you may eat. But from the one, you may not eat” (Gen 2:16–17). As long as Adam and Eve ate correctly their relationship with the Creator remained intact. Wrong eating impaired the relationship. The first recorded transgression was thus related to unethical use of food.

From Vegetarian to Omnivore.

According to Genesis, God limited the human diet to vegetation: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (1:29). God likewise, prescribed a vegetarian diet for all other living creatures (v. 30; also see Ps 104:14–23).

It was not until the flood waters subsided that God permitted the surviving humans to eat meat (Gen 9:3). With meat added to the diet, however, came a restriction. Human carnivores were required to ritually drain the blood of the slaughtered animal (v. 4). Rules of conduct regulated the preparation and eating of food. Obedience to these standards bound God’s people to each other.

Food and Covenants.

From the earliest biblical accounts one discovers that the accepted way to seal an oath was for the two covenant parties to share in a ritual meal (Gen 26:30–31; 31:43–54). The combination meal and oath ethically bound the two parties together in a unified purpose.

The Place of Food in the Exodus.

Food was central to the story of the Exodus. In preparation for their escape, God instructed his people to eat a hastily prepared meal. For their mission to succeed, it was necessary for them to comply precisely. After killing and smearing the blood of a lamb on the doorposts, they were to cook and consume the animal. According to the narrative, God destroyed the firstborn of Egypt, but passed over the homes marked with the blood. The original Passover meal was more than a tangential event. It not only anticipated, but effectuated their departure. Food served as the means of redemption. Without the meal, there would be no Exodus.

To celebrate their redemption, Yahweh commanded his people to participate in a yearly “liturgical recital and enactment” of the Passover meal as a reminder that God vindicates the afflicted and judges the wrongdoers (Exod 12:14–27). They were to eat unleavened bread as a reminder that they left Egypt in haste and to graphically and metaphorically prompt them to purge themselves of sin and live according to God’s prescribed standards of conduct as embodied in the Law.

During the forty-year journey to the Promised Land, the people complained to Moses that in Egypt they had their fill of bread, but now they were hungry. They charged Moses with trying to starve them to death (Exod 16:2–3). In response, Yahweh provided manna from heaven (Exod 16:1–34; Num 11:1–9). When they found no water at Rephidim, they charged Moses with attempting “to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exod 17:1–4). God responded by opening a rock (vv. 5–6) “and water gushed out; it flowed through the desert like a river. For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham, his servant” (Ps 105:41–42). The Psalmist attributes these provisions to God’s covenant obligation to Abraham.

Moses excoriated the nation for its disobedience and lack of faith during the wilderness trek and declared, “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3–4). God used food to teach Israel that trust was a core value for their existence and relationship with him.

Once inside the Promised Land, Israel was under an ethical obligation to care for the poor, marginalized, and foreigners. The Mosaic Law provided instructions for handling, eating, and distributing food. The needy were permitted to enter a neighbor’s vineyard and eat grapes and to pluck the ears of grain by hand from a neighbor’s field. Farmers were instructed not to harvest the edges of the fields that the poor might glean produce (Deut 23:24–25; 24:19–22).

Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 contain kosher food laws that regulated the eating of animals. The Law further divided the creatures into clean and unclean categories. These codes were not given capriciously, but had an ethical dimension. In his explanation, Yahweh declares, “I have separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean.…You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine” (Lev 20:24–26).

When enacted, the dietary laws visibly displayed the ethical distinction between Israel and the surrounding nations, serving as identity markers. In essence, every time Jews ate acceptable food, they reaffirmed their commitment to be a holy people who lived by a strict code of conduct.

Food and Power.

Because food is necessary for life, those who control it wield great power. They can use it for benefaction or exploitation. Those with vast food supplies face an ethical dilemma. Will they hoard it for themselves, sell it for a profit, host great banquets for friends and prominent community leaders, or distribute it to the needy?

In the ancient world, kings exercised and maintained their power over the masses through food distribution. An inscription from the third millennium B.C.E. tells of Sargon of Akkad feeding more than 5,000 men for a sustained period. Other kings and emperors did likewise. Such actions were an expression of the king’s universal rule. Julius Caesar fed over 200,000 people after his victories in Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, and Africa (Plutarch, Caes. 55.4). These benevolent acts engendered loyalty from the citizenry.

Psalms 145–147 portray Yahweh as a sovereign who cares for God’s people. God’s provision of food is an expression of divine goodness and benevolent rule: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.…Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” (Ps 23:1, 5, KJV).

Patronage was a powerful tool of Roman domination during the time of Christ. From inscriptions of the period, we know that wealthy patrons often sponsored public feedings for the community. These feasts honored Caesar and Roman heroes and always included sacrifices to the gods. Patronage was part of the ethos of the Roman culture. Many people sought out a local patron who would provide them with food and wine, the staples of life. In exchange, they paid homage to and served their patron; thus, all recipients were subservient to their benefactor.

Just as the provision of food asserts power, so does its denial. One of the strategies of war is to block the delivery of food to the enemy, forcing them to choose between starvation and surrender. Once food supplies are exhausted or cut off, the outcome is inevitable. The ploy was used successfully against the Maccabees (1 Macc 6:48—54; 9:24; 13:49–50), and in 72 C.E. Roman general Flavius Silva used the tactic against the Jews huddled on the mountain fortress of Masada.

In contemporary times, nations use food as a negotiation tool of foreign affairs. A powerful country may provide food subsidies to an ally or impose a naval blockade on an enemy. The latter act of aggression not only brings that nation to its knees, but deprives an entire population, including innocent victims, of life’s necessities. Whenever food is used as a weapon or as a bargaining chip, ethical implications must be considered.

Food as Seduction.

According to Luke, after Jesus’s baptism he was led into the wilderness and tempted by the devil. Jesus was enticed to satisfy his hunger by turning a “stone” into “a loaf of bread” (Luke 4:1–3). He responded, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone’” (v.4: 4).

Food can be used to distract one from God’s mission. Jesus was enticed to do what was expedient rather than wait on God’s plan to unfold. This event is reminiscent of the temptation in the Garden of Eden as well as Moses’s exhortation to the Israelites to trust God and not seek to satisfy their own needs (Deut 8:3–4).

Greco-Roman Banquets.

Most Romans in the first century C.E. ate their main meal as sunset approached, a custom they inherited from the Greeks. On special occasions, they expanded the meal to include invited guests and honorees. Greco-Roman meal scholar Dennis Smith identifies this formal event as a reclining banquet. This activity was an important social institution in which all free members of society participated. It was utilized to preserve societal values, influence and regulate human behavior, define kinship, and transmit knowledge and beliefs from one generation to the next. Banquets created a bond among the participants and promoted a sense of ethical obligation to one another. Hence, every banquet became an occasion to express one’s civic allegiance and uphold cultural norms.

The banquet included social protocols involving who was invited, how one dressed, how the table was set, and what foods were served. Certain ethical behavior was expected of all guests, which included: (a) koinōnia (fellowship), a shared sense of community; (b) philia φιλια (friendship), bonding and friend-making around the table; and (c) isonomia (equality), freedom accorded all reclining guests to speak freely.

Jews, like their Roman counterparts, reclined at banquets. Ben Sirach (ca. 190 B.C.E.) contains instructions on how young men are to behave during a banquet (31:12—32:13). It includes guidelines on how to eat and drink moderately even when large quantities of food are available, how to treat other diners as one wished to be treated, and how to speak wisely and not foolishly—what one might call table manners and etiquette. Since formal meals were intended to reflect ideal society, the ethical behavior at the table was the same comportment expected in everyday life. The ethics of food called upon one to be a master over food and not its slave.

Jesus’s Lukan Meals as a Venue for Ethical Discourse.

Just as Rome employed the banquet as a vehicle to promote its imperial ideology and control the masses of people through patronage and stratification, Luke portrays Jesus as using the venue as an opportunity to call upon Jewish elites to switch their loyalties and embrace the ethics of the kingdom of God. In Luke’s Gospel, meals are occasions when Jesus breaks down ethnic and sectarian boundaries and calls for a more inclusive table fellowship, one that reflects God’s social vision for his kingdom.

For Jesus, meals became enacted parables where he could graphically model kingdom ethics. By inviting all to his table, including people on the margins and outcasts (prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners, poor, women, diseased, and crippled), he illustrated that God’s offer of mercy is extended to everyone. All prodigals are invited to recline at his table and dine. He called on the wealthy to abandon the ethics of stratification and to embrace his social vision of egalitarianism and inclusion. They were to provide lavish feasts with the choicest food without expecting reciprocity. This would take an effort and result in loss of friends and favored status, but they would be rewarded by God (Luke 5:27–39; 7:36–50; 11:37–54; 14:1–24; 15:11–32; 19:1–10).

For church members reading Luke’s gospel, Jesus’s table talks inform them how they should eat their communal meals. Christian meals, according to Luke, are the place where God invites sinners into his kingdom and offers them a foretaste of its joys. They serve as a bridge to the great messianic banquet at the consummation of the age, when all oppressing kingdoms will be destroyed and God’s reign will be recognized on earth.

During the Last Supper the disciples disputed about whom among them would be greatest in the kingdom of God. Jesus used the occasion to teach about kingdom ethics. He said,

"The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:25–27)."

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus then demonstrates kingdom ethics by washing the disciples’ feet and challenges them to a life of service (John 13:14–17).

Christian Communal Meals.

Christian meals reflected the social and ethical practices of the nascent church. Whenever believers practiced the ethics of love, they extended mercy, grace, and forgiveness, fed the hungry, healed the sick, resisted social stratification, and embraced egalitarianism. When Peter refused to eat with the Gentile believers at Galatia, he broke Christian banquet protocol, signifying that he still embraced an ethic of social stratification (Gal 2:11–14).

While the Christian communal meal or love feast (agapē) mimicked the outward appearance of a typical Roman banquet, it focused entirely on honoring the exalted Christ rather than Caesar. Hence, it was a politically subversive act. It challenged Rome’s ideological claims and right to rule the world and upheld Christ’s right to rule the world as God’s authorized king. As such, the Christian banquet was an act of nonviolent resistance to the empire.

Whereas the Roman banquet endorsed stratification and promoted allegiance to Rome and its gods, the Christian agapē offered an alternative morality.

Eschatological Banquet.

According to exilic and postexilic prophets, the goal for human history is to restore God’s kingdom to earth, which they depicted as a time of great feasting when earth once again yields an abundance (Hos 2:22; Ezek 47:12; Joel 3:18; 1 En. 10:18–19; 62:14; 2 Bar. 29:5–6; Sib. Or. 3:744–750; 4 Ezra 49–52). Isaiah declares:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoplesa feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. (Isa 25:6)

This new age will be a time of peace (shalom), when swords and other implements of war are turned into plowshares and tools of food production. Humans will no longer quarrel but live under the banner of peace in obedience to God’s Law, loving and serving their neighbors. All humankind will have access to the Tree of Life, from which they were forbidden to eat after the rebellion in the Garden of Eden. All who enter the kingdom will receive an abundance of provisions. Those deprived in the previous life will recline with Abraham at the messianic banquet (Matt 8:11; Luke 16:22).

After Jesus fed the 5,000, the hillside throng wanted to make Jesus their king (Mark 6:32–44; John 6:1–15).

When Jesus instructed the crowd to recline, he transformed the meal into a formal banquet. The meager lunch, surrendered voluntarily by the young boy, multiplied in the hands of Jesus and was served up by the apostles. The feeding of the needy masses might be interpreted as a proleptic meal pointing to the messianic banquet where there will be an abundance of food and more to spare.

The New Testament scriptures conclude with a vision of the kingdom of God depicted as a garden paradise with the Tree of Life in its midst, yielding a monthly crop of 12 different fruits whose leaves heal the nations (Rev 22:2). The broken relationship between God and humans will be restored.

Contemporary.

The topic of food and ethics will be at the center of many lively discussions and debates far into the future. People of faith will likely turn to the holy scriptures as they seek to evaluate many of the following issues.

  • 1. The genetic engineering and patenting of seed by farming conglomerates.
  • 2. The use of preservatives to extend shelf life of food and increase profits without regard to the health concerns of the consumers.
  • 3. The use of lethal pesticides on crops that in turn run off and flow into streams, lakes, rivers, and tributaries polluting drinking water and leading to possible adverse effects on the environment and the human body.
  • 4. The inclusion of sugars, corn derivatives, fructose, and other additives designed to make food taste better, but might lead to consumer obesity.
  • 5. The caging of animals, pumping them with antibiotics, and inflicting pain on them in the slaughtering process to provide food for the masses.

[See also ANIMALS; BIOETHICS; COMMUNITY; COVENANT; KINGDOM OF GOD; POWER; and WEALTH AND POSSESSIONS.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

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  • Streett, R. Alan. Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination During the First Century. Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2013.
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R. Alan Streett