Ethics,  Misc,  Old Testament

The Bible and Eating Humans—Cannibalism?

photo of empty plate instead of eat human

Okay, weird title. But, this is a question that came up recently, and it is an interesting theological exercise. Is eating human flesh wrong? We are not talking mainly about overt cannibalism, where one commits murder in order to eat human flesh (which is clearly wrong). We are mainly talking about surviving on a boat or in the mountains and the survivors eating humans (who have already died) to survive. For example, the survivors of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes who ate their companions to survive. Is it wrong for a Christian to eat human beings who have already died in order to survive?

The closest the Bible gets to directly addressing this issue is in a few select prophecies to Israel that their sin will cause them famine and hardship which would result in cannibalism during sieges (cf. Lev 26:29; Deut 28:53-57; Jer 19:9; Ezek 5:10). Additionally, three other passages record that cannibalism happened in Israel’s history (2 Kgs 6:24-31; Lam 2:20; 4:10). However, none of these passages directly condemn eating human flesh. But, the implication is that resorting to eating human flesh is one of the final judgments for sin.

There are two other points worth considering.

First, man’s diet was originally eating only plants (Gen 1:29-30). This diet was expanded to include eating meat after the flood (Gen 9:3). This expansion of man’s diet included “moving creatures” and refers specifically to eating animals, but not to humans. In fact, the next verses (Gen 9:5-6) indicate a special significance to human beings being made in the image of God. Thus, the harsh penalty for shedding human blood. Obviously this specifically refers to killing. But, the contextual point is that human beings are given honor that the animal kingdom is not.

Second, and consequently, human beings are worthy of special honor since they are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28). This point closely aligns with what we just said above. In context of Genesis 9, mankind is given special provision because they are made in the image of God. Only human beings have that honor of being directly created in the image of God. This appears to be why throughout the Old Testament human bodies are usually buried or put in caves after death (with the exception of some instances of judgment).

Thus, it seems that eating human flesh would not be acceptable (even if the person died of natural causes). The reason for this is because (1) the only time eating human flesh is mentioned in Scripture it is linked with sin and God’s judgment, (2) eating human flesh goes beyond God’s permitted diet of plants and moving creatures, (3) man is created in God’s image and thus worthy of special honor and dignity. Eating human flesh does not accord humans their appropriate respect in accordance with being made in the image of God.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

4 Comments

  • Jordan Dersch

    I would say as a general rule of thumb, stick to beef. This is a very interesting topic though. I would like to assert that most people don’t struggle with saying that eating human flesh is problematic and sinful.

    • Peter Goeman

      Thanks for the comment Jordan. You’re right, I doubt most people will have to deal with this situation. But it came up in a discussion I had and thought it was an interesting topic to see what others thought. Thanks for the thoughts!

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