It had been cold that morning. Miserably cold. But I was finally beginning to thaw out. It was nearly noon, and the sun had climbed high enough in the sky to penetrate the forest’s winter canopy. My camouflage coveralls were actually beginning to get cozy, and the stillness of the forest was about to coax me into a noontime nap when I heard the tell-tale sound of crunching leaves.
Years ago, I knelt beside the little buck that I had killed. I was proud. So proud. And yet there I was, as just a young boy, confronted by the reality of death.I was 14 years old, but I had been hunting in the woods with my grandfather since I was old enough to be quiet and be still. For years, he had taught me to shoot straight, to use supreme caution with firearms, to know how to identify deer signs, to understand how the wind worked for you and against you, and to understand how game behaved. My heart was pounding in my ears. Anything making that much noise had to be larger than a squirrel. It was breaking twigs. It was loud. It was either a man coming through those woods, or it was a deer.
It was a deer. A buck, to be precise. Not a large buck, and certainly not a trophy as many hunters would gauge them; it was only a four pointer. But those four points meant that this was a legal deer, the first legal deer I had seen by myself, and it was going to walk right by me. My back pressed hard against the pine tree I was sitting under as if I were trying to get inside of it. The deer came slowly, pretending to eat and then bobbing its head up to try to catch movement. He was definitely spooked. He had probably caught a trace of my scent on the air. Ten more steps, he needed to make ten more steps to give me a clear shot. The buck stopped with his body behind a tree. I rested the crosshairs on his neck and squeezed the trigger. The concussion of the rifle’s report echoed through the stillness of the woods like a sonic boom. The buck dropped where he stood, and I had killed my first deer.
I grew up hunting and fishing. I love the woods, the streams, the fields, and all the creatures that inhabit them. Many of them I have hunted for food. Is there some kind of disconnect between loving something and stalking it for food? I do not think that there is, and I hope to persuade you that, while hunting may not be for everyone, it is actually a good, environmentally responsible way to obtain food and to enjoy the great outdoors.
As a Christian, it is important for me to understand how the Bible speaks on issues of morality, and since in hunting I am taking a life that God has given, I want to know that this is something that God permits. Interestingly enough, God does not specifically permit the eating the of meat until Genesis 9:3–4, which comes right after the flood in the days of Noah: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Besides the caveat that we are not to eat meat with the blood still in it, God clearly permits the eating of meat.
So why did God allow the eating of meat here after the flood but did not mention it before the fall, or even just after it? Is meat-eating only a result of sin entering into the world, and if so, is it better to abstain from eating meat even if it is permitted? To the first important question, I have to admit uncertainty. I do not know if mankind was originally intended to only subsist on a vegetarian diet. However, there are hints that people ate meat soon after the fall. If God clothed Adam and Eve in animal skins, it makes sense that if it were permissible to kill animals to wear their skins, it would be permissible to use them for food (Genesis 3:21). After all, Abel “was a keeper of sheep;” presumably he ate them as well as using them for wool or skins (Genesis 4:1).
Perhaps the best evidence a Christian might have for the permissibility of eating meat is the fact that Jesus himself ate meat at the Passover. It would have been virtually impossible for him to observe the Passover, or any of the feast days, without partaking of meat. Granted, permission does not mean that it is necessary for a Christian to eat meat today, though under the Old Covenant I think there is a strong argument that it was at times required, my goal is to demonstrate that God has, and does, allow for the eating of meat.
I recognize that calling something “permissible” is hardly a ringing endorsement for a practice, and if my personal experience is any indication, most objections to hunting have very little to do with people seeking to gather food. The problem that people have is with the killing. Specifically, non-hunters wonder what kind of person would enjoy killing an animal, and if they do enjoy killing, it would appear that they have an extremely low respect for the lives of living things.
And yet, the figures do not lie. Hunters contribute more financially to the preservation of prey species than any other group combined, and it is simply unfair to think that they only do this out of some sort of bloodlust. For example, sales from the Federal Duck Stamp alone has generated enough revenue to purchase 5 million acres of habitat for ducks to have refuge. In the state of Texas, the sale of hunting licenses generate around $100 million dollars annually which goes directly to the Fish and Water Safety Fund. Almost every state’s parks and reserves are financed directly by the sales of hunting licenses. Most hunters I know do not pay these fees begrudgingly, but see this as a way to help preserve both the habitat and the creatures that live in them.
In the early days of the United States, subsistence living off of hunting game decimated deer populations. In 1925, there were only an estimated 400 white tail deer remaining in the state of Missouri. The state took action to educate hunters on bag limits, and they took pains to re-introduce white tail deer into various areas of the state. By following game limits and carefully managing the deer herds, the state government and local hunters, there are now more than 800,000 white tail deer in the state of Missouri, with around 300,000 harvested annually, generating around $1.1 billion dollars annually for the state’s coffers.
Even though the numbers indicate that hunting is a boon for the overall welfare of the species hunted in the United States, the question of the morality of killing remains. I recently watched a video of a young girl bow hunting with her father. She perfectly arrowed a buck from approximately 25 yards away and was pretty ecstatic about it. I understand. Not only was this her first deer, but the amount of preparation it took for that moment to come to pass is something that most people do not understand. First, it probably took her months (if not a couple of years) of consistent practice to become proficient enough with a bow to hit something the size of a pie plate (the vital area) of a deer while standing 15 to 20 feet up a tree in a stand. Oh, and the deer was walking when she did it. Not only that, but you have to calculate in the time it took for her and her father to scout the area, find a suitable tree, and put the stand in just the right place so the wind would not, hopefully, give them away. Of course she was thrilled when she arrowed the deer! It is quite an accomplishment, and her hard work should have been celebrated.
That joy and happiness does not mean that this young lady, or any hunter in particular, is just happy due to bloodlust. The feeling of a successful hunt is complicated. There is great happiness in a successful hunt, and for my wife and my family, successful hunts meant having inexpensive meat for us to eat all year when we did not have a lot of money. At the same time, there is a kind of sadness mixed in with the joy. Taking a life is not something to be taken lightly, and I do believe that in seeing death we learn about life.
Most people today function as a kind of ecological scavenger. We hardly ever think about it in these terms, but if you do not farm or hunt, you are removed from the process of creating or harvesting your own food. If you eat meat, you are eating something that someone else killed. You aren’t exactly like a hyena stealing from a lion; it is much more sanitized than that. Your meat comes wrapped in a neat cellophane package with a helpful expiration date on it. But you don’t know that animal. You did not hunt it. You did not raise it. You have been, perhaps to your great relief, removed from its death.
I also raise sheep on a small farm. I can call the sheep, and they will come to me. Some of the sheep have names. I have held 5-month-old lambs down and cut their throats. I have held them while they bled out. My butcher and I have gutted, skinned, and cut my lambs up and put them into those nice packages for customers. I have done the same with many deer, only I kill them at a distance. I can tell you that this changes the experience of eating. It changes how I view life. You cannot eat your lamb the same way when you understand the price involved. It is one kind of cost to know that you are dropping $50 or more on a fine steak meal; it is another to know that the meal on your plate died so you can eat and live. Death is often the cost for life.
One way to think of modern hunting is to think of it as a kind of complicated farming. Wildlife biologists keep careful tabs on the population and health of a local hunted species, and from that information, they set bag limits to keep the herd or flock healthy. A certain number of deer will need to be harvested to keep disease from spreading and to keep them from overeating the foliage and thereby starving. It is a delicate balance, and humans are the top predator in the food chain. They have to be engaged to keep these species healthy. My sheep shed. They are no good for wool and have only been bred for meat. If everyone stopped eating sheep, the breed that I farm would virtually go extinct. Disease, predation, and parasites would probably kill all of them within fifty years. While wild animals would probably fare better, if hunters were not looking out for the interests of the animals by guarding their habitat and by regulating the population, many species would face extinction as urban sprawl began to take over their habitats.
Alongside all these foundational issues of whether or not it is right to eat meat and how healthy game management is for animals, for me there is the deeply spiritual side of being outdoors and hunting that is hard to quantify. I am not sure that sitting in the wilderness is any more spiritual than sitting in a traffic jam in New York City, but for me, the stillness of the woods gives me space to relax and think. In the wilderness, I am detached from computers, cell phones, and a thousand other distractions. In that solitude, I am alone with my thoughts, and the beauty of the creation around me declares the glory of God.
Years ago, I knelt beside the little buck that I had killed. I was proud. So proud. And yet there I was, as just a young boy, confronted by the reality of death. My grandfather walked up and knelt beside me and said, “That’s a good buck son. And that’s a good shot.” I don’t know what else we said, but I cherish that moment with my grandfather, and I hope to pass the lessons of life I learned from hunting to my own children as my grandfather did to me.