Ethics in the Law of Moses: Animal welfare & animal sacrifice

How is animal sacrifice compatible with animal welfare?

A reader of the previous article in this series raised the issue of animal sacrifice, which was commanded by the Law of Moses and carried out on a large scale by Israel. How is animal sacrifice compatible with animal welfare?

What is animal welfare?

Within scholarship, there is an ongoing debate as to the precise definition and scope of animal welfare.1 Nevertheless it is broadly agreed that human use of animals for a range of purposes (including food), is not incompatible with the humane care and concern for animals, which is the core tenet of animal welfare.

Animal welfare science is linked closely to animal husbandry (Fraser 2008) and, as such, it is usually underpinned by an anthropocentric philosophy which is based on the presumption that it is acceptable to utilize animals for human means as long as they are not caused any “unnecessary” suffering (e.g. Appleby and Hughes 1997; Appleby et al. 2011).2

The following widely agreed on and applied summary of animal welfare,3 very obviously does not preclude animal husbandry.

Freedom from hunger, thirst, and malnutrition.
Freedom from discomfort.
Freedom from pain, injury, and disease.
Freedom to express normal behaviour.
Freedom from fear and distress.4

Consequently, the husbandry of animals for human interests is fully compatible with animal welfare, even when it involves killing animals for food or resources, as long as these freedoms are maintained.

Religious sacrifice & animal welfare

It is recognized in the literature that religions often treat animals with a certain sensitivity, understanding their sacrifice as a necessary evil in a broader scheme of nature.

Religious traditions are not, in fact, indifferent to the consciousness or rights of animals, treating them as objects in the context of sacrifice.5

This is particularly the case in the Law of Moses, which has an explicit animal welfare ethic and which obviously seeks to avoid animal suffering. Additionally, the Law of Moses’ strict requirement that almost every sacrificial animal must be “without blemish”, required animals to be kept and cared for with considerable effort, to avoid any disqualifying injury or illness.

It could be argued that animal sacrifice is in a different category to animal husbandry, since the animals are typically killed for an intangible spiritual benefit rather than a practical advantage. This is certainly the case in a range of religious traditions. However, under the Law of Moses virtually all animal sacrifices (other than the burnt offering), had the immediate practical benefit of providing food for the priests. Sacrifices which were eaten in whole or part include the Passover (Exodus 12:6), the breast of the wave offering and the thigh (shoulder), of the contribution (heave), offering (Leviticus 7:34; 10:14), the thanksgiving peace offering (Leviticus 7:15), and the votive offering or freewill offering (Leviticus 7:16).

Animal husbandry & sacrifice as conservation

The irony of animal husbandry and sacrifice is that it actually requires humans to exercise animal welfare on a large scale, in order to ensure a regular supply of animals for practical and sacrificial purposes. Animal domestication was the direct product of animal husbandry, and it changed the future of many species forever.

The long term result of humans using animals for transportation, labor, food, crafting resources, and religious sacrifice, has been the assured survival of animals which would otherwise have become extinct. In fact over time animal husbandry actually produced new species which had never existed before, species which became entirely dependent on human husbandry for survival, and animal sacrifice is one of the reasons why such species have flourished.

In August 2017, prominent cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson alluded humorously to this fact in a brief tweet.

A cow is a biological machine invented by humans to turn grass into steak.6

In a later clarification and defense of his comment, deGrasse pointed out that the domestic cow was entirely a product of animal husbandry by humans specifically for the purpose of providing resources such as food; the cow literally only exists in order to be used as a resource by humans.

It’s a biological machine. A biological machine with one purpose (actually, of course, two purposes if you include it as a source of milk), and that is to eat grass (or, of course other food stocks), grow big, and be slaughtered for food. They are generally not kept as pets. They don’t rescue people in trouble. They do not assist the handicapped. And what’s remarkable here is that cows don’t exist in the wild. They have never existed in the wild. Farmers genetically engineered them ten thousand years ago from now-extinct ox-like Aurochs in the service of civilization. So the Tweet is 100% truthful and accurate.7

In summary, animal welfare is compatible with animal husbandry and sacrifice insofar as they are without cruelty and unnecessary restrictions on specific animal freedoms.


  1. “Given that there is no consensus concerning the definition of animal welfare, it is not surprising that there is also little consensus regarding appropriate techniques to measure it.”, Nik Taylor, Humans, Animals, and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies (New York, NY: Lantern Books, 2013), 126.
  2. Nik Taylor, Humans, Animals, and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies (New York, NY: Lantern Books, 2013), 121.
  3. “In terms of animal welfare science, there is a general consensus that the Five Freedoms originally put forth by the Brambell Committee in 1965 and revised by the Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1993 (and variations thereof) offer a utilitarian definition of animal welfare.” , Nik Taylor, Humans, Animals, and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies (New York, NY: Lantern Books, 2013), 124.
  4. Nik Taylor, Humans, Animals, and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies (New York, NY: Lantern Books, 2013), 124.
  5. Kimberley C Patton, “Animal Sacrifice: Metaphysics of the Sublimated Victim,” in A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, ed. Paul Waldau and Kimberley C Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 393.
  6. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Twitter, 3:38 PM, 7 August 2017.
  7. Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Moby vs Tyson”, Facebook, 18 August 2017.