With Thanksgiving just around the corner, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to the nature of God’s provision and our response to His undeserved generosity. What better way to do so than to talk about turkeys! As 46 million turkeys are consumed each Thanksgiving, it’s no wonder Thanksgiving has long been called “Turkey Day.”
In agricultural settings, people typically have a good idea of what is involved in bringing a turkey to the table, but for most urban and suburban folks, there is little difference between buying a turkey and a box of nails—we pick up a packaged item with a barcode, and we pay for it with plastic.
To promote a spirit of thankfulness this season, let us turn our attention to the work that goes into raising these birds and of the life that is thereafter sacrificed.
Although in the time of Christ people may not have been feasting on turkey, the Bible is not void of passages about raising animals, nor instructions on offerings of thanksgiving. Leviticus 22 contains one such instruction on what type of offering is acceptable to God. The text tells us that when an offering is presented to the Lord it must be without defect—Israelites were not to offer animals that were blind, injured, maimed, or that had warts or sores. The text goes on regarding offerings of thanksgiving specifically. Leviticus reads, “When you sacrifice a thank offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf” (Leviticus 22:29, NIV). In other words, Israel was to offer the best of their best.
Such an offering given to God in faithfulness was to be costly. Yet it was also to be enjoyed by the one making the sacrifice. “It must be eaten that same day; leave none of it till morning. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 22:30). What implications might a verse like this have in regards to the manner in which we partake in our feasts of Thanksgiving later this month?
People in agrarian settings, especially in the ancient world, would know that raising an animal is a lot of work. When that Levitical command was given, animals weren’t kept in with electrical fences. Herds and flocks would graze in open areas on the outskirts of town. The shepherd’s job was to keep a close eye on the flock, to lead the animals in his keep to good grazing grounds, and protect them from attack. To this end, a shepherd would have carried both a rod and staff—one tool to fight predators, and the other to gently redirect or hold the animal steady. Shepherds were out in the field day and night, tending to their flocks through all elements.
While anthropology may be able to tell us something of ancient shepherding practices, the Bible offers some images of what a good shepherd would do. In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Shepherd; the one who went out and sought the stray sheep to bring it back to the flock. The Good Shepherd also appears in Psalm 23 where he leads his flock besides still waters, provides a space with plentiful food, and protects them from danger.
It takes a long time for an animal to grow and gain weight; this would have been especially true in the ancient world. To raise an animal required incredible effort. In fact, to raise animals was to sacrifice one’s own life daily. Likewise, offering part of one’s flock was an act of incredible intentionality and sacrifice.
Unfortunately, the same cannot necessarily be said for most of the turkeys that will grace our dinner tables this Thanksgiving. Most of us know very little about the process in delivering a turkey from farm to table – save the cooking time or how to make a tasty gravy. The grave reality is that most of us would not want to personally treat animals the way our meat has been treated.
I will not go into gruesome details on the horrors of mass meat production as many other others have already done (“Food Inc.,” “Forks Over Knives,” etc.), but I would like to draw attention to two particular aspects of raising animals for meat: antibiotic usage and access to the outdoors.
When most people hear “antibiotics,” they probably think of a drug a doctor would prescribe to be used temporarily for treatment of a sickness. My guess is that most would be as I surprised as I was when I learned in Maryn McKenna’s book “Big Chicken” that 80% of antibiotics used for animals in the U.S. are used routinely in production as opposed to for treatment of illness. Of course this begs the question, “Why?” Antibiotics actually cause animals to gain weight more quickly than they would otherwise. When animals can unnaturally convert feed to muscle, companies can sell more meat more quickly. However, while this antibiotic usage may initially reap a bigger bottom line, the true cost is obscured, as both animals and humans suffer the consequences down the road.
The dark side of antibiotic over-usage is drug-resistant infections. According to McKenna, drug-resistant bacteria cause 2 million illnesses annually in the U.S. alone, and drug-resistant infections kill over 700,000 people worldwide each year. It turns out that the cost of antibiotic over-usage is rather high even apart from the suffering that humans and animals experience due to drug-resistance.
As with most epidemics, the proliferation of drug resistant disease comes coupled with other macroeconomic costs such as money spent on health care and lost wages.
By focusing solely on the immediacy of corporate profits, or solely at the pocketbooks of consumers “saving” money on cheap meat, the inevitable secondary costs to the health and welfare of both animals and humans are ignored to the detriment of all. We pay a great price for cheap food.
In addition to being used for faster weight gain, antibiotics also protect animals against contagious disease which, with a lessened risk of outbreak, ultimately allows farmers to pack more animals into tighter spaces.
When looking at the alternative to such industrialized farming practices, just as it is more expensive to not give animals routine doses of antibiotics, it is considerably more expensive to care for pasture-raised animals. More land is required when you’re not packing animals into close quarters, more time is needed to move animals between fields as they are at pasture, more labor is required to provide water and feed, and protection for pasture-raised animals as they are actually moving about.
A Biblical command in Deuteronomy sheds further light on how we ought to treat the animals in God’s Kingdom: “If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).
Numerous commentators have made the point that to God, even the small matters are large matters. One such Bible scholar, James Burton Coffman, writes in his commentary on Deuteronomy, “The amazing thing here is that long life and prosperity are promised upon a condition which some might be tempted to view as secondary or trivial, but that is not the case. Nothing is any more important than the preservation of the various species of life upon the planet, and the maintenance of that ecological balance upon which all life depends.”
God cares tremendously about the world He created. In the Bible He is portrayed not only as the Creator, but also as the Good Shepherd who sustains, provides for, and protects His creation. And in Jesus, we see not only that God is embodied, but that he cares for bodies. Think of how many of his miracles involved feeding and healing people!
Thankfully, Christ reorients our vision to see our proper relation to all things, because he is concerned with all things, and will come again to renew all things. When we begin to view our food as a part of creation which exists for God’s glory, and within His present work of redemption, rather than merely a commodity to be sold or purchased, our treatment of animals changes.
This holiday, in the spirit of practicing deeper thankfulness, may we be reminded of the true cost of the gifts and sacrifices we enjoy. In regards to our Thanksgiving meals, might we appreciate not only the economic cost of raising animals sustainably, but also the life that God created and that has been sacrificed in order that we might eat. And as we partake of this feast and enjoy what God has so generously given for our sustenance, may we, from the turkey to the third helping of pumpkin pie, be increasingly reminded of and thankful for the sacrifice God has so generously given for our salvation.
Madalyn Salz grew up in Oregon City, Oregon. She attended Vanguard University of Southern California where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Marketing. After graduating, Madalyn moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland where she served in several ministry capacities, including leading youth and student ministries at a Presbyterian church, and earned a Graduate Diploma in Theology from Queen’s University Belfast. Now, back in Oregon, she serves as the administrator for the Seminary Stewardship Alliance and Blessed Earth Northwest. Madalyn is active in her church community, Theophilus Church in Portland, Oregon. In her free time, she enjoys gardening, cooking, learning guitar, going to concerts, and reading.