Cannibalism in the Bible

Deuteronomy 28:53-57 (also Lev 26:29)

Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you. Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. The most gentle and sensitive woman among you - so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot - will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For she intends to eat them secretly during the siege and in the distress that your enemy will inflict on you in your cities.

2 Kings 6:26-29

As the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried to him, "Help me, my lord the king!"

The king replied, "If the Lord does not help you, where can I get help for you? From the threshing floor? From the winepress?" Then he asked her, "What's the matter?"

She answered, "This woman said to me, 'Give up your son so we may eat him today, and tomorrow we'll eat my son.' So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, 'Give up your son so we may eat him,' but she had hidden him."

Jeremiah 19:9 (also Ezek 5:10)

I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another's flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives.

Lamentations 4:10

With their own hands compassionate women
have cooked their own children,
who became their food
when my people were destroyed.

John 6:53-56

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.


Most of the above passages apply to the siege of Jerusalem. The Deuteronomy and Leviticus passages are general predictions of what would happen to the Israelites if they disobeyed God, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are specific predictions of cannibalism during the siege, and Lamentations records the fulfillment. There are two important things to remember here. One is that the circumstances of the siege came about only after Israel persisted in doing wrong despite multiple warnings and lesser punishments. The punishment described in Leviticus 26 comes only after the Israelites have disobeyed and ignored punishments five times in succession (vv. 14-15, 18, 21, 23, 27). Prior to the actual siege, the Israelites had done more wrong than other nations that God had punished (2 Ki 21:9), and they ignored repeated warnings from the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The second thing to remember is that the Israelites could have avoided these terrible circumstances by repenting at any time. Both the warnings in Deuteronomy and Leviticus are preceeded by promised blessings for obedience (Lev 26:3-13, Dt 28:1-14) and are followed by assurances that wrongdoers who repent will be forgiven and restored (Lev 26:40-45, Dt 30:1-10). In fact, God said through Jeremiah, "If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned" (Jer 18:7-8) and through Ezekiel, "If a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life...I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!" (Ezek 18:27, 32) For more on the the circumstances of the siege, see The Siege of Jerusalem.

The passage in 2 Kings 6 is similar. Joram, the king of Israel, was the son of Ahab and Jezebel. Ahab was especially wicked (1 Ki 21:25-26); his failings included going against God's will by releasing Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram who attacked Israel (1 Ki 20), and murdering a man to obtain his property (1 Ki 21:18-19). Consequently, God threatened to punish Ahab, but since Ahab repented the punishment was delayed (1 Ki 21:20-29). Joram would have known about the predicted punishment and would have had reason for believing it, since the prediction concerning Ahab came true (1 Ki 22:37-38). Accordingly, he should have repented of his own sins and followed God, but instead he continued in his father's footsteps. Though he wasn't as evil as Ahab, he still encouraged Israel to worship idols (2 Ki 3:1-3, cf 1 Ki 12:26-33). Hence God allowed Samaria to be besieged - and by the same king that Ahab had mistakenly allowed to live (2 Ki 6:24). Even so, once Joram allowed the prophet Elisha to tell him God's will, God miraculously drove away the Aramean army and provided food for the city (2 Ki 7). Had Joram repented, the punishment would never have occurred in the first place (cf Ezek 18:14-20); had he sought the Lord earlier, the siege would not have lasted so long.

The John 6 passage is simply an instance of Jesus using a metaphor to illustrate a concept. This particular metaphor is repeated during the Last Supper (e.g. Lk 20:19-20), when it's clearer that it's a metaphor and not literal cannibalism. Had Jesus meant it literally (or had the disciples interpreted it literally), the Gospels would have recorded the disciples' cannibalization of Jesus after his death rather than his burial. Jesus often used metaphors that his listeners misunderstood and interpreted literally (see Jn 2:19-21, 11:11-15).


Other responses (offsite)

Related articles