The English word “fat” is used to translate various Hebrew words that describe not only the substance called fat but also that which is full-fleshed and plump. These terms may also be used in a figurative sense to express that which is rich or fertile (just as in the English expression “fat of the land”) or to convey the idea of insensibility or dullness of mind and heart.
Cheʹlev is ordinarily used to refer to the substance “fat,” either of animals (Le 3:3) or of men (Jg 3:22). The “suet,” or hard fat about the kidneys or loins, in the burnt offerings is also expressed by another word, peʹdher. (Le 1:8, 12; 8:20) Cheʹlev first appears at Genesis 4:4 in connection with Abel’s sacrifice to Jehovah of “fatty pieces” from the firstlings of his flock. Most references to cheʹlev thereafter simply relate to sacrificing. Cheʹlev is also used metaphorically for the best or richest part of anything. For instance, at Genesis 45:18, Pharaoh tells Joseph that his family is welcome to eat “the fat part of the land.” Thus, too, Numbers 18:12 reads: “All the best [cheʹlev] of the oil and all the best [cheʹlev] of the new wine and the grain . . . I have given them to you.”
The Law Regarding Fat. In the third chapter of Leviticus, Jehovah gave the Israelites instructions concerning the use of fat in communion sacrifices. When offering cattle or goats, they were to make the fat around the loins and intestines and that over the kidneys, as well as the fatty appendage upon the liver, smoke upon the altar. In the case of sheep, the entire fatty tail likewise was to be offered. (The sheep of Syria, Palestine, Arabia, and Egypt have fat tails, often weighing 5 kg [11 lbs] or more.) The Law specifically said, “All the fat belongs to Jehovah . . . You must not eat any fat or any blood at all.”
Fat would burn fiercely and would be quite thoroughly consumed upon the altar. Any fat offered on the altar was not to be left over until the next morning; it was likely to corrupt and become offensive, something very unseemly for any part of the sacred offerings.
Not incumbent on Christians. After the Flood, when permission was given to Noah and his family to add flesh to their diet, nothing was stated regarding fat. (Ge 9:3, 4) However, the eating of blood was prohibited. This was more than 850 years before the Law covenant, with its prohibitions against the eating of both blood and fat, was made with Israel. In the first century C.E. the governing body of the Christian congregation confirmed the prohibition against blood as remaining in force for Christians. (Ac 15:20, 28, 29) As in the case with Noah and his family, however, nothing was stated concerning the eating of fat by Christians. Thus, the law against eating fat was given only to the nation of Israel.
Reason for the law. Under the Law covenant, both the blood and fat were looked upon as exclusively Jehovah’s. The blood contains the life, which only Jehovah can give; therefore it belongs to him. (Le 17:11, 14) The fat was viewed as the richest part of the flesh of the animal. The offering of the fat of the animal would evidently be in recognition of the fact that the best parts belong to Jehovah, who provides abundantly, and it would demonstrate the desire of the worshiper to offer the best to God. Because it was symbolic of the Israelites’ devotion of their best to Jehovah, it was said to smoke upon the altar as “food” and for “a restful odor” to him. (Le 3:11, 16) To eat fat, therefore, was an illegal appropriation of what was sanctified to God, an invasion of the rights of Jehovah. Eating fat would incur the death penalty. Unlike blood, however, fat could be used for other purposes, at least in the case of an animal that died of itself or was killed by another beast.
Extent of the law’s application. Because of this latter text, many commentators have sought to limit the prohibition of Leviticus 3:17 only to the fat of those kinds of animals that were acceptable for offering in sacrifice, such as bulls, sheep, and goats. Rabbinic Jewish teaching is divided on this subject. However, the injunction on fat at Leviticus 3:17 is linked with the one regarding the eating of blood, a law that clearly included the blood of all animals. (Compare Le 17:13; De 12:15, 16.) It seems more consistent, therefore, that the law on fat should also have embraced the fat of all animals, including those killed for the Israelites’ common use.
The view that the prohibition applied to all fat is not controverted by the text at Deuteronomy 32:14, which speaks of Jehovah as giving Israel “fat of rams” to eat. This is a figurative expression referring to the best of the flock, or as The Jerusalem Bible renders the phrase, “rich food of the pastures.” (See also Da ftn and Kx.) This poetic sense is indicated by later portions of the same verse referring to “the kidney fat of wheat” and “the blood of the grape.” So, too, with Nehemiah 8:10, where the people are commanded, “Go, eat the fatty things,” we are not to conclude that they literally consumed whole fat. “Fatty things” refers to rich portions, things not skinny or dry, but luscious, including tasty items prepared with vegetable oils. Thus, Knox’ translation here reads “regale yourselves with rich meat,” while Moffatt’s translation says “eat the dainty pieces.”
The Mosaic Law restriction did not prevent the feeding or fattening of sheep or cattle for the table. We read of the “fattened young bull” slaughtered for the prodigal son. (Lu 15:23) Solomon’s food included “fattened cuckoos” and cattle. (1Ki 4:23) The Hebrew ʽe·ghel-mar·beqʹ, translated “fattened calf,” occurs at 1 Samuel 28:24; meʹach and meriʼʹ refer to a ‘well-fed animal’ or a ‘fatling.’ (Isa 5:17; Eze 39:18) However, this does not mean that this ‘fattening’ was for the purpose of producing suet or layers of fat; rather, the sense again is that the animals became full-fleshed (“beefy”), not skinny.
Other Hebrew Terms. Among the Hebrew terms used to describe anything in a “fat” condition are those derived from the root verb sha·menʹ. While meaning “grow fat” (De 32:15; Jer 5:28), it also conveys the thought of being “robust.” Sha·menʹ appears at Isaiah 6:10, where the King James Version reads “make the heart of this people fat,” that is, unresponsive and dull, as if their hearts were enveloped in fat. Judges 3:29 describes certain Moabites as “every one robust [sha·menʹ, literally, “fat”] and every one a valiant man.” The related sheʹmen is usually translated “oil.”
‘Thriving’ may be the thought behind the verb da·shenʹ, also used literally to mean “grow fat.” If that is the case, da·shenʹ (and the related deʹshen) would imply prosperity, fertility, or abundance. Jehovah told Israel that he would bring them to a land “which flows with milk and honey, and they will certainly eat and be satisfied and grow fat [wedha·shenʹ].” (De 31:20) We are told that those who are generous, diligent, and reliant on Jehovah “will be made fat,” that is, prosper abundantly. (Pr 11:25; 13:4; 28:25) At Proverbs 15:30 good news is said to ‘make the bones fat,’ or fill them with marrow
The noun deʹshen is also rendered “ashes” by many translators, as when referring to the wastes from the tabernacle’s altar of sacrifice. (Le 1:16; 4:12; 6:10, 11, KJ, JB, RS) To other scholars, however, “ashes” does not fully reflect the original-language root. They, therefore, prefer such terms as “fat-ashes” (Ro), or “fatty ashes” (NW), reasoning that the term indicates that the hot fat from the sacrifices soaked the burnt firewood below.
The idea of being well fed and healthy is expressed by the word ba·riʼʹ. It is translated “plump” (Eze 34:3, 20) and “healthful” (Hab 1:16), though it may also be rendered as “fat” in describing men, cattle, and grain.