March 05, 2007

Leviticus 11-13: Don't eat that!

Today's reading is Leviticus 11-13 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers dietary laws, laws about purification after childbirth, laws about infectious skin diseases (particularly leprosy), and laws about clothing contaminated with diseases (particularly leprosy).

As you might imagine from the list above, there were slim pickings for today's essay topic. That being the case, I thought it might be time to discuss Jewish dietary laws.

Back in Exodus, we had a few brief notes about dietary laws. In Ex. 23 and 34, God commanded the Israelites not to "boil a kid in its mother's milk." (Ex. 23:19, 34:26, NIV) In fact, the second time it's noted, it is on the second set of ten commandments. This prohibition has been wildly used to justify the Jewish laws against eating meat and milk at the same meal.

However, in today's readings, the text goes quite a bit deeper into dietary laws, noting which animals and types of animals the Hebrews may (and may not) eat. In fact, the text talks exclusively about animals. In some cases, such as land and water creatures, it lists general features of the animals which are permitted. In particular, the Hebrews are allowed to eat any land animal so long as it has a completely-divided split hoof and chews its cud. (Lev. 11:4-8) Sea animals must have fins and scales. (Lev. 11:9-12) In the case of fowl, the text simply lists the prohibited birds. (Lev. 11:13-19) Also on the prohibited list are all types of flying insects, a few other scattered creatures, and "creeping things". (Lev. 11:20-23, 11:29-31, 11:41-43)

In all honesty, there's not a lot I can say with regards to this list. Not knowing much about dietary nutrition, I cannot say whether there is anything inherently wrong with eating any of these animals. I'm certain that there are people who eat most of them on at least an occasional basis with no ill effects, particularly when we're talking about pigs, shrimp, and escargot. Beyond imagining that God merely wanted to set his people apart from the surrounding nations by giving them specific dietary requirements, I can't think of a reason why these animals would be forbidden, as opposed to others.

Thankfully for me, there is more to say about spiritually unclean animals. First, anything that touches the carcass of an unclean animal also becomes unclean. (Lev. 11:24-28, 11:32) Any earthenware vessel in which they were kept or cooked much be broken. (Lev. 11:33, 11:35) If someone takes water from such a vessel and places it on clean meat, that meat becomes unclean. (Lev. 11:34) Even seeds, if they are touched by unclean carcasses, are considered unclean if there is water on them (the seeds). (Lev. 11:37-38)

Why this obsession with "contact uncleanliness"? This is not the only location in the text where spiritually unclean things cause other, clean things to become unclean merely by touch. It is a common feature in the text, in fact. The simple act of touching something unclean renders the person, animal, or object touched unclean as well.

One reason for this "contact uncleanliness" might have been to limit the spread of spiritually unclean things. Especially in the case of infectious skin diseases (Lev. 13), marking the diseased person as unclean might have helped limit the spread of plagues and disease in the Israelite camp. Forcing someone to wash or quarantine themselves after touching something unclean would have prevented the disease from spreading. Equally, in the case of uncooked meat, earthenware pots could easily have picked up contaminants that would spread to water in the pot and from there onto other food. After all, this is before the age of glazed cookware, and therefore the earthenware pots would have been porous and susceptible to contamination.

On the other hand, I have no idea why these rules should apply only to certain carcasses and not all animal carcasses. Surely the raw flesh of a cow or a chicken would be equally likely to spread disease as that of a pig or a swan.

No doubt the Israelites were also confused. This is likely the reason God gives a justification in Lev. 11:43-45, which reads as follows in the KJV:

(43) Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth, neither shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, that ye should be defiled thereby.
(44) For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
(45) For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.

In other words: do what I say, because I'm the one that told you to do it, and you should be holy like me. Hardly compelling reasoning, but, as we have seen in previous chapters, God had power and might on his side. Or, put another way, a being who could provide that much firepower did not also need to provide rational thought.

Jews have typically divided all commandments into two groups: man-to-man and man-to-God. The former category includes things like the prohibitions for murder and theft, laws dealing with the poor, justice, and social responsibility, and so on. Meanwhile, man-to-God laws did not involve any other person, only God. The dietary laws fall firmly into this category. If you eat an unclean animal, you're not harming another person. You are, on the other hand, breaking your covenant with God. As a general rule, the man-to-man laws are much more accepted by non-Jewish populations, while the man-to-God laws are often looked at with derision. Dietary laws are no exception. It is interesting to note that Christians, except for the very earliest sects, did not keep these dietary laws, mostly because of the apostle Paul. (see, for example, Rom. 14:14-16)

What good were these laws, ultimately? They provided yet another way for the Israelites to differentiate themselves from the surrounding nations and perhaps managed to keep them a little healthier than they otherwise would have been. Are they still valid today? It depends on who you talk to.


John McGuire said...

Many of the Kosher rules make sense in a hot environment where there is a minimum of running water or other methods of cleaning and disinfecting. However when in third world countries or camping the rules make a lot more sense.

Chicken for instance, if killed and cleaned and handled properly is a low salmonella risk.

Killed improperly, and then handled without care, you can spread salmonella across the entire kitchen area and the dishes. Anything made alongside it has the chance of being contaminated or "unclean."

Pick and choose as you will amongst the dietary laws, but keep current with food safety science.

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Julie (the webmistress)