Lev 10:10-11 You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.
Leviticus 11 details the dietary laws given to the Israelites. When someone says “food in the Bible” this is probably what first comes to mind for most people, rules about what to eat and what not to eat. This is really answering the question “What Would Jesus Eat?” concretely, because as a Jew he would have observed these dietary laws. The question most people have is…Why? We’ll get there, but the first thing is to understand what exactly the rules are, then how they functioned.
What’s On The Menu?
Leviticus 3-8 explains that among land animals the rule is: split hoof + chews cud = OK. That means ruminants are in (cows, sheep and goats), but rabbits camels, pigs and rock badgers are out. Verses 9-12 concern seafood where the formula is: fins + scales = OK. So, trout, perch, etc. are a go, while eels, dolphins and catfish are off limits. Among birds (13-19) they were mainly concerned with what not to eat: eagles, vultures, owls, kites, osprey, hawks, storks, herons, hoopoes, and bats. Everything else is just fine. The section on insects (20-23) starts off strong, “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you”, and then sighs and says if they have jointed legs for hopping and fly you can eat them. This includes locusts, katydids, crickets and grasshoppers. Finally, verses 29-30 and 41-42 make sure all of our bases are covered and declare unclean “Whatever goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet, any swarming thing that swarms on the ground” (42). This includes snakes, weasels, rats, great lizards, geckos, monitor lizards, wall lizards, skinks or chameleons.
Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?
For most North Americans, after pigs, we haven’t even thought about eating any of the animals that are forbidden here. So, what is going on? I don’t have access to a stack of commentaries here, but even John Wesley understands that these rules functioned “To keep up the wall of partition between the Jews and other nations, which was very necessary for many great and wise purposes” (quoted from free version available for MacSword). Clearly other nations, tribes and peoples around them did not keep these dietary laws and therefore clearly set the Israelites apart as a different people. Verse 45 gives a typical formula in the Torah for why these commands must be followed, “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
Others have also pointed out the wisdom in many of these laws, which may have something to do with their origin. Pork easily transmits diseases like trichinosis and it was probably safer given conditions for slaughter, cooking, storage, etc. to avoid unnecessary risks. Most of the forbidden birds are scavengers (including the beloved symbol of the United States) which would primarily feed on the carcasses of other animals, creating another possibly dangerous vector for disease (not to mention that carcasses were unclean in general thus tainting those who feed on them). Likewise some of the fish that are forbidden would have been bottom-feeders and considered less sanitary, another way of saying “unclean”. Perhaps in some ways blanket rules are easier to follow. So, eels and dolphins get swept up with bottom-feeders to make things easy (Wesley points out there isn’t a lot of water and fish where the Israelites lived anyway). It’s certainly not because the Israelites pioneered their own “Dolphin-Safe Tuna” brand. So, there may be some biological and epidemiological basis for these laws as well.
Bugs…They’re What’s For Dinner
When it comes to insects it seems obvious to North Americans that you shouldn’t eat them. Yet most of the world includes insects as part of their diet in some way. We have friends working with MCC in Zambia where their 18 month-old son loved to stuff his cheeks full of fried termites. I listened to a TED talk recently by a guy who was a big proponent of eating insects. He pointed out that they are extremely efficient at converting their food into protein, especially when compared with the large animals that we eat for protein, primarily chickens, cows and pigs. I think they produce almost one pound of protein for maybe one to three pounds of food compared with something like 100 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef (my stats may be off, but the true numbers make the same point). They are also very abundant and easy to grow. Another interview on Treehugger described ways to use insects by making a powder and substituting it in recipes. I haven’t tried adopting this practice into my own diet yet, but the logic makes a lot of sense and could go a long way toward a healthier planet.
One last interesting tidbit I found was in verses 37-38 “if a carcass falls on any seeds that are to be planted, they remain clean. But if water has been put on the seed and a carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.” The rule here seems to be “keep dead things out of your garden” which makes a lot of sense. Carcasses in your garden, on the crops you’re trying to grow are going to do damage to those plants. If it happens to fall on seed that hasn’t been planted or germinated, then no big deal. As an avid humanure composter it is important for things to decompose properly. There are microbes, bugs and fungi that do that job in an ecosystem. We do not occupy that space in the ecosystem and neither do our food, plant or animal. So, you don’t want something going through the process of decomposition on or near your food source. Pretty basic stuff, but explains a lot about why dead things were such a no-no.
So, clearly these dietary laws held some embedded wisdom about what foods were safe. They also functioned to distinguish the Israelites from the people surrounding them. Is there anything more that we can glean from these laws about our relationship to our food, the earth and our fellow humans? Anyone who has had dietary restrictions, whether vegetarian or vegan by choice, or kosher or hallal by religious practice, knows that it makes you much more aware of what you are eating. You have to ask questions of your food. My journey with food started 11 years ago when I decided to try a vegetarian diet. As a Texan this meant turning my back on my people. I was very aware of all the things I could no longer eat and my food choices began to take on more importance. So, dietary restrictions at least force us to think about what we are eating.
Holy, Holy, Holy
I began this post with the verse from the previous chapter of Leviticus, because I think it holds something helpful. It says, “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean.” What does this pairing of “holy and common” and “unclean and clean” mean? First, I think the translation “holy and common” as opposed to “holy and unholy” is helpful. It’s not just holy and something that is the opposite of holy. “Common” is something shared among the people; something to which everyone has access and knowledge. “Holy” is not simply the opposite. It is not something to which we don’t have access or knowledge (though that is partially true). Instead it is something Other. It is something not shared among everyone.
The division between sacred and secular serves to divide the church from the state and create a privatized faith impotent to speak to the Powers. This is not the distinction made here between holy and common. So this idea of distinguishing between the holy and the common is put along side the distinction between things and food that are clean and unclean. These are also not the same distinctions, but apparently they are related. Perhaps it has to do with how we relate to the world around us. The distinction between clean and unclean relates to all that we can know and experience in the world around us (the modern day realm of science), yet all of creation is considered good. The holy gives us some anchor in another reality that in some way reads, interprets, judges and ultimately redeems the common, which is what is divided into clean and unclean. (I’m immediately skeptical that I have just created a hierarchy where there is none, but I’ll go with it.)
In other words, there is something Other that judges and interprets the material world and our relationships within it. There is a Reality underlying what we see, hear, smell, taste and experience that is not separate from it, but Other, transcendent perhaps. Maybe Tillich’s idea of the Ground of Being or the idea that God is the eternal observer that keeps reality from disappearing by constantly perceiving it are shadows of what I’m grasping at like the blind men and the elephant.
I think of the Eucharist. It is a meal of simple elements, bread and wine. These were among the most common foods of the time and shared among people every day. Yet they constitute the most important ritual in the Christian tradition. So, what separates the holy from the common? What turns bread and wine from a simple meal into a holy ritual? How does this union of the holy and the common teach us to live? What role does the idea of clean and unclean continue to have in our world today? Even though the Jesus movement clearly chose to do away with these restrictions (particularly because of the experience of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10, a favorite passage of mine), we still use caution, discernment and cultural cues to decide what to eat and what not to eat. In many ways the question of the ethics of eating is our modern day version of clean (organic, local, sustainable, fair trade, etc.) and unclean (processed, underpaid migrant labor, subsidized, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, genetically modified, etc.). These lines are not as clearly drawn as those in Leviticus, but what the followers of Jesus seek is, not a new law to replace the old one, but the ability to be led by the Spirit. May we feel that breath and follow the wind into all truth.