Leviticus 11.2-4 - Why?

Essay by Jay Wolin

Although I grew up in a Jewish household I did not follow the dietary laws found in Leviticus.  I was well aware of them, but we looked at other Jewish people who followed them as unenlightened.  Oftentimes, I saw someone who I knew followed the laws in their homes, but would not think twice about eating pork at a restaurant.  I thought this quite hypocritical, and it further justified the reasons for my being non compliant.  As I expanded my horizons, I met many people who did quite seriously follow these dietary rules (as well as many other rules) with religious fervor.  When I would ask them why they followed these rules, the consistent response I would receive was “because it says so in the bible”.  Well, I have never been very good at taking blind orders.  I like to understand the reason behind the order.   In everything I study in the Bible, I try to understand the purpose of passage.  What was its relevance to the people at the time it was written?  But more importantly, what is its relevance to our lives today, so that it adds to our lives spiritually and puts us more in touch with the divine?  It is not necessary to be relevant in the same way it was to the Israelites twenty five hundred years ago.  The greatness of the Bible is whether it can transcend time.  Looking at different meanings for different times, might raise the argument of moral relativism.  I think that is the mystery of the book, in that it can adapt over time and one can discern meaning it based on their circumstances in life. There may be items in the book that may not relate to our circumstances, and if so then we should look at those items that were needed for another time for people under different circumstances.  This does not negate the balance of the book which can be relevant.  The purpose for me to study the Bible is to be able to put myself in and to one day lead others to a closer relationship to God.  If it is not relevant in any way to our current lives, there would not be a reason to study it. 

After reading the chapter 11 my initial reaction was that the prohibition on eating certain types of animals was a health issue.  This seemed like a logical conclusion to me.  Most of the commentary written about this book seems to dismiss this conclusion outright.  Most of the works conclude that this is not the case, because, it was not stated as such in the book, there were many other negative things to eat that were not excluded and many of the animals listed would not have been dangerous to eat.  From a purely historical perspective, I still think this is probably the main reason for the passage.  The fact that it does not explicitly indicate this reason is by no means a reason to disown this theory.  There is no reason given at all for this verse and there are many things that are not explicitly indicated in the Bible.  The fact that it doesn’t list all animals, or plants that could possibly be dangerous for health, is not a reason to assume that these items were not included for those reasons.  Possibly there were other lists of other animals and plants that were just not included in the final writings. More likely though, my guess is that at the time of the writing, the people may have been suffering from known illness’ which they were able to trace back to one of these animals that had these particular attributes.  They then looked at what other animals had the same characteristics as the animal that caused the disease, and banned all of them just to be cautious.  We will never really know this, and although I believe this is why it would have been relevant at the time, with advances in medicine, it now renders this theory irrelevant. 


Another common theory espoused is that the segregations listed in Leviticus relate to keeping order in the world.  The animals, fish, and birds listed as unholy are different from the natural order in some way.  In “Leviticus   An Introduction and Commentary” by R. K. Harrison, Harrison commenting on Mary Douglas’s “Purity and Danger” says:

“Dr. Douglas argues that since holiness requires individuals to conform to the class to which they belong, the animals that do not exhibit the specified forms of locomotion, namely flying, walking, swimming and running, are unclean.” [1]

In “Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” Samuel E. Balentine states:

“both Genesis 1 and Leviticus 11 stress God’s ordering of everything in creation according to its/their kind.  Leviticus builds on this discernment by stipulation that only the animals that reflect the normal characteristics of their kind are edible.  Those that do not possess these characteristics are not only different; they are disadvantaged, because they lack the means for survival that are common to their species” [2]

I have to ask myself what would be the purpose to discussing the differentiation of animals and how it affects our lives.  I think in general the segregation of mankind into different sects versus finding our common ground is what leads to many of the challenges we face today in our world. There are a numerous writings that equate the disallowed animals with the oppressed, the widow and orphan based on similar analysis that these animals are somehow “disadvantaged” because they are different.  Although there may be some logic behind this, these arguments do not make sense to me, either on their face or theologically.  Clearly these animals were created or evolved into the way they were for a reason.  If God created all things, then they were created for a purpose by God.  Even if you take the theory as I do, that life unfolds by our actions here on earth, these creatures survived, mutated, evolved over time into what they were. These were due to the natural course of events in the world.  They survived as a species specifically because they had these features.  They adapted to the environment they were living in, with the skills they had because of their differences.   I look at this as a strength not as a weakness.  I look at it as a testament to our adaptability on earth, so I do not find this analysis of it as helpful. 

            The question of the type of difference though is important.  Leon Kass in “Why the Dietary Laws” brings to the forefront that originally we were vegetarians.  He feels that after the flood when God gave man the right to eat animals “God was willing to tolerate meat eating in the hope that man’s ferocity would thereby be sated, that murder might become less likely if human blood-lust could be satisfied by meat” [3] .  He argues that the distinction related to the forbidden animals is to whether they eat other animals and their blood and those that do not.  He feels “the Levitical laws of purity reintroduce those early distinctions; the children of Israel are not to incorporate animals that kill and incorporate other animals.  This restriction tacitly acknowledges the problem of carnivorousness. [4] ”  Mary Douglas states “Holiness is incompatible with predatory behavior” [5]

            Clearly humankind’s ferocity was not and has not been sated.  I believe that to be in a close relationship with God, we must control our predatory behavior.  The more I read about the dietary laws, the more I think about the Buddhist practice of mindful eating. I believe the dietary laws certainly force people to be mindful at least about what they are eating.  It makes them stop and consciously think.   Once you are on a path of mindfulness, in one area of life, it makes you a more mindful person in general.  This I believe can only lead to a mindset of peace and holiness and is a way to allow one to know them self better and to put oneself in touch with the divine.  I am not suggesting that the priests were studying Buddhism, but I am suggesting that maybe mindful eating and mindfulness in general are practices that may be universal to spiritual fulfillment, and the dietary laws were the way the Jewish people implemented them. 

            The use of the dietary laws as a means of distinctiveness as a people is clearly the

most common and most obvious reason to create the laws in Leviticus.  I think Harrison reflects this overall sentiment:

“Purpose of the legislation – perpetuation of the separateness of the Israelites, in dietary as well as in ethical and spiritual matters, presumably with the aim of relating one to the other.  Adherence to a particular regimen of diet has for millennia constituted a mark of distinctiveness among religious people.  To be forbidden to indulge in certain foods because of religious considerations would emphasize for the Israelites the need to obey God’s directions implicitly, while reinforcing in their minds the conviction that they were distinctive as the people of God. [6]

I would credit these laws with creating a cohesive community and condemn them for creating a community that was/is intolerant of others who are different.  What would be the purpose of creating separation that would set Israelites apart from other people?   I look at the roots of Judaism as groups of tribes that banded together for survival.  They as a group of people were looking for a place to settle that they could live their lives in freedom and peace.   They were unique in their belief of one God vs. pagan beliefs of many Gods.  There are many theories that when they first came into the land of Canaan after the exile in the wilderness they lived side by side with the other people in that part of the world.  From most of my reading, it appears that this book was written by the P (priestly) source.   If the people were living in peace with their neighbors, why would the priests want this separation? Most academics feel it was not written during the time in the wilderness, and as late as the exile in Babylonia. No matter what the timeframe, there has always been (even to this day) a concern of assimilation and dissolution of the tribes and its faith.  I think the priests feared this and created all these laws to create a distinction

between the tribes and others. 

If I were to be cynical, I would say the priests feared they would lose their purpose in life and their power and privilege in the community.  If I were to be positive, I would say that the priests in their heart felt that this was the one true way to experience God, and were truly afraid that people needed this to experience the divine.  I think it was both a blessing and a curse.  It did create a (somewhat) cohesive group of people that have existed until this day.  As a believer in one God, I believe it is a God for all people.  I believe that different people see God in different ways.  Yet so many of the different religions past and present have different forms, many of them have similar ethical teachings.  If the Jewish people are the chosen people to be the messenger of God to all people, I would think the goal would be to integrate with the other people to teach them the message of God as opposed to building barriers that keep people  who think differently than they do separate.  It was not the form of the Jewish religion that gave the Jewish people its special relationship with God.  It was its direct relationship as a people with God and to live out God’s vision in this world.

There are no specific reasons in the Bible as to why one should follow the dietary laws.   I do think originally it was due to some sort of health issue; however over time it became a way to separate and segregate Jewish people from non Jewish people.  I think today however we should focus on the laws as a form of mindfulness.  Mindfulness to the ways of God and the universe.  With our knowledge and technology today, there is no longer a need to have to eat animals at all.  I would submit humankind should be in search of harmony with nature and the animal world.  I think that is what is God would want.    I think the dietary laws were maybe just the first step in that direction, to help get us back to a time before the flood, before murder, to a place where creation does not have to lead to violence.  That is the message and the purpose I discern from reading Leviticus Chapter 11.

[1] Harrison, Roland Kenneth, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D.J. General Editor Wiseman, Leviticus An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 28.

[2] Samuel E. Balentine, Interpretation - A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. James L. Mays, Patrick D. Miller, Paul J Achtemeier, Leviticus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002), 96.

[3] Leon Kass, "Why the Dietary Laws?," Commentary, June, 1994, 44.

[4] Leon Kass, "Why the Dietary Laws?," Commentary, June, 1994, 46-47.

[5] Mary Douglas, "The Forbidden Animals in Leviticus," Journal for hte Study of the Old Testament, 3-23, 1993, 22.

[6] Harrison, Roland Kenneth, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D.J Wiseman, Leviticus An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 123.

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