This is the Leviticus chapter on what is and isn’t okay to eat. So, what’s on the list?

Clean animals, okay to eat:

  • Any animal with divided hoofs, is cleft-footed, and chews cud.
  • Any animal that lives in the water that has fins and scales, regardless of whether it lives in the sea or in a stream.
  • Winged insects with “jointed legs above their feet, with which to leap on the ground” (v.21), such as:
    • The locust according to its kind
    • The bald locust according to its kind
    • The cricket according to its kind
    • The grasshopper according to its kind

Unclean animals, not okay to eat (or touch the carcass thereof):

  • Any animal that does not have either a divided hoot or that chews cud, such as:
    • The camel, “for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoof” (v.4)
    • The rock badger, “for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs” (v.5)
    • The hare, “for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs” (v.6) – Which they don’t, by the way. Creation.com claims that it still counts as “chewing the cud” if you poop out your food and then eat your poop. Ergo, God – 1, Skeptics – 0. Whatever.
    • The pig, “for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud” (v.7)
  • This is a rock badger, properly called a rock hyrax

    This is a rock badger, properly called a rock hyrax

    The following birds:

    • The eagle
    • The vulture – Fair enough, I wouldn’t be too keen to eat carrion eaters either.
    • The osprey
    • The buzzard
    • The kite of any kind
    • Every raven of any kind
    • The ostrich – Despite being delicious.
    • The nighthawk
    • The sea gull
    • The hawk of any kind
    • The little owl – Wait ’till it grows up a little!
    • The cormorant
    • The great owl
    • The water hen
    • The desert owl
    • The carrion vulture – Either a repetition or, according to BibleGateway, a pelican.
    • The stork – Need to keep those alive for the babies!
    • The heron of any kind
    • The hoopoe
    • The bat – Yes, the bat classifies as a bird according to Leviticus 11:13-19, which is obviously rather laughable. That being said, how we classify things today – the features we use to distinguish between the various orders of animals – is clearly different from what it was pre-Darwin. Now, we’re trying to take evolutionary tree/bush into account, whereas the authors of the Bible would have just looked at a bat and said “it dun got wings, it’s a bird.” You’d think that God would know the evolutionary history of the bats and correct the Hebrews, but then again, if the stories we’ve been reading were actual historical accounts, there wouldn’t be an evolutionary history to begin with. So yeah, embarrassing to the True Believer, but not particularly remarkable for the secular reader fitting the book within a historical/social context.
  • No winged insects that “walk upon all fours” (v.20).  Nope. Again, we get word games from the apologists. EnduringWord tries to argue that “creeper” refers to movement rather than to biological family.
  • Any animal with paws
  • “Swarming” creatures (v.29), with specific instructions to break any earthen vessel into which one might fall. But at least it’s okay to still drink water from any spring or cistern into which one might fall (a rather necessary concession, I imagine). This category includes:
    • The weasel
    • The mouse
    • The great lizard according to its kind
    • The gecko
    • The land crocodile
    • The lizard
    • The sand lizard
    • The chameleon
  • An otherwise clean animal that dies on its own
  • “Whatever moves on its belly, and whatever moves on all fours, or whatever has many feet, all the creatures that swarm upon the earth, you shall not eat; for they are detestable.” (v.42) – Doesn’t that kinda cover most things?

Why all the rules?

There’s been a lot of debate about why the Old Testament has so many dietary requirement. EnduringWord sums up the apologetic position pretty neatly: “Not only did unclean animals defile one spiritually, but there was also a hygienic defilement, and Israel was spared many diseases and plagues because of their kosher diet.”

Of course, that’s not particularly accurate. Yes, eating undercooked pig is a bad idea, but eating undercooked anything is a bad idea, and there is no particular danger to having a properly cooked pork chop. And even if it was correct, even if God really was trying to protect the Hebrews’ health, wouldn’t a better strategy have been to talk to them about germ theory? The way this is set up means that a starving Hebrew who can find nothing to eat except a nice rabbit stew has to make a choice between keeping themselves alive and keeping themselves “clean.”

Javerbaum has his own theory in The Last Testament, p.87:

The Hebrew dietary laws were carefully conceived and calibrated by the angels and Moses and Aaron and [God], for the health and maintenance of the long-term neurosis of the Jewish people; That they may forever display their faith through the ritual observance of rules too emphasized to be ignored, too random to be logical, and too vague to be satisfying.

But I think we can find a good clue in the following verse: “you shall be holy, for I am holy” (v.45).

As Collins put it: “Observance of a distinct set of laws makes the Israelites holy insofar as it sets them apart from the rest of humanity” (Hebrew Bible, p.78). In other words, these dietary laws serve the same purpose as circumcision, they drive a wedge between the Jews and neighbours of different religious/cultural beliefs.

I think it fits with the idea that the Old Testament was gathered and written in a period of diaspora. There was a great danger of the Jewish minority in a foreign country to convert to local practices and religious observances. Therefore, the imposition of strict and numerous rules forced the Jewish people to conspicuously differentiate themselves from their neighbours, and thereby maintain a strong identity.

Did Noah know about the dietary rules?

According to the Biblical narrative so far, this is the first time that God is communicating these rules to the Hebrew people. Yet in Genesis 7:2-3, Noah already knows which animals are clean and which aren’t. I think that the author of A Skeptic’s Journey is right to assume that the communities carrying the traditions of the Noah stories were already familiar with the dietary restrictions and were anachronistically including details from it.

A Skeptic’s Journey brings up another issue that had never occurred to me: God doesn’t give the Hebrews permission to eat meat until Noah’s story, in Genesis 9:2-5. So when we’re told that Cain and Abel each made a sacrifice of something from their profession, and that Abel was a “keeper of sheep” (Gen. 4:2), we might ask ourselves why on earth he would bother given that he wasn’t even allowed to eat the sheep yet. There he was, toiling away, minding a flock of sheep, keeping them fed, etc just for the wool?