The Ideal Cultic Order: Sex, Food and God in Leviticus

Ritual in the Hebrew Bible (as composed by the Priestly writer / school) defines not only the person in relation to cult, but why that person is different from the other main stream neighboring cultures and how one is to identify with their central leading god.

As anthropologist have noted, most a cultures distinguish themselves as being more human, that is, more than just one step above the animals by having divine cultic formulations which controls two basic humans drives: What we eat and who we sleep with or simply put: Food and Sex.

To save time and to deal with a discussion in comments started earlier in a post by John, I will deal only with the issue of food as recorded by the Priestly School in Leviticus 11(though parallels are also found in Deuteronomy).

As a reference for my discussion, I have drawn my three points form the late British social anthropologist Mary Douglas (she died in 2007) and her ground breaking work: Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966).

Concerning the food laws in Leviticus 11, Ms. Douglas gives three explanations for these cultic codes in Israel. The first two explanations are both traditional and popular with the last being the one critical Biblical scholars along with Ms. Douglas accept today (and such major Jewish scholars as Jacob Milgrom).

A. Moses recorded these kosher dietary laws as directed by Yahweh to safe guard the Israelites from diseases. This answer was championed by the late archeologist and Semitic scholar, W.F. Albright in his work “Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan” (1968) as the proof for early empirical medical knowledge. This also is the explanation usually given by the average “Christian on the street” and is often used to justify Gods caring foreknowledge for his chosen people: the Israelites.

However, as the anthropologist Marvin Harris has pointed out in his work entitled: Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (1989), pigs can not carry anthrax while cattle and sheep can. Cattle, pigs and sheep can carry Tapeworms. Although pigs can carry Trichinosis, it’s seldom fatal (unlike anthrax), and most humans recover completely with a good immune system.

B. It is a Divine Mystery and we should not question why God chooses some animals as “clean” for food and others as unclean. Ms. Douglas explains this type of reasoning as “Scholarly bafflement passed off as an explanation”.

C. The Priestly writer has categorized animals as "clean "or "unclean" based on the earlier work of the Priestly school as recorded in Genesis 1. As such, fish must swim, have scales and fins; this is the correct category of creation in P’s cosmology. Why can’t an Israelite / Jew not eat crab, shrimp or lobster? Because they don’t have scales and walk on the bottom instead of swimming. They violate God’s correct category of creation.

The same for eels and catfish, they have fins and swim, but they don’t have scale and again, violate the correct category of creation.

Thus, with land animals: Why can’t you eat a snake? Because it does not have legs and sliders on its stomach.

With mammals too, the correct category of creation says they must “divide the hoof” and “chew the cud”. Thus, cattle and sheep are clean in that’s how the correct plan of creation meant it to be. However, the camel chews the cud, but does not have a divided hoof and is unclean.

As pointed out by Ms. Douglas, the Priestly writer runs into trouble with the rabbit and the “rock badger”. To the Priestlywriter, it looks like the rabbit and “rock badger” “chews the cud” Lev. 11: 5-6 (which is totally wrong), but they do not have a “divided hoof” and are pronounced as unclean because they are again in violation of the correct category of creation.

I’ll leave off here, but for those who want more information, I would recommend:
Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (now re-released in 2001 in paperback).

Finally and for me, this raises a major question. If Genesis 1 is the work the Priestly School (as now taught in all major critical seminaries and universities) and this Priestly writer drew from it to create the kosher food laws in Leviticus (as discussed above), just who is the god (El?) who created the animals which violated the correct category of creation or cosmological order of cleanness? Could we have here and unintended account that Israel drew their story of creation form their older neighbors of the Semitic world and the priestly school under stood Yahweh as creating order out of chaos (a common motif in the Hebrew Bible: see John Day: God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament (1994)?


Anonymous said...

Those JEWS sure had some funny rules!

Of course, everyone knows the JEWS also invented genocide...that IS what the texts are really saying, right?

At least, lets tell everyone that.

After all, its just a bunch of JEW propaganda.

Shygetz said...

The texts do not say the Jews invented genocide, just that they practiced it. The text says God invented genocide (the Flood).

And the OT is hardly Jewish propaganda; have you read it? Propaganda is supposed to be flattering.

Adrian said...

Interesting post Harry.

I read today in another site that Jesus also eliminated the need for ritual hand washing. If true, that would also lend strength to the argument that these rules were not for the benefit of the Jews and later Christians, but unfortunately I'm not a good enough bible scholar to find that quote and verify it myself.

Harry H. McCall said...

I not sure where that would be located either.

I'll have to check on this. Thanks

Harry H. McCall said...

'What Would Jesus do?'

For all you Christians who want to be like Jesus:

Would Jesus eat a seafood plater?

What about a good ole ham sandwich?

Just how much of a Jew are you willing to be be like Jesus (pre Acts)?