Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Genesis 3 as the Backdrop to the Dietary Laws

Actually, Leviticus 11 isn’t just about diet. The Israelites became unclean by touching the carcasses of the unclean creatures (vv. 8, 24, 27, etc.), by merely touching certain unclean four-legged animals (v. 26). So I think these laws should be grouped with the other purity laws rather than treated as something different.

I’d argue more generally that Leviticus is “about” overcoming the exile from God’s presence that occurs in the fall. The typology of the tabernacle – the cherubim woven into the sides and the veil, and the cast cherubim placed over the ark and etc. – all suggest the cherubim the guard the way back into the Garden and the presence of God (the tree of life).

I’d argue that the “dietary laws” or, more accurately, the teaching about clean and unclean animals, reflects the curses and the promise in Gn 3.14-19. This is the separation (Lev 11.44-47) that is on point in the purity laws in Leviticus – separation from the cursed world and so adhering to God (rather than separation from God and adhering to a cursed world).

Here are what I’d suggest are the important tells for Leviticus 11:

● Serpent cursed (v. 14).
● Goes on belly as a result (v. 14).
● Eats dust (v. 14).
● Ground/dust is cursed (v. 17).
● Woman’s promised seed has a crushed foot (v. 15).

That the serpent eats dust is not merely a statement that it eats from the cursed ground. The author tells us that God formed man from the “dust of the ground” (Gn 2.7) and that man returns to the ground “for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gn 3.19). So that the serpent eats dust seems to me a more pointed suggestion that the serpent seeks to attack humans, “seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5.8).

Given these themes, I think that most of Leviticus 11 is pretty easy to understand: unclean creatures have some sort of serpentine quality. Fish without fins or scales “look” serpent like. So they are unclean (Lev 11.9-12). Scavenger birds and birds that eat flesh (“dust”) are unclean (vv. 13-19). Insects whose bellies go in the dust like the serpent’s belly are unclean (vv. 20, 23), but insects whose bellies do not get dragged in the dust are clean (vv. 21-22). Rodents that go around in the ground/dust are cursed (v. 29), while reptiles have a serpentine look to them (vv. 29-30).

The real trouble for me has been understanding the laws dividing the quadrupeds into clean and unclean, namely that they chew the cud and have split hooves.

The problem isn’t just why a pig is unclean – it has a split hoof but does not chew the cud – but also why the horse is unclean – it chews the cud and has a hoof, but the hoof is not split.

Here’s what I would suggest: Gn 3.15 says that the promised seed of the woman will “crush” the head of the serpent and that the serpent will “crush” the heel or foot of the woman’s promised seed.

So here’s my speculation. A split or divided hoof can look something like a “crushed” hoof. So clean animals are animals with feet injured in the way that looks similar to the way the foot of the woman’s promised seed will be injured when it crushes the serpent’s head. It is only the flesh of these animals that the Israelites could consume. Suggestively, it is from eating the flesh of the promised seed that we become truly clean. (Clean animals must have hooves to separate them from the cursed ground. Animals with skin that comes in direct contact with the cursed ground are unclean, Lev 11.4-6.)

What about chewing the cud? As I understand it, animals that chew the cud are pure herbivores, they do not eat flesh. The non-cud chewing, split-hooved quadrupeds are omnivores, eating flesh as well as vegetables. Given human flesh to eat, a pig will eat the human, just as the serpent seeks to devour humans-made-out-of-dust. So a clean animal is one with no natural inclination generally to eat flesh, or specifically to eat human flesh if given the opportunity. (This goes the same with the carrion-eating birds.)

So the clean quadruped is an animal that is about as different from the qualities and behavior of the serpent as possible. Unclean animals, on the other hand, carry about some likeness or characteristic of the serpent. Since there is no shade of darkness in God, or in the people he redeems, Israel is allowed to eat and touch only clean animals.



Blogger CPA said...

The traditional explanation is this: to chew the cud is to meditate on the Law. To split the hoof is to divide good and evil. So horses are like those who constantly prattle about the Bible but don't distinguish good and evil in their lives. Pigs are the opposite: those who follow rigid moral codes without paying any attention to God's word. Dogs do neither.

Whether it is "true" (and I'm not sure that's the right type of word to attach to this sort of midrash even when at its best) it's an unforgettable concept.

I haven't seen any similar traditional explanation of the scales and fins part.

September 24, 2007 5:58 PM  

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