“From among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat. Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud – such you may eat. But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat etc, etc, etc….” – Leviticus 11
Levitical food laws are generally a passed over part of the Bible. It’s not that they seem threatening or confusing but they just seem to have little to offer anyone living in the 21st century. There are a couple of ways to answer the “why” of Levitical food laws. Some of the prohibitions can possibly be connected to food safety issues. Pigs have split hoofs but do not “chew the cud,” so they are prohibited. Upon visual inspection (the only tool available at the time) pigs are not the cleanest animals. Pork can carry trichinosis and given the conditions for slaughter and preparation in the ancient world, the disease could pose a serious threat. The birds prohibited in further passages (v. 13-19) are either full scavengers or birds of prey that also scavenge and it is safe to assume that an animal that eats the rotting remains of other animals probably isn’t the safest thing for a human being to consume. Levitical law encourages the eating of bugs (v. 21-22), which seems an odd choice for “cleanliness,” but makes sense upon further inspection. Eating insects has become somewhat of a hipster trend in light of the “sustainable” movement; they are numerous and cultivating them does not impact the earth in the negative way that raising livestock tends to do. Insects would serve as an excellent source of protein for desert dwellers such as the Israelites (some have argued that the United States should consider rethinking our culinary attitudes towards insects).
Although there are many more interesting insights that can be made with Levitical law, its main purpose (relevant to our work at the Texas Hunger Initiative) was to serve as a constant reminder from God that Israel was special. One cannot escape a message that is part of something you experience 3 times a day. Every meal drove home the fact that Israel was set apart. In our culture food often serves a similar purpose. It is more than just nutrition. Birthdays, anniversaries, and other special celebrations are accompanied by special foods. Certain types of food can serve as status symbols - both positive and negative. For individuals in poverty the available foods have significant meaning.
23 million Americans live in “food deserts,” communities that do not have grocery stores or other healthy food retailers. Individuals in such communities, including children, are forced to live on junk food from convenience stores. In food deserts the obtainable foods serve as a negative reminder that one is without. Poor nutrition in children is a deterrent to education and learning. Ironically, Obesity runs rampant in lower income communities due to the high number of calories contained in cheap meals. The lack of consistent to access to healthy and nutritious foods contributes greatly to the cycle of poverty. As evidenced by Levitcal law, food can serve a positive purpose beyond simple sustenance. The food desert epidemic is a tragic reversal of the dignity giving properties of food.