You aren’t what you eat

“God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, Chapter 3

In this chapter Hitchens rallies against the ridiculous (as he sees them) dietary laws of the Jewish people. What kind of God would make a monster of the pig? It seems so outrageous and unreasonable that Hitchens investigates our relationship with the pig to see if this can provide any clues as to why God (or as he sees it the Jewish and Muslim traditions), came up with such a strange decision.

He begins by wondering whether pigs are intrinsically distasteful. While he admits that pigs can be very messy and quite unpleasant in confined conditions, if they are given space and healthy surroundings they can be quite civil animals. This surely cannot be the reason for the divine injunction. Why would this be when the pig is one of our closest cousins (he argues)? Could there be a rational explanation? He puts forward two: firstly that pig meat in hot climates can go off very quickly and become infested. He discards this one as unsatisfying and considers a second more subtle reason.

For this explanation he considers the similarities between humans and pigs. He covers a range of topics from the classic allegory Animal Farm to the fact that the pig heart is one of the few species that is able to be transplanted into a human. Indeed, it is our similarity to the pig that he believes gives us a clue as to our vilification of it. He notes that “the look of the pig, and the taste of the pig, and the dying yells of the pig, and the evident intelligence of the pig, were to uncomfortably reminiscent of the human.” He suggests that the pig reminds us too much of ourselves and echoes back to the dark times of cannibalism when the human race had a perverted appetite for human flesh. It is against this cannibalistic instinct, hidden deep within us, that we are reacting against when we demonise the pig. Hitchens argues that it is our “repressed desire to participate” in this vile practise, that is at the heart of our hatred. And he concludes by making the sweeping statement that “in microcosom, this apparently trivial fetish shows how religion and faith and superstition distort our whole picture of the world.”

But could there be an alternative explanation for this prohibition? Does it really date back to some sort of primitive Freudian desire, or is there a more straightforward, if less human-centred, explanation? If we look back to the origins of the prohibition against pigs in the Jewish tradition, it can be traced right back to the first rules laid down by God for his rescued people in Leviticus 11.7: “And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud, it is unclean for you”. Note that the pig is described as unclean – not evil! Other mammals described as unclean include the rabbit and camel.

This chapter in Leviticus sets out the dietary laws for the Israelites, other chapters cover directives on the way they dressed (not two types of cord), treated illness (e.g. skin disease, chapter 13-14), treated buildings (e.g. damp on walls), cleansed cooking tools (e.g. pots). Many other laws also covered morally charged issues, such as not charging interest on loans, sexual purity, freedom for slaves and manslaughter. Together with the laws on the ceremonial sacrifice of animals covered in chapters 1-7 they formed the means by which God chose to set apart his people as his own. Indeed, the phrase “set apart” is literally what holy means. By following these regulations that covered every part of life, everyone would be able to see what it meant to be God’s people.

As such, all of these laws were intended to reinforce each other to provide a physical illustration of the life of God’s community on earth – to show the world what being God’s chosen people meant. Some of them reflected deeper significance that was repeated by Jesus and the apostles, others were temporary – particularly the food regulations. In Acts chapter 10 Peter is directed by God in a vision to eat every animal as they are all clean (v9-13). God himself is overruling his previous commandment and nullifying the dietary regulations. Why?

Interwoven with Peter’s vision is the story off Cornelius, a man who is told to go and find Peter by an angel (v1-6). Once Peter meets Cornelius and realises that God has sent him to hear the good news of Jesus, the light eventually dawns, that God is using the distinction between clean and unclean food as a tangible metaphor for the distinction that had historically been made between the Jews and Gentiles, the former being clean and the latter unclean. By declaring all food clean, and by sending his angel to Cornelius (a gentile) to direct him to Peter, God was telling his people that he was making all people acceptable to him through the death and resurrection of his son (v28 & 34-48).

Thus, we come back to our question – why did God make the pig unclean? And why did he do this, if one day he was going to make all animals clean? In other words, why bother to establish dietary laws that lasted for hundreds of year, if he always intended to make them all clean? Was there really any difference between the various groups of animals or not? In answering this question we need to keep this chapter in Acts in our mind. What if God chose to use an issue which was inherently morally neutral and arbitrarily designated animals on either side in order to, hundreds of years later, bring down the dividing line? What if he did all this in order to generate the kind of cultural shock that was necessary to awake his people to the coming spiritual shock of the acceptance of the gentiles? This would mean that there is nothing inherently unclean about the pig – it was a physical illustration for God to use to make a more significant point.

But, I can hear you ask; why not just accept gentiles right back there in Leviticus? Why keep them out only to later bring them in? This is a big question, but in summary it all has to do with this demonstration of God’s holiness. While the Israelites were God’s people, they were never intended to be the only nation that God would accept – they were to model the type of kingdom behaviour that God would require of his people. Later this model would be broadened to the whole world, as now individuals, not nations are called to model this kingdom living. The changing role of the pig in God’s plan may seem a strange one, but it forms an important shift from the national to the personal; from the outward to the inward; from a focus on what we eat to who we are. The story of the pig teaches us that life is not about what we eat, as if that could make us clean or unclean. The important thing is not what you take into your mouth, but what comes out of it – for this reveals the true nature of your heart.

“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” Mark 7.18-23

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