14 Oct 2018

The Possible Utility of Mosaic Dietary Code

Religious 28 Comments

In my Bible study session tonight we covered Deuteronomy 14 which contained, among other things, the following rules for diet:

3“You shall not eat any abomination. 4These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, 5the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex,a the antelope, and the mountain sheep. 6Every animal that parts the hoof and has the hoof cloven in two and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. 7Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cloven you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not part the hoof, are unclean for you. 8And the pig, because it parts the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch.

9“Of all that are in the waters you may eat these: whatever has fins and scales you may eat. 10And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.

11“You may eat all clean birds. 12But these are the ones that you shall not eat: the eagle,b the bearded vulture, the black vulture, 13the kite, the falcon of any kind; 14every raven of any kind; 15the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind; 16the little owl and the short-eared owl, the barn owl 17and the tawny owl, the carrion vulture and the cormorant, 18the stork, the heron of any kind; the hoopoe and the bat. 19And all winged insects are unclean for you; they shall not be eaten. 20All clean winged things you may eat.

21“You shall not eat anything that has died naturally.

In his commentary, Guzik writes: “Among these animals, they fall into one of three categories: predators (unclean because they ate both the flesh and the blood of animals), scavengers (unclean because they were carriers of disease, and they regularly contacted dead bodies), or potentially poisonous or dangerous foods such as shellfish and the like. Eliminating these from the diet of Israel no doubt had a healthy effect, and one of the reasons for the dietary laws of Israel was to keep Israel healthy!”

Does anyone know if there’s a work based on secular sources that compares the diet of the surrounding pagan nations to those of ancient Israel, and then assesses their relative merits–taking into account the local conditions, including primitive (by our standards) sanitation, food storage, and medical care? It would be interesting to see if the ancient Israelites “luckily” stumbled onto a pragmatic dietary code even though they couldn’t have known why it was advantageous at the time.

More generally, this is another example of how God’s statements were correct: If the Israelites had followed the Mosaic law “religiously,” then they would have enjoyed inconceivable prosperity and longevity. For example, as modern social scientists who understand the importance of property rights, imagine if every Israelite obeyed the prohibitions on theft and murder. Those seem too obvious to us to even bother thinking about, but it really would be amazing if a culture–even one surrounded by mortal enemies–consisted of people who really followed even just the 10 Commandments.

28 Responses to “The Possible Utility of Mosaic Dietary Code”

  1. Warren says:

    “Luckily stumbled”?

    That’s a bit patronizing, eh?

    Isn’t it likely that they were just as intelligent as we are? Not the same level of technology and they didn’t have the scientific method but they had eyes and brains and the means to pass along information.

    Maybe over the course of time, perhaps even centuries, observations had been made about what was fine to eat and what shouldn’t be eaten and this was communicated to subsequent generations and finally got put down in the Bible.

    So they didn’t ‘stumble” into anything. They observed, analyzed, and made conscious determinations as to how to structure a diet for the best results.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Warren you totally missed the point of this post.

      • Warren says:

        Is the point: If we just listen to God we’ll…..?

        If so, that’s not the interesting part of it for me as I am not a believer in a higher power. I am, however, willing to listen to those who have manifested wisdom in this or that area.

        When they said: “(paraphrasing) And God said unto you thou shalt not eat of the unclean animals.” They could have easily have said “Our ancestors noticed a few things about how we eat and came up with some solid guidelines as to our food choices.”

        So what is the difference between God and ‘accumulated wisdom”.

        You don’t need a higher being to develop these standards. You just need regular people taking note of things. Why complicate things with magic?

        “would have enjoyed inconceivable prosperity and longevity”

        Though I am not religious I do recognize that Christianity and it’s influence in Europe over the centuries has led to an amazing amount of prosperity which has led to longer lifespans, even though most folks’ diets are inexplicably lacking in ibex meat. So you know, you Christians have already booked a huge win there even without 100% compliance with God’s Menu.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Warren, let’s put divine assistance to the side. Let’s suppose that a culture had adopted various customs and taboos over time, such as prohibition on incest, cannibalism, and eating animals that were rotting in the field.

          Now those would definitely be useful taboos, and we could explain their social utility from our modern perspective, but the people back then wouldn’t have known exactly *why* they were so important. They wouldn’t have known the germ theory of disease or about recessive genes, for example.

          So yes I would say “They stumbled unto these beneficial practices.” That’s not being patronizing. And we could also assume that their leaders had a vague sense that bad things would happen if they violated the rules handed down from their ancestors.

          My sentence is still fine; I wasn’t being patronizing. I love Jordan Peterson’s lectures on the Bible, for heaven’s sake.

          • Warren says:

            “incest, cannibalism, and eating animals that were rotting in the field.”

            Sure those sound bad but I gotta tell ya that was the most incredible family reunion I’ve ever attended.


            And I do know where you’re coming from, I just like to point out that our ancestors were quite capable and likely had a base of knowledge that we underestimate.

            • Bob Murphy says:

              Warren wrote: “Sure those sound bad but I gotta tell ya that was the most incredible family reunion I’ve ever attended.”

              I chuckled.

          • Harold says:

            This is pretty much my belief about religion. In order to get large groups to cooperate you need to have a mechanism to avoid too much cheating. People obey the rules without needing to have the reasons explained. Religion provides such a mechanism. Large groups with religion are more likely to persist, and large groups have survival benefits over small ones. The contradiction is that for individuals (the level at which selection occurs) it is beneficial to cheat. We have some instinctive mechanisms to promote cooperation (empathy and the like) but these tend to break down with large groups.

  2. Capt. J Parker says:

    Dr. Murphy basked: “Does anyone know if there’s a work based on secular sources that compares the diet of the surrounding pagan nations to those of ancient Israel”

    I would try Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris, Chapter 3: The Origin of Agriculture. Free PDF here which I am assuming is with permission of copyright holder: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-7xAQtnnL9PU2ZUSUFpT3dwNUE/edit

    My recollection is that Harris concludes that dietary taboos have their origin in dietary economics: You will produce more calories staying home and farming than running off to look for shellfish so, stay at home and farm. Also some domesticated animals are less compatible with some types of agriculture so those animals are banned. I think that Harris disputes the fear of trichinosis explanation for the ban on pork but, I may be remembering wrong.

    I myself would like to note that Matthew 15:11 kind of undid the dietary restrictions of Deuteronomy and I wonder if trade and transportation changes affecting the calorie calculus by the time of Jesus had something to do with all of this.

    • Capt. J Parker says:

      Actually you want Chapter 11 “Forbidden Flesh” Here’s a relevant passage but, the whole chapter has a wealth of scientifically presented info on historical dietary laws.

      “When Jahweh prohibited homicide and incest, he did not say, “Let there be only a little bit of homicide” or “Let there be only a little bit of incest.” Why, then, should he have said, “Thou shalt eat of the swine only in small amounts”? Some people feel that ecological cost/benefit analysis of pig raising is superfluous because the pig is simply an exceptionally unappetizing creature that eats human excrement and likes to wallow in its own urine and feces. What this approach fails to cope with is that if everyone naturally felt that way the pig would never have been domesticated in the first place, nor would it continue to be eagerly devoured in so many other parts of the world. Actually, pigs wallow in their own feces and urine only when they are deprived of alternative sources of the external moisture necessary for cooling their hairless and sweatless bodies. Moreover, the pig is scarcely the only domesticated animal that will, given the chance, gobble up human excrement (cattle and chickens, for example show little restraint in this regard). The notion that the pig was tabooed because its flesh carried the parasite that causes trichinosis should also be laid to rest. Recent epidemiological studies have shown that pigs raised in hot climates seldom transmit trichinosis. On the other hand, naturally “clean” cattle, sheep, and goats are vectors for anthrax, brucellosis, and other human diseases that are as dangerous as anything the pig can transmit, if not more so. Another objection raised against an ecological explanation of the Israelite pig taboo is that it fails to take into account the fact that the flesh of many other creatures is prohibited in the Old Testament. While it is true that the pig taboo is but one aspect of a whole system of dietary laws, the inclusion of
      the other interdicted creatures can also be explained by the general cost/benefit principles summarized earlier in this chapter. The majority of
      the forbidden species were wild animals which could only be obtained by hunting. To a person whose subsistence depended primarily on flocks,
      herds, and grain agriculture, the hunting of animals—especially of species that had become scarce or which did not live in the local habitat—was a poor cost/benefit bargain.

  3. Matt M says:

    Isn’t the ostrich indigenous to Australia? Of course the Hebrews weren’t eating it! Is this just one of those weird translation issues?

    • Warren says:

      I was confused as well, then I googled ostrich+range and it turns out they’re all over Africa. Including the coast of the Red Sea which means that they would have made their way to the Levant in some manner. UBER, probably.

      • George Thoroughgood says:

        No, they took Lyft: they rejected the toxic culture of Uber!

    • Udermensch says:

      Man, there were no ostriches in Australia until Europeans imported them!

      • Harold says:


        • Matt M says:

          Oh, duh, this is really dumb of me. I got the Ostrich and the Emu mixed up. My bad 🙁

        • Warren says:

          An emu is a flightless bird while an E-moo is a cow that’s connected to the internet-of-things.

  4. Jim WK says:

    It’s a good post, Bob – and I agree. This does now lead to a profound correlative question: are there any laws in the Old Testament (except the ones Jesus modifies) about which a modern reader could say your following statement is not true:

    “More generally, this is another example of how God’s statements were correct: If the Israelites had followed the Mosaic law “religiously,” then they would have enjoyed inconceivable prosperity and longevity.”

    In other words, can anyone think of an Old Testament law – perhaps one that seems incredibly harsh, ill-conceived and anachronistic – that one could reasonably say that it would have always been beneficial for humans if they did not subscribe to its injunction, and pursued a better alternative?

  5. Harold says:

    Leviticus 15:19-33? Avoiding chairs and beds used by menstruating women must cause a small but significant problem for either men or women.

    There seems to be little inherent advantage in not mixing wool and linen in the same cloth.

    I am not sure what exactly the ban on selling land permanently is about, but on its face is a significant restriction of one’s property rights.

    I am sure you are aware of the book “the year of living biblically”, which is an amusing exploration of some of these strictures. The tone is reasonably respectful and whilst poking fun at some of them does conclude with some positives from following the rules.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Harold wrote: “Leviticus 15:19-33? Avoiding chairs and beds used by menstruating women must cause a small but significant problem for either men or women.”

      Oh, I thought that kind of stuff would be easy to explain. I don’t need to get graphic on the blog but you can’t see why that might be a good practice, for a people wandering around the desert?

      I assumed critics would hit me with the capital punishments for talking back to your parents, etc.

      • Warren says:

        Ah yes, the evils of Leviticussing. Kill the child!

      • Harold says:

        “you can’t see why that might be a good practice,..”
        Not really – there are many simpler solutions that are significantly less restricting.

        How about he wool/linen? I don’t know of a good reason for this – there seems to be speculation that it was to keep the priestly garb special, but that does not count as a good reason without the religion.

        But since you mention it, how about capital punishment for talking back to your parents?

        From Bible Tools
        “”And he who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. . . . And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” To modern child psychologists, these are shocking statements. ”

        Well, not just child psychologists. The phrasing is “surely be put to death”. That does not leave room for argument – this is not “in the most extreme cases there is recourse to death” there is no ambiguity – if you curse your parents you shall surely be put to death.

        Elsewhere Bible Tools says
        “These will eventually be punished by death, shame, disgrace, darkness of understanding (ignorance), and destruction.”

        That does not really cut it – we will all die, so “put to death” cannot possible mean the person who strikes the parent will eventually die.

        “Maltreatment of a parent through striking or cursing is placed on a par with murder and kidnapping and is punished in the same way—death.

        The word curse simply means “to belittle,” “to make light of,” “to be contemptuous of.”

        So does executing disobedient children or adults who are not entirely respectful to their parents lead to overall a stronger society? I think almost certainly not.

        • Jim WK says:

          Harold, this is a good explanation of the killing children for cursing problem:


          • Harold says:

            “Disobedience to parents is disobedience to God (Ephesians 6:1-3).”

            I think this is the key. The directive is necessary to preserve the religion. It is not necessary in a wider context. Children grow up and can be wiser and more knowledgeable than their parents. This directive prevents them from sowing dissent against the religion. There are good reasons to think this is helpful for cohesion, but is not generally a beneficial law outside the context of the religion, which I think was the point of the discussion.

  6. Warren says:

    1 The LORD said to Moses,
    2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.
    3 On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.
    4 Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.
    5 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.

    Okay, why does having a girl cause a woman to be unclean for twice the time as if she had a boy? What is the possible value of this regulation?

    How would ignoring this cause a problem? How are you going to lose out on prosperity by treating the births of boys and girls the same?

    • Capt. J Parker says:

      “How are you going to lose out on prosperity by treating the births of boys and girls the same?”

      Marvin Harris (see my reference to Cannibals and Kings above) has written a lot on this. Basically his thesis is that population control in pre-industrialized societies is of value in order to avoid resource depletion. Population control depends on limiting the number of females and not males. Cultures that favor the survival to adulthood of males over females achieve a form of population control. Harris goes on to claim that warfare and warrior culture were developed because it is a form of “limit the number of females” population control since male offspring are highly values and more resources are put into their survival to adulthood vs what is put into the survival of females.

      Now, I know that I didn’t fully answer your question, Warren, because it is a long way to go from “unclean for 2x the number of days for a female birth” to fewer female babies surviving to adulthood but, I’m just pointing out that anthropologists have postulated ways that you gain prosperity by having a culture that treats the births of boys and
      girls differently.

      • Harold says:

        Yeah, but that is rubbish really in this context.

        Harris has made important contributions and his ideas, once thought controversial are now widely accepted in broad terms. To my mind it is a bit like evolutionary psychology – our psychology surely evolved, but there are many just-so stories that purport to explain stuff like preference for pink among girls by reference to berry collecting in our evolutionary past. This is plausible on its face but actually rubbish as pink has only recently been a girls’ colour.

        Using Harris’s ideas can be similar in that they can be used to explain almost anything and there is no way to know if it is accurate.

        This interview includes one such problem. He postulates that pigs are unsuited to arid climates, hence the prohibition on pigs in many religions that originated in the desert. The questioner asks “But the question comes to mind, why bother looking for a religious precept that proscribes pork, then, if pig-raising is so entirely unsuited to the climate and the plant life of the area?”

        He says that prohibition is good because it prevents some people tinkering, which would be in the long term disadvantage of the society although possibly for short term benefit. This explanation seems speculative, whist being plausible on its face.

        There must of course be some explanation for the persistence of prohibitions. Harris suggests that this explanation is that only those with benefits outside of the religion will persist. I think this is too simplistic and the benefit of increasing compliance within the religion and cohesion of the society could be enough also.

        • Capt. J Parker says:

          I don’t think I’d call Harris rubbish but, even though I like his work, I do admit to coming across stuff that sounded like a just so story to me. However, I do like the pork story. There was a reason why advocates for prohibition pronounced alcohol to be “sinful” even though it’s social costs were well understood.

          • Harold says:

            ” don’t think I’d call Harris rubbish”
            Indeed, that was not my intention – only that I do not think it works for this particular case. His thinking in this has been very important, but can be taken too far.

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