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The Pig as Unclean—Leviticus 11
Modern readers are often mystified by the dietary regulations placed upon the ancient Israelites. Common popular suggestions that these were instituted to protect the Israelites from disease do not offer satisfying answers since disease could just as easily be contracted from improper storage and cooking of "clean" animals. In addition, it would then be hard to explain the lifting of the prohibitions in Peter’s vision in Acts 10:13-15. More productive are the investigations of the ancient world and cultures. We find that many of the unclean animals can be associated with the realm of death—a place of uncleanness. Others such as the pig, can also be associated with particular ritual practices in the ancient world. In his Leviticus contribution to ZIBBCOT, Roy Gane writes:
Of all animals in Israel’s environment, only the pig has cloven hooves but does not chew cud. "With this one exception, all unclean animals could have been excluded simply by the requirement that they have cloven hooves."1 So the rules in Leviticus 11 implicitly single out the pig for exclusion from the holy Israelite diet.
Pigs, along with dogs, were regarded with contempt in the ancient Near East because of their roles as scavengers. For example, the Hittite "Instructions to Priests and Temple Officials" warn against letting a pig or dog into rooms containing sacred bread.2 A Mesopotamian saying goes: "The pig is unholy [ … ] bespattering his backside, Making the streets smell … polluting the houses."3 Nevertheless, texts and archaeological remains (especially bones) in Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as Syria-Palestine and North Africa, confirm that pigs were commonly raised for food by non-Israelites.4 In some ancient cultures (Hittite, Greek, Roman), unlike Israel, pigs could be offered as sacrifices—especially of purification—to underworld deities. In such a sacrifice, the offerer received none of the meat. Pigs could also be utilized in nonsacrificial rites of purification, including symbolic/magical elimination of impurity or plague.
Behind the sacrifices was the idea that the sacrifice was offered to God and then in many cases became the food for a communal feast. If God could not receive such sacrifices, then the Israelites could not eat from them. In this way God was insulating the Israelites from certain unacceptable ritual practices as they were being holy as God was holy.
Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.
1 E. Firmage, "Zoology," ABD, 6: 1125.
2 COS, 1.83:217, 220.
3 W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), 215.
4 Firmage, "Zoology," 1131–35.
Photo: Pig skeleton from Tell es-Safi (Biblical Gath, a Philistine city); credit: Josh Walton.
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