Why Should God Be Concerned About Lobsters and Menstruating Women?

My former seminary classmate, Peter Enns, and I have been having a bit of a go-round on his blog with regard to the continuities and discontinuities between the Old and New Testaments.  Peter has argued that whenever Jesus introduces a discontinuity, i.e., he declares a particular practice to be no longer necessary, Jesus is at the same time critiquing that practice as well.  Our conversation has been focused on the conquest narratives, but also on other things, such as the purity and dietary laws in Leviticus.  Peter formulates his view as follows:

Temple and purity laws reflect ANE cultural conventions to which God allowed himself to be adapted and by which he allowed the ancient tribal Israelites to worship him. The Gospel teaches that these things are to be left behind and therefore their substance is critiqued.

I responded by arguing that God’s involvement was much more than simply “allowing” himself to be adapted and “allowing” the ancient tribal Israelites to worship him; and I also argued that there was no critique involved.  I reworded Peter’s formulation as follows:

Temple and purity laws reflect ANE cultural conventions, which set the parameters within which God accommodated and revealed himself and by which he directed the ancient tribal Israelites to worship him. The Gospel teaches that some of these things are to be left behind, without at the same time critiquing these things as being outside of God’s will for his ancient people.

My point, here, is that even though there are certain practices that have come to a conclusion with the coming of Christ, e.g., the dietary laws, the purity laws, and the sacrifices, Jesus is not critiquing these practices.  These things were the will of God for the ancient Israelites and he commanded the Israelites to do them.  They did not simply dream these things up and project them onto God.

So now Pete has come back to me and asked the following:

Actually, in addition to conquest, I am also interested in whether you think the God of this vast universe we live in actually thinks lobster and menstruating women are *actually* unclean, destroyed all life on earth by the 6th chapter of the Bible, or considers virgin women to be spoils of war. Are these things cultural accommodation? Or are they authentic windows onto God’s character? If the latter, how?

As I am currently doing the research for, and the writing of, a commentary on Leviticus, I am more than just a little bit happy to answer Pete’s query concerning lobsters and menstruating women.  (At another time, I’ll come back to floods and virgin women as spoils of war).

First, lobsters.  As the reader probably knows, there’s a long list of animals in Leviticus 11, some of which are clean and the Israelites may eat, and most of which are unclean and the Israelites are not to eat. There are several theories as to what accounts for the distinction between clean and unclean.  Many have argued that hygienic and health considerations are the driving force, but this is probably not the case.  Others have suggested that the unclean animals are perhaps those that would have been used in pagan sacrificial rituals; but this seems unlikely as well.  Some have suggested that the distinctions are purely arbitrary and that the Israelites were being tested to see if they would obey God even though they didn’t understand what the rationale for such laws might have been.  This has a certain attractiveness to it, and may even be true to some extent; but if there is a discoverable rationale, then this theory should probably not be the main understanding.

Many Old Testament scholars and commentators believe that the anthropologist, the late Mary Douglas, has, at least to a considerable extent, found such a rationale.  In a book entitled, Purity and Danger, Douglas argued that the key to the dietary laws lay in the distinctions that God put in place with regard to creational boundaries. In the creation account in Genesis 1, God separated and made divisions between the sky, the sea, and the land.  Correspondingly, he made animals to inhabit those three realms: birds for the sky, fish for the sea, and land animals for the land.  What makes an animal clean or unclean has to do with how it conforms or does not conform to its assigned sphere.  For the sky, this means that the clean animals are the ones that have wings and two legs, and eat the things that birds are supposed to eat.  That is, for a sky animal to be clean it truly has to be a bird.  For the sea, the clean animals are those that have fins and scales, and swim rather than flying in the air or crawling on land.  In other words, for a sea animal to be clean, it truly has to be a fish.  Things are a bit more complicated for the land animals, and I don’t want to get too bogged down in the details; but suffice it to say that the clean land animals were the ones which were truly land animals.  The lobster, the animal we are talking about specifically in this post, though it is a sea animal, it doesn’t really swim as such, rather it crawls on the ocean floor, on “land.”  It transgresses its boundaries.

So the rationale for the distinctions, Douglas argued,  in this and other books she wrote afterward, is this:

We can conclude that holiness is exemplified by completeness.  Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong.  And holiness requires that different classes of things shall not be confused.

In other words, the clean animals were the ones which were in keeping with the boundaries of creation.  They maintained their proper separations—which is what holiness is all about.

But here’s the tremendously insightful conclusion at which Douglas arrives:

If the proposed interpretation of the forbidden animals is correct, the dietary laws would have been like signs which at every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, purity and completeness of God.  By rules of avoidance holiness was given a physical expression in every encounter with the animal kingdom and every meal.  Observance of the dietary rules would thus have been a meaningful part of the great liturgical act of recognition and worship which culminated in the sacrifice in the Temple.

Every time an Israelite family sat down to eat a meal, it was an opportunity to meditate on the holiness of God and what it meant to be a holy people for this holy God.  Leviticus 11 is the Old Testament counterpart to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  It was the way in which God wanted the Israelites to meditate on how holy God is and how holy they must be in order to be in fellowship and in right standing before this holy God.

So when Pete asks whether I think “the God of this vast universe” really thought lobsters were unclean, the only answer I can give is that, for a period of time in the life of ancient Israel, he wanted the Israelites to understand that lobsters were unclean and to abstain from eating them out of love for, and devotion to, the God who redeemed the Israelites from the land of Egypt.  And for that period of time, God regarded lobsters to be unclean for his people.

Now, on to menstruating women.  The first thing I want to deal with is the veiled suggestion in this question that the ancient Israelite author of the chapter which deals with menstruating women, Leviticus 15, was projecting his own misogynistic attitude onto God.  However, as Amy Jill Levine stated so articulately in her recent devastating critique of Frank Schaeffer, who was making such a big deal about the horribleness of the Jewish purity laws, Leviticus 15 does not just talk about menstruating women; it also talks about ejaculating men.  And, almost certainly, as Levine, at least somewhat wryly, notes, “it is likely that men on average are ejaculating more often than women are menstruating.”  Furthermore, as Lisa Chisholm Smith remarks in the IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, “what is striking about Leviticus 15 is how consistently the laws regarding bodily emissions are applied to both sexes.”

To keep this post from becoming overly long, I’m not going to go into the different suggested rationales for these laws.  However, whatever the rationale, what is striking about the purity regulations in Leviticus 15 is how these laws invade the very private lives of the Israelites.  I don’t think we’re supposed to envision that there was a Big-Brother priestly patrol which went around to all the Israelite dwelling places trying to smoke out ejaculating men and menstruating women and haul them off to detention in some isolated location.  Rather, this was an area in which men and women individually policed themselves, or husbands and wives together policed each other, in the sight of God.  As opposed to the grand majority of the other regulations which were laid on the Israelites, which were obeyed or disobeyed very publicly, this one was very private.  One could say that the other laws were, perhaps, more societal.  But this one was very individual.  This one was between God and each individual Israelite in the privacy of their own home.  This was a way of communicating to each Israelite that there wasn’t one square inch of their lives which did not belong to God (some of you may notice some Kuyperian language here).  Leviticus 15 is the Old Testament counterpart to what Paul says in Colossians 3:17, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

When men and women who had become unclean on account of bodily emissions went through prescribed rites of purification, it would be a very concrete action by which they acknowledged that God was holy, and that they had a responsibility to present themselves holy before him.  They didn’t do anything wrong.  There were a number of ways in which a person could become unclean.  One of the ways was by touching a dead body, and the family of the one who died had a responsibility to prepare the person’s body for burial; and yet, by doing so, they became unclean.  They did not sin, they had just become ritually unclean on account of their contact with death.  In the same way, ejaculating men and menstruating women did nothing wrong; they had simply become unclean.  And the ritual processes through which they had to go were a constant reminder of God’s holiness and their need to be holy, even as God is holy.

So when Pete asks whether I think “the God of this vast universe” really thought menstruating women were unclean, the only answer I can give is that, for a period of time in the life of ancient Israel, he wanted the Israelites to understand that menstruating women and ejaculating men were unclean, and that as they carried out the ceremonial rites which he required of them, they would be doing so out of love for, and devotion to, the God who redeemed the Israelites from the land of Egypt.  And for that period of time, God regarded menstruating women and ejaculating men as unclean.

And finally, when Pete asks me, “Are these things cultural accommodation? Or are they authentic windows onto God’s character?” my answer is, “Yes.”

Yes, God accommodated himself to the cultural conventions of the time period.

And, yes, these laws and narratives are authentic windows through which we may look and see the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as a God who is a holy God, who wants his people to be holy, whatever that might look like in the different times and places and contexts in which God issues his holy commands.

By the will and command of our God, Christians no longer observe these dietary or purity laws.  And by the will and command of our God, our ancient Israelite ancestors in Old Testament times did observe them.  These laws were not critiqued by Jesus.  He simply declared them to be no longer necessary as a way in which Christians are to be holy, in light of the new thing that God has done in Christ Jesus, the redemption we have in him, and in light of the new constitutive make-up of the people of God.  But holiness, itself, is still the command.

15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Pet 1:15-16)

Jerry Shepherd
January 24, 2014

11 thoughts on “Why Should God Be Concerned About Lobsters and Menstruating Women?

  1. Well said, Jerry. Some of us have a huge problem with seeing the big picture or overall plan of God. This post takes me up above the myriad of details and helps me remember that we were created to reflect His image and all that He does is to restore us to that glorious calling!

  2. Fascinating and thoughtful blog. So cool to see how the OT book of Leviticus is of profound relevance to believers today. The emphasis on the holiness of God and the call for us to be holy as he is holy, desperately needs to be heard in the church today. It’s not about earning anything in relationship to our Redeemer by our conduct. It’s about reflecting his likeness in his world. For the Israelites in the OT period, these regulations were powerful and frequent reminders of the call to be holy. We too need to be reminded of this call on our lives. Thanks Jerry.

    • Thanks, Dennis. And I remember how just two or three years ago your congregation was blessed by your series on the book of Leviticus. Thanks for your faithfulness in the ministry of the word.

  3. Hmmm… It seems to me that this is largely based on conjecture. The idea that a fish is clean because it swims and a lobster is not because it does not seems (to me) to be purely speculation. Your comment ‘suffice it to say that the clean land animals were the ones which were truly land animals’ certainly begs an interpretation. (Why pigs and not cows?) Did God really want the Israelites to meditate on his holiness at every meal and these laws reflect that?
    I know that you could not blog all the research behind this view but at the end of reading it, I thought, ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’

    • Thanks, Ken. Your are wise to express a bit of distrust on what seems to be speculative conjecture. But you’re also right that I didn’t have time or space in that blog post to include all the arguments and evidence that go into Douglas’s hypothesis, evidence which is anthropological, comparative and exegetical. Remember that I said that “many” OT commentators like Douglas’s theory and that they consider it to be a good explanatory rationale to a “considerable extent.” I think I could pretty safely change that word “many” to “most.” But I also think that most of these do not think that Douglas’s rationale is completely explanatory. So, they usually end up supplementing with additional considerations. So, for example, for the sky animals they also suggest that the carrion eating birds were also excluded due to the laws about not eating blood. Also, it is suggested that for land animals, the normal pastoral animals, sheep and cattle, were chosen as the “paradigm” for which other animals would be acceptable, to prevent indiscriminate slaughter of a wide variety of species. In any case, you’ll be able to read the definitive, last word on this when my commentary comes out! 🙂 Good questions and good cautions.

  4. Here’s proof that I read the blog :). What I like about the post is that in the end there is a good application to the lives of Christians in the New Testament era.

  5. Notice that this is now 2017 and the commentary is yet to be finished….a coupl of years from 2014????…….hmmmmm

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