The Ethics of Eating Shellfish

canstockphoto4245757Why was it a sin for the ancient Israelites to eat shellfish?

Leviticus 11:9-12 says, “These you may eat, whatever is in the water: all that have fins and scales, those in the water, in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. But whatever is in the seas and in the rivers, that do not have fins and scales among all the teeming life of the water, and among all the living creatures that are in the water, they are detestable things to you, and they shall be abhorrent to you; you may not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses you shall detest. Whatever in the water does not have fins and scales is abhorrent to you.”

These are verses that few people know about and even fewer bother with. What’s wrong with shrimp, lobster, and crabs? Some people are allergic to them, other people don’t like their taste or texture, and I even know some people who can’t stand the thought of eating what is essentially an underwater insect. But sinful? Abhorrent? Or, in many translations, an abomination?

That’s pretty strong language, and few of us would attach moral implications to these things. It’s therefore easy to dismiss these verses as culturally conditioned and irrelevant to our times, or as part of the Old Testament Law that the Jews were under while we Christians are under grace. We then have permission to totally ignore these verses while still claiming them as God’s revealed word, every bit as inspired as the red letters in the gospels.

It’s important to understand the purpose of the various laws of the Torah. They aren’t just random laws based on the peculiarities of an ancient people or the whims of a capricious god. These laws were given to distinguish the people of Israel from the other people in the land of Canaan; more to the point, they were given to keep the Israelites from the idolatrous practices of these peoples, to keep Israelite worship pure.

When we think of the differences between different religions today, we tend to think in terms of belief—what do Hindus believe vs. Jews vs. Christians. We may be somewhat tolerant of their different worship practices, strange and foreign though they may seem, because even among Christian groups worship practices vary widely.

In contemporary religion, however, beliefs define us. It’s important to us that what we believe about God is right and therefore what they believe about God is wrong, and there are eternal consequences to those beliefs.

I don’t think that ancient Israelites thought that beliefs were unimportant, but the laws found in the Torah don’t address beliefs as much as they address ethical practices.

What the Israelites found objectionable in idolatry wasn’t so much a matter of doctrine but rather ethics. Simply put, the religious practices of idol worshipers, particularly the fertility cults, exploited the weakest members of society. This wasn’t so much a matter of people exploiting the least of these in spite of their religious practices but rather that the religious practices themselves were exploitative.

Fertility cults existed as a matter of survival—if the land wasn’t fertile people died. The things that controlled the ability of the land to produce a harvest, e.g. rainfall, crop disease, and insect pestilence, were governed by the gods.

Please the gods and you will get a good harvest; displease them, or just fail to get their attention, and you risk crop failure and famine.

The worship practices in these fertility cults involved sex, which meant that the men participating in these worship activities needed a steady supply of partners, which were filled by shrine prostitutes.

Don’t just think women—think girls, boys, and even other men. They didn’t volunteer for the job either, but were forced into it. The women were often widows, left unprotected by a patriarch, and the children were orphans similarly unprotected.

And conquered people—those who weren’t slaughtered—were taken prisoner and forced into the sex-slave trade, where perhaps they wished they had been killed instead.

So the sex in these fertility cults wasn’t consensual—it was the religiously-sanctioned rape of the weakest members of society. This is why Israelite law prescribed the protection of widows, orphans, foreigners and other victims of predatory practices like usury.

What’s this got to do with shrimp? Well, I can’t say for sure, but given the above it’s not unlikely that this and similar laws are linked either to the actual cultic practices of fertility gods and goddesses or to distinguishing characteristics of the people who worshiped these gods, such as the Philistines who lived by the Mediterranean coast. (“Don’t do like those shrimp-eaters!)

Israel was to be a light to the nations, and light has to be clearly delineated from darkness. They were to be different in their distinguishing characteristics as well as their ethical practices.

“This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

It’s okay to eat shellfish, but it’s never okay to exploit the least of these. That’s the part of the Law that is still binding.

Image by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / BasheeraDesigns

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