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The writer of Leviticus sure is smart. Right when everyone is hooked by flawless CGI and snappy dialogue, he reels them in with a gripping overview of kosher laws.
Come to think of it, that's pretty much what George Lucas does when he starts The Phantom Menace with trade route taxation.
Be not afraid. The writer sums up the food law in the last verse of this chapter.
The whole point here is "to make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten" (11:47).
In a weird way, this kind of makes sense as a sequel to the previous chapter.
No, really. Nadab and Abihu just died because they used something that wasn't holy in a holy sacrifice, and the leftover priests didn't eat the sin offering leftovers because the brothers' dead bodies polluted the Tabernacle.
Everything else in the chapter is just details. Easy peasy.
Two by Two
The writer starts with certain kinds of land animals.
Here's the first big kosher law: the Israelites can eat a land mammal that has a split hoof and chews its cud.
Split hooves = divided in two, like everything else in Leviticus. How convenient.
What's chewing the cud? Well, for one thing, it's gross. The original Hebrew words get right to it—chewing the cud is literally "throwing up what was swallowed."
The animal takes a bite of some grass or hay, chews for a bit, swallows, throws it all back up again and starts chewing it again.
So the animal that chews and swallows the right way is one that does it twice. Even eating is split in two.
By the way, the modern scientific word for an animal that re-chews its vomited food for better digestion is a ruminant. Think about it.
What a coincidence—cattle, goats and sheep have split hooves and chew their cud. They're the supermodels of domesticated animal style.
God has no problem with giving other animals a body image complex. In kosher fashion, you're in or you're out.
For example, camels fully digest their food with an alluring two-part chew sequence, but their feet are ugly because they just have single paw. Sorry, camel, you're out.
Pigs have perfectly split feet but are unclean anyway. Why? It has nothing to do with rolling around in the mud. Rather, it's because they don't throw up in their mouth a little.
This explains why the bacon meme is missing from ancient Jewish scrolls.
The uncleanness of animals isn't a moral thing—it doesn't mean that pigs and camels are evil. It's a taboo, sometimes referred to as ceremonial or ritual uncleanness.
Besides not being allowed to eat these ritually unclean animals, an Israelite is not supposed to touch their dead carcasses. This rule pops up again later in the book, because hey, who isn't tempted to go around touching dead animal carcasses.
The Scales of Ceremonial Justice
Fish gotta swim, which for an Israelite means they'd best have fins and scales.
As for sea critters that don't have fins or scales, Leviticus treats them as defective and taboo. This makes Jewish lobsters very happy.
The rest of chapter 11 draws dividing lines between other types of animals. The three big categories are birds, flying insects, and "swarming things," which includes creeping critters from mice to geckos.
The kosher laws go into picky detail about carcass touching and what to do with pots that come in contact with certain carcasses. Ick.
Looking for the infamous no-cheeseburger law, which prohibits boiling a baby animal in its mother's milk? That's not here—it's in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
Pop quiz: suppose an Israelite marooned on a desert island has only read the Book of Leviticus. If he survives by eating cheeseburgers but learns about the no-cheeseburger rule after he's rescued, what is his required offering: (a) sin (b) peace (c) Wilson?
Yes, the kosher law does include some rather conspicuous scientific mistakes. Rabbits don't actually chew their cud—they just look like they do. Winged insects don't have just four legs.
Why is chewing its own vomit part of what makes an animal clean? Beyond better digestion by the animal itself, Leviticus has a thing about vomit.
Not coincidentally, in the original Hebrew of verse 45, God tells the Israelites to keep kosher because "I am the Lord, the one who vomited you up out of the land of Egypt."
Once again, a double pun: the land of Egypt is unclean, while Israel, the land of the clean, gets vomited out of it.
This knee-slapping one-liner also explains why some of the ancient manuscripts add, "Yea, verily, I shall be here through Friday. Thou shalt remember to tip thy waitress."