Categories, Crustaceans & Cyclic Time

By Vorjack

A month ago I wrote a piece discussing Cyclical Time and the way it affected the ancients’ understanding of history. Let’s look at that concept again, but this time focus on how it shaped the everyday lives of the ancients. Along the way we can attempt to answer one of those vexing questions from biblical studies: why exactly does God Hate Shrimp?

Ritual and Myth

Pullquote: To remember is to re-live.
Jewish Saying

Everybody who was once a Christian or Jew should recognize the importance ritual play in religion. The central rituals  — communion, Passover Seder — each invoke the sacred myths of the faith. By reenacting the sacred scenes of the Last Supper or Exodus, believers become participants in these holy myths.

In the ancient world, one of the most popular myths to invoke was the cosmogony, or the creation of the cosmos. For example, ancient Mesopotamian weddings were reenactments of the union of sky god and earth goddess. The binding of the participants became a recapitulation of the act of creation. Being monotheists, the ancient Jewish creation myth was a little more complicated.

Here the universe is described as chaos “without form and void,” a seething mass of undifferentiated matter envisioned as deep and roiling waters. The purpose of the creator god is to separate this formless void into meaningful categories. In other religions, this takes the mythic form of the God defeating chaos in the form of a monster: Ba’al defeating the sea-dragon Tiamat in the Canaanite myths, or Odin defeating the ice giant Ymir in Norse myths.

In these myths, the god generally separated the slain monster into component parts and used them to form the world: a skull for the dome of the sky, blood becomes rivers and streams, etc. The creature of chaos gets partitioned and defined into component categories: order from chaos. The Hebrew myth in Genesis 1:1 seems to be later and a bit more advanced, so we jump straight to the division without the slaughter: God “separated light from darkness,” and gave them the names night and day. God separated the water with the firmament, creating the oceans and land.

Categories

Pullquote: Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.
Leviticus 11:12

God then caused the earth to bring forth creatures to populate these various regions: fish for the oceans, birds for the skies and animals for the land “according to their kinds.” These “kinds” became the focus of some of the ancient Jewish priests. They established categories of animals, with each category based around same ideal characteristics. Fish, for example, should live in the water, have fins and have scales. Winged insects should fly, not walk. Hoofed animals should have cloven hooves and chew a cud.

Creatures that fulfilled these definitions were clean, creatures that didn’t became unclean. Cleanliness was therefore a function of purity: things that were purely within one category were clean, while things that straddled the line between categories were an abomination — a confusion of categories, and were thus unclean. So the ancient Jews ate fish, a category that had been established at creation, but shunned shrimp, which lacked fins and scales yet lived in the water. They stayed pure by staying within the categories.

By staying within the lines of these categories and not coming into contact with anything unclean, the ancient might participate in the process of creation. They were imitating or reenacting the process of division and ordering that brought the universe into being. This is what Eliade called Eternal Return, a way by which the ancient participant might return to the mythical age.

In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythic hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time. (Mircea Eliade, “Myths, Dreams and Mysteries”)

I’ve heard this theory from a number of sources, but it does leave a few questions unanswered. Mainly, if God brought forth clean animals, where did all these unclean animals come from? Christians would likely blame the Fall, but this doesn’t seem to be an important Jewish concept. It was only much later in Jewish history that Satan become a major figure, so he’s out. Does this point to some lost elements of polytheism?

Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.

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  • http://custador.wordpress.com/ custador

    FIRST! Bwahahahaha!

    Judaism is right: Shellfish is evil.

  • http://metroblog.blogspot.com Metro

    Interesting read. I always figured the prohibition on shrimp is simply what one gets if one lives in a desert culture any distance from the sea. Shrimp go toxic pretty quickly in the heat, ditto pork.

  • brgulker

    Mainly, if God brought forth clean animals, where did all these unclean animals come from? Christians would likely blame the Fall, but this doesn’t seem to be an important Jewish concept. It was only much later in Jewish history that Satan become a major figure, so he’s out. Does this point to some lost elements of polytheism?

    1) It could be remnants of polytheism. There’s no question that the ancient Hebrews believed in more than one “god,” in that they did not necessarily deny that other spiritual beings lived in the heavens. YHWH

  • Barry

    I think Metro is on to a possible reason for some of the dietary laws. A confusion of categories could be plausible for shrimp but how would that relate to pork or certain types of birds that Jews were forbidden to eat?

    I think a lot of the other dietary laws might have been to help picture some sort of cycle of life, so you can’t cook an animal in it’s mother’s milk for example. Others might have been to help contribute to a separate identity from the surrounding pagan culture. Many of the laws then are symbolic in a ceremonial sense. I think this may be the idea on Kosher preparation of food.

    Unclean animals come from the same place as clean ones, I see no need for a Christian to invoke the fall to explain their existence. Wouldn’t even Jews claim that God created all living things? Clean and unclean are in the end ceremonial distinctions not a distinction in origin.

  • brgulker

    Ignore the above post by me.

    ================

    Mainly, if God brought forth clean animals, where did all these unclean animals come from? Christians would likely blame the Fall, but this doesn’t seem to be an important Jewish concept. It was only much later in Jewish history that Satan become a major figure, so he’s out. Does this point to some lost elements of polytheism?

    1) It could be remnants of polytheism. There’s no question that the ancient Hebrews believed in more than one “god,” in that they did not necessarily deny that other spiritual beings lived in the heavens. In early Hebrew thought, YHWH was not the only god; instead, YHWH was the most high god. There are reference all throughout the OT which reference a “divine council,” which is a collective of quasi-divine beings, of which YHWH is the ruler.

    I don’t have any specific knowledge about whether or not the unclean animals were created by some of these other beings, however. It may be possible, but I don’t know of any research that’s been done either way.

    2) I don’t think you’re right about all Christians blaming the fall. I think many would attribute the “clean” / “unclean” divisions more to cultural context. For example, pigs were “unclean” because they were valued in other neighboring religious sacrifices. Consequently, avoiding pigs was about defining the difference between Hebrew and ____________ ANE neighbor.

  • http://mehbooks.wordpress.com/ Bissrok

    I think the explanation might even be simpler than that.

    Things we eat: Okay
    Things we don’t eat: An abomination before the Lord

    I always assumed they just looked over at their neighbors, saw them chewing on a lobster or a crow and thought, “Oh, that’s disgusting! DEFINITELY going to Hell for that…”

  • catsnjags

    I always asumed that the ancient priests had observed that people who had contracted triginosis had eaten pork and that there was a certain % of the population that were alergic to shellfish (as there are today). Easiest way to prevent the diseases? Ban the source…

  • Niva Tuvia

    I can’t find anything in the new testament declaring that shrimp is evil… I’m pretty sure that these kosher food laws just applied to the people of that time. And plus, Jewish believers only believe the old testament. Which explains why they still practice this, and Christians don’t (at least not any that I know).

  • Devysciple

    I’m very grateful for Vorjack’s post, for two reasons:

    1) It’s a good read on an interesting idea, and

    2) it connects with a thought that crossed my mind the other day:

    Let’s (for the umpteenth time) assume, that God exists, that he bares some more than coincidental similarity to the guy described in the bible, and that the original sin is in some sense true (not necessarily literally, but you have to justify why you believe in someone getting nailed to a cross has saved you). So as a starting point we assume mankind to be sinful, probably evil. Therefore, we get punished, through natural desasters’n’stuff. Now here’s my question: What, in the name of the (hypothetical) Lord, did all the animals that were killed in natural disasters, man-related desasters, the FloodTM, and so on have to die?! What did they do wrong? Is there any biblical/theological explanation? One, that might even make the least amount of sense to a skeptic?

    Thanks for suffering through another of my mandatory off-topics ;-)

  • Niva Tuvia

    I don’t see where you were going with that. Maybe my IQ just isn’t high enough to reach your level (jk).

    But if you want a biblical retort, God declares what is just/righteous/fair. Not people. Therefore, I can’t answer your question.

  • Eumaios

    Here’s my hypothesis. God doesn’t really hate crustaceans. He just pretends to. He does really love fishing (note, for instance, Christ’s selection of fishermen to be among his disciples). So by declaring shrimp, crayfish, crabs, and the like unclean and forbidding his followers to have any truck with them, God gets to keep a lot of the best bait to himself.