Categories, Crustaceans & Cyclic Time

By Vorjack

shrimpA 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.

  • 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.

  • brgulker

    Clean and unclean are in the end ceremonial distinctions not a distinction in origin.

    that’s what I was trying to say

  • http://unreasonablefaith.com Daniel Florien

    But doesn’t fish and any red meat go bad quickly, too?

  • Yoav

    I read a book a while ago that actually made a preaty convincing point regarding how this kind of dietary laws are due to economic reasons (it was called holy cows and dirty pigs or something similar I don’t remember exactly). For example he make the point that pig farming is not going to be sustainable in a society that is mostly nomadic or semi-nomadic in dry regions or how using cattle as burden beasts and to work the fields will be more beneficial then eating it in regions such as India among other. The real source may very well be a combination of economic and spiritual reasons or it may just be that someone with influence on the priesthood was a cattle farmer and he got them to declare that pork is dirty to get his pork farming neighbor go bankrupt so he can take over the market.

  • brgulker

    It’s not nearly that simple, and there is an entire mountain of research to demonstrate that.

    Btw, there was no conception of “hell” in the Ancient Near East.

  • cello

    And rabbits are prohibited too right? Which doesn’t seem to fit with the spoilage scenario.

  • http://metroblog.blogspot.com Metro

    Interesting point. Maybe it’s because all they had was red wine?

  • http://unreasonablefaith.com Daniel Florien

    Some Christians practice it because they think it’s good advice for health reasons or whatever, but most don’t consider it obligatory.

  • http://billpost.blogspot.com/ Bill

    “I can’t find anything in the new testament declaring that shrimp is evil…”

    “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).”

    Are you saying that Christians don’t believe inthe old testament?

  • dr.R.

    Not to forget the sacrificing of animals.

    But I don’t think there was something like an animal rights movement by that time. In order words, your question is too modern.

  • Devysciple

    Interesting anwer, but I might object that your line of reasoning relies on accepting biblical rules as results of ancient moral systems (which most people commenting on this blog certainly do). But I wonder how a literalist would answer this question… Pity, John C is not around anymore… but I would not have been able to comprehend his answer anyway…

    So, an appeal to all (ex-)hardcore christians: How would a biblical literalist answer my initial question? (being: Are animals exempt from original sin?! If so, why do they have to suffer as much as we puny little humans do?)

  • trj

    I think the sensible answer is this: animals were regarded as a resource. They were primarily seen as a source for food, clothes, and helping with the manual labor. They were not appreciated for simply being animals.

    We still do this to a large extent today. We appreciate the pretty bird or the graceful tiger, but we hardly spare a thought for the “useful” animals, ie. the ones we eat and skin.

    In short, a god’s indiscriminate killing of animals would not need any justification back then. I guess it wouldn’t today either if you ask the fundies who can’t wait for the apocalypse and the destruction of the earth.

  • trj

    There’s another reason why the innocent victims (be they infants, unborn, righteous people, or helpless animals) of God’s innumerable biblical mass killings can be easily ignored.

    They simply don’t matter in the narrative. They are at most a plot device. All that matters is the essential story of the mythical tale. Myths often work like this – they are usually not multi-faceted character studies inviting deep reflection, since it would just muddle the obvious meaning of the story. What matters is the essence of the story which depicts a certain event or a certain aspect of God. The Flood story is an obvious example of this.

    It’s when we actually take the myths seriously and try to analyze and compare them that we find as a result that they are inconsistent and often senseless in the larger picture we want them to fit into.

    Or to put it like this: Think of an action movie where the hero guns down thirty people and destroys half a city in a car chase, or maybe he blows up a death star killing millions of people. It doesn’t matter – he’s still the good guy, as long as you simply take the movie for what it is: a convenient fiction.

    If you decided to put Lethal Weapons through something resembling the theological scrutiny that’s applied to the Bible, you would end up with contradictions similar to those plaguing biblical scholars today. How do you reconcile Mel Gibson being a good guy with his (almost) indiscriminate killing? You can’t. But then, you’re not supposed to. When you see the Bible, especially Old Testament which is chock-full of myths, in this light, it makes a lot more sense. The intended message of the myths is what matters, everything else doesn’t matter.

  • Niva Tuvia

    I’m pretty sure, since mankind is considered seperate from animals in the Bible, and the laws are for God’s “people,”that they aren’t “sinful”. But everything is still considered under God’s law, if that makes any sense. I’m going to say that since mankind is also dominant to animals in the Bible, that it’s kind of like a king and his kingdom. If the king makes a bad decision, the entire kingdom takes the fall. Hence animals suffer for wrongdoings of mankind.

  • Devysciple

    Now, I don’t consider your either an ex- nor a hardcore christian. But thanks for the answer anyway, as it sheds even more light on the “morals” of the christian god.

    Consider this: Your boss has managed to cheat someone out of some (considerable amount of) money. Is it fair/just/righteous that you as their employee is getting punished for their boss’s crime as well? After all, you were ‘just following orders’…

  • Framtonm

    Just following orders? An unfortunate echo of the Nazi regime’s lesser orders.

  • Yoav

    According to the standards of the Bible than not only you but all your decendants onto the end of time should be held responsible. Isn’t that the whole point of the so called original sin.

  • http://metroblog.blogspot.com Metro

    I kept telling my priest that fishing on Sunday mornings counted as worship.

    Look–JC himself multiplied fish–During the sermon, even!

  • http://progressatallcost.blogspot.com/ markbey

    LOL. Great observation.

  • Devysciple

    I must admit that formulation was unlucky. Reading it today, I wonder why I wrote it in the first place. Guess that means I have to re-read my soon-to-be comments not only once, but maybe three or four times…

    I wanted to make the point that you just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and got punished for that. And I wanted to know if, in the eyes of (fundamentalist) christians, this was fair/just/righteous.

    Hope all ambiguities are now gone :)

  • Devysciple

    To your first answer, especially to

    I guess it wouldn’t today either if you ask the fundies who can’t wait for the apocalypse and the destruction of the earth.

    I think this comes closest to what actual fundies might argue. Animals simply are not allowed any justice whatsoever, so there is actually no problem with god smiting animals that were just minding their own business.

    To your second answer: thanks for bringing my thoughts and ideas on a new level in terms of thinking of the bible. I especially enjoyed the Lethal Weapon comparison.

  • Devysciple

    Niva, don’t question your intelligence. The fact that you are adding insightful comments on this blog tells more on your brains that any three-digit number ever could ;-)

    Besides, you couldn’t see where I was going, because I was going nowhere. I wasn’t waiting for a specific answer, that, when someone had offered it, would make me jump out of the closet, point my finger towards that person and ridicule the sh*t out of them.
    It was simple, genuine curiosity. Which has been satisfied by your attempts at an answer as well as those of the others. Thank you very much for that.

    Sometimes, I wish I had my own little pet fundie at whom I could hurl such questions. That would be so much fun, because a) I would not have to bother innocent people with my mental garbage, and b) I could watch it every time contorting some more sense of reality in order to keep up faith. But that would be unethical… I think ;-)

  • http://billpost.blogspot.com/ Bill

    “God declares what is just/righteous/fair.”

    Do you believe this?

  • Niva Tuvia

    No, I meant that most Christians don’t practice the whole kosher foods thing.

  • Niva Tuvia

    Yes. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be very “Christianly.” I’d merely be making a god in my own image.

  • http://billpost.blogspot.com/ Bill

    But you seem to be implying that it’s because they don’t believe in the old testament. If that’s not the reason, then why not?

  • http://billpost.blogspot.com/ Bill

    So if god declared to you that it’s righteous to kill the next person you see by lighting her on fire, would you do it?

  • Niva Tuvia

    *sigh* I think I’ve explained this before previously to someone… Anyways, those who choose to believe in the new testament, since there is nothing condeming shrimp or whatever, believe that the rules to kosher foods applied to those particular people at that time.

  • http://billpost.blogspot.com/ Bill

    Why the sigh? I’m interested in your answer, but I’m not sure I understand it.

    If you believe the old testament contains god’s laws, wouldn’t you be obliged to follow them?

  • http://billpost.blogspot.com/ Bill

    Why the sigh? I’m interested in your answer, but I’m not sure I understand it.

    If you believe the old testament contains god’s laws, wouldn’t you be obliged to follow them?

  • http://billpost.blogspot.com/ Bill

    Why the sigh? I’m interested in your answer, but I’m not sure I understand it.

    If you believe the old testament contains god’s laws, wouldn’t you be obliged to follow them?

  • Niva Tuvia

    No. If i thought I had heard God telling me to set her on fire, I’d end up being just like the crazy mother that killed her son for the whole “ressurection experiment” thing. God would not command someone to break His commandments. Murder is one of them.

  • bdemong

    Believing that the omnipotent creator of the universe can hear your thoughts is a sign of piety. Believing that the omnipotent creator of the universe is sending you a message by using rain to tap on your window in morse code is a sign of psychosis.

  • http://billpost.blogspot.com/ Bill

    Niva – you are kind of avoiding the question. Let’s try again.

    Let’s assume god comes down from heaven. Declares his existence and it is clear to all mankind it is actually god. (No doubt as to anyone’s sanity.) His first edict is that all redheaded people are to be killed by the person nearest them. You are on a bus next to Carrot Top.

    You say: “But god you told us not to kill”

    He says: “Yeah, but I also commanded a lot of killing in the old testament. I’m God, I decide what’s righteous and fair in any situation and I command you to kill carrot top.”

    Do you do it?

  • Niva Tuvia

    Nah, God likes Carrot Top too much to do that. They’re even in the same bowling league…

    I see what you’re trying to say. But if God did that, he would be contradicting Himself. If God were to contradict Himself, He would be a hypocrite, which goes against the whole idea of Him being a perfect God.

    So no, I wouldn’t kill Carrot Top. I’d break down in tears and agony realizing that my God was just another hypocrite. But this has yet to happen.

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

    Bill, I hate to point out the use of a bad example, but let’s be honest: Most of us wouldn’t need a command from God if we had the chance to kill Carrot Top…

  • Niva Tuvia

    LOL

  • http://billpost.blogspot.com/ Bill

    “But if God did that, he would be contradicting Himself. If God were to contradict Himself, He would be a hypocrite, which goes against the whole idea of Him being a perfect God.”

    This means that you don’t really believe “God declares what is just/righteous/fair.”

    You have an independent basis for believing what is just/righteous/fair, otherwise you wouldn’t break down crying. The crying stems from the disconnect between what you think is just/righteous/fair vs. the unjust/unrighteous/unfair act god is asking you to undertake.

    You are basically saying that you wouldn’t commit what you see as an unjust/unrigheteous/unfair act even at god’s direction.

  • http://billpost.blogspot.com/ Bill

    “Bill, I hate to point out the use of a bad example, but let’s be honest: Most of us wouldn’t need a command from God if we had the chance to kill Carrot Top…”

    True enough – and since many of us here are atheists, there really isn’t any reprecussions for us taking him out anyway! :-)


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