Bat soup crazy

On the applicability of Kosher law


Looking at social media in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic can often be a thankless task, particularly reading things written by other Christians. One thing that crops up a lot is the reference to bats within the Kosher laws in Leviticus 11.13-19:

These, moreover, you shall detest among the birds; they are abhorrent, not to be eaten: the eagle and the vulture and the buzzard, and the kite and the falcon in its kind, every raven in its kind, and the ostrich and the owl and the sea gull and the hawk in its kind, and the little owl and the cormorant and the great owl, and the white owl and the pelican and the carrion vulture, and the stork, the heron in its kinds, and the hoopoe, and the bat.

Leviticus 11.13-19

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that these verses get quoted when rumours frequently circulate that the source of SARS-CoV-2 is from bat soup. It’s well known that cultures in the far East are much more relaxed about eating animals that we in the West wouldn’t want to eat. Add to that many rumours that eating a bat started this whole thing off, potentially killing hundreds of thousands of people, and it seems to be fair game to quote verses from the law of Moses that forbid eating such creatures. It’s surely game, set and match.

But when we examine things more closely, things become a lot more complicated.

This quote gives a good suggestion as to the origins of the virus in humans:

Soon after the Chinese government acknowledged there was an outbreak of a mysterious new virus in late December in Wuhan, scientists raced to sequence its genome. By mid-January, they had it and shared it with the World Health Organization.

Soon after that, scientists saw that the virus closely resembled viruses that circulate in bats. “If you look at the genetic sequence of the virus, it’s closely related to a bat virus, about 96 percent the same,” Jim LeDuc, head of the Galveston National Laboratory, a level 4 biosafety lab in Texas, told Vox. “There’s been talk about a pangolin intermediate host; that’s probably not true.”

Chinese officials also reported that several of the first cluster of cases had ties to a live animal market where both seafood and other wildlife were sold as food. (The market has since been closed.) The market soon became the leading hypothesis for how the virus made the leap into humans, where it’s been able to spread efficiently ever since.

The genetic evidence and epidemiological information, according to three esteemed infectious disease researchers writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, “implicates a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets.”

Whilst bats are mentioned, there is no evidence that a bat was eaten to pass it to a human, rather the human virus closely resembles one found in bats and that therefore the jump from bats to humans looks to have happened at one of the many wet markets found in the Wuhan province of China where a large amount of both live and dead animals are kept together in incredibly unhygienic conditions, with the bodily liquids of one animal drop from one cage onto other animals underneath. Proving beyond all doubt exactly how the virus made the jump is nigh on impossible, but these food markets have had the finger of blame pointed at them for previous disease outbreaks such as SARS, so it’s highly likely that there is some truth in this hypothesis.

Many animals sold from these markets will be animals which were forbidden in the Law of Moses from being eaten, that is for sure. But the blame for the virus jumping to humans seems more likely to be more the fault of incredibly unhygienic practices for keeping, slaughtering and selling animals for food, rather than merely in the eating of an animal which the children of Israel were commanded to abstain from eating.

The elephant in the room for anyone quoting Leviticus as a Christian is twofold. Firstly, in the New Testament, God speaks to Peter in a vision in Acts 10.9-16:

On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.

Acts 10.9-16

Now, of course, the immediate context of this vision for Peter was that he was being commanded by God to accept that Gentiles, non-Jews, those considered unclean people in the same way that the various animals which the Law of Moses classed as unclean, were now to be considered clean. Peter was being taught that the promises to Abraham and the Gospel message of Jesus were available to all of mankind, not just to the Jewish nation. And we, as Christians who are mostly not Jews, can be thankful that this is the case.

But whilst that is the spiritual application of this story, Christians since this time have mostly been a lot more relaxed about what foods can be eaten and which should be abstained from eating. Aside from the rules about flying creatures such as birds and bats, the most well known animal that practicing Jews do not eat are pigs. Pork is still considered unclean, along with shellfish and products containing animal blood. You will, however, find that the vast majority of Christians have no spiritual or moral issues with eating bacon, prawns or black pudding, to name just a few of the many food products which are not considered kosher in Judaism.

So why, in that case, do verses about not eating bats get bandied about as if they are still to be obeyed by not only Jews and Christians, but all humans? Clearly, having said all this, there is a great deal of controversy about eating certain animals. Eating bat probably isn’t recommended. It is a known carrier of disease. But are the Kosher laws in Deuteronomy there purely for hygiene reasons, or is there more to it than that? It would be very convenient indeed if all the rules in the law of Moses could be given logical explanations which showed that God commanded his people these things purely for their health and well being. But if that was the case, then why isn’t there the same revulsion made against eating pork and shellfish? Clearly in those cases there are good reasons to avoid those sorts of food, especially in places where thoroughly cleaning and cooking the food before eating isn’t as easily as it is for most of us. But other Kosher laws clearly don’t have their origins in health. Take, for example, Leviticus 19.19:

You are to keep My statutes. You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.

Leviticus 19.19

Many Jews to this day do not wear clothing that mixes wool and linen in the same garment, in direct obedience with this passage. But, let’s be clear here, there is no obvious reason for this rule. It won’t cause you to be at risk of picking up a virus or getting food poisoning. So it’s fairly safe to assume that this rule is there purely for spiritual reasons. It would have exhorted the children of Israel to avoid mixed marriages and to keep their distance from the surrounding nations. There are, of course, spiritual applications of this that Christians can learn from today, but we wouldn’t be expected to avoid wearing clothing made with mixed materials.

There are many reasons why quote-mining the Bible for a specific purpose is not a good idea, but when taking verses from the law of Moses without a decent context, we have to be extra careful. Using these verses against the Chinese to say that the reason that we have Covid-19 is because they haven’t read the Bible is, let’s make no bones about it, somewhere between ill-advised and just plain stupid. To use this in public preaching, whether on the platform or just on social media, can easily make a mockery of the gospel and blind the world to the reason for hope we have within us.

Featured image by Jessicajil