Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
1 You are children of the LORD your God. You must not lacerate yourselves or shave your forelocks for the dead. 2 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; it is you the LORD has chosen out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
3 You shall not eat any abhorrent thing. 4 These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, 5 the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain-sheep. 6 Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cleft in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. 7 Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cleft you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you. 8 And the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. You shall not eat their meat, and you shall not touch their carcasses.
9 Of all that live in water you may eat these: whatever has fins and scales you may eat. 10 And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.
11 You may eat any clean birds. 12 But these are the ones that you shall not eat: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, 13 the buzzard, the kite, of any kind; 14 every raven of any kind; 15 the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk, of any kind; 16 the little owl and the great owl, the water hen 17 and the desert owl, the carrion vulture and the cormorant, 18 the stork, the heron, of any kind; the hoopoe and the bat. 19 And all winged insects are unclean for you; they shall not be eaten. 20 You may eat any clean winged creature.
21 You shall not eat anything that dies of itself; you may give it to aliens residing in your towns for them to eat, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God.
You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
22 Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. 23 In the presence of the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. 24 But if, when the LORD your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the LORD your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, 25 then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the LORD your God will choose; 26 spend the money for whatever you wish– oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together. 27 As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you.
28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.
If we look upon this chapters as merely a set of prohibitions of a couple practices and a lot of animals the people of Israel were not to eat we would miss the point. If we try to come up with rational explanations for why they shouldn’t eat certain things or imagine that the only reason these animals and practices are forbidden is because the Canaanites and other nations around them did it we would also miss the point. For the Israelites these are a part of bearing the identity of being a treasured possession or a people holy to God. As a people who bear the place where God’s name will dwell these practices also become a people whose identity is formed around certain practices that set them apart as holy. Part of being holy for Israel is living out of these practices for no other reason than they have been asked. As the Jewish writer Ruth Sohn can state:
According to Torah, God asks that we abstain from eating certain foods, not because they are unhealthy or intrinsically problematic, but simply as an expression or our devotion…These prohibitions are like the requests of a beloved; we may not understand them, but we are, in essence, asked to follow them purely as an expression of our love. (Thompson, 2014, p. 122f.)
The practices become boundary markers between the people of Israel who are called to be holy in a special way and who are to enjoy a special relationship with the LORD their God and the rest of the people. They are not called to impose these practices on others, in fact even within this section here we see ways in which these allowances can be used for mercy for the outsider, the provision that an animal that has died on its own may be used to feed the aliens residing in their town. It doesn’t mean that these are painless for the people who are living out of them. In a culture where meat was a luxury, as it is in most ancient agrarian communities, the prohibition of certain food sources that may have been readily available would have proved a constant temptation. Yet these eating practices proved to be one of the distinctive marks of Jewish identity for hundreds, even thousands of years. For example much later 2 Maccabees refers to the Jewish struggle against persecution under the Seleucid Empire in the reign of Antiochus IV with a specific reference to diet:
Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh. But he, welcoming death with honor rather than life with pollution, went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the flesh, as all ought to have the courage to refuse things that it is not right to taste, even for the natural love of life. (2 Maccabees 6: 18-20)
These practices of what to eat and what not to eat may seem strange to people who are not Jewish and have been a way in which others sought to get the Jewish people to relax their boundaries, yet for many Jewish people the food rules remain in practice in some form today.
The tithe, which is discussed in the final seven verses of the chapter is also a distinctive practice of the people but it is more about celebration than a burdensome requirement. The practice is in a sense a tax and a way to acknowledge the sovereignty of their God, yet God doesn’t need the grain and the wine and the animals. They are to bring them together and to enjoy together in God’s presence the produce of their flocks and fields. To take the ten percent of an accounting of the field and the firstlings of the flock are to be used to celebrate. Acknowledging the spread out nature of the community there is the provision to be able to convert the produce into money and then come and spend the money for whatever the family wants to use to celebrate. Meat in the ancient world would be eaten primarily at celebration times when a large group is gathered because there is no refrigeration to preserve the meat and so it would be an invitation for a large number of people to gather together around an ox that had been slaughtered. God allows for the people to purchase wine and strong drink as a part of the celebration as well. This is not a burdensome practice but rather a joyous one.
Within the celebration is also the provision for the needs of the unsupported ones of the community. The Levites who have been set aside for the operation of the tabernacle or temple need to be provided for so out of every third year’s tithe they are to be taken care of. Those who are the vulnerable of the community are also to be cared for out of this third year tithe: the resident alien, the orphan and the widow. They are to be the beneficiaries of this practice as well. As the claimed ones of God the people are to be the ones claiming responsibility of caring for those no one claims.