One area of purity governed food . The Israelites were only allowed to eat meat and drink milk from clean animals, such as sheep and cattle. The animals prohibited as unclean are listed without explanation. One pattern seems to be that predatory or scavenging animals such as vultures were prohibited. Bottom-feeders such as crab, lobster, and catfish were also excluded. There is considerable debate as to why pork was prohibited. Perhaps they intuited that pork spreads disease more easily than other meats. Perhaps it started as a local custom that differentiated them from their enemies. Perhaps they recognized that pigs eat the same food as humans, competing for the food supply, whereas other animals eat grass, which is useless to humans. Perhaps it was the smell. Today Jews and Muslims agree that pork must be avoided, whereas most Christians think bacon greatly improves a breakfast taco.
Humans could also be in a state of uncleanness. It was not necessarily a bad thing to be in a state of ritual impurity , but it meant that one could not touch sacred things (such as the Temple) until a cycle of time and washing was completed. One was considered impure if one touched a dead body, skin disease, semen, or menstrual blood. One theory proposes that the common theme is death: skin disease represents the decay of a dead body, menstrual blood indicates a failed reproductive cycle, and semen anywhere other than a womb means it missed its intended target. The implied ideal is many children. Again, however, these normal parts of life were not inherently bad, they just meant restriction on contact with sacred things.
The Israelites recognized another form of impurity which was a bad thing, but affected the land and Temple more than persons. Moral impurity is a kind of pollution created by sin, particularly idolatry, adultery, and murder. Moral impurity pollutes the Temple from a distance. God is holy, and holiness is incompatible with impurity. If moral impurity pollutes the Temple, God will leave, which is bad because then God will not bless and protect the Israelites. The only way to remove moral impurity from the Temple and maintain the holiness of the Temple is to wash it with the holiest material available to them. For the Israelites, blood is holy. It is the life-force, the divine spark that makes us alive. Shedding human blood was completely prohibited. Shedding animal blood was okay only if the blood was given to God. The meat could be consumed by humans, but never the blood. The holy blood was sprinkled, poured, or scrubbed on the holy objects of the Temple to make them holy. Blood could also be sprinkled on humans to make them holy. Judaism does not practice animal sacrifice since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
Notice that the Israelites rejected the idea that God needs sacrifices for food (or bribery), but they found other reasons to incorporate animal sacrifices as part of their practices that maintained their identity and relationship with God. The blood of sacrificial animals was needed to maintain the holiness of the Temple. Food sacrifices were to be shared with others, especially the poor. The priests who worked in the Temple relied on a portion of the food offerings to feed themselves and their families.
The previous chapter introduced what happened to the Israelites. The ancient nation of Israel responded to the Babylonian Exile and Persian domination by developing into more the religion of Judaism than the nation of Israel. They got used to not having a king, a nation, or an army, and many of them grew accustomed to living as minorities among a dominant foreign culture. In the Persian Period (538–333) they still had their capital city (Jerusalem) and its temple to serve as the intellectual and spiritual center of Jewish life, even for those who lived far away. Over the centuries, Greek and Roman rule would make it harder for the Jewish people to maintain their identity. They had to ask themselves what were the essential ideas and practices that made them who they were, while they adopted and adapted new ideas. Some of the challenges came from the force of foreign armies. Other challenges came without violence, in the stories and ideas carried by merchants and travelers. The external challenges multiplied with internal strife, as different Jews took different positions on how to respond to foreign culture. By the first century CE, there were many different kinds of Jews. External and internal conflicts brought about the end of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the end of Jewish life in Jerusalem (135 CE). Unlike the Babylonian Exile, which lasted only a few decades, this loss of a central capital was largely permanent. The Jews who adapted to these changes did so by carrying their ideas in writing across many small communities, often no bigger than could fit in a house. Two major movements survived. The ethnic Jews who organized around teachers and interpreters of Jewish law became what we call Rabbinic Judaism. The other major movement rejected ethnic origin and Jewish law as the markers of membership in God’s people. For them God’s people were defined by faith that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord and the fulfillment of the Jewish law. They came to be called Christians.