Not Just One Reason

Growing up, my family had a lot of odd conversations, especially on the rare occasions we watched TV. One of these led to my mom pointing out that a lot of the “strange” things that the Bible told the Jews to do were not just for religious reasons (I think it came out of a TV character using ‘religious’ as a synonym for ‘serves no practical purpose’)—they made very good practical sense, too. Simplest example, pork is horrifically dangerous if you don’t have a fridge and don’t know about invisible dangers.

A ban on consuming blood means that the meat is always well drained from a carcass, which is good for keeping the meat edible, and blood is a very good place for dangerous bacteria to grow; symbolically, blood is life and sacrifice, and so treating it specially is important.

Later on, learning a little bit more about kosher and symbols, there’s the way you’re not supposed to mix milk and meat—practically, those two are quite dangerous enough without making a combination of risk factors; symbolically on a narrow focus, meat-in-milk it was a common delicacy for their neighbors and so not doing so illustrates “we are not like you”; symbolically on a broader focus, stewing a calf in the milk of its mother is a bit gruesome, what with new life cut short in the symbol of nurturing and all, especially when you consider the sort of things the Israeli’s neighbors did to their children in those days.

I remember being taught in a church class that a lot of things were given symbolic weight during the middle ages— things like using a golden chalice for Mass because gold is valuable, but also because gold is a symbol of incorruptibility, royalty, and the sun. (With my rather shotgun approach to learning, I suspect that it wasn’t so much that the middle ages gave things symbolic meaning as that they were a lot more likely to be obvious about it, at least to modern eyes.)

I think that there’s more than the obvious “give up something good” aspect to abstaining during Lent, although it’s less obvious these days.

Baby rabbits, eggs, lambs and chicks are symbols of Easter; during the middle ages (from memory here, again) people would not eat eggs, milk products or meat for all of Lent, then you end all that with the celebration of life… doesn’t that mean that the eggs they weren’t eating were then likely to hatch into those chicks I mentioned? The calves had best be nursing, or the milk cow would go dry– and if the calf is weaned, then you’re making all the milk into cheese? The lambs wouldn’t be eaten in celebration until at least Easter, meaning less times of celebration, meaning more adult sheep? ALL of the animals that humans raise would be left alone during the most important part of the lifecycle—bearing and raising the next generation; same for the wild animals that humans hunt, like rabbits. Even the cheesy fantasy novels I read like to make a big deal about figuring out if a rabbit caught in a snare had kits or not, and that sort of question is utterly averted if no-one is hunting during spring.

Maybe this is an old thought, but it sure pleased me to see how it works so neatly— sort of like a Catholic version of the appeal of Gnosticism: it’s not that the knowledge is really hidden, it’s just that I haven’t thought about it right.
Even if the revelation was inspired by the jingly-chick and bright purple bunny my daughters play with.

2 Responses to Not Just One Reason

  • Good reflection there Foxfier. God isn’t stupid, and I don’t think there is any genuine religious tradition that is simply arbitrary or exists for no reason — they all have some logic to them.

    The “practicality” of the Mosaic Law can be glimpsed in other aspects. For example, the 40 days of ritual uncleanness, followed by purification, that women underwent after giving birth correspond almost exactly to the standard 6 week recovery period after childbirth today. Being “unclean”, though it sounds bad, meant women were excused from most of their ordinary household duties like cooking and cleaning (since anything they touched became unclean) and it also allowed them time to bond with their babies.

    Also, the Law of Niddah, which prohibited sexual contact (or any contact at all) between a woman and her husband during her menstrual period and for 7 days afterward, meant that the period of abstinence would usually end right around the time the wife was most fertile — sort of a reverse rhythm method.

    Then there are the economic laws like the “sabbatical” year every 7 years when the land was allowed to “rest” (to prevent exhaustion of the soil) and the “jubilee” year every 50 years when debts were canceled, slaves freed, and lands that had been sold to pay debts were returned to the original owners. Whether this was ever actually carried out exactly as prescribed in Scripture is a bit doubtful, but it did seem to have some logic to it… it would allow everyone an economic “do over” at least once in their lifetimes and prevent the rich from perpetually getting richer while the poor sink into a permanent underclass.

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