The ancient Israelites’ diet consisted of very little meat, and most of that came from animals they raised. That was not true in the rest of the world. For many people in China and Africa, survival meant hunting animals and using them for food. We now know that many of the animals people ate were intermediate hosts for viruses. A virus can exist for many generations in a wild animal and mutate until it can jump to human populations, creating zoonotic diseases. The list of viral and bacterial diseases that have originated in wildlife grows constantly. A partial list includes SARS, MERS, Ebola, AIDS, Zika, Lyme Disease, rabies, swine flu, and COVID-19.
Wet markets, common in parts of Asia and Africa, are a significant source of zoonotic diseases. There animals, including rats, snakes, birds, bats, and monkeys, are kept in cages and killed when people purchase them for food. The filthy environment allows saliva, urine, and feces to become mixed with the blood of animals slaughtered on the spot. Experts say 376 wildlife species are known hosts to zoonotic pathogens, and at least 700,000 different viruses have the potential to jump to human populations. Christian Walzer, executive director of health for the Wildlife Conservation Society, calls wet markets “cauldrons of contagion.”
In Old Testament times, the Jews had very strict rules about what meat they could eat and how to prepare it. One of the priest’s jobs was to inspect the meat that people consumed to make sure it conformed to specific rules preventing zoonotic diseases. That was the world in which Christianity began, and early Christians benefitted from the rules they inherited. The instruction of the apostles was not to eat blood or animals that had been strangled. (See Acts 15:20,29 and Acts 21:25.)
In Acts 10:11-16, we read the account of God telling Peter, “What God has cleansed you should not call common.” The message was that all people are precious to God, but it also implied that there was no longer religious significance to eating the meat of various animals. The dietary laws that God gave Israel centuries before were “nailed to the cross” of Christ (Colossians 2:13-17). However, what is religiously acceptable is not always biologically advisable.
It seems that the battle of the 21st century may be zoonotic diseases caused by eating animals that carry viruses to which humans are not immune. There were good hygienic reasons for the instructions God gave to ancient Israel.
— John N. Clayton © 2021
Data from National Wildlife magazine, February-March, 2021 pages 22–29.