Of Demons and Pigs

JUST WHAT IS IT ABOUT PORK? Any contact with it is prohibited in the Torah. There we read: “Now the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying, “These are the animals which you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth: Among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud—that you may eat. Nevertheless these you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves: the camel, … the rock hyrax, … the hare, … and the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch. They are unclean to you’” (Leviticus 11:2-8).

Here the reason given seems arbitrary: is there a divine reason for preferring animals which have cloven hooves and chew their cud? If so, we are not told.

Modern commentators have suggested ecological and hygienic reasons for the Jews’ attitude. It has been suggested, for example, that because pigs will eat anything – garbage, offal, even carcasses – they were thought of as “unclean,” that is, unfit for God’s People.

The Quran also prohibits the consumption of and even contact with pork: “He has made unlawful to you only that which dies of itself, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that on which the name of any other than Allah has been invoked” (2.174). This and similar texts record the prohibition but do not explain it.

The prohibition in the Quran does suggest another possible reason when it couples pork with “that on which the name of any other than Allah has been invoked.” In fact, pigs were regularly sacrificed to “other names” at the time of Moses. In the Egypt of his day pigs were sacrificed to the gods, especially to Set, the ruler of Upper Egypt, and the pork was consumed in a ritual feast. One of their most important gods, it was Set, along with Horus, the ruler of Lower Egypt, who were depicted as crowning Pharaoh.

Pigs were also sacrificed to various deities by the Philistines, the Greeks and the Romans. Would this ongoing association of pigs with pharaoh and idolatry have influenced the condemnation of pork by the Hebrews? Idolatry and its attendant practices would certainly have been the greatest uncleanness to an observant Jew of the day; anything connected with idolatry would have been equally condemned. Perhaps the same reasoning applies to the Jewish prohibition against mixing meat and dairy. Would the fact that Canaanites offered lamb cooked in its mother’s milk to their gods, making it unfit for God’s People?

In any case, pigs became the ultimate symbol of uncleanness in Judaism and, later, in Islam. When Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son, for example, the lad’s final degradation was to feed husks to the pigs.

The Pigs of Gedara

Jesus’ encounter with the demoniacs is directly connected with the story of how He calmed the sea (Matthew 8:23-27) which precedes it. The Gospel says that Jesus and His disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm erupted. Commentators have stressed that Matthew used the same word here as he did in the account of the Lord’s crucifixion when the earth quaked. It represents an apocalyptic event, heralding the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God to the Galilee of the Gentiles.

When Jesus and His disciples get to the eastern side of the sea, they come upon the demoniacs whose healing is described in Matthew 8:28-34. Part of Jordan today, this was a region inhabited by Jews, local Gentiles and Greco-Roman settlers. Early manuscripts of the Gospel story vary, locating this event in Gadara (the center of Hellenism in the region), or Gerasa (modern Jerash). Both were Gentile towns, more Greek than Semitic, with pagan temples side by side with Jewish synagogues. Pagan festivals were observed, with dramas depicting the gods and sacrifices offered to them. Pork would have been considered acceptable here.

In the Gospel narrative the demons are given leave to enter the pigs and plunge into the sea. All that is unclean in this world (the idolatrous pigs) and in the spiritual realm (the rebellious demons) are destined to plummet into the abyss to make way for the kingdom of God.

While crossing the Sea of Galilee the disciples had asked one another “Who can this be, than even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (v. 27) – they had yet to experience Christ as more than a holy man. When Jesus confronts the demons, however, there is no need for a discussion. “What have we to do with you, Jesus, you Son of God!” they whine. “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (v. 29) – these invidious spiritual powers know what, at this stage the disciples do not. Much of Matthew’s Gospel is concerned with the disciples’ growing awareness of Christ’s unique relationship with the Father. Those “of little faith” would before long be spreading faith in Christ much farther than they had ever gone before.

The Time Has Come

What is “the time” mentioned in the demons’ complaint? These demons were not prepared to lose their power. They are depicted here like many Jews of their time, who expected to have sway until the Last Day, the apocalyptic end of all things, when the Lord’s Anointed would come in glory and judge the world. They were not prepared to encounter the King of the ages in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

This Jesus would come in glory, but not when and how anyone expected. Christ would be glorified when, triumphant over sin in Himself, He surrendered Himself to death in order to abolish it and overturn its power over mankind. Christ’s sacrificial death was His glory, the victory of self-offering in the face of a sterile world.

What is Clean and Unclean?

When scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem criticized Jesus and His followers for not observing the practices of ritual purification, He responded, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matthew 15:11). Impurity is no longer a matter of ritual practices but of our actions and intentions.

Not without some initial disagreements, the early Church came to maintain that there would be no clean vs. unclean foods, for all food is from God. As St. Paul insisted, keeping Torah laws does not justify us; rather we put our faith in Christ and in His saving acts. Nothing I do can “save” me. The source of all human uncleanness is that idea that I can save myself by doing this or refraining from that. Our efforts cannot bring us into relationship with God; it is only in God’s work, manifested in Jesus Christ, that we can find security and hope.