BLOG: The RAH! Story© — Thou Shall Not Eat Geckos

Thou Shall Not Eat Geckos

23 May 2010

Jessica Maxwell

Professor Richard Rohrbaugh’s voice painted the Fellowship Hall with power. “In a recent study that looked at the values of Christians compared to those of the rest of the population, the only appreciable difference was that Christians are more willing to use nuclear weapons than everyone else.” Rohrbaugh extended his arms and fanned his fingers lizard-like at his audience. “My friends, we have long since lost touch with our Christian heritage.”

Rohrbaugh should know. He is Professor Emeritus in Religious Studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and the author of nine books on early Christian anthropology and the Judaic culture into which Christ was born. Rohrbaugh and his God-talks-to-Charleston-Heston voice were not messing around.

Tom and I sat honeycombed together in Portland’s stately Westminster Presbyterian Church with the other 150 people who had abandoned their New York Times Crossword Puzzles in order to attend Rohrbaugh’s early Sunday morning Adult Ed. class on rabbinical law in the Old Testament. I wished I had another cup of my breakfast tea and Tom had shaved so fast he looked like he’d narrowly missed Abraham’s Akedah knife himself.

Professor Rohrbaugh wheeled to face a screen on which was projected a curious list. “Thou shall not eat weasels, mice, land crocodiles or geckos,” he boomed. “Thou shall use no mixed-fiber cloth. Thou shall use no mixed seeds in the vineyard. Thou shall not plow with ox and donkey together. Now,” he said, whirling back like an angler executing a tricky back-cast in a river lined with gorse, “why did the early Rabbis forbid these things? What does all of this mean?”

I had, indeed, long wondered what all this, and other Old Testament weirdness, meant. As I mentioned in Chapter 13 of RAH, who would believe that God would be appeased by “the pleasing odor of burnt female goat fat”?  (Leviticus 4:28-31) And why the obsession with bodily fluids??

“A Rabbi was to be a legal scholar,” Rohrbaugh told us. There were, he said, two types of Old Testament law: Apodictic (absolute), as with the Ten Commandments, and Casuistic (case law). “The Rabbis’ #1 job was to make decisions on new cases of justice, especially on anything that had the potential to destroy the community.” Even the Ten Commandments spoke to this priority. “The Tenth Commandment was about not coveting thy neighbor’s wife, house, field, man servant or maid servant, ox, ass or anything that is specifically his, because there were no title companies back then, and any act that crossed property lines represented creeping boundaries which was viewed as a threat to the survival of the community. And by the way,” Rohrbaugh added, “the Fourth Commandment made the Sabbath a day of rest because they remembered what it was like to be a slave in Egypt working 24/7.” Who knew.

More revelations emerged in the following weeks. All those crazy attitudes toward the human body, we learned, had everything to do with, yes, boundaries. “What pollutes the body equals what pollutes the body politic,” Rohrbaugh explained. “Things that cross the boundaries were dangerous, therefore things that cross the boundaries of community were symbolized by the rules of all that crosses the boundary of the body: feces, urine, semen, menstrual blood…all of it! And by the way, on the Rabbinical map of who counted most in society, the priests and Levites were first, followed by Israelites, converts, freed slaves, disqualified priests, temple slaves and bastards, ‘those with damaged testicles’ and, finally, ‘those without a penis,’ meaning, of course, women.” A collective feminine reptilian hiss rose from the crowd.

Meanwhile, we got to the bottom of all those no-mixing laws. “Laws prohibiting mixture – plowing with different species of animals, mixed marriages, mixed fibers in making clothes, planting mixed seeds – they were all about purity and loyalty.”

“So why couldn’t they eat geckos?,” someone asked. “Were they poisonous?” “No,” Rohrbaugh replied.  They were reptiles – and reptiles were animals of both land and water, thus mixed.” “What about pigs?” asked someone else. Rohrbaugh laughed.  “The Rabbis didn’t allow pigs because pigs use too much water,” he said. “And in a desert, that threatened the survival of the tribe.”

Rohrbaugh’s eyes searched the room like the strong beam of a lighthouse. “Are you beginning to see what’s going on here?  Can you feel the fear? The early Israelites were a small, beleaguered, poverty-ridden group struggling back from Babylon with enemies all around. They are doing everything they possibly can to survive. And then into this culture comes Jesus, telling people to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, and honor women. Can you imagine anything more radical?”

No we couldn’t. Except, maybe, “Christians” using nuclear weapons.