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Publication - Professor Jonathan Burnside

    At Wisdom’s Table

    How Narrative Shapes the Biblical Food Laws and their Social Function


    Burnside, JP, 2016, ‘At Wisdom’s Table: How Narrative Shapes the Biblical Food Laws and their Social Function ’. Journal of Biblical Literature, vol 135., pp. 223-245


    The food laws of Lev 11:3-23 and Deut 14:3-20 are one of the great enigmas of biblical law. To understand them better I propose we see the food laws as a series of ‘narrative paradigms’ aimed at a high-context society in which information is shared and internalised. This shared social knowledge raises the question of how the common environment of ancient Israel would make the categories intuitively clear. The narrative paradigms make sense because they reflect day-to-day engagement with the environment. The paradigm cases identify certain characteristics of a taxonomic group, which are then negated. The effect is to convey a complex body of knowledge about what can and cannot be eaten in an economical, unambiguous and practical manner. The laws build on each other, enabling the audience to accumulate knowledge as they progress through the different categories. In this way, the very construction of the categories clean and unclean – and hence the structure and presentation of the laws themselves – is shaped by practical wisdom. This is consistent with self-executing narrative rules elsewhere in biblical law. This reanalysis helps us to understand both the compositional strategy of the food laws and their social function.

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