Pig – Day 14 of 30 Days [Biblically] Wild

Pig חֲזִיר  chazir

The Tamworth pig, one of the oldest breeds in Britain. Image taken from https://www.countryfile.com/wildlife/mammals/native-british-pig-breeds-and-how-to-recognise-them

I am really grateful to one of our current second year Theology BA students, Amy Williams (nee Bowes – congratulations also on your recent marriage!), for writing this wonderful post.

As recently as 2013, research has suggested that pigs were brought from Greece to Canaan. A study of pig bones found in Israel (along the southern Levantine coast) suggests that the Philistines migrated from Greece to the lowlands of the Levant in the Iron Age (around 3000 years ago) and European pigs took over the wild boar population in Canaan (modern Israel) around 900BCE [see https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/MAGAZINE-philistines-brought-their-pigs-with-them-to-ancient-israel-1.5469130]

The place of the pig in the ancient world

The Philistines likely brought European breeds of pig from Aegean to Canaan as they began to inhabit the southern Levantine border as early as the Iron Age (Sapir-Hen, Meiri and Finkelstein, 2015, pp. 307-308; 312). The pig remains analysed in Israel date from around 200 to 250 years after the Philistines first settled in Canaan, but domesticated pigs could have been present there as early as 900BCE, escaping into the wild and eventually overtaking the wild boar population, becoming the dominate breed [see https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/05/world/middleeast/pigs-in-israel-originated-in-europe-researchers-say.html]

Israel’s wild boars look identical to the wild boars in the Middle East, stretching from Egypt to Iran. There had been no reason to suspect Israel’s boar population were of European descent, but recent research suggests their European origins.

According to Prof. Israel Finkelstein (2013), pig consumption was used as a marker of ethnicity and identity in ancient Israel.

“Waste-eating pigs may have been good for keeping ships clean, he said, but they could not move great distances over land, so raising pigs might have become a marker distinguishing the Israelites, who were originally pastoral nomads, from sedentary societies. When anomisity developed between the highlands and the lowlands, as depicted in biblical stories like the battle between David and the Philistine giant Goliath, pigs could have symbolised a “we and they” theme, Professor Finkelstein said, as in, “They eat pork and we don’t”.


This may also be a way for God’s holy people to set apart as holy from other nations who are not. As Milgrom (in Kraemer, 2007, p. 14) puts it: “Thus, the biblical laws that limit Israel’s diet to only a few of the animals permitted to others peoples constitute a reminder- confronted daily at the dining table- that Israel must seperate itself from the nations”.

This is made explicit in Leviticus 20:24-26:

The pig as Godlike in Ancient Egypt

Interestingly, the pig as taboo’s origins might be traced to its representation in 16th Century BCE Egypt. At this time, pork was considered a poor (wo)man’s meal, and so the nobility’s avoidance of it could have suggested a similar ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality (Harris, 1987, pp. 76-77). As Moses is historically viewed as a civil servant during the reign of Rameses II, it would make sense that the upper classes aversion to pork as a poor person’s food choice would influence his adoption of the food taboo of the pig, as seen in the decisions made by Jewish priests (Lobban, 1994, pp. 59;64).

During the Seventeeth and Eighteenth Dynasties however, their is evidence that the upper classes received pigs as gifts and raised them for purposes such as trampling seeds for the growing of crops in fertile soil [interesting link to the illusion of casting pearls before swine in Matthew 7:6 perhaps] . Pigs were easily bred in sties or allowed to forage uninhibited in the local fields without supervision. It is evident that during this time pigs were widely reared for food and taboos against pork consumption were not strictly adhered to (Lobban, 1994, p. 64).

Nonetheless, in ancient Egyptian mythology, the pig was still associated negatively, long before Mosaic Laws forbade their consumption. When Upper Egypt conquered the Lower Egyptian territories, the pig emblem became a symbol of mockery. The pig represented the god Seth amongst the Lower Egyptian officials who governed the provinces which the country was then divided into. The pig’s lowly status was directly linked to the opposition of the god Horus and their association with Seth.

Depiction of Horus defeating Set(h) as seen in the Ptolemaic Temple dedicated to Horus in Edfu (west bank of the River Nile). Image taken from https://www.ancient-egypt-online.com/seth.html

According to Egyptian mythology, Seth was one of four children of the god and goddess Geb and Nut. Legend says that Seth murdered his brother Osiris (who happened to be Horus’ father) and blinded Horus in one eye in the form of the pig. Horus took the responsibility of seeking revenge for his father (as seen depicted above) and their eternal battle is supposed to represent the forces of good against the forces of evil (Lobban, 1994, p. 67). Perhaps this could be seen as reminiscent of Mary Douglas’ claim that animals with cloven hoofs represent the distinction between good vs. evil, and the pig’s lack of chewing the cud separates them as representatives of the predator [see below: Douglas, 1993, pp. 23-24]. Seth then became associated with the pig and evil. Indeed, the Book of the Dead speaks of Seth assuming the form of a pig.

It was also shown in the Egyptian representation of Judgement Day that those deemed as base would be damned to spend eternity in the stomach of the crocodile or hippopotamus (also representations of Seth). Pigs were depicted being carried away in a boat on Judgement Day to symbolise that any evil judged in the soul would be carried away by the pig, so that the soul (ba) could pass into the ‘other world’ (Lobban, 1994, p. 67).

When the Hyksos invaded Egypt in the 17th Century BCE they adopted Seth as one of their preferred gods. To the Egyptians this helped to establish Seth’s evil nature. The association of the pig with invading forces continued into the establishment of the New Kingdom.

Such association brings to mind the (much later) Roman Legions who invaded Jerusalem with the emblem of a wild boar [this shall be discussed later but keep this possible interesting parallel in mind].

Pigs in Israel

This leads us to Moses and the prohibition of pork in Mosaic Law. At the time that it is thought that Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, there was a sudden backlash against worship of the god Seth. Statues smashed, images destroyed- there was a resistance to Seth’s representation of evil against good. Figures and statues of Seth are practically nonexistence from this period (1080-664 BCE). Pigs still remained in Egypt as food for the workers, but was avoided by the nobility as the pig took on this close association with evil (Lobban, 1994, pp. 68-69) – much like Douglas’ assertion that the pig represented unholiness for the Israelites, particularly the priests (but more on this later). It has also been suggested that, as pigs breed and mature rapidly, herds can be established quickly. This would have allowed those of the working classes to have some semblance of independence, which would have worried the elite, particularly as pigs were not used for the production of taxable goods, such as milk and wool. The elite would obviously feel threatened by workers who could not only feed themselves but were producing less taxable goods for the benefit of the elites purse strings (Hesse, 1990, pp. 199-201 and Sapir-Hen, Mairi and Finkelstein, 2015, pp. 310-311). The elites may then have discouraged the breeding of pigs through regulations reinforced by the introduction of the taboo on the pig.

It appears then that the negative association with the pig can be traced back to before the food taboos surrounding them were codified in Mosaic Law. Hesse (1990, p. 198), for example, traces this attitude to the Caananite cultic practices of using them for religious sacrifice. The idea of pigs being used as sacrifice in pagan cultic practices would reinforce an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ attitude as proposed by Finkenstein. Accordingly, if this was the case, the pig was to be avoided at all costs for those whose worship Yahweh would have problems with its use in the worship of multiple gods by the Israelites’ neighbours, eventually leading to its prohibited status. As de Vaux, quoted by Hesse puts it:

But where did the laws about the consumption of pork from?

Clean or Unclean? That is the question!

Pigs are first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in Leviticus 11:7 (as taken from the NRSV):

In Israelite law, any animals who both had cloven hoofs and chewed the cud were permitted to be eaten. Those who did not have cloven hoofs or chew the cud were not permitted to be eaten. The pig was one of a few anomolies forbidden as whilst having cloven hoofs, it did not chew the cud. This was due to purity laws of the distinction between clean and unclean animals. Clean or unclean is not meant in a physical sense, as in the animals being dirty or clean (Douglas, 1993, pp. 5; 16).

Pigs then were not unclean, in that they are physically dirty (although we do know how pigs enjoy a good mud bath!), but that they represented (or were associated with) the often hostile, non-Israelite, neighbouring nations and tribes.

The idea of prohibiting the consumption of certain animals could also be linked to Genesis 1’s creation story. In Genesis 1:29-30, the creatures inhabiting the world (including humans) were limited to a purely vegetarian diet:

It was not until the post-flood covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:3-4) that creatures of the earth were permitted to eat other creatures (Douglas, 1993, pp. 16-18):

The consumption of animal blood however, was not permitted. As omnivores, pigs consume other animals, including their blood. Animals who have ingested blood are not permitted to be eaten as the blood would in turn be ingested by the individual eating the meat of the pig. This may explain why pig meat and products were forbidden to the people of Israel in their covenant with God. Those animals that are cloven-footed and chew the cud survive purely on a plant-based diet, and do not ingest the blood of other creatures, therefore they are ‘clean’ (Douglas, 1993, p. 17).

To be holy is to respect that the ingestion of blood is not permitted, the pig as a omnivore then, represents the predator, eating those animals unable to protect themselves; those who are holy, the victim of the predator of whom Isaiah spoke. Respect for those animals who are the victim of the predators is to remember the difference between the clean and unclean animals, and to refrain from eating the unclean animals whose ingestion of blood represents unholiness (Douglas, 1993, pp. 22-23).

The idea of animals prohibited from consumption may have, however, been a matter of economic function too. The pig was one of few animals in ancient Israel who did not serve a labour function, as cows did for ploughing and milk or sheep for milk and wool. It could be assumed that there was little need for the Philistines, for example, to limit their consumption of pork as large pig populations for labour were unnecessary. Pork then, was most likely a big part of the staple diet of neighbouring peoples and so, by omitting pork from the Israelite diet, it made the distinction between the holy people and other nations that much more profound and meaningful; particularly as the pig was revered by the Philistine people (Kraemer, 2007, pp. 18-19).

Pigs and priests

There is argument to be made however, that the layperson would have not been privy to the symbolism that the prohibition of pork entailed. It was more likely that such purity laws regarding food applied more readily to the priests of the temple. They would have eaten meat more regularly and also had a better understanding of the symbolism relating to ritualised food consumption and how it reinforced a ritual and social identity. It could be argued that the forbidden and permitted foods represent a distinction between those priests chosen by God and other those in other nations who were not chosen. For a much more nuanced explanation of this see: David Kraemer’s 2007 book- Jewish eating and identity through the ages (pp. 22-24).

Image taken from http://thejewishvoice.com/2018/02/22/parshas-tetzaveh-clothes-make-man/

Up until the first century CE, pigs were just one in a group of animals whose consumption was to be avoided. From the Second Temple Period, however, pigs began to take on a special status of taboo. I and II Maccabees, written in the later period of the 2nd century BCE, document examples of the particular refusal to eat pork by Jewish believers in a testament to their steadfast faith. I Maccabees describes how after Alexander, son of Philip (the Macedonian) conquered Judea, he was succeeded by Antiochus IV who invaded Egypt and captured Jerusalem, wishing to force the Jewish population living with the Gentiles, to observe Gentile customs and forgo their Jewish customs (Hellenisation). Antiochus took over the Temple and observed pagan traditions, including the sacrifice of ‘unclean’ animals in the Temple. This eventually led to the Maccabean Revolt of 167-160 BCE (Kraemer, 2007, p. 31) . I Maccabess 41-61 details King Antiochus’ suppression of the Jewish members of society:


The use of the pig as the sacrificial animal in the Temple can explain the development of its unique status as an animal of special avoidance which represent the eating habits of surrounding nations who had oppressed the Israelite people, using the pig as a way in which to taunt their eating habits as strange.

According to Talmud, two brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, were fighting over succession of the throne upon their mother’s death, leading to civil war as society became divided over who should rule. The brothers agreed to call on Pompey (a Roman general) to mediate their feud. But Pompey chose the tamer Hyrcanus to rule, hoping he could easily manipulate the new King and absorb Judea into the Roman Empire.

Aristobulus’ supporters refused to acknowledge Hyrcanus as their King, and a rebellion began, the Temple became a fortress for Aristobulus’ followers. Aristobulus’ supporters would lower money over the wall in a basket in exchange for an animal to sacrifice in the Temple. Hyrcanus’ followers would provide a sheep for sacrifice in observance of the need to allow the Temple to function uninterrupted for the good of all of Israel. Hyrcanus’ followers, however, were informed that, as long as the Temple remained functional, they would not be able to recapture Jerusalem for their King. In response, instead of offering a sacrificial sheep to the Aristobulus’ supporters, they placed a pig in the basket to disrupt Temple observance by the priests. The pig allegedly dug its claws into the wall and shook Israel.

Taken from: http://www.talmudology.com/jeremybrownmdgmailcom/2018/10/3/menachot-64b-cursed-be-the-one-who-raises-swine

This has, in part, led to the idea that the Israelite people should not breed pigs as they again represent hostile forces who have used the pig to mock and persecute Jewish people (Barak-Erez, 2007, p. 20; 2010, p. 424 and Kraemer, 2007, p. 31).

Marguerite Yourcenar, for example (Barak-Erez, 2007, pp. 19-20), has identified Jewish sensitivities with regards to the image of a wild boar (who bears resemblance to the pig) being used as the insignia (particularly on coins) of the tenth Roman Legion who were based in Jerusalem at the time of the Bar-Kochba revolt.


A running boar- symbol of the Tenth Roman Legion. Various Palestinian towns coins were marked with the running boar insignia for use by the Roman legionaries stationed there. Image from: https://coinweek.com/ancient-coins/little-piggy-went-market-boars-hogs-sows-piglets-ancient-coins/

Interestingly, a possible reference to anxiety about Roman forces pops up in the New Testament, in the case of Jesus casting out a demon from a man in Garasenes:

An illustration from c. 1000AD depicting Jesus exorcising the demon Legion from a possessed man into some nearby pigs. Image taken from: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-miracle-of-the-gadarene-swine-unknown-canterbury-litz-collection.html

As you can see in the above passages from Mark and Luke, the name of the demon cast out of the man is Legion. Many scholars have noted the reference here to the Roman power displayed in Jerusalem. Legion as the name of the demon refers to the demon being associated with the Roman legions’ presence. It is an expression of the Jewish people’s anxieties about the Empire invading their lands.

So as we have seen, it seems as though the pig has received a pretty bad reputation across cultures during the time the Old and New Testament was being compiled. However, there is hope yet for its status to become something other than being off limits or taboo. Research has suggested that its reputation is more to do with its unsuitability to the Middle Eastern landscape and environment that the pig itself. Lobban (1994, p. 71) for example, has concluded that, in areas suited to their rearing, pigs have consistently had a higher status, whilst in environments unsuitable for pig rearing the status of the pig drops dramatically.

Surprisingly, despite the age old saying of ‘sweating like a pig’, pigs are unable to sweat, they do not have sweat glands. Hence their love of rolling in mud to cool themselves in hotter climates which may have led to some dislike of the pig. Rearing pigs was dependent upon regular rainfall for moist grounds, varied trees which regularly shed their leaves, and copious amounts of fodder to feed the pig and rear it for meat. Whilst pigs are fairly easy to rear and grow quickly for the supply of meat, in areas with little rainfall, reduced forests and hotter climates, pig rearing can be extremely difficult and therefore not economically viable. Perhaps then the pigs’ prohibition might be less to do with its association as an unholy animal, but was instead a result of the difficulty in rearing them in unsuitable climates and, therefore being economically nonviable (Borowski, 1998, pp. 140-141).

Consequently, not all is lost for the pig though- which leads us to:

The Return of the Pig

More recently, some members of the Jewish community have argued that the pig will not always remain as a forbidden animal. The Hebrew for pig, chazir, shares the root word for the Hebrew lehacahzer which means ‘to return’ or ‘restore’. This has led to the theory that the pig will eventually return or be restored to an un-prohibited status.

As Kabalah online suggests:

Taken from: https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/2518058/jewish/Permitting-the-Pig.htm

The Pig as Pop Culture Phenomenon

In more contemporary society, the pig has been used in popular culture as both a protagonist in literature, film and even the main attraction in a curiosity show.

In ancient Greece, Plutarch, a biographer and author, wrote many dialogues surrounding ethical, religious, physical, political and literary topics known as his Moralia or Ethica. With a great interest in animals, he wrote Gryllus or Do Animals Reason? Gryllus is a dialogue between Odysseus’ and one of his sailors (named Gryllus) who has been turned into a pig. This pig-sailor, as he is known, argues against the Stoic tendency to deny reason to animals and claims moral superiority of animals over human beings. Gryllus and Odysseus’s dialogue can be can be read in full here: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Gryllus*.html

The ‘learned pig’ was a sensation in the 1780s. Samuel Bisset trained the first ‘learned pig’ to use cards with letters and numbers to answer questions, who was then passed to Mr. Nicholson to tour Nottingham in 1784 and London in 1785. Then there appeared a pig who could respond to commands by picking cards to make it seem as though he could answer questions. He travelled all over the world with his owner William Frederick Pinchbeck. Letters to and from an unidentified correspondent even suggest the ‘Pig of Knowledge’ met US President John Adams.

The letters between William Frederick Pinchbeck and the correspondent known only as A.B explaining how the pig was trained to perform such tricks can be read online at: https://archive.org/details/expositorormanym00pinc/page/n1

A similar phenomenon occurred in 1817 in London with ‘Toby the Sapient Pig’ who was trained to do tricks by his owner, the former magician, Mr. Hoare.

Toby performing his card tricks in London’s Spring Gardens. Image taken from: https://johnjohnson.wordpress.com/2009/05/26/the-life-and-adventures-of-toby-the-sapient-pig/

Toby became sensation, even penning his own memoirs: The life and adventures of Toby, the sapient pig: with his opinions on men and manners. Written by himself. Toby even credits his mother’s love of books for his talents. A summary of Toby’s fascinating novel can be read at: https://johnjohnson.wordpress.com/2009/05/26/the-life-and-adventures-of-toby-the-sapient-pig/

In 1786, The Story of the Learned Pig, By an Officer of the Royal Navy, tells the story of a pig who recounts his various reincarnations into various bodies before the his current embodiment as a pig. This strange little tale begins with the description of the pig as on his hind legs tapping at the door of the officer and apologising for his intrusion. The full book can be read at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433112065812;view=1up;seq=119

In 1820, Thomas Hood wrote a poem about the plight of learned pigs (Velten, 2013, p. 128) as used by people such as Pinchbeck and Hoare to entertain the masses and then fattened for food titled: The Lament of Toby, The Learned Pig:

All animals are equal…or are they?

Image taken from: https://davidrothwellgraphics.wordpress.com/2018/03/13/penguin-book-cover-submission-animal-farm/#jp-carousel-5400

The idea of pigs as intelligent creatures has been further popularised within modern literature, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which a group of extremely clever pigs plot a rebellion against the humans who keep them captive. They write Seven Commandments including anything which has two legs is an enemy and anything with four a friend, including those with with wings, that no animal shall kill another and all animals are equal. The pigs, being the most intelligent of all the animals, lead the others and the rebellion is a success. However, a pig called Napoleon becomes power hungry and steals from the other animals. He eventually becomes a dictator, breaking the commandments and forcing the dogs to kill animals based on false confession. The animals take over Jones’ house and the pigs take more food than the other animals and Napoleon extends the farm. Life becomes unbearable for all animals but the pigs and the commandment of ‘all animals are equal’ changes to the famous ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’. Napoleon begins to host card games for the owner of a neighbouring farm, and the animals cannot now tell the difference between the humans from the pigs. Again, pigs, whilst being portrayed as highly intelligent, still represent the less savoury parts of nature.

That’ll do pig, that’ll do- the pig as the breaker of animal convention

Image taken from: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/6f/Babe_ver1.jpg

Another anthropomorphic pig who instead encompasses the more gentle aspect of the pigs nature is Babe. A timeless classic, the film tells the story of Babe, a pig who, because he has been raised by dogs on a farm, thinks he is a sheepdog. Eventually Babe is accepted by the other animals, including by his border collie mom’s (Fly) husband Rex, as a pig who does not fit the standard animal hierarchy on the farm, and Babe eventually is awarded the highest score at a sheep herding competition for Farmer Hoggett, leading to the infamous uttering of “That’ll do pig, that’ll do”. Babe is the story of a kindly pig who defies the odds, breaks hierarchical convention and gains the affection and admiration of both Farmer Hoggett and his farm animals. Pigs are shown as resilient, kindly creatures who just happen to talk to other animals.

Pigs then, have endured through time as both forbidden representations of oppression, anthropomorphic show-stoppers and also as help-mates. They may even make a comeback as an animal no longer forbidden, but accepted and embraced…so watch this space!

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