God, Pigs, and Private Property


The Judaic prohibition on pigs has puzzled scholars for centuries — so much so that certain atheist writers, such as Christopher Hitchens, have used this prohibition as evidence against the rationality of Christianity. Recent scholarly work, however, persuasively argues that the pig ban was used to protect agricultural property from destruction wrought by free-range pigs. These scholars suggest this as a secular reason for the ban; however, from the perspective of a Christian, this is evidence for God’s commitment to the notion of private property.

The Pig Puzzle

…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 11:7-8 and reiterated in Deuteronomy 14:8).

This verse has caused confusion among Christians. “Why pigs?”

In his book, God Is Not Great, atheist Christopher Hitchens takes aim at the Judaic pig ban. The chapter entitled, “A Short Digression on the Pig; or Why Heaven Hates Ham,” (pp. 37-41) goes to lengths to demonstrate that the Judaic commitment against pigs is irrational. Hitchens lists all the benefits of pigs from the medical to the agricultural. Ultimately, he labels the ban as “ancient stupidity.”

This tirade against Judaic tradition should not be intellectually satisfactory, even for an atheist. Hitchens, though he relies on evolution to explain biological phenomena, is unwilling or unable to apply the same evolutionary principle to norms and customs. Someone as firmly naturalist as Hitchens should have no problem recognizing the alleged evolutionary advantage of religion, right? The fact that the ban persisted for so long should be considered as evidence for its potential rationality.

Enter economics.

The Pig Puzzle Solved

Economists Peter LeesonVincent Geloso, and Nicholas Snow made a significant advancement in understanding Old Covenant law in their paper, “Externality and taboo: Resolving the Judaic pig puzzle.” Their findings are summarized in their conclusion:

When viewed through the lens of the economics of property rights, however, the Judaic pig ban is not puzzling at all. Free ranging pigs in search of sustenance trespass on agricultural landowners’ property, wreaking destruction. Activities that foster such pigs thus create negative externalities that can cripple agricultural economies. When the expected cost of swine externalities becomes large, internalization becomes worthwhile: lawmakers with a vested interest in the agricultural economy ban activities that foster free ranging pigs. That is what transpired in ancient Judah, where lawmakers were priests whose livelihoods depended on agriculture, where all swine ranged freely, and where the expected cost of swine externalities surged during the late Iron Age. Lawmakers invoked God to enjoin involvement with pigs because a supernatural injunction was cheaper to enforce than a natural one: in a land of faithful Hebrews, Yahweh’s swine prohibition enforced itself. The Judaic pig ban, in other words, was an instrument for internalizing swine externalities.

Essentially, the pig ban was adopted to minimize negative externalities, or, in other words, eliminate aggressions against private property in agricultural land.

The paper seems to have secular conclusions, namely that priests edited (or manufactured) God’s Old Covenant law in order to minimize aggression against property that they have a vested interest in. Such a conclusion would run contrary to the Christian position — that God handed down this prohibition to Moses and Aaron.

Contrarily, there is reason for a Christian, particularly a Christian libertarian, to embrace the explanation this research provides.

Lessons for Christian Libertarians

God cares about private property. This is evident in commandments 6-10. Additionally,

39…‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these…commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22: 39-40).

It is likely, in light of the work of Leeson et al., that those laws that prohibit pigs stem from the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Protecting your neighbors farmland is perfectly consistent, no, encouraged by this commandment.

Taking the inerrancy of scripture for granted, Leviticus was composed prior to the invasion of Canaan. Would it not make sense for God to announce the prohibition on the pig prior to the Israelites taking a lot of agricultural land through conquest? I think so. Therefore, even if we reject the secular underpinnings of Leeson et al.’s research, we are able to arrive at the same conclusion.

The fact that pigs are destructive is enough to justify a pig ban. Leeson et al. say as much.

Wild pigs can do damages to agricultural activities in two ways: direct and indirect. Directly, as “pigs are…fond of cultivated crops”…, they can simply trespass on farms and consume existing crops. And their talent for finding crops using an exceptional sense of smell; willingness to travel to crops using their extensive range; ability to access even well-protected crops using their powerful bodies, sharp tusks, running, jumping, and climbing skills—not to mention their intelligence, for pigs are also among the smartest members of the animal kingdom—means that free ranging swine pose a serious trespass risk to agricultural landowners. “The pig is a major predator of domestic crops, with 30 to 90% of its diet consisting of field crops”…

The clear destructive force of pigs would pose a problem to any agricultural society. God, by imposing a pig prohibition, endorsed the protection of private property. Such a prohibition would have been invaluable prior to the Israelites beginning agricultural activities in Canaan. Additionally, given that the priests were made claimants on the benefits of agriculture, the ban was self-enforcing, as the paper suggests.

Christian libertarians, therefore, must understand that God’s ban on pigs is just one manifestation of his general endorsement of private property. To love one’s neighbor necessarily includes respect for the property of one’s neighbor. If owning pigs means the destruction of your neighbor’s property, then a moral ban on pigs becomes an imperative.

Moreover, Israel was a private covenant community, making any enforcement of the pig ban completely legitimate. Additionally, the pig ban coming from God Himself adds an additional level of enforcement — divine punishment. As Leeson et al. state, “[A]s ancient Judeans were devoted Hebrews, strong belief in an omniscient God who supernaturally sanctioned violators of his commands was widespread.” Divine punishment was a means of securing private property without the state. Such a conclusion should be embraced by Christians and secularists alike.

In conclusion, the pig ban was intended for protecting private property in agriculture. This is in the interest of God, who generally views encroachment on private property as a sin. Christian libertarians can learn a lot from this. The more that private property is endorsed in biblical law, the more that libertarianism is vindicated from the Christian perspective. This research shows that even seemingly non-libertarian biblical laws affirm libertarianism.

How many of the Old Covenant laws can be explained using the same logic? Leeson et al. suggest that other dietary laws could potentially be explained using the same property rights logic. It will be interesting to see where this research project goes with respect to understanding biblical law.

Lastly, this helps answer Christopher Hitchens’ question, “What was so wonderful about [Jesus] casting out devils, so that the devils would enter a herd of pigs instead?” (God Is Not Great, page 3). The possessed herd then runs off a cliff and into the sea, leading to an undoubtedly horrifying sight of mass swine suicide (Matthew 8:28-34Mark 5:1-20Luke 8:26-39). Hitchens asserts that this action by Jesus is sinister and Bertrand Russell shares similar sentiment in his essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,”; however, applying Leeson et al.’s findings, we come to the conclusion that Jesus did two good things — casting out demons and eliminating a destructive, rights-violating herd of swine. This action, in addition to being an exorcism, is an act of security provision for those who own agricultural land — further demonstrating Jesus’ commitment to private property.

Regardless, the pig ban fits nicely in the canon of Christian libertarian thought, and anyone interested should read through Leeson et al.’s paper in its entirety.