Thursday, August 2, 2012

With all of the controversy exploding around the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain due to the owner’s position on marriage, I decided to explore the Bible on this topic - not on the topic of marriage and sexuality, but on the topic of chicken. Due to the heavy summer academic work schedule, I was not able to pull together my own research on this topic. This is an essay I found in The Journal for the Study of Biblical Foodstuffs and Beverages Vol. 29 (3) 1978, by Abstemious R. Smithy, “Chicken Little? The Fowl Part of the Bible,” 17-31. I wonder if Abstemious – or “Abby” as I know him – was aware how relevant his essay would be more than 30 years later. I reproduce only parts of the essay, though if you want to find the complete text I encourage you to search for it. I reproduce the text with the permission of the author (the journal itself seems to be defunct currently).  At any rate, when he awoke from behind his desk and snorted at me, I took that for permission. It was the last piece he published prior to receiving tenure in 1977.

There is not a lot in the Bible on chicken, so far as I can see, though a good chicken noodle soup has a fine pedigree amongst both Jews and Christians. In fact, the word “chicken” does not appear in any English translation that I checked; I would have got to the Greek and Hebrew, but the English will have to do. But rooster does appear in Proverbs 30:29-31, in a passage that needs to be cited in full:

29 Three things are stately in their stride; four are stately in their gait: 30 the lion, which is mightiest among wild animals and does not turn back before any; 31 the strutting rooster, the he-goat, and a king striding before his people.

This is an interesting passage because all four of these creatures – a lion, a rooster, a he-goat and a king – “are stately in their gait.” I suppose I have to believe that, because it’s in the Bible, but goats and “stately” have never gone together for me, and I have spent some time around goats. Nor for that matter have kings and “stately” seemed to fit together, perhaps technically but certainly not in reality. What is more interesting is that “three things are stately in their stride,” but which three? I suppose the first three would be logical, as they are all animals and one of the four things is not like the others, but then the lion is said not to “turn back before any,” which might indicate that while the Lion has a stately gait he does not stride back for anything, even in a stately manner, which would make the last three mentioned creatures, including the human king, stately striders. This is a difficult interpretive and hermeneutical question, and I am not certain I can solve it here, but the reality is, I think, that the rooster is without question included both in stately gait and stride. The rooster is proud – cock of the walk according to the Bible.

The more general terms “fowl” and “fowls” also appear in the Bible. In a description of Solomon and his might, 1 Kings 4:22-23 lists his food for the day:

22 Solomon's provision for one day was thirty cors  (240 bushels) of choice flour, and sixty cors  (480 bushels) of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl.

That’s a lot of food for a king to eat in a day, but then kings are stately in their gait, which could burn a lot of calories, and possibly they are stately in their stride as well, which would probably burn twice as many calories. I have a feeling, though, that King Solomon probably shared his food with his retinue (see, entourage, posse, crew), his many wives, and the general courtly hangers on, who did not have stately gaits, but wanted some plump fowl nevertheless. Whether these plump fowl are chicken cannot be determined with the present state of research.

Nehemiah, when he became the governor of the restored Judah, also had big feasts and a lot of people with whom he ate, but he seemed to pay for this out of pocket. Chicken, or at least fowl, also played a big part of the meals. In Nehemiah 5 we read:

17 Moreover there were at my table one hundred fifty people, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations around us. 18 Now that which was prepared for one day was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and every ten days skins of wine in abundance; yet with all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because of the heavy burden of labor on the people. 19 Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.

This was not as much as King Solomon had prepared for his court, but then Nehemiah was only a governor and paying from his own cash, yet, still, an ox, six sheep, fowls and skins of wine suggests a fine feast for 150 people. “Fowls” appears in the plural, so I would suspect many chickens were amongst them, but how they were prepared is not mentioned, though I suspect spit-roasted, fried or perhaps cooked tandoori style.

4 Maccabees comes along at just the right time after these descriptions of feasts by kings and governors gets the mouth drooling and the stomach growling.  In a passage reminding me of the “Stay Well” brochures I get from my health insurance company whenever they catch a whiff of my weight, 4 Maccabees 1 calls for self-control in eating. It does not mention that the food be organic or locally sourced, but the call for restraint is fairly current (and kings and governors are put on notice).

31 Self-control, then, is dominance over the desires. 32 Some desires are mental, others are physical, and reason obviously rules over both. 33 Otherwise, how is it that when we are attracted to forbidden foods we abstain from the pleasure to be had from them? Is it not because reason is able to rule over appetites? I for one think so. 34 Therefore when we crave seafood and fowl and animals and all sorts of foods that are forbidden to us by the law, we abstain because of domination by reason. 35 For the emotions of the appetites are restrained, checked by the temperate mind, and all the impulses of the body are bridled by reason.

Now, clearly the abstention here is due to the kosher laws, because it states that these animals “are forbidden to us by the law,” so the fowl in question cannot be a chicken, which is kosher since it is not listed amongst the forbidden animals. But the general point still stands: when you want to eat a lot of food you ought not eat, either due to God’s law or due to your expanding waistline, caused by deep-fried food in abundance, for instance, let self-control reign supreme.[1] Nevertheless, if one was to crave an ox or a sheep or a fine, plump chicken, that would be fine, in moderation.  Self-control in all things, and a chicken in every pot, would seem to be a fine biblical motto, though I cannot find it in my Bible.

Though the chicken is a kosher bird, 4 Maccabees 1 speaks of craving “forbidden" fowl. Leviticus 11 lists a number of birds that are not to be eaten and which are detestable. This is where self-control comes into play, as 1 Maccabees states. Amongst these birds are vultures and owls and water hens (Leviticus 11:18 and Deuteronomy 14:16). The water hen is not a chicken, however, so though I have no clear sense of what it is, as long as you eat chicken, you are fine.  

Finally, a proper chicken hen is wonderful creature, for Jesus is cited comparing himself to a hen in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34:

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

 A hen – not a water hen mind you – gathers its little ones together and cares for them. This is only, however, a metaphor, though a very fine one, and one can still eat a chicken and not feel too bad about it at all, unless one were a vegetarian or a vegan and then feelings of regret might sweep over one upon consuming the chicken and regretting the lack of self-control shown (see 4 Maccabees 1 above). If you were Jewish, you would also want it prepared according to the laws of kashrut.

From the whole of the biblical literature, though, chicken itself causes little controversy, no matter how it is prepared, as long as people observe self-control, that virtue which derives from their own conscience, or unless God tells them not to eat it. Kosher laws guide Jews as to what food they ought to eat, while Christians are allowed to eat a lot of things that Peter preferred not to eat but which God told him was fine, including reptiles (Acts 10:9-16). I am rather with Peter regarding the reptiles and I have put them on my own “Do Not Eat” list, which has been gathered according to my own conscience, but if people choose to eat them, fine. But I do not want some government, for instance, telling me I must or must not eat reptiles. Generally, people would prefer not being told by other people what food they can or cannot eat or what they must believe while eating food.

Paul talked about this in 1 Corinthians 10: 25-29:

 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, 26 for "the earth and its fullness are the Lord's." 27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29 I mean the other's conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else's conscience?

Paul allowed the eating of all food unless it harmed the conscience of someone else because the prepared food had been offered in sacrifice. Did he say this about chicken? I think chicken must have been included in foods that had been sacrificed. In fact both Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:5 and Tospehta Avodah Zarah 1:21 note that roosters were sacrificed and so they could not be sold to Gentiles unless certain conditions were met. In the Mishnah,

R. Judah says, "One may sell him a white rooster along with other roosters. If it is alone, he cuts its toe; and one may sell him that which cannot be sacrificed imperfect for idolatrous worship."

And in the Tosephta it states,

"One sells to him a white rooster among many roosters", R. Judah says. About what things is this said? When (the Gentile) said to him, "sell me a rooster", without specifying what it is for. If he expressly stated to him that he wants it because he is sick or for a banquet for his son, behold, this is permitted.

So chickens were sacrificed by Gentiles and Jews could not sell them chickens to sacrifice, though if someone was sick and the Gentiles wanted to make a nice chicken soup, or there was going to be a banquet, with delicious roasted chicken, even Jews were allowed to sell Gentiles these fine birds. While Paul is not concerned with whether the chicken was prepared according to the kosher laws, he is concerned that Christians not participate in idolatry. Unless chickens were sacrificed and the host of the meal told you about it, Christians could freely eat these chickens.  It does not seem that the beliefs of the one who prepares the food, chicken included, has any bearing on whether the food itself can be consumed. Whether one eats the food or not, Paul suggests, ought to be according to the dictates of the conscience of the individual person. He ends by saying, in 1 Corinthians 10: 31-32, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.”

This is as much of the paper as I can bear to reproduce here; Abstemious goes on and on in this vein for some time. I am not certain that the Bible has a lot to say about chicken, but then again, maybe it does.

John W. Martens

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[1] There have been a number of scholars who have argued in America that “fried food at state fairs” does not fall under these guidelines; that is possible, but I can find no biblical reference to support the claim.