Bats, Cats, Rats and COVID-19 ~ a Missionary’s Perspective

Written by Larry Dinkins on .

Guest post by Larry Dinkins

Despite being the most scrutinized pandemic in history, the Corona Virus leaves numerous questions unanswered. Many of these questions will no doubt remain unanswered, but there is one that topped the list with SARS as well as Ebola and remains the key question with this present virus: Precisely how did Covid-19 originate? The answer to this $64,000 question could go a long way in helping remove the source of the next potentially devastating global pandemic. Helping scientists in this task has been the work done by Chinese researchers in 2017 who traced the last Corona type pandemic (SARS) “ … through the intermediary of civets to cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in Yunnan province.”[1] In the case of Covid-19 most research points to the wet-markets of Wuhan province that sell live animals like bats and pangolins.  The mention of people eating such exotic animals is actually addressed in the Old Testament and has caused me to look afresh at what the Bible has to say about Old Testament dietary laws.

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As a Bible teacher in Thailand I noticed that my students would do well reading through Genesis and Exodus, but when they got to a book like Leviticus they got discouraged and would often jump to the more familiar New Testament. Part of the reason is that they didn’t see how Jewish laws, like kosher eating, related to them. Yet a book like Leviticus could have helpful pointers for us living in the midst of our present pandemic - Covid-19.

By God’s design, Adam and Eve started out as vegetarians (Gen. 1:29-30) and then after the fall God allowed the eating of animals (Gen. 9:3). Later in Leviticus 11, Moses specifies both clean and unclean animals for the Jews, including birds, land animals and sea creatures.  What is interesting is that God seemed to favor herbivores, those more docile animals that had hooves for mobility in fields and mountains as they consumed vegetation. The unclean animals fell more into the categories of carnivores (meat eaters) or omnivores (meat and plant eaters), many of which survived by scavenging and would be more apt to carry disease.

There are many reasons for the distinction of clean and unclean animals in the Old Testament, not the least of which was related to health. By having detailed laws about which animals to eat, how to drain their blood, and then clean and cook their meat properly, God was protecting his people from many of the diseases that affected the surrounding countries.

For 27 years of my life, I shopped in modern grocery stores and gave no thought to whether the food I put in my cart was edible or tainted in some way. I was confident that the regulations that my government had concerning meats and proper food preparation would keep me healthy.  So, my wife and I were in for a shock after arriving in Thailand as we carefully filtered water, disinfected our lettuce with an amebicide, and overly cooked much of our meat.  An incentive for this was our periodic encounters with amoebic dysentery, para-typhoid, frequent diarrhea, and the first two dates that I always jotted into my yearly calendar:  June 1 and January 1 (Remember to deworm the family).

On top of that was the decisions we had to make concerning the exotic foods that our Thai hosts sometimes expected us to consume. I don’t ever remember eating even one insect in my previous life, but in Central Thailand I was served ant eggs, beetles, and grubs.  I’ll never forget sitting with a group of young men on a Sunday afternoon as we watched muay thai boxing on the TV and the large bowl of treats that was placed before me to munch on. However, when I reached in the bowl expecting chips or popcorn, I discovered a bowl full of roasted locust! (I learned to pull off the legs first, otherwise they get caught in your throat).  One provocative slide that was sure to get a “rise” from my audience was my two young sons holding BBQed rats on a stick (I always reminded the audience that these were “clean” rats from the fields that only ate rice). You also have situations when you happen to run over a large snake with your car, only to turn around and see someone picking it up to take home and eat.

Probably the most memorable dietary discussion I ever had was with my friend Bill who was co-teaching a class with me at the Asian Theological Seminary in Manila. At lunch we ate with the Filipino students and at the end of the cafeteria line was a large tray of what looked like brownies.  Bill has been a missionary in Israel and has done evangelism with the Jews for over thirty years.  He scooped up a “brownie” and put it on his plate. Just before he took a bite I said, “Bill, you do know that the “brownie” on your fork is actually coagulated blood.”  Bill was taken aback and exclaimed, “Blood? What type of blood?”  I replied, “Pig’s blood.”  Bill was incredulous, but I reminded him of Jesus’ words in Mark 7:18-19, “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?  For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)  Bill replied, “Yes, Larry, but pig’s blood isn’t FOOD!”

To this day, my Thai church after the service will often serve “Pork Soup with Pig’s Blood Jelly”. As I look down at my lunch I simply repeat a phrase a senior worker told me early on, “Larry, it isn’t wrong, it’s just different.”  I’m also reminded that it is not my role to judge other cultures on secondary matters like food.  A rabbi from the states learned this truth on a visit to a rural area of China. His tour director took him to the house of an elderly woman who had a picture on the wall of her with the rock star, Michael Jackson. The rabbi explained, “The tour director had brought Jackson to the village on a tour about a year earlier. In the house, the pop star saw an emaciated cat. He gave the woman a $100 bill and told her to feed the cat. After he departed, she did so. And then, when the cat was fattened up, she ate it. It’s the kind of story you don’t forget, and years later, when I became friends with Jackson, I told him the story and he said he remembered the woman and the village. He wasn’t happy to hear that the woman had eaten the cat. I told him that given the level of poverty in the village, perhaps she had no choice. Who am I to judge a poor woman and what she consumes to survive and feed her family?”[2]

In the West we take access to clean foods and plentiful protein for granted. Yet in many parts of the world, people are willing to eat most anything that will give them the protein needed to survive.  That is why it is good to study the teachings of Jesus alongside the dietary laws of Leviticus. Besides his comments in Mark 7, Jesus once said to his disciples in Matthew 15:17-20, “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?  But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”  Jesus as a Jew adhered to the stipulations of Leviticus 11 and no doubt there are principles in that chapter that we would do well to take heed of as we seek to eliminate the all too frequent pandemics that threaten our world. However, there is a greater defilement that is a continual threat, affecting all aspects of people’s lives: the defilement of sinful thoughts and actions.  Fortunately, there is an effective inoculation and cure for this defilement in the cross of Jesus. May God give us the boldness to share this cure globally with as many as we can before it is too late.

[1] "Severe acute respiratory syndrome" on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severe_acute_respiratory_syndrome, accessed 7 May 2020.

[2] Shmuley Boteach, "Could the Bible’s prohibition on eating bats have prevented coronavirus?", 26 April 2020, The Jersusalem Posthttps://www.jpost.com/judaism/could-the-bibles-prohibition-on-eating-bats-have-prevented-coronavirus-625901,  accessed 7 May 2020