Thursday, February 18, 2016

What does the Bible say about Eating Plancenta

For those of you stopping by to learn about Israel and the Jewish roots of your Christian faith, the title of this post might seem really strange!  I am a mom, however, and one who has a huge love of babies and birthing babies, so sometimes I like to share what I'm learning in this area.  When it comes to the particular topic of ingesting placenta, I can say that living in Israel and being passionate about the word of God has influenced my own personal choice on this issue.  If you are here to learn about Israel and Jewish roots, then you won't be disappointed if you keep reading! 

Growing in popularity within my generation, and the natural childbirth and natural parenting movement is the practice of placentophagy, or eating the placenta post childbirth.   Many women insist on its benefits of renewal after childbirth, but in all intellectual honesty, out side of anecdotal evidence - word of mouth from other women - this topic has not been examined in double-blind placebo controlled research studies to indicate whether its truly safe for mothers and their nursing babies, and the few studies available are not proving any real benefit.

Also, in my vast searching on the web, I have never come across any sort of scriptural study of this practice, so I did one of my own! 

As a believer in Messiah Yeshua, Jesus Christ, I believe it is imperative to not only allow medical research and the experience of other inform my choices, but I also desire to make choices that are inline with a biblical world view.  

Often this submitting to God's word will involve making some spirit led deductions based on principles found in scripture.  Other times, commands are clearly stated.  In the case of placentophagy, you might be surprised to learn that this practice is actually clearly mentioned in scripture.  Its found within the context of moral code, but not with the regulations of a moral code. 

Another way of saying it is that the place where this occurs in God's word is a descriptive passage, not prescriptive, mandating a law in which to abide -- but it is located within the broader context of the Torah, which provides the prescribed law.

With that in mind, I will provide some teachings from scripture, and explain how they shaped my own decision.  I hope to bring about some biblical insight that can help women decided if placentophagy is compatible with their faith expression and relationship with the Lord.  I will tell you in advance that after studying, ingesting the placenta is not for me, nor do I believe it aligns with a biblical world view.  According to how I understand the whole of scripture, the biblical text does challenge this practice, and I want to be clear about that upfront, while noting that I understand that we all have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.   Pray through what the Holy Spirit has shown me, and have a clear and honest conscience before the Lord in your personal decision.    

Also, I am not a health care provider so I will not delve deeply into those arguments. I hope to rightly divide God's word, and clarify with honesty where the spirit is leading me as an individual, as opposed to what should be universal for all believers.  

Where is Placentophagy Found in Scripture?

The book of Deuteronomy, the second law giving text in the Torah, is described by my NASB study bible (which I will use unless otherwise noted), as "the constitution of theocracy in Israel."  The book recounts the telling of the wandering in the desert, and the giving of the law at Sinai.  It then specifies the law, for the second time in scripture, with the reminder: 

"So you shall keep His statutes and His commandments which I am giving you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may live long on the land which the LORD your God is giving you for all time."  Deut 4:40
Just before concluding, this book offers a description of the blessings for obedience, followed by the consequences, or as scripture says, the curses for disobedience in chapter 28. It is within this section of blessings and curses, that we find the practice of placentophagy located in scripture.

The Blessings and Curses of Deuteronomy 28

Over the past few years, I have learned to view Leviticus and Deuteronomy as the Lord's instructions for wellness.  This chapter begins with a detailed list of the blessings of wellness and prosperity on the nation of Israel, for keeping His commands.    The Lord describes the many ways the offspring of the body, the offspring of the beast, and the produce of the ground will be blessed (v. 11).  

Many charismatic believers often claim a popular verse from this passage: 
13 The Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you only will be above, and you will not be underneath...

In context, this "blessing to be the head and not the tail" is contingent on obedience: 

... if you listen to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I charge you today, to observe them carefully, 14 and do not turn aside from any of the words which I command you today, to the right or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.

Even today, under the blood covenant of Messiah Yeshua, we can trust that there are always blessings for obedience, even if not immediately. 

The next section, beginning with v. 15, begins the consequences or curses for disobedience. 

This section basically inverts the beginning portion of this passage, illustrating curses on offspring, agriculture and produce.  The tone of the passages suggests a continual downward spiral, as the Lord hands the people over to their own sin.  Sin lends towards consequences and the consequences beget more sin, which follows more consequences, and so forth.   See verse 20: 

20 “The Lord will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke, in all you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken Me.

The passage further describes this nation as taken again into slavery, and being struck with the diseases of Egypt, the place and position from which they had just been freed. 

As the people of Israel continue to degrade to utter desperation, they fall to the most vile and carnal practices of the surrounding pagan nations.   Once we reach v. 53, we find that Israel has begun engaging in the diabolic practice of child sacrifice and cannibalism, common in Molech and Baal worship of the time.  This was a practice that was punishable by death according to Lev 20: 1-5.  In the Deuteronomy passage, it might be said that the children are sacrificed on the alter of survival before being consumed as food. 

53 Then you shall eat the offspring of your own body, the flesh of your sons and of your daughters whom the Lord your God has given you, during the siege and the distress by which your enemy will oppress you. 54 The man who is refined and very delicate among you shall be hostile toward his brother and toward the wife he cherishes and toward the rest of his children who remain, 55 so that he will not give even one of them any of the flesh of his children which he will eat, since he has nothing else left, during the siege and the distress by which your enemy will oppress you in all your towns.

In my own study, I was first brought to this passage once learning that the placenta actually has the same genomes, or DNA structure, of the baby.  This means the placenta is an organ belonging the the baby, or the flesh of the baby, which made this passage applicable; however,
I have not formed this teaching on placentophagy in the bible around on a interpretation alone.  This passage does not stop with eating the flesh of the children but the following is the only location the bible mentions eating the placenta.

56 The refined and delicate woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground for delicateness and refinement, shall be hostile toward the husband she cherishes and toward her son and daughter, 57 and toward her afterbirth which issues from between her legs and toward her children whom she bears; for she will eat them secretly for lack of anything else, during the siege and the distress by which your enemy will oppress you in your towns. (bold emphasis mine)

The Hebrew word for afterbirth in this passage is shilya, which also means placenta.  It is the only place in scripture that this specific word is found. 

When reading this passage through in my ESV bible, the margin notes reference passages Lev 26:29, Jer 19:9, Eze 5:10, with sub-references 2 Kings 6:28-29, and Lam 2:20, 4:10.  All of these passages convey the same sense of carnal degradation that has come though the pressures of being under siege.  The Lord has handed them over to the very demonic and defiling practices of idolatry from which they are commanded to abstain.  In some of these passages, the word "wrath" appears.  

Needless to say, the only time the idea of placentophagy occurs in scripture, it is in a highly negative context. The woman described is acting out in hostility toward, not only her husband and children, but also her placenta, by eating it.  This is not a picture of health and well being.  Rather it is at the very bottom of a downward spiral; one of fleshly pursuits, selfishness and utter desperation, causing the nation of Israel to engage in the most carnal of practices.  In “Notes on Placentophagy,” William Ober describes the course of events as if the Lord had reduced them to "the level of beasts" (souce). 

When reading this passage in isolation, I find it clear that it was not a biblically sanctioned practice to eat the placenta as part of post postpartum recovery.   I do think we can deduce, further more, from various passages that this certainly was not something ancient Israel participated in. 

To provide some fuller context, we need to consider Israel's relationship with Egypt. 

For four hundred years, the nation of Israel lived enslaved in Egypt, where they grew great in number.  In the opening chapter of Exodus, we learn that their strength became threatening to the ruling Pharaoh of the time, who issued a degree to kill all male babies upon their birth.  Through their "fear of God" (v. 17) the ancient Jewish midwives acted in great courage to defy the edict.  They spared the lives of many and were blessed with households of their own (v. 21). 

I often pause and contemplate the beauty of midwifery expounded upon in this passage as they are upheld with the calling to protect life.  Besides the mention of birthing stools,  little is given in scripture in terms of understanding their practice.  There is no indication as to how they might have treated and cared for the needs of a women through pregnancy birth and the postpartum period. 

This was pre-law.

During the time of slavery in Egypt, the only command given the nation of Israel was that of male circumcision.  The rest was prescribed during the time of wandering in the desert after the Exodus, granted through the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai.   

While it is known that Egyptians of the time certainly practiced placentophagy in relation to rituals of their polytheistic belief system, it is not known whether the Jewish midwives would have followed suite and served the placenta to their birthing mothers.  However,  knowing that the midwives had a "fear of God,"  I personally think it is possible that they might have abstained from including something associated with idolatry within their own practice.

Perhaps the nation of Israel abhorred this practice even while in Egypt.  Deuteronomy 28 was intended to convey a very strong and shocking message to the nation of Israel.  Its not by happen stance that the Lord chose the imagery of a women eating the placenta along with her children to be at the lowest point of degradation.

Israel was commanded to abandon all practices of Egypt at the point of the Exodus, explained once the Law is given, in Leviticus 18:

You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the Lord your God. 

This indicates that even if eating the placenta occurred in Egypt, surrounded in pagan beliefs and idolatry, it was likely to have been abandoned once receiving the law.  The God of Israel is a jealous God and we are to have no other gods before Him. 

In my own curiosity, after reading the Deuteronomy 28 passage, I wondered what happened to the placenta, after birth.  I knew from previous studies that it was not mentioned in the Laws of Motherhood from Leviticus 12.

About ancient peoples across the world, William Ober suggests that women in patriarchal cultures would exclude men from the "mysteries" of childbirth, often leaving many archeological writings inaccurate.   In our case, we are speaking of  God-breathed scripture, not merely archeological writings.  The Lord did not have to ask women how these processes unfolded, because He created them!   Yet, in in His detailed law,  He did not specify instructions for the placenta.  In my opinion, I think it is because unlike pagen religions, the one true  God  who created the placenta knew good and well that it didn't have any mystical powers.  Instead, it was most likely treated as any other unclean thing and discarded outside of the camp.  

And being something unclean is one point we can be sure of. 

The Placenta as Unclean

Firstly, let's clarify the biblical position on eating human flesh, since we're dealing with the ingestion of a human organ.  It might be shocking to learn that Leviticus does not give a clear command against cannibalism.  My opinion it is because this is so obviously not the plan of God's heart, that it seemed almost outrageous to include. 

When looking at scripture, we know that man and woman is made in the image of God, thus set apart from all other creation.  Because of this, we should hold the sanctity of human life in very high regard. This reason we are given the command, Thou shalt not kill

In case our set apart purpose is not enough, we know that human flesh does not fit any of the categories of permissible food from Leviticus 11.  The human body is that of a mammal, and the only permissible mammals were those who had a divided hoof and chews the cud (v. 3).  Any mammal that did not fit that description was unclean. 

The eating of human flesh is also bound by the procedure involved in eating meat.  In order to be consumed as food, the animal must be killed, with its lifeblood poured out and buried (Lev 17: 10-13).  It was unlawful to eat the flesh of an animal, even a permissible animal, who had died of natural causes, or had been killed by another animal (v. 15).  It was unlawful to kill another human being, so one could not have eaten human flesh that was killed by another man, or flesh that was was found dead.  Even in the case of stoning, that person was considered unclean due to the nature of their crime.

In no case is it permissible to eat the flesh of another human being.

Human life was to be set apart, and the nation of Israel was to be set apart among the nations. 

Further indication could be derived from the Laws of Motherhood in Leviticus 12.  While this passage does not give us clear instructions on handling the placenta, upon reading, I think its clear that they also would have deemed a placenta unclean. 

After childbirth, a woman is unclean as in the days of her menstruation. As I wrote in Blessed Laws of Motherhood, from Leviticus 15, we learn that anything an unclean woman touches becomes unclean.  The placenta would have become unclean through the birthing processes, if it was not unclean in and of itself.  (Please see the above link for a fuller teaching as to the blessings of rest granted through this process). 

With this foundation from the Levitical Law in mind, even if the Jewish women would have joined in with their Egyptian neighbors in eating the placenta post birth, which I find doubtful based on the vile imagery from Deut 28, once the Lord brought them out of Egypt and gave the Law at Sinai, I don't think it is something that would have been permitted within their culture. 

The placenta is a human organ that basically died after childbirth, when it was no longer needed. It does not meet the requirements of a permissible meat, either in species, nor in procedure of death and preparation.  It is also an object that passes through a women giving birth.  In association with the blood of her purification, it would have become unclean.   Because of these passages, it would not have been lawful for the nation of Israel to eat the placenta.

The Lifeblood

There is a greater spiritual symbolism in why I don't believe the placenta would have been ingested in ancient Israeli culture, and this also moves into my own personal convictions on this issue as well, and that is the issue of the lifeblood from Leviticus 17

11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.’ 12 Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘No person among you may eat blood, nor may any alien who sojourns among you eat blood.’ 13 So when any man from the sons of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, in hunting catches a beast or a bird which may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. 14 “For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.’
Levitcus 17:11 is one of the most important verses in the entire bible.  This truth of the lifeblood was to be taken seriously.
Ultimately, Messiah Yeshua, God in the flesh of a Jewish man, fulfilled this law when His blood was shed on the cross.  His lifeblood became our atoning sacrifice, once and for all, freeing us from sin and covering us from the wrath of God.  Fulfillment of this law did not do away with the law.  Rather, His shed blood elevated the importance, as in the way that Yeshua describes the sin of lust, something in the thought life, as adultery.  Even within the New Covenant, we are to yield to this law of the lifeblood as instructed to the gentile believers in Acts 15:19-21,  in which we are called to abstain from blood.  It is because He would shed His blood that ancient Israel was to abstain.  It is because He did shed His blood that believers today are to remember this law. 

The placenta is a lifeblood factory.  It cleans the babies blood, enriching in with oxygen and nutrients, while separating it from the mother's blood.  In utero, it served a beautiful and important function in the early stages of the Lord knitting together the life of a new child, a new human person, made in His very image.    While ancient cultures did not have the scientific knowledge we have today, I think they understood profound nature of this organ, which led many gentile nations to worship the creation rather than the creator, and mystify the properties of the placenta.  The fledgling Jewish nation, however,  would have recognized visually that the placenta was both covered and filled with blood, subjecting it to the laws of motherhood, and  lifeblood laws. 

The New Covenant and Present Day Application

Those of us under the blood covenant of Messiah Yeshua, Jesus, are no longer bound to follow the letter of the Law.  However, all scripture is God breathed and suitable for instruction.  There is much we can glean from the passages above and use to make decisions based on revelation that will lend towards greater knowledge of God, and living in the abundant blessings of dwelling in His presence. 

Many moral truths from the Law still stand today.  The greatest of these commands,  being elevated within the New Covenant is that of God's holiness among all the nations.   The Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end;  the God who was and is and is to come, His heart burns with an eternal jealous fire.  We are to love Him with our whole being, and have no other before Him. 

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ Matt 22:37

This command is so strong, that even as the Yeshua declared all foods clean, the Holy Spirit still breathed through the leaders of the early church, to abstain from things polluted by idols (Acts 15:19-21)

19 Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” (bold emphasis mine)

Freedom and Sanctification for the Sake of the Gospel

In my own life, ultimately, it is the Deuteronomy 28 passage that feels as a double edged sword.  As I read, the stark imagery and the carnal degradation that fuels to the tone of the passage is enough for me to make my own decision on the matter.  In context this practice only happened under the wrath of God and only as a curse for sin. 

I live in the nation of Israel among the Jewish people and often feel called to a different external expression of being "set apart" than many believers in the nations.    However, the more I've studied this issue, the stronger it is in my own heart that I want to honor the Lord and my children, not just my Jewish neighbors, by not participating in the postpartum practice.

I will not willingly bring myself under a curse, or willingly participate in something portrayed as the consequences of disobedience when my freedom was bought and paid for by the blood of my savior.   And since this practice has been associated with idolatry through out the nations, I am laying it aside as a personal statement to the Lordship of Yeshua, Jesus Christ, in my life. 

This is something I personally feel very confident about, especially in considering that there is not medical research to support it as being healthy in the short or long term, and there are currently no studies to evaluate risks (see a few articles here here, and here all commentating on the same study)  

We do know that humans are subject to fatal diseases from eating human flesh.  After studying through Deut 28, seeing disease following sin and flesh and carnal practices, I have personal concerns about how our bodies (and souls) are truly responding to ingesting the placenta.  The Placenta is not sterile and we don't know if its harmful or not.  At present, it is not an evidence based decision, and that's simply being honest.  Since those questions aren't answered in medical research,  as of now,  I personally see wisdom in being cautious about this practice.  My biblical world view also tells me that in light of the negative description found in scripture, there is further reason to take caution. 

While I do not believe Placentophagy to be inline with a biblical world view,  I recognize where this could be an issue of liberty and prudence, from a theological standpoint, as it crosses over into some broader issues of bio-ethics as well.  Since this is not an evidence based decision, something has to influence every woman's choice on this matter.  For me, ultimately it has been a study through God's word.   Because of the freedom passages, in the likes of 1 Corinthians 10,  it is not my heart to tell you what to do.  Rather, my hope is that this post provided a greater understanding of the scriptural perspective, which does not support or encourage placentophagy.  I hope that readers will take away a sense that God does care about this specific choice, and  I do hope it will be helpful for others who desire to make an informed decision, even if that decision is different than my own. 

If you want more science, go here:
Placentophagy: A Pop-Culture Phenomenon or an Evidence Based Practice?
Placentophagia in Humas and Nonhuman Mammals:  Causes and Consequences (The section on Humans begins on p. 187 of the text/ p.12 of the pdf document)

After my post went live, I found this well done Biblical World View approach, holistically covering issues that I did not broach, as mine was just looking at scripture.  Go here:
Eating the Placenta, a Christian World View Approach

Related Posts:
Earth Worship and Child Sacrifice 
Pharisees in the Land:  A Look at Paul and the Law