Can Christians Eat Shrimp? What the Bible Says
Shrimp is a widely accepted food among Christian communities today. I haven’t met any Christians who have argued that eating shrimp is sinful. However, some may point out that shrimp is considered unclean in Leviticus 11:9-12. How should we think biblically about eating shrimp and other sea creatures?
First off, can Christians eat shrimp? Yes, Christians can eat shrimp because the prohibition against shrimp only applies to those under the Mosaic Covenant. Christians are under the New Covenant in Christ. Moreover, Jesus proclaims all foods clean in Mark 7:19.
With that groundwork laid, let’s explore the history of eating shrimp in more detail.
The Old And New Covenant
All of the questions concerning eating shrimp today stem from the law in Leviticus that forbids eating any sea creatures that do not have fins and scales. However, this law doesn’t apply to Christians under the New Covenant. Here’s why.
The Old Covenant
The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy provide the details of the Mosaic Covenant. The passage about not eating shrimp is found in Leviticus 11:9-12:
“These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. But anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses. Everything in the waters that has not fins and scales is detestable to you.”
Under the Mosaic Covenant, God commanded the Israelites not to eat anything that didn’t have fins and scales, including shellfish and shrimp. God gave this law to the Israelites after God had delivered them out of Egypt as part of their covenant with Him. He graciously established this covenant relationship with the Israelites, promising to protect and bless them if they followed all of the laws God gave them.
The New Covenant
When Christ came, he fulfilled the law—meaning, Jesus met all of the expectations of that old Mosaic covenant. Jesus is the only person to ever fulfill all of those expectations. He obeyed the law perfectly, something that no one else had ever done. By perfectly keeping the law he earned the right to declare the Mosaic covenant as now having been perfectly fulfilled. In addition, by taking the penalty for our sins on the cross, Christ created the New Covenant.
The New Covenant does reinstitute a few of the laws of that old Mosaic covenant, but the New Covenant declared that the old Mosaic covenant was now overall obsolete. The New Covenant is a covenant of grace. Through Christ and his cross, God promises to forgive all who have faith in Jesus of their sins, reckon Jesus’s perfect law-keeping to their account, and restore their fellowship with him.
Before the New Covenant was ushered in by Jesus, humanity was “held in custody under the law” (Galatians 3:23). However, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son… born under the law to redeem those under the law” (Galatians 4:4–5). When Jesus died on the cross, God “canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
In other words, Christ frees Christians to enjoy all foods, even those the foods that the law had previously prohibited. It’s not that God all-of-sudden changed his mind, but it’s that the reasons for why originally commanded them to not eat shrimp were reasons that would no longer be relevant or pertinent to the Christians who would be living under the New Covenant (we’ll explain this a little bit more later in this article).
Christ confirms this in Mark 7:18–19 when he says, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean).”
Reasons God May Have Condemned Eating Shrimp
So why exactly did God outlaw shrimp in the first place? There are more than 600 specific laws that God gave the Israelites as a part of that old Mosaic covenant. Each of the laws had their own specific purposes and reasoning. If we were to explain God’s motivation for each and every law, this article would be waaayyyy too long (it’d take you several hours to read this article if we explained every law).
To be honest, I don’t think I can say for sure that I know exactly why God gave the command prohibiting shrimp and similar foods. God has not chosen to reveal all of his precise reasons as to why he did certain things or commanded certain expectations. However, if we speculate, I think there’s potentially at least two reasons why God gave the Israelites these laws: to make the Israelites be distinct from other nations and for health reasons.
Set Apart From Other Nations
Many of the laws in the Mosaic covenant seem motivated by God’s desire for the Israelites to be different than all of the pagan nations that lived in the region.
All of the pagan peoples behaved in certain ways and lived certain lifestyles. God gave his people specific requirements and rules that would cause them to righteously stand out from the rest of the nations. A traveler could journey through the region observing the lifestyles and behaviors of the various peoples, and they’d see that the Israelites clearly were very different than all of the other peoples of the region. This caused the Israelites to develop a specific reputation. God wanted to separate Israel from other nations so that they could serve as a beacon of the Lord’s benefits and blessings (Leviticus 20:24-26).
More importantly, it caused the pagan peoples throughout the known world to see the God of the Israelites as being categorically different. The pagans of the other nations believed in many different gods, but there were a lot of similarities between their various pagan gods and deities. However, because the Israelites behaved so differently, it caused many pagans to see the God of the Israelites as being in a totally different category than their own pagan gods and deities.
In addition, the different diet of the Israelites would have raised questions with the neighboring nations. Why do these people eat differently? These types of questions provided Israel with a brilliant opportunity to give all the glory to God since he was the one who gave them their laws and guidelines.
Though we don’t know for sure, some scholars suggest that God banned eating seafood like shrimp to protect the Israelites and keep them healthy. The Natural Living Family explains:
“Shellfish are scavengers which by nature will have a high toxic load… Shrimp are bottom dwellers which eat all sorts of dead animal remains along the ocean’s bottom. Actually, there is a higher level of cannibalism in shrimp, possibly evident of certain parasites they contain… Unfortunately there is no process used to determine which shrimp are infected by parasites and which are not.” — Natural Living Family
Given the high toxic load that shrimp have, due to their scavenger nature, it’s reasonable to suppose that God wanted to keep his people safe from these toxins, as well as parasites. Of course, no modern medicine was available for the ancient Israelites. If someone was sick or had an allergic reaction, they didn’t have EpiPens or emergency rooms to help. On top of that, we know that the Lord set up other laws in Leviticus directly related to health to protect his people. So, the prohibition against shrimp may have also fallen into that category.
Some others have also speculated that one of the benefits could have been that the Israelites abstinence from shrimp and similar foods could have caused the Israelites to be healthier. This might cause the pagans to wonder: Why are the Israelites often healthier and happier than other nations? Maybe this opened the door for them to glorify God.
Some Principles of the Old Covenant Still Hold
While researching this topic, I came across numerous articles that compared the old law about not eating shrimp to the laws prohibiting homosexuality. Many argue that if it is okay to eat shrimp and other foods under the New Covenant, then why isn’t homosexuality okay as well? The short answer is that the New Testament clearly teaches the immorality of homosexuality in Romans 1:26–27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9.
In contrast, God himself declares all foods clean in the New Testament in Mark 7:19 and Acts 10:9–16. If a principle of the law is confirmed or restated in the New Testament, it still applies to us now. Those principles represent God’s moral will. And the New Testament plainly declares all food clean and homosexuality as a perennial sin.
How This Applies To Christians Today
How does this apply to us today? As previously stated, we are not bound to follow any of the laws of the Old Covenant. However, many of the principles embodied in those laws are perennial. They still hold today. And so there is much wisdom and knowledge to be gained by studying the Mosaic Law. After all, Paul still delighted in the law of God even though he was under the New Covenant (Romans 7:22). We can especially learn from the importance of Israel’s distinction from other nations. We are also called to be different and separate from the world.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2
We must continue to ask the Lord to reveal the principles and godly wisdom engraved in the law. Pray continually, and read the words of Christ often. His Spirit will grant you discernment for the confusing passages. The Lord loves to illuminate his word for his people.
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Proverbs 3:5–6