The Leviticus account contains a range of directions about diet, clothing and lifestyle. Many Christians and Jews see these instructions as being directly relevant for the children of Israel at the time of that dispensation. These instructions focus on the need for separation and distinctiveness from the surrounding tribes of the time, rather than being instructions for all times and all situations. It is interesting to note that people who eat bread today are eating genetically hybrid grain that has progressively been domesticated by primitive agriculturalists and plant breeders over thousands of years.
Modern genetic analysis has revealed that one original parent of wheat was Triticum monococcum which is a wild, large-grained grass related to today’s einkorn. The other parent was probably Triticum speltoides, which is related to today’s spelt wheat. About 10,000 years ago, these two parents combined to produce a hybrid variety, and this tetraploid line eventually gave rise to emmer, which, through further domestication, gave rise to the durum wheats that are the basis of pasta and couscous today.
Bread wheat originated from a further hybridization when emmer was crossed with another wild-grass species, Triticum tauschi, probably in north west Turkey or Iran. The result was the hexaploid Triticum aestivum, which contains three pairs of chromosomes instead of the usual one. Thus, bread wheat was developed (unwittingly) by farmers who simply selected the best corn from one harvest and used it as the seed corn for the next crop. This example illustrates the fact that few, if any, of our food crops are the original wild or “natural” plant species, because humankind has domesticated agricultural crops by selecting and crossing species for thousands of years to improve production and yield. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see all plant breeding as a form of “genetic engineering,” and without it, we never would have survived.
Interestingly, the region of Mesopotamia (between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates) was the “cradle of civilization” that gave birth to the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This region is also known as the “fertile crescent,” in which many of our major crop plants were first developed through agriculture and plant breeding. God's grace has provided human agriculturalists and geneticists with skills to use for the benefit of others. However, as in the time of Leviticus, we must always try to combine technical knowledge with ethical wisdom in order to achieve beneficial outcomes in an ever-changing world.