Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
One of the most discussed set of laws from the Old Testament is those that relate to clean and unclean food. Even today, many Jews remain kosher and avoid food that has been prohibited according to the Law of Moses. For those that have read the Law (specifically Leviticus), you’ll know that the food rules are very restrictive and sometimes odd. Not long ago, I actually saw an anti-Christian website that claimed that Christians didn’t even follow their own rules and cited the dietary restrictions as one of their evidences. However, as far as a Christian is concerned, the food laws of Leviticus have actually been repealed- twice- by Jesus no less. The first time was before his death on a cross; Jesus was explaining what real adherence to the law was like, and in the process he noted how concerned everyone was with food while not watching their own behavior. We read in Mark 7:14-19,
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’”
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach and then out of his body.” (In saying this Jesus declared all foods “clean.”)
As you can see, Mark makes no bones about it; Jesus said that all food is clean. He even makes sure to add parenthesis so we understand what Jesus was saying. However, at the time, not everyone understood this teaching as it applied to dietary restrictions. Most notably was Peter, Jesus’ closest apostle. In what was probably the last rebuke Jesus ever gave Peter (excluding the non-cannon “Quo vadis?” meeting between the two), the Lord explained that all food was considered clean. The Bible records that as Peter sat meditating on some guy’s roof,
He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven (Acts 10:11-16).
I think it’s interesting to note that it took three times of the same situation happening in a row to convince Peter. Now, the primary reason why the Lord gave this vision to Peter was so he wouldn’t be afraid/dissuaded from visiting gentile believers; however, at the same time Jesus (who is red-lettered in my Bible) makes a very clear point that all food has been deemed clean by God. So if you ever hear an anti-Christ try to tell you that Christians don’t follow their own dietary restrictions, you can confidently say, “No, Jesus repealed that law- twice- technically he announced it four times.”
Well wait, hold on here. If the food laws are obsolete and are actually stated as such, then why are they even in my Bible? After all, Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Since we’re told that all of the Word of God is useful, when we run into things that don’t seem to be useful to us today, we have to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in figuring out the meaning behind the Scripture. So, while reading the repealed dietary laws of Leviticus, I prayed to the Holy Spirit to give me some understanding on why I had to read about what animals were and were not ok for ancient Israel to consume. The Spirit responded by explaining to me why these laws were made in the first place and how we can use them in our lives today. So, let’s open up the Book of the Law and find out what God has to say about clean and unclean food and what it means for us.
Let’s start with birds, the Law tells us,
These are the birds you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat (Leviticus 11:13-19).
Aside from referring to bats as a kind of bird (we don’t know how God separates animal kinds, though apparently it is a little different from how we do it), the list is pretty easy to pick apart. Most of the birds that are banned are meat-eaters, the hoopoe will occasionally eat meat, and most bats eat bugs. Why are these banned? Because their bodies are filled with flesh and likely disease (considering they eat the meat raw and unclean insects). Did you catch that? They’re filled with flesh and disease; consider that next time you reach for a porno-mag. Jokes aside though, for the early Israelites, these birds posed a significant health risk, as cooking technology wasn’t very high for the desert nomad Israelites of Moses’ time. Consider this when compared to the animals that God does approve in Leviticus 11:1-3,
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud.
Chews the cud? Gross. But cud-chewing animals (like cows) usually only eat grass and other plants. So as opposed to their bodies being filled with flesh and disease, cud-chewers’ tummies are filled with sunshine (and plant material). So this is a law of protection, God set the law down in order to distinguish between which foods would be ok to cook and eat in the desert versus those that might cause problems. God even goes as far to point out a few animals that don’t quite match up. For example, “The rabbit, though it chews the cut, does not have a split hoof; it is unclean for you” (Leviticus 11:6) Why is the rabbit unclean? Because the “cud” it chews is actually its poop; yeah, rabbits eat their own poop- do you wanna eat a rabbit now that you know? Or probably the most well-known restricted food: pork, “And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you” (Leviticus 11:7). Pigs have a reputation of eating most anything that is put in front of them, so they could eat meat and not even care (if its fed to them). Even today people are careful to make sure they cook pork thoroughly. If we have to worry about it today, think about the people of Israel out in the desert, of course God would ban pork. Another ban can be found in Leviticus 11:41-42,
Every creature that moves about on the ground is detestable; it is not to be eaten. You are not to eat any creature that moves about on the ground, whether it moves on its belly or walks on all fours or on many feet; it is detestable.
Why can’t I eat snakes, lizards, and centipedes? Well, consider this, many of these kinds of animals are poisonous, not only that, but animals who keep their bodies next to the ground are naturally dirty since, well, they live next to dirt. So it’s not a huge stretch for the Lord to count these as being “unclean.”
Some of the food laws are more generalized in order to alleviate potential “should I eat it or not?” worries. Take for example sea creatures; the Bible tells us,
Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales- whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water- you are to detest. And since you are to detest them, you must not eat their meat and you must detest their carcasses. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you (Leviticus 11:9-12).
I think most of us know that there are many non-fish sea creatures that are perfectly fine to eat. Heck, I once ate a sea urchin right out of the water and suffered no ill effects (except that it tasted awful). However, some non-fish might be dangerous if not properly cooked or stored (like clams). Therefore, as the Israelites continue to explore and live, God made the rule simple: No fins, no scales, no eat. Or take the example of insects,
All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be detestable to you. There are, however, some winged creatures that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. Of these you may eat any kind of locusts, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. But all other winged creatures that have four legs you are to detest (Leviticus 11:20-23).
For this one, God says, “Hey, there are a whole lot of insects out there, but here are four that are ok to eat.” Instead of creating an extensive list filled with creepy-crawlies that the Israelites at that time had probably never come into contact with, God just says to avoid the whole lot and if worse comes to worse eat locusts, crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids.
Ok, now we’ve established that the Lord put these laws into effect for the early Israelites in order to protect them; but the question still stands: How is this important for a Christian in this day and age? Because the Bible is a guidebook and ultimately the Law’s goal is for us to be able to handle our day-to-day lives. Already we read in Acts about how Jesus used food as a metaphor for a larger concept. Just as Jesus used his repealing of the unclean food ban to signal that Gentiles were ok to preach to, so we are also to read deeper into the dietary restrictions for a greater understanding of how to live our lives. We read in Leviticus 11:47, “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.” Notice that the food restrictions don’t end with Leviticus 11, God says that we’re to make the choices between what is clean and what is unclean. Food is just the example, but there are many things we take in every day, such as entertainment, activities, or even who we listen to or associate with that may be detrimental to our lives. Some things we know are sinful and we understand why we’re not to partake in them. Just like eating animals that eat meat such as the banned birds, nobody wonders why it’s not ok to murder or to steal because they have quick repercussions and easy-to-see effects. However, there are some things we’re told to do in the Bible that aren’t as clear. Take for example the camel, we read in Leviticus 11:4,
There are some that only chew the cud or only have a split hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you.
Why can’t I eat a camel? I don’t know, they eat plants and probably aren’t that dirty on the inside, but God says no. This connects to some of those commands where we might not understand the reasoning behind them, but we are called to obey them anyway. For example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). As a natural person, I don’t understand how looking at someone with a lusty intent can be detrimental to my health, but according to God, porn is off the menu. I’m sure there are many people who can explain to me the dangers of lusting with my eyes (and why I shouldn’t eat camels), but the point is that from a base perspective, it doesn’t seem that bad; however, God has banned it. This goes for many commandments from God, we may not understand them fully, but the Lord put them in place for a reason, and so if something goes against what God says, we should probably avoid it. Or think back to the animals that crawl along the ground. While they themselves may not be all that bad, they crawl along the ground and associate with the dirt. Likewise, if there are things that are not in and of themselves bad, but associate with something that God doesn’t like, they it’s to be avoided. Think of like working with dirty money- even if you aren’t doing anything wrong directly but you know where the money is coming from or encourage the activity that provides it, the Law suggests you are also connected to that wrong. Even just associating yourself with a lower level of living, such as cursing is to be avoided, for Christians are not called to crawl along the ground, but to live upstanding lives; for the Bible says, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). The more generalized dietary restrictions also give us a good lesson. There are a lot of sea creatures we can probably eat without any harmful effects, but God tells the Israelites just to stick with fish. Why? Because in our life we’ll run into a lot of “maybe” situations, when we’re not clear if it’s ok in God’s eyes or not (or if it is healthy or not), and in these situations the Lord recommends that we just stick with what we know is safe and avoid all gray areas.
The Law of Moses tells us,
Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. I am the Lord your god; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy (Leviticus 11:43-45).
We’re called to be holy as Christians after Jesus’ death pronounces us clean in the sight of God. Therefore, we need to watch our lives closely in order to see what is clean and unclean in our habits and routines. Ultimately, the Lord hopes that we will eliminate that which is unclean in order to live better, greater lives. This is why the dietary restrictions of the Law are still useful to us even though the direct application of food is no longer relevant. For the food laws introduce a greater concept as to what is ok and what is not ok to go into us through any medium, not just food. So relax, eat some ham, and glory that we have the cooking technology to make most animals into an edible food and a savior who repealed dietary restrictions. But watch your life carefully, for there are a great many things that can make us unclean and ultimately be detrimental, and the Lord has placed the responsibility on you to make that decision.
These are the regulations concerning animals, birds, every living thing that moves in the water and every creature that moves about or on the ground (Leviticus 11:46).
Rock on God!