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March 1, 2011 / Daniel

How do the food laws apply to me?

Swine are considered non-kosher (unfit or uncl...

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Let’s test out of my hypothesis.  The question is, how do the food laws apply to the Christian?   I have proposed that all of the law applies to the Christian; however, all of it applies to the Christian in a different way than it applied to the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant.   The Torah is not our covenant, but it is still our Scripture.    And as such, it is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

Here are the steps to my hermeneutic.

1)  What was the purpose of this particular law in its original OT context?

The significance of the food laws to Israel is most clearly stated in Leviticus 20:24-26 which reads,   “I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations.  You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those that I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”

Now what is striking about this text is that it ties the law’s dietary regulations to the concept of election.  Israel was to be selective in its food choices because YHWH had been selective in choosing Israel as His covenant people.   God had set Israel apart as a nation, as a distinct ethnic group.   And this required Israel to designate some foods as clean and other foods as unclean.

Noticing that the dietary laws are grounded in the concept of election will save us from rather silly interpretations of the food laws.   Every and then you will hear someone suggest that the food laws existed primarily for health reasons, but that does not make sense since later God commands Peter to eat unclean food.  What?  Did pork suddenly get healthy?  No, in the OT, the issue is not health.  For all we know, the distinction between clean and unclean could be entirely arbitrary.   This designation of food types was reflective of Israel’s election as the OT people of God.  And because Israel was God’s chosen people, they were called to be a holy people.   Lev. 19:1 reads, “‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”

2)  How should we understand this law in light of Christ?

I think that Acts 10-11 is key to our understanding of this law in its NT context.   Just before God sends Peter on a mission to reach Cornelius, a Gentile God-fearer, He first gives Peter a vision concerning clean and unclean food.   In the vision, God tells Peter to eat an unclean animal, but Peter refuses, saying that he has never eaten anything unclean.  God responds, “Don’t call unclean that God has called clean.”    The meaning of the vision is spelled out in the events that follows.  Peter visits Cornelius’ household.  Cornelius gets saved.  And then Peter understands that God is now calling the Gentiles to salvation.   So in other words, the removal of the distinction between clean and unclean foods indicates that there is no longer a distinction between clean and unclean people.  Election is being redefined.  God has chosen to save people from every different ethnicity, not just Israelites.  So to prove this, He commands Peter to eat unclean food.


In a similar manner, in Mark 7:19, Jesus declares all foods clean.  Then in the verses that follow, He heads to the city of Tyre, Gentile territory, and heals the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman.   The removal of the clean-unclean distinction marks the beginning of the Gentile mission.  Because God has included Gentiles into the people of God (election), the food laws are abrogated.

Does this mean that these laws no longer have any relevance to us as Christians?  Of course, the food laws were symbolic of the call to holiness.   Notice how Jesus adapts the clean-unclean distinction in Mark 7.

“Are you so dull?” he asked. “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.)He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.  All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

In other words, we still should worry about being clean; however, the things that make a person unclean are the attitudes of the heart, not the food on his plate.   In the NT, the people of God includes both Jew and Gentile.  Therefore, we should no longer use food as ethnic boundary markers.   And yet, we are still called to be a clean people, a holy people.   The people of God is no longer distinct ethnically, but we are to be distinct morally.



Leave a Comment
  1. Bruce / Mar 1 2011 4:07 pm

    Are you able to say that this is the ONLY reason, implication, of dietary laws?
    Why was there clean animals before Israel as deminstrated in the flood story?

  2. Daniel / Mar 2 2011 4:22 am

    I don’t think that election is the only reason for the food laws. There may be other reasons that I’m not aware of. I will look into it more. Election is a very significant reason for the food laws. This is the reason that Leviticus 20 gives for the food laws.

    The second question is more difficult. Consider Genesis 26:4-5. YHWH tells Isaac, “In your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” The difficulty here is that the text appears to be rather anachronistic. The law had not yet been given. So why does it say that Abraham kept the law four hundred years before Mt. Sinai?

    Chris Wright explains it this way, “This text suggests that the basic content and thrust of the law, though not yet given in detail as it was at Sinai, was in principle available to and observed by Abraham.”

    In other words, perhaps these anachronisms appear in the text because the author desires to paint the patriarchs (Abraham, Noah) as ideal Israelites, who kept the law in principle even before it had formally been given.

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