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March 2, 2011 / Daniel

Lessons from the Food Laws

The Ten Commandments, In SVG

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In response to my previous post, Bruce asked me if election was the only reason for the food laws.     Upon further reflection, I thought of some additional principles that we can draw from the food laws.

It is important for us to notice that all of the food laws concern the consumption of meat.   It is easy for us to overlook this fact because we live in a culture that consumes meat quite frequently.  And yet in the ancient world, the consumption of meat was quite rare.   It was reserved for special occasions, religious occasions.  In the ancient world, when people ate meat, it was almost always in connection with sacrifice to the gods.   Take Deuteronomy 12 for instance.   To the modern reader, the chapter appears to be disjointed.  In vv. 1-4, Moses commands Israel to destroy foreign idols and their paraphernalia.  In vv. 5-28, Moses gives regulations concerning the proper consumption of meat.   Then in vv. 29-31, He goes back to idols and warns Israel to avoid the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites.

At first glance, it looks like Moses is discussing two different subjects, but in reality it’s one subject.  Eating meat was a religious endeavor.   A faithful Israelite was to eat the meat of clean animals because those animals were appropriate for sacrifices.  In class, Dr. Walton suggested that one of the reasons that God didn’t allow Israel to eat pork was because the Canaanites associated pigs with the gods of the underworld.   So by choosing to eat some animals as opposed to others, a faithful Israelite was making a statement about the identity of the true God.

Another important thing to realize about sacrifices in the ancient world is that the pagans thought sacrifices were meals for the gods.  Of course, the OT rejects this concept because it conveyed the idea that the gods were needy and it put the worshiper in a quid quo pro relationship with the god (Psalm 50:8-14).   However, the OT does indicate that YHWH enjoyed the aroma of the offering (Exod. 29:18).   In other words, the basic idea is that you eat the type of meat that God enjoys smelling.   So even though sacrifices in Israel were not considered to be meals for the gods, sacrifices were meals to be enjoyed by the worshipers of YHWH in His presence.   That is, in the temple and not at some idolatrous pagan shrine (Deut. 12:18).  So all in all, sacrifices were a tangible expression of Israel’s experience of God’s presence.

When we approach the food laws from the vantage point of the NT, I think that we can see this worked out in two different ways.  1)  The consumption of food still remains a theological issue.   Even though we are permitted to eat all sort of creatures (see the previous post), we must still be careful about how our consumption of meat affects others.   Consider the issue of meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8-10.  Paul says that eating meat offered to idols is not evil in of itself.  However, idolatry is a sin.   If by eating meat I encourage my weaker brother to stumble back into an idolatrous lifestyle, then God has a problem with my diet.

2) We should also consider the food laws in light of the sacrificial system.   Just as in the OT the sacrifices were tied to the concept of enjoying God’s presence, the same thing is true in the NT.  The only way that we can enjoy God’s presence is through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.


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