Friday, December 07, 2012

Jewish Law and Government as viewed by a Protestant – Part 5– Dietary Restrictions

One area where Christians are sometimes reproached with regard to our use of the Old Testament is in our non-compliance with the dietary rules. That Christians do not and since the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15 have never as a body followed the Jewish dietary customs is indisputable. The issue here is, is this mere caprice on our part or is there a reason for our doing this. This post will if successful, show that there is a reason and furthermore show that it is found in the Old Testament itself.

Jesus when given questions concerning marriage responded by referring to the original creation of man and woman showing clear intent and plan on God’s part, subsequent deviations were the result of man’s rebellion not God’s design.

In looking at the dietary restrictions we see that initially man’s food was limited to plants with only one type forbidden. The specific fruit forbidden is not now known and probably extinct. Though durian-haters might point a finger in that direction, most balk at allowing it to be good for food or pleasant to the eyes, let alone producing wisdom in the eater, so we don’t really see any prohibition that could be applied today in the original creation.

After the flood God made a covenant with Noah and all his descendants forever. This covenant gave unto man the right to eat all moving animals even as all plants had been previously allowed. The distinction between clean and unclean animals was already in place prior to the flood but held little meaning while man ate only plants. This covenant is still in effect since the signs accompanying it are still in place (Gen. 9:1-17). It is also in this covenant that the prohibition of eating blood was put in force, as well as the demand for retribution for the life of a man slain. This is the reason why many Christians support the death penalty for murder, because the Noahic covenant has never been abrogated and unlike the Mosaic covenant it was meant to be perpetual.

In this covenant every living thing that moves was given as food to man, and the descendants of Noah have pretty much followed this as they have spread throughout the world. In some places with regards to seafood especially, it is not even necessary for it to cease to move before consumption.

When the Mosaic Law was given the Jews were given dietary restrictions which had not been given to the patriarchs, which God expected them to keep as part of the covenant. While these restrictions were an integral part of the Law, it is interesting that they are not at all referenced in the Decalogue itself. Christians have always accepted the 10 Commandments as binding for all time and much of the Law of Moses is devoted to description and elucidation of these commandments showing what constituted theft, adultery, murder, and what did not, and varying punishments depending on the severity of the offense. The dietary code, however, is not contained or alluded to in the 10 Commandments. This is a telling fact as to its subordinate nature even in the Old Covenant.

One purpose it clearly served was to separate the Jews from all other groups of people. Fixed dietary and dress rules which are somewhat unique to a group are a definite barrier to assimilation. Since Moses had warned them in Deut 28:37 that if they did not keep the covenant they would carried away captive, one definite use of these rules was to keep the Jews as a distinct nation during their time in Babylon and even to this day during their longer diaspora until Israel again became a nation.

Another purpose which these dietary laws served was for cleanliness. In the Middle Ages Jews were often blamed for starting plagues, this was due both to anti-Semitism and to the fact that they were often less affected than their neighbors. So while ancient Egyptians used donkey dung as a poultice and gave themselves tetanus in the process, Hippocrates denied that diseases were infectious, and Semmelweis in the mid-1800s was ostracized for his attempts to show that doctors infected fresh patients with child bed fever by not washing after doing autopsies on the previous victims, the Mosaic law with its washings, quarantine for lepers and other precautions kept Jewish populations relatively healthy.

With the coming of Christ, dietary laws were totally removed. Christ Himself made this clear in Matt. 15:10-20, where He stated that it is not what we put into our mouths which makes us unclean but rather what is already in our hearts that comes out of us that is defiling. The Gospel of Mark in chapter 7 tells the same event and interestingly enough since Mark was the Gospel most influenced by Peter and his recollections contains the Evangelists own understanding of the import of this saying at the end of verse 19, “He said this, making all food clean.” Peter had heard this teaching but apparently prior to the vision of Acts 10, but in much the same way as with the Great Commission only then realized the full import of the teaching.

When there was contention in the Church regarding what was to be required of Gentile converts there was a conference held in Jerusalem which is recorded in Acts 15. Sometimes it is referred to as a compromise position, but this is hardly the case. There were 4 things forbidden to the Gentile converts, and Paul had never advocated any of them, so he did not give up anything. The Pharisaical Christians had advocated the observance of the whole Law and were disaffected to say the least with this outcome. When liberal critics try to make people like James, Peter and Paul to be pragmatic people, they show their own preconceptions. The reasoning for these 4 prohibitions and none other is very straightforward. The Holy Spirit had shown by miracles and through His falling upon the Gentiles as they were that He had accepted them. Paul, Barnabas and Peter attested this. James then quoted Amos  9:11-12 from the Septuagint showing that it was prophesied that God intended the Gentiles to seek Him, it being implied that they were to seek Him as Gentiles. With this being made clear by Scripture and miraculous evidence all that remained was to declare 4 things which were morally repugnant which they would have to avoid:

1.      Food sacrificed to idols

Idolatry was not a problem in Noah’s day and was not mentioned in the prohibitions, but God is and was always a jealous God and any man who approached Him had to acknowledge Him as the only true God. Job who was not a Jew recognized the great sin of sun and star worship, as well as confidence in wealth instead of God (Job 31:24-28). Abraham, called while uncircumcised, forsook whatever idols his fathers had worshipped when God called him (Jos. 24:2, 14-15). Naaman after being healed of his leprosy renounced any other god, apparently without even having been told to do so (2 Kings 5:15-18). Eating the food sacrificed knowingly was an act of fellowship with the idol and thus an act of idolatry (1 Cor. 10:19-22).

2.    Sexual Immorality

The attitudes and actions around the time of Christ with regards to sex were roughly equivalent to what we face today, as can be seen by even a modest perusal of the history of the time. Various of the Church Fathers writing in the succeeding 2 centuries show that the moral climate did not improve afterwards either. As already stated Jesus showed God’s intention for man from the creation of one male and one female who were to be joined and become one flesh. Perversions of this intent came early. Lamech, a descendant of Cain, was the first known to practice polygamy (Gen. 4:19). Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their sins, immorality being one of the prominent ones (Gen. 19:5, Ezek. 16:49-50, Jude v.7). God’s standards with regard to sexual immorality are very clear and Christ elevated them to extend tour thoughts not only our outward actions (Matt. 5:27-28).

3.    Things strangled

This prohibition like the one following it flows from Gen. 9:4, when God allowed the use of animals for food but forbade the eating of blood. The death by strangulation would not allow for proper bleeding of the animal and thus violated the 4th prohibition which was:

4.    Blood

God forbade the eating of blood to Noah and all his descendants. The breaking of this prohibition has often been associated with idolatry.

To wrap things up, essentially the only dietary restrictions placed upon Christians are bans on eating blood, and idol sacrifices. These are not mere temporary concessions to the Jews in Paul’s time, but are binding on us today, as is the prohibition of immorality. Christians are encouraged to enjoy God’s gifts of food in moderation and give thanks to Him for them (1 Tim. 4:3-5). Thank God for His wonderful bounty!