Russell and Duenes

Hard O.T. Texts: Not Eating Shrimp

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God’s teaching about clean and unclean foods appears specifically in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. In populist evangelical theology, we commonly hear that God prohibited the Israelites from eating certain kinds of foods because God knew such foods were unhealthy, even if the Israelites did not. Thus, God was looking out for their good in this way. This may have been true, as far as it goes, seeing that everything that God commands is for the good of human beings. But as I said regarding menstrual laws, there is no mention in the text of health concerns, so we can say nothing in its favor as a justification for these laws.

I think we can also rule out the idea that God commanded against certain foods because there was something inherently immoral or spiritually corrupt about eating any particular kind of animal or creature. If such were the case, Jesus could not have declared all foods to be clean. The New Testament makes it clear that ultimately, eating food itself is not a spiritual issue. Certainly there are contexts and practices surrounding food that can make its eating sinful, but there is nothing sinful about eating the food itself. That being said, we should see these food laws as one more reminder from God that this world is cursed because of our sin. Things are not “normal” as they should be. We are spiritually impure and unclean from before our birth. The food laws are meant to give an external testament to our spiritual reality. In other words, God’s laws make avoiding uncleanness impossible, and thus show us that we cannot escape our sin and brokenness by our own natural inclinations and practices. We need a savior (Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996], 100.).

Once again we have to consider the larger legal context for all of God’s laws. His laws are an expression of his holy and righteous character and, as such, they are concerned with showing forth God’s holiness in the practices of his people. They are also a display of his mercy. In Leviticus 10:10, God says, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” In Deuteronomy 14, God begins by reminding the people that “you are the children of the LORD your God…For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (vs.1-2). This is the banner over all of the food laws. As Paul R. House says, “Yahweh has chosen Israel to honor God among the nations by being different than other peoples. The goal is for them to stand out, not be absorbed by, the cultural setting to which they are going” (Old Testament Theology, IVP, 184).

But having said this, Gordon J. Wenham gives a good caution: “In general the Canaanites sacrificed the same general range of animals as Israel. Why were they not declared unclean? In particular, why was the bull not prohibited in the OT, since it was an important cultic animal in both Egyptian and Canaanite ritual?” (Leviticus, 167)

If there is some kind of system or rationale underneath these laws, I’m attracted to the view here, as with laws concerning bodily emissions, that “the notion underlying holiness and cleanness was wholeness and normality” (Wenham, 169). Thus, “each sphere has a particular mode of motion associated with it. Birds have two wings with which to fly, and two feet for walking; fish have fins and scales with which to swim; land animals have hoofs to run with. The clean animals are those that conform to these standard types. Those creatures which in some way transgress the boundaries are unclean. Thus, fish without fins and scales are unclean…Through this system of symbolic laws the Israelites were reminded at every meal of their redemption to be God’s people. Their diet was limited to certain meats in imitation of their God, who had restricted his choice among the nations to Israel. It served, too, to bring to mind Israel’s responsibilities to be a holy nation. As they distinguished between clean and unclean foods, they were reminded that holiness was more than a matter of meat and drink but a way of life characterized by purity and integrity” (ibid., 169-70).

St. Paul says, “Although I myself am not under the Law,” neither is he free from God’s law, “but I am under the law of Christ” (1 Cor.9:20-21) In Christ, the food laws are obsolete, for now “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28). By faith, Jews and Gentiles now receive the promised benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection, namely, regeneration and the indwelling Holy Spirit. Yet as we receive these, we are reminded that we are to be holy and righteous people, distinct from the world around us. We are to “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Food does not matter anymore, but rather, “faith working itself out through love” (Gal.5:6).

Another thought strikes me in all of this. We may tend to think of these laws about “clean and unclean” are rather arbitrary and nonsensical because in the western church we have lost just about any notion of what it means to be “set apart” as God’s people. By and large, we partake of all the same cultural “equipment” as do our non-believing neighbors, and in our radical, autonomous individualism, our sense of what it means to be “a people set apart” is vague at best. We watch the same TV shows and movies, go to the same kinds of schools, buy the same kinds of clothes, celebrate the same things, engage in the same pastimes, and generally order our lives around the same priorities. We don’t want to be thought “weird” or “strange” by having visibly different habits and practices than our neighbors. What, then, does it mean, in terms of actual practice, for us to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession,” as St. Peter says we are? What does it mean to be “God’s temple,” to “come out from among them and be ye separate, to “touch no unclean thing?” (2 Cor.6:16-17) Since we are now the children of God, being led by His Spirit, what should set us apart? In what ways would our “love for one another” cause us to be “a city set on a hill?”


Written by Michael Duenes

June 16, 2010 at 7:23 am

Posted in Duenes, Theology

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