6 Rules and 6 Excuses

What animals does God say qualify as food and what animals don't.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Peter’s vision of the sheet with the unclean animals and showed how it was not about animals and food, but about people and the Kingdom of God.

There are other arguments and New Testament passages that people frequently quote when they attempt to disprove Yeshua’s words in Matthew 5:17-19, but before I address some of those, I probably ought to define the topic.

What does clean and unclean mean?

God’s rules aren’t arbitrary. There is always a reason for them, and that reason is always for our ultimate good. What makes an animal unclean is still a difficult question to answer, though, because the Bible doesn’t spell it out.

About the only thing we can be sure of is that “unclean” (tamei) doesn’t mean soiled or sinful. Uncleanness refers to a spiritual impurity, and is most often associated with death or a loss of life-force: blood, disease, corpses, graves, and bodily discharges.

Nothing in the Bible says “This is what makes an animal unclean,” but it does list some unclean animals and describe characteristics of others.

Leviticus 11 lists the basic rules of what animals God doesn’t want us to eat.

  1. Land animals that are cloven-hoofed and chew the cud are food. Any animal with one and not the other is not food.
  2. Water animals that have fins and scales are food. Anything under the water with neither or one and not the other is not food.
  3. Birds of prey and carrion birds are not food.
  4. Certain other birds are not food, but due to translation uncertainties and a lack of defining characteristics in Torah, we have no way besides inference and tradition to tell us about birds that aren’t mentioned. (“Living the Law: Reinforcing the Tradition with a Palpable Precedent” by Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan is an interesting article if you can find it.) Songbirds and wading birds (herons, storks, etc) are probably out, while pigeons, chickens, and turkeys are acceptable.
  5. Insects and other creepy crawlies are not food except for four types of grasshoppers and/or locusts that have over-sized rear legs for jumping.
  6. Anything that walks on paws or slithers on its belly is not food.

That leaves most ruminants, most fish, and many birds as suitable material for stew, salad, or stir-fry, but reptiles, amphibians, and shellfish are not allowed.

But…but…Acts 10!

There are six common objections to a Christian or Messianic Jew to keeping kosher:

  1. “Those rules were just because they didn’t have refrigeration. Now we know about tape worms and trichinosis and we keep everything frozen or at least cold before we cook it.”
     
    Beef spoils if left unrefrigerated for too long, and chicken is notoriously dangerous. Yet both are kosher. The rules for clean and unclean animals have nothing to do with safety or refrigeration.
     
  2. “Jesus made all foods clean. Jesus died so we don’t have to obey those laws anymore.”
     
    Actually, Jesus never said anything of the sort. When debating the Pharisees about whether or not it is acceptable to eat food with unwashed hands when that food would otherwise be perfectly kosher, he told them that they were so concerned about their own traditions that they were ignoring God’s actual laws.
     
    His central point was this: What difference does it make if a man eats with dirty hands (or eats pork or lobster!) if he is a murderer, a liar, or an adulterer? If you put something into your mouth, your body eventually purges it. If you put something into your heart, however, there is no automatic, natural process to remove it.
     
    Jesus didn’t die so you could eat bacon. He died so you could have eternal life in spite of eating bacon.
     
  3. “That was only for the Dispensation of Law. God told Noah he could eat any animal. That changed when God gave the law at Mt. Sinai, then it changed again when Jesus rose from the grave. Now we are in the Dispensation of Grace and can ignore the Law of Moses.”
     
    Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 12:20 that the Israelites could eat whatever meat they wanted, but just 2 chapters later he repeated the list of things that God didn’t want them to eat.Sometimes one passage, when removed from the context of the whole Bible, appears to contradict one or another passage. That’s an illusion caused by our preconceptions and inability (refusal?) to consider those same passages from a more holistic perspective that harmonizes all of Scripture as a unified whole.
     
    Everyone reads the Bible through a lens that colors their interpretations. The problem with most people is that they don’t know it, and act as if their vision is crystal clear with no possibility of tint or distortion. Humility is a rare commodity.
     
    When you read about Noah after the Flood or Peter and Paul after the resurrection, consider–as an intellectual exercise if nothing else–reading those stories as if you believed that not a single letter could ever be removed from God’s Law. Do some of the words have alternate meanings (they all do) that work in the new context? Are you able to understand those passages in that light? If so, then it’s just possible that it is the correct light.
     
  4. “Those are ceremonial laws. They don’t apply to us anymore. Only the moral laws are still in effect.”
     
    I have never yet seen a reasonable defense of such a distinction in the Law. There is no civil vs ceremonial vs criminal or any such division in Scripture. It’s an invention of man. To the contrary, God said, “Do not take anything away from my laws nor add anything to them.” On one side are hazy conjectures and complicated theories. On the other side are several very clear, unambiguous statements from God. I’ll go with the latter.
     
  5. “All of the Law of Moses was abolished. It was entirely replaced with a new set of morals defined by Jesus and fleshed out by Paul: Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
     
    When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he quoted the Torah, and he said that all of the rest of God’s words hang on just two commandments. He didn’t say that the rest of Torah was no longer relevant. He didn’t add or subtract anything at all from the Torah. He didn’t even say anything new, although it might have been new to the Pharisees with their burdensome traditions:
     
    Matthew 22:37-40: And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (38) This is the great and first commandment. (39) And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (40) On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
     
    Jesus (aka Yeshua) wasn’t telling them anything new. He was just quoting Moses, words with which they were already very familiar:
     
    Deuteronomy 6:4-5: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (5) You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
     
    Leviticus 19:18b You shall love your neighbor as yourself…
     
    Earlier I mentioned something else Yeshua said about the Law of Moses:
     
    Matthew 5:17-19: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (18) For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (19) Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
     
    Note two things about that statement: 1) Whatever “fulfill” means here, it does not mean to destroy. 2) Nothing can be removed from the Law until heaven and earth pass away.
     
  6. “The Law of Moses is still valid and still applies, but only to Jews. It was never intended to apply to gentile Christians.”
     
    As far as salvation is concerned, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” However, the New Covenant was not promised to gentiles. It was promised only to the houses of Israel and Judah. See Jeremiah 31:31.
     
    Those of us, who were once Gentiles, have been grafted into the tree of Israel, not the other way around. There is only one body in the Messiah, one law, and one nation: Israel. If you want to be part of that body, then you have to become an Israelite, which means that, even if this objection were true, the Law must apply to all true believers in Yeshua. (Notice that I did NOT say you have to become Jewish.)

There are many strong-sounding arguments for ignoring God’s instructions regarding which animals are acceptable as food, and I don’t have time to hash them all out in this one article. Stick around, though. I’ll get to them eventually.

I assure you that every argument that relies on interpreting some Bible verse to mean the opposite of what Yeshua said in Matthew 5 falls apart when you start assuming that Yeshua knew what he was talking about.

White Sheets, Creepy Crawlies, and Unclean People

Does Peter's Vision in Acts 10 mean that we can eat anything we want now?

Peter’s vision in Acts 10 proves beyond any doubt that the Jewish dietary laws were canceled by God and have no relevance whatsoever to Christians.

This is a common objection to Christians continuing to keep God’s Law as given to Moses. It is a serious objection too. If God really commanded Peter to kill and eat a sheet full of unclean animals, that would be a very strong indication that the dietary laws are no longer in effect, so it warrants a thorough examination. It’s a long passage to cut and paste into a blog, so I’ll break it up into chunks and see if I can’t pare it down a little.

Acts 10 begins by telling us about Cornelius, a man very much like Abraham. They were both gentiles who loved God and lived by faith. God respected that faith and sent Cornelius an angel who told him to send for Peter. Note that the Angel did not tell Cornelius to go to Peter but to have Peter brought back to him. This was because Peter had a very important lesson to learn about gentiles and faith. (We are never too big, too smart, too Spirit-filled to learn from someone else, even someone of apparently much lesser rank.)

(9) The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. (10) And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance (11) and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. (12) In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. (13) And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” (14) But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”
Acts 10:9-14

There are two very startling things going on here.

  1. God appears to tell Peter to kill unclean animals and eat them.
  2. Peter is shocked that God would tell him to do such a thing.

The first thing was startling to Peter who, as an observant Jew, had never eaten anything “common or unclean.” To him this was nearly as bad as idolatry or murder. He was startled and dismayed that would God command him to transgress the Law, to commit sin.

The second thing, the fact that Peter was shocked–ought to be quite startling to any Christian who believes that Jesus died so that we don’t have to keep the Law anymore, particularly the parts of the Law concerning what we are and are not to eat.

How could Peter not know that Jesus made it OK for him to eat unclean animals? He had walked at the Savior’s side as his friend, daily hearing him teach and preach on how to live a holy life and on the deeper meaning of God’s commandments. Peter had personal, intimate conversations with him about God, faith, salvation, and the Law. He was there on the day that the Pharisees confronted Yeshua about the disciples eating with unwashed hands and heard with his own ears the Messiah proclaim all foods clean. He must have known for many years by this time that no meat could be unclean anymore! At the very least he must have known that this day was coming. Yet he had never in his life eaten anything unclean, and he was shocked at the suggestion.

Why then was he so surprised at it? And why aren’t more Christians surprised at Peter’s surprise?

Is it possible that the subject never came up during Peter’s three year theological tutelage at the feet of Israel’s Messiah? Even after that famous confrontation with the Pharisees in which Yeshua supposedly declared all “foods” clean?

I don’t think so. Yeshua and his disciples ate together almost every day, multiple times each day, and sometimes even with gentiles, while he expounded at length on the meaning of the Law. Most likely, the subject came up more than once, yet it never crossed Peter’s mind that he might be free to eat any animal he wanted.

The truth is that Yeshua never even hinted to Peter that he had come to die so that everyone could eat bacon with their eggs. If God really wanted Peter to eat unclean animals, then this was a new change, and not something that Peter had heard or suspected before.

(15) And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (16) This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (17) Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate (18) and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there.
Acts 10:15-18

Three times, God told Peter to kill and eat, but each time he took the sheet with the animals away before Peter could carry out the command. If God sends a vision or a dream, then we know it must have an interpretation, but Peter didn’t immediately know what it might be. In fact, he spent much of the rest of that day puzzling over it and didn’t fully realize God’s message until the three men arrived from Cornelius.

Here is what puzzles me most about this perennial controversy: We don’t have to wonder what Peter’s vision meant. When he arrived at Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, he told everyone there in plain language exactly what the vision meant, and Luke recorded his statement for us:

And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”
Acts 10:28

The sheets, the animals, the voice… It was all about people, not food! God wasn’t telling Peter that he had changed the rules about what animals were acceptable for food. God sent the vision to tell Peter that he was bringing people from all nations into the Kingdom, that the Jewish traditions keeping Jews and Gentiles apart were not right. The salvation bought by Yeshua’s blood was for all people, not just the Jews, and Peter had no right to exclude anyone from full fellowship in the Commonwealth of Israel based solely on the circumstances of their birth.

Some will object, saying, “Surely God would never command someone to commit a sin even in a vision, so Peter’s vision in Acts 10 presupposes that unclean animals have also been made clean.”

Why wouldn’t he? This is another parallel with the story of Abraham.

In Genesis 22, God commanded Abraham to make a human sacrifice of his own son, something that was clearly against God’s Law. Even before Sinai, only certain animals were acceptable for offerings and God has always abhorred human sacrifice. When God told Abraham to kill his son, he never intended anyone to believe that he had therefore abrogated laws against murder and human sacrifice. It was a sin to offer up a human before Mount Moriah, and it remained a sin afterwards. Although God told Abraham to kill Isaac, he prevented him from shedding even a drop of blood.

Now, to make this even clearer for the hard of hearing and the poor of vision:

Abraham Peter
Commanded to make a human sacrifice Commanded to eat unclean animals
Prevented from making a human sacrifice Prevented from eating unclean animals

God commanded both of these men to do something that was against his Law, and in both cases God prevented them from carrying out the command. In neither case did God change his Law. In both cases, God taught us something about his plan of salvation for mankind.

Abraham learned that God would send a substitute sacrifice to do what we could not, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.

Peter learned that God can make children for Abraham from anyone in any nation, that there are no unclean people among those whom God has redeemed.

After telling Cornelius what he had learned from his vision, Peter went on to teach that whole household about Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel, about his miracles, his death, and resurrection. All of those present, both Jew and Gentile, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began speaking in tongues and praising God.

All that… and not a single word about lobster ravioli, BLTs, or the flesh of any other unclean animals.

We know that Yeshua said that not even the least significant commandment would be removed from the Law until heaven and earth pass away and “all is accomplished.” Heaven and earth are still here. All has not been accomplished. Unless Yeshua lied, then the dietary laws cannot have been removed from God’s requirements of his people, and nothing in Acts 10 implies otherwise.

Peter’s vision of unclean animals was never about food. It was always about people. Unless Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac means that murder is no longer a sin, Peter’s vision does not mean that eating “all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds of the air” is no longer a sin.

God’s Law stands unchanged, just as Yeshua said it would in Matthew 5.

Two Mountains over the Jordan

Mounts Gerizim and Ebal represent blessings and curses for obeying or disobeying God's Law.The Hebrews spent forty years in the wilderness getting to know God and their place in relationship to him. Sometimes they did things his way and things went well. Sometimes they tried it their own way and it went poorly, but eventually they made it through, which means that, on the whole, they must have done more right than wrong along the way.

They fought the Amalekites. They fought Kings Og & Sihon. They won great victories and vanquished wicked peoples who were much stronger than they, at least from the world’s perspective. Finally arriving at the Jordan River, they paused to take stock. It was the moment they had been waiting for the day they walked out of Egypt. Everything had been building to this moment.

After summarizing their long trek, Moses pointed to the two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal, and said to them “These two mountains represent the two paths you can take once you’ve crossed over. Things are going to go well for you over there if you obey God’s commandments, or they’re going to go very poorly if you don’t. The choice is yours.”

I can almost hear what they were thinking.

“Hold on. Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute. I thought all the hard stuff was on this side of the Jordan. Isn’t it supposed to be easier on the other side?”

Anyone who has lived very long should understand that’s not how life works. There are easy moments and hard ones, but there is no “easy” stage of life. There is no point at which we can say, “I’ve arrived. I can stop trying now.” But don’t we always seem to slip back into that same assumption that it’s going to get easier once we get past this next challenge? Okay, maybe the next one. The one after that?

The Promised Land was just on the other side of the Jordan, but the Promised Land was never intended to be a place of eternal harps and cotton candy clouds. God intends for the Promised Land to be hard work.

For you are to cross over the Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving you. And when you possess it and live in it, you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the rules that I am setting before you today. (Deuteronomy 11:31-32)

The Jordan didn’t mark the boundary between difficult and easy. It was more like the boundary between practice and execution, between rehearsal and performance. The Promised Land was where the real fighting was to take place and the biggest fight that the Hebrews would face wouldn’t be against the Canaanites. It would be against themselves and their own inclination to forget God’s commandments.

Once their enemies were mostly defeated, Israel lost their focus and drifted into complacency and idolatry. They took possession of the land, but they forgot the most important part of living in it: keeping God’s Law. To obey is to choose Mount Gerizim and life as God intends it to be, while to ignore God’s Law is ultimately to choose Mount Ebal and death.

We cross Jordan Rivers all the time in our lives. The cycle of leaving Egypt, wandering in the Wilderness, fighting giants, and crossing into the Promised Land happens over and over for everyone. When you graduate from school, get married, have children, get that promotion…these are all Jordan Crossings. At every stage of life we face the same challenges: a struggle to achieve freedom, a period of wandering and discovery, hard battles, breakthroughs and victories, and then slowly we drift back into the chains of drudgery, of spent energy and forgotten dreams.

It’s going to happen. You will forget your purpose. You will get stuck in a rut. You will backslide. Don’t beat yourself up about it too much. Thank God that he is a long suffering and forgiving God and that he sent Yeshua to take away the curse of eternal death that disobedience merits!

Having crossed the Jordan, don’t give up. Take possession of the Promised Land that God has given you, whatever it is in your life right now. Maybe it’s a great career, a ministry, or a profound new friendship. But whatever it is, don’t stop at taking possession. Don’t ever think that possession is the end goal.

And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal. Are they not beyond the Jordan…? (Deuteronomy 11:29-30a)

Crossing the Jordan is just the beginning. The greatest opportunities for blessing and curses aren’t behind, but still ahead of you. Keep moving, and be careful to follow God’s instructions as you do. Choose to live in your Promised Land. Make it bloom and produce one hundred fold, because God isn’t giving it to you solely for your enjoyment. He is giving it to you so that you can do something with it to glorify him, to lift up his son, Yeshua, and to edify his Kingdom.

Over there, across the Jordan, putting your Promised Land to work is where God intends for you to be. It’s the place where you will be the most effective for the Kingdom. But only if you are faithful and keep your eyes on him.

God’s Get Rich Slow Scheme

This week’s Torah reading (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17, aka “Re’eh”) talks about how to get rich. Fantastic! The best part is that you get to pick between blessings and curses. Who wouldn’t choose blessings over curses?

Here’s how you make your choice known to God:

  1. Worship God His way, not your way, and not in any pagan ways. Whether you are native-born Israelite or grafted in, no paganism allowed. Destroy every trace & burn all the bridges that lead back that way.
  2. Be careful what you eat. Don’t eat blood. Don’t eat creepy crawlies. Don’t eat pigs and other forbidden animals. Don’t eat blood. And especially don’t eat blood as part of any religious rituals. Got that? No blood.
  3. Don’t listen to false prophets.
  4. Have 3 big parties every year, paid for by the tithes of what you’ve produced from your land in 2 out of 3 years.
  5. In the third year, gather up all your tithes and share them with the landless, orphans, and widows of your own town. This is on the honor system, but don’t be stingy.
  6. Forgive all debts to fellow believers/Hebrews (whether native-born Israelites or grafted in) at the end of every 7th year. Don’t be stingy. Lend to your poor neighbors at zero percent interest with the full expectation that they will pay you back no matter how much time is left. If they don’t pay you back on time, don’t hold it against them.
  7. Release all Hebrew slaves–not that there’s a lot of explicit slavery in America these days, but the principle still counts–at the end of the 6th year in the 7 year cycle. Don’t be stingy here either. Since they weren’t able to work for themselves, send them out with a year’s worth of supplies. They can live off that until they get themselves back on their feet or they can use it to pay off debt before the end of the 7th year.
  8. In whatever way God blesses you, be sure to bless others.
  9. Rejoice! Especially during Sukkot in the Fall. Throw a party and invite everyone: native, grafted-in, orphans, widows, Levites, servants, family, and neighbors. And don’t be stingy!

You probably noticed a trend. Here’s the short version: Fear God and be generous.

Whatever you’ve heard on television or Facebook, this is a principle that every filthy rich person will tell you: give, give, and give some more. Wealth is never a zero-sum operation. There’s always more where it came from. Blessings flow from God like water through a pipe. What happens if a pipe is capped? The water stops flowing. You are a pipe. Let your wealth flow out to keep God’s wealth flowing in.

But wait! There’s more…

If I only wanted to make myself or you feel good, I’d stop there. But I’m not.

These blessings aren’t necessarily directed at individuals. They’re directed at the nation of Israel, the native-born and the grafted-in. (Not the State of Israel. That’s something else altogether.)

I’m not saying this won’t work for individuals. It clearly does! The principal of “Give-to-Get” is the very foundation of the wealth-building wisdom of Zig Ziglar and many other famous teachers of personal economics. (You can have as much as you want if you only help as many others as possible to get what they want first.) After all, you can’t have a wealthy nation without wealthy individuals.

This is just another layer of the selflessness required to be an effective conduit of God’s blessings. Do you want to be blessed? Then bless everyone around you with no expectation of getting anything back, either from them or God. I guarantee you will be blessed abundantly, but I can’t guarantee exactly what form that blessing will take. Even so, if you make wise financial decisions in addition to being generous with your resources, the chances are very good that your resources will continue to multiply.

If you want God’s continued blessings, keep the pipe straight (obey God’s Law) and don’t cap it off (be generous).

Edible, but Not Food

And there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the LORD your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:7 ESV)

According to Maslow and common sense, a person needs some things more than others. Food and water are at the top of the list, and if you don’t have those, the rest won’t do you much good. A connection to God is more difficult to rank using only our senses and immediate survival, but it is even more important in the long run.

When we don’t eat, we get hungry. When we don’t have the right balance of nutrients in our diet, we experience cravings or illness, and we fulfill those needs by eating more food or more variety of foods. Our feelings of need are usually satisfied in the short term by just about anything we can stuff into our mouths that meets the minimum requirements. If our bodies need calories, then a candy bar will suffice. However, that’s not necessarily the best option available. Certainly, the sugar and fat will supply calories, but usually in the wrong proportions or in undesirable forms. An apple or handful of nuts would be a better choice because it satisfies the immediate craving while providing for longer-term nutrition needs and not doing any damage.

God didn’t say anything to Moses about candy bars because the ancient Israelites didn’t have access to them, but He wasn’t silent about diet. For example, He told us not to eat blood and He even told us why (because the life of an animal is in its blood) even if His explanation is incomprehensible to modern medicine. Contrary to some recent diet fads, He told us that bread is perfectly acceptable so long as it isn’t the only thing we eat. He also told us that some animals (pigs, bats, spiders, etc) shouldn’t be eaten and neither should certain parts of even the good animals. Bat meat things might supply the body’s basic nutritional needs–in fact, it might be excellent sources of some nutrients–but, just as a nutritionist might say that many edible substances aren’t food, so does God. Pigs and bats might be perfectly edible and provide perfectly usable nutrition, but there is something else about them that makes them non-food. God didn’t tell us exactly what makes them off limits; He just said that they are. He designed both them and us, and told us that we shouldn’t eat them whether we understand why or not.

Our need for spiritual connection with God is very similar to our need for food. Voltaire wasn’t so far off when he said that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” We have a deep need to worship and serve something greater than ourselves. Every human society throughout history has worshiped and theologized. Not even alcohol has been as widespread as religion. Unfortunately, just like when we eat a Snickers instead of an apple, we frequently follow our spiritual urges without any real understanding of what we need. We know instinctively that prayer, singing, dancing, and offerings are all good and necessary, but like children in a grocery store, we don’t know to take more of the green stuff and less of the pink and gooey. Like candy, there are religious practices that sooth our cravings, but don’t provide good spiritual nutrition. With that in mind, it’s not too surprising to find McDonalds “restaurants” in churches. There is a right way and a wrong way to relate to God, to worship and serve Him, and just as with food, He gave us some substantial direction in the Scriptures.

God linked food and religion, and Moses made that link clear. In Deuteronomy 11 & 12, Moses said, “You will not worship like the pagans do. You will destroy the places the pagans used for their worship, and you will wipe out the names of their gods. You will not offer sacrifices just anywhere you want, but only in that place that God chooses for His name. You will not eat blood, and you will only eat those animals that God has declared food. And, don’t forget, you will worship God in His way, not in your way, nor in the ways of the pagans.” God left a lot to our tastes and aesthetics, but He gave us some important ingredients to a healthy spiritual life that we ignore to our own detriment.

 

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An Invitation to Behold

“Behold, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse…” (Deuteronomy 11:26 ESV…sort of.)

We are all sufficiently able to understand God’s commands to keep them by simply hearing them. They aren’t complicated. They were intended to be understood and followed by poorly educated laborers and herders. As Moses said later,

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14 ESV)

None-the-less, there is more to Torah and to the blessings and curses that it contains than is easily discernible in a strict, literal reading. There are treasures to be found if you look closely.

Every single parsha* tells of the Messiah and his role as the redeemer of all mankind, but Moses didn’t highlight those bits with a yellow marker. You have to look under the surface text. You have to see, to behold. Many passages contain layer upon layer of meaning bringing guidance and understanding to our relationships with each other and with the Creator. To discover those layers, you have to look closely and from different angles.

This is a command to pay attention to the blessings and curses, but beneath the plain text, it is also an invitation to search the Torah more deeply.

* Thousands of years ago, the Pentateuch (aka Torah) was divided up into portions called parshim (plural) or parsha (singular). Each week almost every Jewish and Messianic congregation around the world reads and studies the same parsha.

About Christmas…

Is Christmas, along with all of its traditions, pagan?Deuteronomy 12:29-32:

When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations before you, where you go to possess them, and you take their place and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you do not become snared by following them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not ask about their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods, that I too may do likewise? You shall not do so to the LORD your God. For every abomination to the LORD, which He hates, they have done to their gods; even their sons and their daughters they have burned in the fire to their gods. All the things I command you, be careful to do it. You shall not add to it, nor take away from it.

(See also Deuteronomy 18:9-14.)

Regarding Christmas, there are good things and bad things, but the most important consideration for me is what pleases God. In Deuteronomy 12:29-32, God said not to learn how the former pagans used to worship their gods and then do the same for him. He told us how he is to be worshiped, and we are forbidden from adding to it or taking away from it.

Christmas is to holidays as English is to languages. They are cultural borgs, assimilating everything they touch. Some Christmas traditions are clearly biblical, while others are clearly pagan, and some are more difficult to pin down. Google the words “pagan” and “Christmas,” and you are sure to find plethora of sites declaring everything about Christmas to be purely pagan and evil. You will also find sites claiming that everything about Christmas is purely inspired by God with not a speck of yellow to mar the pristine snowy landscape. Who’s right?

I am no expert on the subject. In fact, I haven’t even read a single book on it. I’ve read a lot of articles, listened to speeches, and sat in on debates, though. So, for whatever it’s worth, I’m going to give you my thoughts on it.

December 25th

From what I’ve read, December 25th was decided on as the birthdate of Yeshua relatively early on in Church history. Unfortunately, it was still decided at least a century after the fact, and it was decided by Greeks and Romans who wouldn’t necessarily understand all the nuances of the Jewish Gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, and John were all native Jews, and Luke was a proselyte at a fairly young age.

There are some people who seriously believe that Yeshua was actually born on December 25th, but they are a minority. Most believe he was actually born on some other date, either in the late spring or early fall. Competing modern traditions point to the pagan holidays of Saturnalia and the many other winter solstice celebrations to explain how December 25th earned the title.

One tradition says that most of the cultures encompassed by the Roman Empire had some kind of winter solstice celebration, which generally fell very close to December 25th. That tradition is undoubtedly correct on that point, but it goes further. It says that Roman Christians didn’t want to appear to Jewish, so instead of celebrating a new holiday at a different time of year, they melded the new ideas into their existing celebrations. In that way, they would be celebrating Christmas at the same time everyone else was celebrating Saturnalia, and they wouldn’t stand out from the crowd. This sounds like a reasonable explanation, but as far as I can tell, it is only speculation. The solstice celebrations were certainly real, but I have never heard of any solid evidence that this was the motivation for selecting this date for Christmas.

A competing tradition says that the Roman Empire instituted the formal holiday of Saturnalia in order to compete with the growing popularity of the Christian holiday. I have at least heard of some documentary evidence that Saturnalia was not officially recognized by the Emperor until after Christians had already adopted the 25th for Christmas. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Saturnalia had not already been celebrated unofficially, so it doesn’t disprove the previous argument.

Another argument against December 25th is the fact of shepherds tending their flocks in the hills at night. I have heard it argued that no shepherd in Judea would have been tending flocks outdoors at night on December 25th. The shepherds supposedly drove their flocks into barns or warmer climes, I’m not sure which. This sounds like something invented by people with no actual knowledge of sheep or shepherding.

The counter argument is that it rarely gets below freezing in that region even in December, and that shepherds routinely tend their flocks under those conditions. I have no way of knowing which is right. I know that in modern times the temperature does occasionally fall below freezing, but that it averages something closer to forty degrees Fahrenheit, but climates can change dramatically over two thousand years. Maybe it was ten degrees every night or maybe it was sixty. I have never seen any documentation of either claim.

There is also the faint possibility that December 25th was chosen because it is possible that Yeshua was conceived sometime near Hanukkah, which is celebrated beginning on Kislev 25 and is always within a few weeks of December 25th. Kislev, being a month on a foreign calendar, was changed to December and the day came to be celebrated as a birthdate instead of as a conception date. More speculation.

Absent proof of one hypothesis or the other, I’m not going to raise a stink about it. If everyone wants to celebrate Yeshua’s birth on December 25th, then I’m OK with that.

Christmas Trees

Every report I have heard says that Christmas trees were adopted from a Germanic solstice tradition. One such report said that some Germanic tribes would bring a tree inside their house as some sort of talisman against the symbolic death of the shortest day of the year. The living tree within their home helped preserve their own lives and ensured another prosperous year. I have no clue if that is correct.

Also consider the prophecy of Jeremiah 10:2-5:

So says the LORD, Do not learn the way of the nations, and do not be terrified at the signs of the heavens; for the nations are terrified at them. For the customs of the people are vain; for one cuts a tree out of the forest with the axe, the work of the hands of the workman. They adorn it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers, so that it will not wobble. They are like a rounded post, and they cannot speak. They must surely be lifted, because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them; for they cannot do evil nor good, for it is not in them.

I doubt that Jeremiah was thinking of Christmas trees when he copied these words from God, but the parallel is too striking to ignore. The pagans are terrified of the signs of the heavens, signs like the winter solstice, in response to which they cut a tree out of the forest, bring it back to their house, and decorate it. Perhaps Jeremiah had never heard of the German people or their Yuletide traditions. Perhaps he thought he was only writing about carved idols inlaid with gold and silver.

But then again, perhaps God had a wider perspective than Jeremiah.

It seems obvious that, despite many efforts to apply Christian meaning to the Christmas tree, it is not of biblical origin. It was almost certainly adopted from some pagan religious rite. However harmless it might seem, I can’t see any way that it does not violate God’s command to not adopt pagan religious practices. Justifying it by saying we are doing it in his honor adds insult to injury. Does it help the adulteress’ case to claim she was thinking of her husband at the time?

Yule

The Twelve Days of Christmas, Yule logs, Yule Tide, and Yule everything else is unquestionably pagan. There is nothing biblical about it, and claiming otherwise is pointless.

Candles

I suspect the tradition of candles placed in the windows was adopted from Hanukkah, in which an 8 or 9 candle menorah is lit and placed where it can be seen through the house’s windows. While this tradition is not included in the Scriptures of the canon, it is not done in honor of any pagan gods. It is done solely in honor of a miracle that God performed in fulfillment of prophecies in Daniel and in preparation for greater fulfillments to come. I say light ’em up.

Gift Giving

One tradition says that gift giving was adopted from Saturnalia. Another says that it was instituted in honor of the gifts brought to Yeshua by the magi. Either one seems like speculation to me. I have never seen evidence either way.

Mistletoe

Wherever the mistletoe tradition came from, it wasn’t from the Bible or anything else surrounding the birth of Yeshua. I’m not sure if it has anything to do with a pagan religious practice either. It might be a superstition related to fertility, but not necessarily a fertility rite performed as part of any kind of worship. It could be something akin to Jacob’s striped sticks or Rachel’s mandrake.

Red and Green

Once again, I have never heard of documentation for claims of pagan origins for the colors red and green. On the other hand, I can’t imagine how it might be derived from Scripture. I suspect it is a harmless tradition based on one of the most hopeful denizens of winter: evergreen hollies.

Lest anyone think I might be turning into the Grinch, I am not interested in making anyone else conform to my opinions on Christmas. There will be no Christmas trees or Yule logs in my house, but you need to make your own decisions about it. I am not going to complain about nativity scenes or Christmas trees on public property, and I am not going to tell you you’re going to hell for your cheese log. These are just some rambling thoughts relevant to the day. They might even be wrong. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind.

Have fun. Enjoy yourself. But consider giving your traditions a little more thought as to whether or not they please God. He is, after all, the reason for this and all other seasons. Is he not?

Add your thoughts if you want. I might disagree, but I’ll try not to call you any bad names. 😉