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.

The Elegance and Depth of Torah

The elegance of Torah

One characteristic of what computer programmers refer to as “elegant” code is that it accomplishes much with little. In other words, a complicated process reduced to a few simple lines of instruction. One can usually tell a novice programmer by the convoluted nature of his code.

Torah is like an elegantly written piece of software. While it seems at times to be just a long list of dos and don’ts, in reality, it is a simplified portrayal of deep and nuanced concepts. A set of instructions on what to do in a particular circumstance often (always?) opens into a multi-dimensional framework of truths concerning the nature of God, man, redemption, and spiritual health and sickness, but only if you look at it from the right angle. Here are just some of the characteristics that a passage contains greater mysteries than appear on the surface:

  • Unusual Hebrew spelling.
  • Altered Hebrew characters, whether in size, shape, position, or orientation.
  • Thematic parallels with other passages.
  • Parallel or mirrored structure, often called a chiasm.
  • Numerological and pictographic double-meanings.
  • Puns and cognates.

At Ashrei, Rabbi B discusses some of the deeper meanings of “clean” and “unclean” in Leviticus 11-15 (aka the Torah portions of Sh’mini, Tazria, and Metsora), and how these concepts contain real and applicable spiritual import for people in ages and cultures.

It is in the most unlikeliest of places that we often discover the most precious of treasures. From time to time I hear from people who read the Bible how they skip certain sections when reading because those sections seem tedious and boring, or even irrelevant. When expressing this sentiment they often cite the lengthy genealogies or the detailed laws concerning sacrifices or laws pertaining to cleanliness.

Although I understand and sympathize with the sentiment somewhat, I often respond by reminding them that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of G-d, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of G-d may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (cf. II Timothy 3:16). And all means all, including the passages we are about to consider in this and subsequent posts.

I believe that G-d’s Word is inspired, literally “G-d-breathed,” all of it. Not just some of it, or just the part starting with the Gospels, but all of it, very single word, every single syllable. I also believe that in the beginning was the Word, that the Word was with G-d, that the Word was G-d, and that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (cf. John 1). That being said, I believe that we can find the Messiah being proclaimed on every page of the Bible. Let’s begin by taking a look at one of those long, tedious, and detailed sections of the Torah and see what we might discover.

Read the rest here: The Leper Messiah.

The Restorative Power of Jesus’ Blood

Man was created to be an intermediary between Heaven and Earth, to govern the lower creation in deference to the higher. To accomplish this role we were given bodies with physical and spiritual components. Our flesh and spirit are intended to work together for maintaining, encouraging, and healing the natural world in communion with our Creator and one another.

When Adam sinned, he introduced signal pollution into both of these communication channels, the upward and the downward. We are no longer capable of effectively stewarding God’s Creation, forced into a situation in which we must extract our sustenance from it without inflicting too much damage. We are no longer capable of seeing God face to face. We must have prophets, teachers, intermediaries of all kinds to go up the mountain for us, because we are unable to endure the divine presence. His voice alone is enough to destroy us.

As a partial and temporary remedy to our spiritual injuries, God gave the sacrificial system, detailed most famously in the book of Leviticus. The khat’at (sin offering) in particular illustrates this point most clearly.

The bronze altar of the Tabernacle had horns on each of the four corners representing a connection to Heaven. The blood of the khat’at animal was collected by the priests and then the High Priest would paint these four horns with it, thereby purifying the entire altar. The remaining blood was poured out at or around the base of the altar, making the altar holy and atoning for (covering) it. The blood on the horns (the connection point with Heaven) and the base (the connection point with Earth) served as a sort of signal filter, temporarily removing the noise from our corrupted spiritual communications and allowing the altar to function on a higher plane.

We are like that altar, intended to be a connection between heaven and earth. Yeshua’s blood, shed on Passover, atones for the sins of all who repent and believe in him, restoring our relationship to God and enabling us to communicate with Him. Since we still inhabit fallen bodies and live in a fallen world, we continue to struggle with sin. We fight our evil inclinations daily, repenting for our failures, and continually appealing to God’s grace for His mercy. Ongoing, unrepented sin causes a breakdown in spiritual communication until we can no longer hear God’s voice at all.

We were created for a purpose, but if we are living in sin, we are incapable of fulfilling our purpose.

We were created for a purpose, collectively and each of us individually, but if we are living in sin, we are incapable of fulfilling our purpose. Ramses had wealth, fame, and greater military and political power than any other man on earth, yet his great contribution to history is as the Pharaoh whose defiance of God brought Egypt to the brink of extinction. By clinging to our sin, whatever great contribution we might have had to God’s Kingdom could be reduced to an object lesson in what not to do.

I’m not saying that perfect behavior is a condition of salvation. If it were, no one on earth could be saved. I am only addressing our ability to act effectively as God’s emissary. (Deliberate rebellion against God’s commands is something else entirely, and will have to wait for another day.)

Our great hope, the point of our faith, is that in the day of the resurrection, our bodies will be made new despite our personal failings, and we will be permanently transformed along with our relationships to Creator and Creation. We will be enabled to resume our intended place in God’s order as the connection point between Heaven and Earth. Nature will no longer fight us and we will commune freely with God and peacefully with each other.

That day can’t come quickly enough.