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Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (the short version)

I shared this with my subscribers in May of 2021, but now I’m making it available here for everyone.

Romans Is Pro-Torah

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is among the most pro-Torah books of the entire New Testament, but it is commonly taught as if it’s one of the most anti-Torah!

Many people understand Romans 14 to say that all of God’s instructions concerning clean and unclean meat and the weekly Sabbath are no longer relevant to the Christian. They say that those who still cling to such distinctions are “weak in faith” because they aren’t trusting in Yeshua’s death and resurrection to fulfill all of the requirements of the Law. They make a point, in direct contradiction to Paul’s instructions according to their own understanding, of berating any brother who disagrees, shaming them, and even banishing them from their fellowships.

This chapter is almost always taken as a complete literary unit that stands on its own without reference to the surrounding text, to the rest of Scripture, or to historical context. In that light (or lack of light), it’s easy to make any passage say something contrary to its intended meaning. But after reading thirteen chapters of Paul repeatedly tell his readers that keeping the Law is a good thing–avoid sin, uphold the Law, live righteously, obey the commandments, etc.–does it really make sense that he would suddenly switch tack and say the exact opposite?

Since Paul didn’t write anything in this letter about pork or rodents, but he did write about vegetarianism, it makes much more sense to assume he is addressing eating meat versus eating only vegetables. And since he made no mention of the Sabbath or any other of God’s appointed days, doesn’t it make more sense that “one person esteems one day as better than another” in the middle of a conversation about food is about which days of the week are best for fasting?

To many readers today, that seems like a silly argument–and it is!–but it was a serious controversy in the first century, and Christians were still debating it decades later when the Didache was written. Some religious groups fasted on one day of the week and some on another. This Christian fasted on Thursday so that people wouldn’t think he was part of that new cult from Persia, while that Christian fasted on Wednesday so people wouldn’t think he was a Jew. When you could be ostracized, beaten, or even killed for being associated with the wrong religion, your choice of a fasting day becomes a much bigger issue than it might seem in today’s America.

Did this ever come up as a possible explanation for Romans 14 at Wednesday night Bible study? Probably not.

Romans, Chapter by Chapter

In order to get a more accurate understanding of what Paul was trying to communicate, I have written this brief survey of the book, with short summaries of each chapter.

The next time you read Romans, refer back to this survey to keep each chapter in the context of the whole letter, and I hope it will aid you in understanding some difficult texts and in refuting the antinomian lies we have all inherited and even internalized to some extent.

Chapter 1 – The righteous live by faith, but the unrighteous ignore the Law of God and their own consciences in order to do what they please. By consistently behaving contrary to what they know to be right, they eventually destroy their ability to make that distinction at all and earn the enmity of God and the condemnation of his Law.

Chapter 2 – God is just to condemn those who behave wickedly and to rescue those who behave righteously regardless of their ethnic origins. It isn’t enough to say the right things, you must also do them. All those who obey God out of love and faith are living up to the name of Yehudah (meaning “praised”), whether they are born into Israel or not.

Chapter 3 – The Jews have a great advantage in that they have inherited the Scriptures, but everyone is accountable to God for his own sin, and everyone sins. Fortunately, we are not made right with God by the merit of our works, but by our faith in the redemption purchased by Yeshua (Jesus). We don’t obey God’s Law in order to earn salvation, but because we have faith in him.

Chapter 4 – The covenant of salvation was given to Abraham for his faith, not for his obedience. Circumcision is not a condition of the covenant, but a sign of it, and his heirs also receive the covenant without regard to their prior obedience. If the covenant depended on obedience, we would all be lost, and now we too can inherit Abraham’s covenant through our faith in God.

Chapter 5 – Yeshua’s death enabled our reconciliation with God. The world was condemned by the sin of one man and saved by the obedience of Yeshua. The Law magnifies our individual sins, but it also magnifies the grace of God which rescued us from death earned by sin to eternal life earned by his righteousness.

Chapter 6 – Through his death, Yeshua rescued us from the eternal death we deserved because of our sins. The only appropriate response is to repent from all sin and live according to God’s Law. If we go on living in sin, we will be enslaved again to it. He set us free from slavery to sin in order to become slaves of righteousness to God. We obey God’s Law in response to his free gift of eternal life.

Chapter 7 – Through the physical death of Messiah, we died spiritually to the condemnation of the Law. Through his resurrection, we are enabled to live and bear fruit in righteousness. The Law defines sin, but our old sinful natures gravitate to that which is opposed to God, turning the Law that was meant for life into death through our disobedience. The Law does not bring death, but our violation of the Law does. Even while we believe in God and long to obey him in our hearts, a part of us is always in rebellion, drawing us back into slavery to sin.

Chapter 8 – Yeshua released us from the condemnation we deserved, enabling the Spirit of God to live in us, manifesting in a mind focused on the Spirit and living righteously rather than on the flesh and living according to its sinful desires. The flesh constantly pulls us back, but we have been made children of God and only have to cry out to him. His Spirit helps us and intercedes for us, gradually transforming us to be more like Yeshua through our trials and conflicts. We may suffer all kinds of external trials, but none of these things can ever separate us from the Love of God.

Chapter 9 – God’s promises to Israel are certain, but not all who are descended from Israel are counted as Israel. Believing gentiles are counted by God as his people, and only a remnant of natural Israel will be saved. Those Israelites who tried to earn their salvation through the Law will lose it because they didn’t obey through faith.

Chapter 10 – Messiah is the goal of obedience to the Law for all who obey in faith. The Law promotes a better life, but it is only through faith and submission to Yeshua that we are truly saved. The natural descendants of Israel can’t appeal to ignorance because all of Scripture points to Yeshua.

Chapter 11 – God has not rejected natural Israel. He will always preserve a remnant of those who believe in him rather than in their own obedience. Some natural branches of the tree of Israel have been cut off and believing gentiles have been grafted in, but God can as easily cut off those gentiles again and graft the natural back in. The whole tree of Israel will be saved by this process of cutting out the bad and grafting in the good, but God’s promises to the descendants of Israel can never be revoked, and he will forgive those who repent. We have all sinned and God shows mercy to us all equally.

Chapter 12 – God showed mercy to forgive your sins, so don’t live as if you’re still part of the world. Don’t be proud in your salvation or in the spiritual gifts that God has given. We are all one body and we are all important to its health and function. Work for each other’s good. Live in harmony with everyone as much as possible with humility and without prejudice. Respond to animosity with kindness, forbearance, and honor.

Chapter 13 – Submit to whatever authorities are over you where you are and give them the respect and honor due their position. All of God’s Law can be summarized in the single commandment, love your neighbor as yourself. We are living in dark days, so live in the light, by living in obedience to God’s commandments and showing love to each other. Live like Yeshua lived rather than giving into the sinful desires of your flesh.

Chapter 14 – Welcome those whose faith is not as strong as yours and don’t berate them for their weaknesses. Don’t get caught up in worthless arguments over whether to eat meat or be a vegetarian and on what day to fast completely. Live according to your own consciences, not condemning each other for differences of opinion. Our lives are no longer our own, but we all live and die for the sake of God. None of us are perfect, and we will all answer for our own failings. Be considerate of each other’s opinions and don’t tempt or offend a brother contrary to his conscience. Food and drink are relatively minor issues in the Kingdom of God. It’s not a sin to eat meat or drink wine, but don’t do it if it creates a problem for a brother.

Chapter 15 – We should make allowances for the weaknesses of our brothers. We should learn from the example of Yeshua and from the Scriptures and may God help us to live in unity. Messiah became a servant for all, both Jew and Gentile. Overall, you’re doing well, even if you need some correction. I will visit you when I can after I go to Jerusalem but pray for my deliverance from unbelievers there.

Chapter 16 – Be generous and welcoming to the men and women who serve the Kingdom in their various capacities and give my greetings to all those in your community who also work faithfully for the Kingdom. Do not allow anyone to cause division among you but remain faithful to God in the preaching of the Gospel and obedience to his commandments.

Conclusion

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is very clear in some ways and very cloudy in others. Chapter 14 is especially confusing for many Christians for two reasons: 1) They have inherited an antinomian (anti-Law) view of Jesus and Paul, and so they interpret everything in that light, and 2) At least half of the conversation is missing, so it’s easy to fill in the gaps with what we’ve been taught rather than what Scripture actually says. Reading our own assumptions into a text is known as eisegesis, and it’s always a bad idea.

Paul’s original readers understood the full context of his words because he wrote them in response to a controversy they were experiencing at that moment. In order to understand what he intended for them to get out of his letter, we need to separate what we think he meant from what he actually wrote. Once we are able to do that, we are free to consider his words within the context of the whole of Scripture (not just the New Testament or Paul’s other letters) and of the controversies that we know were an issue at the time (not just the controversies we’ve been told were an issue).

Taken at face value, Romans 14 isn’t really that difficult to understand and isn’t anti-Torah at all.

Killing the Passover

The how, when, were, and why of killing the Passover.

Whenever I tell someone that we keep Passover as a Christian, I expect them to ask if I sacrifice a lamb. Sometimes, they actually do ask. Other times, I think I can see them wanting to ask, even if they don’t. Let me put your mind at ease.

No, I don’t sacrifice a lamb. I don’t even kill one.

Technically speaking, that means we don’t really keep Passover, because in Biblical usage, the lamb is the Passover. What we really do is a memorial of Passover, called a seder, which itself is a memorial of the original Passover in Egypt. We usually gather with several other families and read an abbreviated Passover Hagaddah that has been modified to emphasize the prophetic and messianic symbolism of Passover. We have a large meal, including most of the traditional Passover foods (matzah, horseradish, charoset, etc), in addition to lamb and other dishes.

Even though we usually have lamb at our seder, it’s not a real Passover because the lamb wasn’t killed specifically for that purpose. It’s just grocery store lamb. If we were in Jerusalem, we might do things differently.

Let me tell you why that might make a difference, and as I do, please keep in mind that, although everything I write is based in Scripture, it is my own interpretation and I am not always correct. I always reserve the right to be wrong and to change my mind at a later date. 😉

The Victim

In this manner you shall eat [the lamb]: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover.
Exodus 12:11

Throughout the Old Testament, the term “Passover” (pesach in Hebrew) refers to the lamb, not to the day, the week, nor any other part of the meal.

Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats…
Exodus 12:5

The Passover must be an unblemished, male yearling, either a sheep or a goat.

A goat?

Yep. We almost always speak of a Passover lamb, but the Passover can also be a goat.

“Without blemish” means that it must have no scars, no injuries or past broken bones, no defective parts, and no illnesses. Rabbinic tradition has a long list of characteristics that qualify as blemishes, many of which I’m sure would be familiar to judges in best-of-breed contests at dog shows and county fairs.

“A year old” probably doesn’t mean what you think. The ancient Hebrews counted their days and years differently than we do. The Hebrew for “a year old” is ben shanah, which literally means “son of a year”, and really means that it must be within the first year of life. We usually count our age by the years we have passed, but the Biblical pattern is to count age by the year you are in. A Passover must have been born sometime after the previous year’s Passover. I believe the rabbinical standard is that the lamb must be at least a few weeks old and preferably already weened.

The Scene

And you shall kill the Passover to YHWH your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place that YHWH will choose, to make his name dwell there.
Deuteronomy 16:2

‘Since the day that I brought my people out of the land of Egypt, I chose no city out of all the tribes of Israel in which to build a house, that my name might be there, and I chose no man as prince over my people Israel; but I have chosen Jerusalem that my name may be there, and I have chosen David to be over my people Israel.’
2 Chronicles 6:5-6

Once the Tabernacle had been completed in the Wilderness, God told the Israelites that they must stop slaughtering animals anywhere except at the Tabernacle (Leviticus 17:3-4) to get them out of the habit of performing their own sacrifices independently of the priests whom God had appointed. However, he also told them that, once they were in the land, they could resume slaughtering animals for meat wherever they lived, but they had to bring all sacrifices to one specific place where he would “make his name to dwell” (Deuteronomy 12:13-15).

In Jerusalem, Not Just at the Temple

It took a few centuries, but eventually God designated Jerusalem as that place. Since the time that King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to the Holy City, it has been the only place on earth that God allows sacrifices.

Unlike other sacrifices, though, and contrary to popular opinion, the Passover does not need to be killed at the Temple. Deuteronomy 16:5-6 says that the Passover may only be killed “at the place that YHWH your God will choose”, which sounds like it’s talking about the Temple. However, verse 7 says that it may also only be cooked and eaten at the same place.

According to Josephus, more than 250,000 Passovers were killed in Jerusalem within a few hours in one afternoon. I suspect that number might be an exaggeration, but it seems nearly impossible for even half that many to be killed so quickly at the Temple. How much greater would be the difficulties in all the people remaining there on the grounds to cook and eat their Passovers! So much greater, in fact, that it would be completely impossible. There is simply no way to fit potentially millions of people into the Temple grounds at the same time, which is what would be required if “the place that YHWH chooses” is limited to the Temple.

Whatever the Jews were actually doing in the first century, God’s instructions for Passover requires the lamb to be killed at Jerusalem, but not necessarily at the Temple.

Has the Place of God’s Name Changed?

I have heard the argument that the place where God would put his name has changed since Yeshua’s resurrection, namely that the place is now in us, so that the Passover can be killed wherever we are. However, if the place has become purely metaphorical and not an actual place, then I think the Passover and all other sacrifices must also become purely metaphorical.

There is some truth in that. We have no Temple, no altar, and no Levitical priesthood, but we do have a Tabernacle and Altar in Heaven, where Yeshua is the High and only Priest. Whatever sacrifices that we once would have made at the altar in Jerusalem, we now make solely through worship and good deeds rather than blood. However, no altar or priest is required for the Passover1, and as I have demonstrated, the place of God’s name was never at the Temple, but all of Jerusalem.

The Killing

If you have never participated in the slaughter and butchering of an animal, you should find a way to make that happen. Not because it’s pleasant in any way, but because everyone should know what is involved, what happens when the life leaves one living creature so that another–you and me–can live.

The principles of God’s Law require that the animal be killed as humanely as possible, and it’s blood must be drained out. Fortunately, both requirements can be completed by a quick cut across the throat with a very sharp knife. A lamb won’t necessarily cooperate with you, but if it is held firmly, it will stand relatively still, and allow you to kill it and drain the blood in just a couple of minutes.

Although most English translations say something like “you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the LORD”, there is only a single Hebrew word behind “you shall offer…sacrifice”, zavach. Technically, the word only means “kill”; “offer a sacrifice” is the translator’s interpolation. It’s an understandable rendering, though, because the word is frequently used in the context of holy sacrifices, and Deuteronomy 16:2 says the Passover is to be killed “to YHWH”.

The Passover is very similar to a peace offering (aka thanksgiving offering or zevach shelamim), but unlike the peace offering and the other four kinds of offerings made at the Temple, no part of the Passover or its blood ever touches the altar. At least, not according to God’s instructions. This is yet more evidence that it does not need to be killed at the Temple.

Once the Passover is dead, it is skinned, cleaned inside and out, and prepared for roasting over a fire whole. The simplest method is to put it on a spit with the legs bound up against the body.

The Timeline

Nisan 10

For the first Passover in Egypt, the lamb (or goat) was to be selected on Nisan 10 (Exodus 12:3) and kept by the family until Nisan 14 when it was to be killed. I don’t know what the ancient Jews did in later centuries, but Yeshua–whom we knew did it correctly–and his disciples don’t appear to have selected a lamb until just hours before it was to be killed. \

And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?”
Mark 14:12

I can’t be absolutely certain, because the Scriptures don’t say one way or another, but I doubt that they had been leading a lamb about with them for the prior four days.

Nisan 14

We do know, however, that they killed a Passover on Nisan 14. Mark tells us so just a few verses down.

And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.
Mark 14:16

See the section below on The Last Supper for more on that.

Terminology surrounding Passover and Unleavened Bread in the New Testament is a little fuzzy. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say that the Passover was killed “on the first day of Unleavened Bread”, but the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread is on Nisan 15, while the Passover is to be killed on Nisan 14. There are two possible explanations for this apparent discrepancy.

  1. The terms “Passover” and “Unleavened Bread” were used idiomatically for the the entire holiday season, just as today’s Christians use “Christmas” and today’s Jews use “Passover”. The days leading up to the official start of the ceremonies could be referred to as “the days of” the feast, even though the feast hadn’t technically started yet.
  2. Although the Feast of Unleavened Bread begins on Nisan 15, the eating of unleavened bread begins on Nisan 14, with the slaughtering of the Passovers.

I favor the second explanation, and so I dive into what is probably the most controversial part of this essay.

Between the Sunsets

…and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.
Exodus 12:6

The phrase “at twilight” is curious. In Hebrew, it is ben ha’erevim, which literally translates to “between/among/at the sunsets”. Note that it is plural. In most cases, where Torah says to do something at or near sunset, it says b’erev, at evening.

I’m not an expert in Biblical Hebrew–someday I’d like to rectify that, but I have a fairly demanding day job–but the only other place in Torah I could find that uses this same phrase is concerning the morning and evening sacrifices in Exodus 29:39 and Numbers 28:4. In both cases, every day’s sunset is intended, not mid-afternoon. I believe it means the same thing here in Exodus 12:6.

The Passover is to be killed “at the sunsets”, not between 3 and 6 PM.

I realize that the Jewish tradition during the second Temple period appears to have been to kill the Passovers at the Temple between 3 and 6 in the afternoon, but if that’s they way they did it, I believe the did it incorrectly.

I used to enjoy stirring the pot, so to speak, but for the last decade, I much prefer to resolve controversy than create it. So I don’t casually say that the entire Jewish religious system and almost everyone since the first century got something this major wrong.

Besides the unusual phrase in Exodus 12:6, I offer you two other proofs.

First, Deuteronomy 16:6 specifies that the Passover must be killed “in the evening at the going in of the sun”. (Young’s Literal Translation is especially helpful.) Not just in the evening (afternoon), but in that part of the evening during which the sun is passing below the horizon.

The Last Supper

Second–and far more importantly–three of the four Gospels say that the disciples “prepared the Passover” at the beginning of Nisan 14, not at the end when Josephus and the Talmud say it was done. Remember that the Passover is not a day, but the lamb itself. In the first century, the day might have been sometimes referred to as Passover, but there is only one thing that Matthew 26:19, Mark 14:16, and Luke 22:13 could mean when it says that the disciples “prepared the Passover”, they mean that they killed and cooked it.

I don’t think there’s any other reasonable interpretation of that phrase. All of the usual protestations of “that’s not how the Jews did it” are irrelevant if that’s the way that Yeshua did it. The Passover wouldn’t be the only doctrine that he corrected.

Two Sunsets

Having said all that, I don’t really think the Jewish establishment had the timing of the Passover completely wrong. I have explained why I believe that the phrase ben ha’everim refers to the time at which the sun crosses the horizon, but recall that it is also plural, as in two or more sunsets, just as the daily evening sacrifices also occur ben ha’everim, day after day.

Recall also that the biblical day begins at sunset, not at midnight or sunrise. (See the section entitled “In the Face of the Sabbath” in the article Will the Real Sabbath Please Stand Up.) At the moment that the sun is partly below the horizon and partly above, the day itself is half between one date and the next. The significance, I believe, is that the Passover must be killed while the sun is crossing the horizon on the 14 of Nisan, but it might not matter whether it is crossing the horizon into Nisan 14 or out of it.

Yeshua and his disciples were right to kill their Passover at sunset at the end of Nisan 13 going into Nisan 14, and those who killed their Passovers at the Temple in the final moments as the sun was setting at the end of Nisan 14 were also right. Those who killed it while the sun was still up were not so right.

A Twilight Sacrifice

The Passover doesn’t fit neatly into either category of holy sacrifice or common meat. In some ways the Passover is like the sacrifices made at the altar:

  • It is killed at the command of God and eaten under strict conditions.
  • It must be unblemished (Exodus 12:5).
  • It can be killed and eaten only in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 16:2).
  • It appears to be related to the peace offering, and the rules of the peace offering concerning who may touch or eat it apply (Leviticus 7:19-20, Numbers 9:6, 2 Chronicles 30:17).

But it is also like any other animal slaughtered for food:

  • It can be killed by any ritually clean person, not just a priest, a Levite, nor even the person who provided or selected the animal as with other sacrifices (Exodus 12:6, 2 Chronicles 30:17).
  • Neither the Passover nor the blood ever touch the altar.
  • It must be killed in Jerusalem, but not necessarily at the Temple (Deuteronomy 16:5-7).

Eating the Passover is a community event. No one is allowed to eat it alone. If your family is too small to eat a whole lamb, you are to join with some other family, eating the Passover under one roof, even if it isn’t your own. No part of the Passover may be kept past the morning. If there are leftovers, they are to be burned up. And as you eat, you are to maintain a physical and spiritual attitude of readiness to leave Egypt, whatever Egypt you are in.

The Motive

This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to YHWH; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.
Exodus 12:14

God said to keep the Passover as a memorial. In the context of Exodus 12, that means a memorial of that night in Egypt when all the firstborn of Israel who were covered by the blood of the lambs were spared, while the firstborn of Egypt died.

However, God’s memorials never memorialize just one thing.

All of God’s appointed times are prophetic of events past and future, like stones thrown into a pond, sending ripples across time. There are, for example, hints of the Passover in the story of the three angels who visited Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18-19:

  • God meets a prophet in the wilderness
  • A meal prepared in haste with unleavened bread
  • The righteous in the house are saved, while the wicked outside are struck down.
  • Escape from the place of oppression
  • Doubt and rebellion in the wilderness

The Passover pattern also shows up in the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 and Peter’s escape from jail in Acts 12. If you pay attention as you read the Bible, I’m sure you’ll see more connections.

The Plot Twist

The lamb itself has numerous thematic connections with Yeshua himself.

For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
1 Corinthians 5:7b

Consider these parallels:

  • The original Passover was selected on Nisan 10. Yeshua entered Jerusalem just before the 10th of Nisan and went to the Temple where he was examined by the priests, religious teachers, and common people.
  • The Passover must be unblemished. Yeshua is the only man who ever lived a sinless life.
  • No bones may be broken on the Passover during preparation or the feast. None of Yeshua’s bones were broken despite the severe beating and crucifixion.

Those aren’t minor things. They contribute to the prophetic confirmation of Yeshua’s identity as Messiah and the Son of God. They aren’t the most important parallels, though.

The Passover’s blood was painted on the doors of the Hebrew homes so that God would see that covering, that atonement, and withhold his judgment from those houses. The next morning, the Hebrews walked through those blood stained doors into freedom and God’s presence in the wilderness. Yeshua’s blood washes away our sins so that when God looks at us, he doesn’t see our sinfulness, but Yeshua’s perfect righteousness. He became the door that we can walk through to escape from slavery to sin into freedom in the presence of the Father.

The Passover in Egypt died so that the firstborn sons of Israel could live, even as the firstborn sons of Egypt died. Yeshua died so that we could all live, and then he became the firstborn of the resurrection of the righteous dead into eternal life.

Without Yeshua voluntarily giving his life, we would have no hope of true freedom. We would be bound in Egypt, living short, meaningless lives, enslaved to sin until we die, when we would be condemned to the second, eternal death of the Lake of Fire. No advocate and no defense.

If you trust him enough to believe his words and follow his instructions, he has become your Passover and your Salvation.


1 Philo also reported that the Passover was killed by individual Israelites without the need for a priest: “…The Pasch on which the whole people sacrifice, every member of them, without waiting for their priests, because the law has granted to the whole nation for one special day in every year the right of priesthood and of performing the sacrifices themselves.” Philo, The Decalogue, Book I, chapter XXX.

1 Timothy 4 and “Every Creature of God is Good”

(1) Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; (2) Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; (3) Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (4) For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: (5) For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
1 Timothy 4:1-5 KJV

I believe that there are two primary ways in which people tend to misread this passage which lead them to interpret it to mean that all of God’s rules about clean and unclean animals have been revoked.

Semantic Drift of English Words

I usually quote from the English Standard Version, but I chose the King James Version in this article to illustrate the first problem: the intrepid drift of English vocabulary over time. The KJV translates two Greek words in a way that seems to be clear on first reading, but actually obfuscates Paul’s original meaning. Specifically, broma (βρῶμα), translated as “meat” and ktisma (κτίσμα), translated as “creature”.

“Commanding to abstain from meats” must refer to Jewish laws about not eating pork, right? And “every creature of God is good” must mean that pigs are good to eat, right?

Not quite.

The Greek word Broma does not refer only to the flesh of animals, what we call meat, but to food in general. This isn’t a mistranslation in the KJV, because “meat” also once meant any kind of food in English. Throughout the New Testament broma is translated as “meat” in the KJV, but is used to refer to food in general, not to the flesh of animals. Bread, broccoli, and beef are all equally “meat” in King James English. Most modern translations read “food” in those verses instead of “meat”.

Likewise, the second Greek word, Ktisma, does not refer only to living things, as we understand the word “creature” in twenty-first century English, but to all things created. When the KJV was first published, the English word creature was applied to anything that could be created. The sun, stars, and sand dollars are all God’s creatures, not because they are alive, but because God created them.

Now consider how the ESV translates this same passage:

(1) Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, (2) through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, (3) who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (4) For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, (5) for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
1 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV

For modern English speakers, the ESV is much clearer. “Abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving” is unambiguous, even if the subsequent clause of “by those who believe and know the truth” could allow for some speculative theology. “Everything created by God” is also quite clear. It refers to everything that God created, which includes….everything.

Inedible Eisegesis

Paul told Timothy that liars were making people abstain from foods that God created to be eaten and that everything God created is good. Does that mean everything God created should be “received with thanksgiving” as food? Not at all. Surely Paul didn’t mean that we should add gravel, cyanide, and babies to the breakfast menu. He wrote “food that God created to be received with thanksgiving”, and clearly God did not create all things to be used as food, especially not with thanksgiving. Even some things that are technically edible were not created to be food.

And YHWH God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Genesis 2:16-17

David Stern used a memorable turn of phrase when commenting on 1 Timothy 4:3-5 in his Jewish New Testament Commentary: “Everything created by God is good, but not everything created by God is food.”

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was only one of many edible creatures that God did not create to be eaten, and Paul doesn’t state anywhere in this passage in First Timothy (nor in any other passage) that God has set aside his instructions on what animals he wants his people to eat and not to eat. Interpreting it so is a clear example of eisegesis, reading a theological opinion back into the text instead of letting the text speak for itself (aka exegesis).

A More Digestible Exegesis

The problem Paul was addressing had nothing to do with Biblical dietary laws. As in almost all of his letters, Paul denounced man-made traditions masquerading as divine command, not God’s own commandments. False teachers were telling people that they needed to abstain from marriage and food. Perpetual celibacy and frequent fasting were common themes among among false teachers of the time. Celibacy before marriage is good, but celibacy within marriage is bad. Fasting is good, but it is only commanded on one day of the year, and even that’s debatable. Petty arguments about whether we should fast from all food on Mondays or Wednesdays or from meat on Fridays were rampant in the first century. (See my article on the Didache.)

In this passage, Paul told Timothy not to let these liars add or remove from God’s actual instructions. God decides what is food or not. God instituted marriage, and no man can change God’s laws on these or any other matters. Even if he had wanted to change God’s Law, Paul simply did not have the authority. No man does. As Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 4:2, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of YHWH your God that I command you.”

We also know that Yeshua never violated Torah and never taught anyone else to do so. In Matthew 5:19, he said, “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.”

A close reading of Paul’s letters, being careful not to add anything to the text that he didn’t actually write, shows that he did not teach against Torah or Yeshua. (Considering Yeshua’s words, it seems to me that to teach against one is to teach against the other.) People often misconstrue his polemics against over-zealous converts, both Jewish and gentile, as being against obedience, but one can only interpret his letters in such an antinomian manner through eisegesis and begging the question.

The most expansive interpretation of this passage that good exegesis allows is that Paul believed nobody should forbid marriage, as long as it’s done according to God’s guidelines, and nobody should forbid eating what God has authorized to be eaten, because everything that God created is good if used according to its design.

Did God’s Food Laws Change After the Flood?

Did God change the laws about clean and unclean animals after the flood?

Being a Torah observant follower of Yeshua (aka Jesus) means living according to God’s instructions as given to Moses (aka Torah) and as illustrated and explained by Yeshua, including those rules that pertain to diet. Food is a very personal thing and other Christians are frequently dumbfounded that I don’t agree with them that God’s rules for eating were canceled by Jesus. Just read Mark! Read Romans! Haven’t you read Galatians!? Etc. Pick a New Testament book and there’s probably a verse in it that someone will interpret to mean that God no longer cares what anyone eats. I am convinced beyond any doubt that the vast majority of people–even well-educated and sincere believers in Jesus–have never even considered that those verses might be interpreted in some other way, let alone done any serious study on the matter.

American Torah (and other websites that have published my articles) holds other articles on this topic, but the same “counter” verses come up often enough that I think it’s worthwhile to the most common, including what they say and what they are claimed to say. I don’t have the time or inclination to address every possible relevant Bible passage, of course, but I hope that I will be able to add something useful to the collective dialog and encourage you to reconsider what you have been taught or what you might assume about others.

I will add the tag “kosher” to this and other articles on this topic so that you can easily find them here at American Torah and over at Soil from Stone.

And I will begin with The Beginning, Genesis…

And God said, Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.
Genesis 1:29

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
Genesis 9:3

When God first created man in the Garden, he gave Adam permission to eat plants (“every herb bearing seed” in the KJV), but then after he destroyed the world in the Flood, he gave Noah permission to eat animals (“every moving thing that lives” in the KJV).

This raises two questions: 

  1. Did God’s Law change after the Flood?
  2. If God changed the rules once, could he change them again?

God told Noah he could eat every living thing. Doesn’t that mean we can eat pigs and lobsters?

“Every plant yielding seed” and “every thing that lives” are descriptions of categories. In other words, God gave Adam permission to eat from the category of all seed-bearing plants and he gave Noah permission to eat from the category of all living things, but he did not mean for either of them to understand that they could eat absolutely any and every member of those categories.

If you get your drivers license and I tell you, “Congratulations! You can drive all kinds of cars now,” do I really mean that you are free to drive any and every motor vehicle you can find? No, because not every vehicle is yours, some vehicles require special licenses and training, and other vehicles are illegal to drive on regular roads. I think these two Genesis phrases would have been better translated as “the seed-bearing plants” and “the living things” to convey the intended meaning.

Leviticus 11:3 says, “Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat.” Does that mean that every cow is available for food to anyone? Clearly not. God did not give anyone permission to kill and eat his neighbor’s cow.

Let me give you a scenario as an illustration.

Your town has an ordinance against driving 18 wheelers on any streets within town limits. You don’t own an 18 wheeler, but your neighbor does. Are you allowed to drive his 18 wheeler on a country road without his permission? No, you aren’t. Not because of the town law–that doesn’t apply on country roads–but because it’s not your truck.

Now, if you take it into your head to become a long haul truck driver, you can get your CDL and purchase your neighbor’s rig. Then you will be free to drive it on that country road, but still not in town, not because it is illegal for you to drive an 18 wheeler, but because it remains illegal to drive it in town. If your neighbor had only loaned you his truck, instead of selling it, with the condition that you can only drive it downtown, you would be no more legally authorized to drive it than before, because his consent in the matter has no effect at all on the town’s ordinance against 18 wheelers within town limits.

Before the Flood, before God allowed Noah to eat animals, he told Noah to take seven pairs of every kind of clean animal into the Ark with him (Genesis 7:3), so God’s laws concerning what makes an animal clean or unclean existed and were in force at that time. God’s laws concerning what makes an animal edible to humans are identical to those that distinguish clean from unclean, and so it seems to me that those laws were also in force prior to the Flood, prior to God granting Noah permission to eat animals.

On the sixth day of Creation, he gave the Garden into Adam’s custody, but not for every purpose that Adam might desire. Adam’s responsibilities as a gardener allowed him to prune and harvest the trees, but not to burn the whole place down. Everything belongs to God, every rock, tree, animal, and person. Before the Flood, cows and sheep were perfectly edible to humans, but they belong to God, and God was (and is) free to disallow mankind to kill his cattle for food, not because it is immoral to eat a cow, but because it is immoral to eat someone else’s cow.

God’s instructions to Noah were not a change in his eternal Law that says “You may eat this kind of animal, but not that kind.” Rather, they were a change in how much authority over his own possessions God had delegated to mankind, much like a farmer allowing his hired hands to take a few chickens home with them in addition to their daily allotment from the harvest.

If God changed the rules about what we can eat once, could he change them again?

Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 are the primary passages of Torah that tell us which animals are clean and therefore suitable for food. (See this article for a brief explanation of what clean and unclean means.) God’s Laws concerning clean and unclean animals predate Noah, Abraham, and Moses and haven’t changed.

But if God can change the wages of mankind from plants alone to plants and animals, can he also reduce those wages again to plants only? Or to animals only?

I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t. They and we are all his creations to do with as he chooses.

However, he would need to send a prophet to tell us of the change in such a way that nobody would have any excuse for not recognizing his authority and the truth of his message. The last two times God sent such a message, the prophet who delivered it was the supreme, unquestioned human authority on earth. I am unaware of a single human being in over 1900 years whom I could point to as a certain and true prophet, let alone one with such unimpeachable credentials. If a prophet carried a word from God that was so fundamental to human existence as the revocation of permission to eat animals, surely it would have to be delivered in a similar manner to the original granting of permission.

Perhaps when Messiah Yeshua returns to establish his earthly kingdom in the land of Israel, he will make such a decree. I doubt it, but who am I to say?

Parsha Re’eh – Apostolic Readings, Commentary, and Videos

New Testament passages to study with Torah portion Re'eh, along with related commentary and videos. Torah for Christians.

Readings

  • Deuteronomy 11:26-12:19
    • Matthew 7:15-23
    • Acts 9:1-20
    • Acts 11:1-18
    • 1 Timothy 6:13-16
  • Deuteronomy 12:20-14:29
    • John 6:48-66
    • Romans 14:1-4
    • 1 Corinthians 10:14-33
    • 1 Timothy 6:3-5,20-21
    • Revelation 2:12-29
  • Deuteronomy 15:1-16:17
    • John 4:34-38
    • John 8:31-38
    • Colossians 3:1-17
    • 1 Timothy 6:6-12,17-19
    • James 2:14-26
    • Revelation 19:6-9

Additional Readings

Videos Related to Parsha Re’eh

  • Proverbs 6:12-19 and Fake News – Proverbs 6:12-19 warns against being a tale-bearer, a spreader of “fake news”.
  • Don’t Go Back to Egypt! – Just like the Christian church, ancient Israel continued to faithfully serve God so long as the first generation of believers lived. As soon as that generation died, they slipped into general apostacy. Joshua 24:31
  • Who Are the Workers of Lawlessness in Matthew 7:23? – Yeshua said that only those who do the will of his Father in heaven would enter the Kingdom of Heaven and that those who disregard the law would be rejected no matter what other great deeds they’ve done. What law did he mean? How can we know what the will of the Father is? The answers aren’t mysterious. We don’t have to guess or wait for some personal revelation. The answers to both questions are plainly spelled out in Scripture.
  • Who Understands Justice for the Poor? – A righteous man truly understands what it means to ensure justice for the poor, the widow, and the orphan, but a wicked man, even though he might toss out a lot of fine sounding words, doesn’t have a clue what justice even means. In order to know who understands justice, we need to know who is righteous and who is wicked.
  • The Proverbs 31 Woman Reaches Out to the Needy – The Proverbs 31 Woman is generous to the poor of her community while still taking care of her family. Her husband trusts her with the family’s resources.
  • 2 Kings 4:8-17 and Elisha’s Unexpected Gift – The Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4 provided room and board to Elisha without expecting anything in return. She didn’t want influence or riches. She was already wealthy and had all the influence she wanted in her own community. All she wanted was to do something good for God’s prophet. Elisha (and God) rewarded her generosity with the last thing she expected!
  • What Needs to Be Removed Prior to Passover and Unleavened Bread? – There are two Hebrew words in Exodus 12:15 that define what you need to remove from your home for Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread: chometz and seor.
  • Shavuot Calendar Controversies – Some people keep Shavuot on one day, some on another. Are some of those people simply rejecting the plain words of God?
  • Shavuot: God’s Independence Day – Shavuot is a bit of an oddball among God’s feast days. It’s not clear from the biblical text exactly what it’s about, but there are some amazing parallels with the Exodus that give us some big clues.

Obelisks, Pyramids, and Stars of David

The Return 2020

Some people were very upset that Rabbi Jonathan Cahn and many Torah-observant believers participated in a large prayer event at the National Mall in D.C. on September 26, 2020. The event, called The Return, featured a number of other speakers including preachers, media personalities, politicians, and generals.

Why were they upset? Because it took place near the Washington Monument.

Why does the Washington Monument bother them? Because it’s an obelisk patterned after those of ancient Egypt.

Nothing Unclean in Itself

In Romans 14:14, Paul wrote, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Yeshua that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”

We know that he referred to man-made rules, those “fences around fences” designed to keep us from even getting close to sin, such as not eating with gentiles and not eating meat purchased at the market because it might have been sacrificed to an idol. He wasn’t referring to God’s instructions concerning which animals are acceptable as food and which aren’t.

For example, according to Moses, Paul, and Yeshua beef is perfectly acceptable as food no matter who slaughtered it or what prayers they might have said when they killed it. Just make sure the blood was drained and that you aren’t participating in the religious ritual. Pigs are great animals with a divinely appointed purpose. They should be given the same respect that we give the rest of Creation. Just don’t eat them.

Geometric Shapes Are Not Idols

Using the same principle, I believe that no geometric shapes are unclean or idolatrous in themselves. There is nothing sinful in having, making, or employing the shape of a pentagram, hexagram, pyramid, pillar, cross, or any other shape so long as you aren’t using it as an object of worship, as an aid in witchcraft, in a religious ritual adopted from paganism, etc.

Geometric shapes have only such meaning as people ascribe to them. If you believe that a spiral is a representation of pagan goddess and you think of that connection every time you see one, then you shouldn’t decorate your home with spirals. Just don’t go around telling other people that they are sinning because they really like spirals and ascribe some other meaning to them or no meaning at all. [Now insert any other shape you want where I wrote “spirals”.]

Rabbi Cahn didn’t build the Washington Monument, and–unlike the ancient Egyptians–I don’t even think that anyone involved in its construction believed it would help ensure George Washington’s place in the afterlife, even if they (and Washington, himself) harbored inappropriate levels of admiration for and attachment to Egypt’s paganism. It’s just a massive structure intended to inspire awe and remind observers of the man’s great stature among America’s founders. Nobody there was praying or bowing to the Monument.

Progress, Not Perfection

It’s no more a sin to pray to the One True God at the National Mall then it would be to pray in the midst of the pyramids of Giza or in the Parthenon of Athens. Instead of being upset that the organizers of this event didn’t get everything exactly right, praise God that they organized such a massive event in order to worship Him and call the nation to repentance! If you believe that the location or their admiration for George Washington or his Monument is misguided, then encourage them to do better next year without condemning them for this year’s imperfection.

For some of you, this might seem like a strange thing to worry about. “Of course, they’re just shapes with no meaning in themselves,” you might think. Great! However, please be aware that this is a much bigger deal in the minds of some other people and give them the respect and kindness owed to a fellow bearer of the image of our mutual Creator.

Does God’s Law Ever Change?

Covenants, priests, plants, and pigs... Does God's Law ever change?

All laws are an extension of the lawgiver’s character. God’s character never changes, therefore his Law has always existed and can never change.

Yet, we have God telling Noah that he can eat animals and telling Moses to set up a national priesthood for Israel and restricting all sacrificial worship to a single location.

Clearly something changed. What gives?

House Rules

Your mother likes a clean house and she has rules to keep it that way: Take your muddy boots off before you come inside. Don’t eat on the sofa. If she lived in the city, her instructions might include leaving your raincoat and umbrella by the front door. If she lived near a river in the wilderness, she might say to clean your fish and game outside and away from the house and not to leave trash where it might attract bears.

These are your mother’s house rules, but, as you can see, the specific rules she chooses to spell out might be different, depending on circumstances. If she replaces her wood burning stove with a gas fireplace, some of the rules are going to change because the things that the rules governed have changed.

But Mom’s character hasn’t changed, only the circumstances into which her character is expressed have changed. The specific rules she spells out are instructions for aligning your actions with her character in a specific time and place–her torah–so they might shift somewhat over time. However, Mom’s character dictates that many of those rules are going to be constant across all circumstances. Don’t spit on the floor. Say please and thank you.

God’s Law Is an Expression of God’s Character

God’s Law and instructions are similar. The rules he gave Moses are an expression of God’s character in a specific set of circumstances. If God gave them today, they might talk about coveting your neighbor’s car instead of his donkey. That doesn’t mean that his Law changes, only that how it was expressed might have been different if it had been given at a different time, to different people.

This is confusing in part because God’s character is too huge, too complex to explain to us in a list of rules, so we have a list of rules, plus lots of stories of how he has interacted with people over time. One thing we can learn by reading the stories in the Bible is that the relationship between man and God requires a priesthood. We are tainted by sin and direct exposure to his presence would destroy us, so we appoint mediators, build altars, and offer sacrifices to facilitate approaching him. (How exactly sacrifices and priests accomplish that is another topic.)

Changing Covenants and Priests

In the patriarchal era, the head of the house or one of the sons would act as the family priest. When God made a covenant with the nation of Israel, that covenant required a national altar and priesthood. Enter the Tabernacle and the Aaronic priesthood. The New Covenant that was hinted at throughout the Torah and made explicit in Jeremiah 31 requires yet another priesthood. In the New Covenant, God’s Law is written on our hearts, and our relationship to him is mediated by the Priest-King Yeshua (aka Jesus).

When Jeremiah said that God’s Law would be written on our hearts, he didn’t mean that the words God gave Moses at Sinai would be literally carved into our flesh, of course. He meant that the principles on which those words were based would be implanted in our minds and spirits so that we would know God’s character instinctively. Nobody will ever need to explain God’s rules to us, because we will simply know them, just as we instinctively know the rules of our own earthly father whose character we have studied since we were infants.

This writing of God’s character, his eternal Law, on our hearts isn’t an instantaneous event. It’s a process that has taken two thousand years so far and will likely never be complete until our Priest-King Yeshua returns to reign in person. There is still so much we don’t understand and even very much that we have forgotten! Clearly we still need to be taught how to behave in God’s kingdom.

As God and Moses carved the Ten Commandments into the stone of Mount Sinai with the fiery presence resting on its head, God, through the Holy Spirit, is now carving his character into us. In a sense, Yeshua’s disciples became the new Mount Sinai in the upper room at Pentecost, with the fire of God resting on their heads too.

In the Sinai Covenant there is a hierarchy within the priesthood. There is one high priest who is the only one authorized to perform some functions, such as entering the Holy of Holies at Yom Kippur. Then there are the sons of Aaron who have some other special duties, such as offering sacrifices on the altar. There are also the Levites, who serve various functions around the Temple and across the nation, but don’t offer sacrifices. Finally, the whole nation of Israel is intended to be a priesthood to the world. In the New Covenant there is also a hierarchy, with Yeshua as our High Priest and every believer acting as a lower sort of priest to the whole world.

These changes in priesthoods don’t represent a change to God’s eternal Law, because they are all in alignment with his eternal character. Rather they represent the application of his Law within the circumstances of a specific covenant.

Changing Dietary Regulations

Another “change” that often confuses people is in our diet. In the Garden, God gave Adam the plant kingdom for food. The plain text says “every plant”, but clearly God didn’t mean every green thing because he explicitly forbade eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. After the flood, God gave Noah the animal kingdom for food.

Did God change his mind about what we could and couldn’t eat?

I don’t think it was that God changed his mind, but that our circumstances had changed so much that a change in the rules was necessary simply to allow life to continue. The Scriptures show that something materially changed in our quality of life after the flood. Lifespans decreased dramatically each generation until we reached a plateau of about 70-90 years. Whether this was due to genetic deterioration caused by increased solar radiation or some other factor is beside the point. However it happened, we are not nearly as healthy as those who lived before Noah’s flood.

I believed that God recognized that if we were going to survive at all, we had to add meat to our diets. Plants alone were insufficient for sustaining the human race, and God’s character dictates that the preservation of life must trump many other considerations. He didn’t change his mind about what we could eat. The principle on which his instructions were based was always to give us what we needed to survive.

No explicit instructions as to which animals could be eaten and which not are recorded in the text of Genesis, so it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that God gave Noah permission to eat every animal that exists, but I’m convinced that’s not correct. When God told Moses what animals the Israelites were not allowed to eat, he didn’t just say “Don’t eat these.” He said that they are abominable (Deuteronomy 14) and that Israel is also to consider them abominable or detestable (Leviticus 11). Not eating forbidden animals is an important part of being holy, just as God himself is holy (Leviticus 11:44).

Noah knew which animals were clean and which were unclean as offerings to God, which means that God considered those unclean animals to be detestable at the time he told Noah he could eat of the animal kingdom and still does today. God’s character doesn’t change.

On the other hand, if you were faced with a choice between eating pork or starving to death, then by all means, eat the pork. This too is consistent with God’s character. Remember what Yeshua said about healing and rescuing animals on the Sabbath. The preservation and restoration of life supersedes most other considerations.

God Never Changes

God’s character–and therefore his deeper, eternal Law–doesn’t change, but how he interacts with us and what instructions he gives us sometimes do change based on changing circumstances.

Priests are mediators between God and men within the context of a covenant. A different covenant requires a different priesthood and this shift is entirely within the character of God and consistent with his Torah as expressed in the first five books of the Bible.

Idolatry, murder, fornication, and theft are clearly contrary to God’s eternal character independent of any covenant, so they will be wrong in all times and places. Despite what you might have been mistaught about these topics from Bible verses taken out of context, eating unclean animals and laboring on the Sabbath are also wrong in all times and places, except where it is necessary to preserve or restore life and relationship with the Creator.

There is a temporal law, the expression of God’s character in a time, place, and circumstance, and there is an eternal law, which are the principles that extend from the unchanging nature of God himself. Whenever it appears in Scripture that God has changed his Law, consider three things:

  1. Could I be misinterpreting what the Scriptures are teaching?
  2. Is this actually a change in God’s Law or merely in the application of his Law to a different circumstance?

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.


Addendum on unclean birds

There’s a lot of understandable confusion about what flying animals (includes more than just birds) are clean and unclean. The Hebrew words that describe the various birds in Leviticus 11 are obscure, and translators can’t agree on what flying animals are actually listed.

Here’s a chart showing how some popular translations render the list:

Lev 11HebrewHCSBYLTJPSBrentonKJV
v13neshereagleeaglegreat vultureeagleeagle
 peresbearded vultureossifragebearded vultureossifrageossifrage
 ozniyahblack vultureosprayospraysea eagleospray
v14daahkitevulturekitevulturevulture
 ayahall falconsall kitesall falconsall kitesall kites
v15oreball ravensall ravensall ravensall ravensall ravens
v16bat yaanahostrichowlostrichsparrowowl
 tachamasnighthawknighthawknighthawkowlnighthawk
 shachaphsea gullcuckoosea mewsea mewcuckoo
 netsall hawksall hawksall hawksall hawksall hawks
v17koslittle owllittle owllittle owlnight ravenlittle owl
 shalakcormorantcormorantcormorantcormorantcormorant
 yansuphshort-eared owlgreat owlgreat owlstorkgreat owl
v18tanshemetbarn owlswanhorned owlred-billswan
 kaattawny owlpelicanpelicanpelicanpelican
 rakhamcarrion vulturegier eaglecarrion vultureswangier eagle
v19chasidahstorkstorkstorkheronstork
 anaphahall heronsall heronsall heronsall lapwingsall herons
 dukiphathoopoelapwinghoopoehoopoelapwing
 atalephbatbatbatbatbat

As you can see, there is unanimous agreement on some points and total chaos on others. We also classify flying creatures differently than the ancient Hebrews did. For example, we differentiate between flying mammals and birds. They didn’t. They made distinctions between various kinds of birds of prey that we can’t even decipher now.

Here is what we can say with relative certainty:

Definitely Not Kosher

  • Any kind of vulture, buzzard, condor, etc.
  • Any kind of raptor, like a hawk, eagle, falcon, or anything else we would normally call a “bird of prey”.
  • Any kind of raven or grackle.
  • Cormorants.
  • Storks, herons, and pelicans.
  • Lapwings and hoopoes.
  • Bats and all other flying mammals.

Probably Not Kosher

Based on those that are definitely not kosher, I think it’s safe to presume that these birds are also unclean, although I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it.

  • Sea-going predatory birds, like gull, terns, and penguins.
  • Long-legged wading birds, like flamingos, shanks, and egrets.
  • Semi-terrestrial, semi-predatory birds like roadrunners, killdeer, and woodpeckers.

I’d Avoid Them, Just in Case

These birds seem to me like they probably belong in the list and some translators include them explicitly. Your call, of course.

  • Large flightless birds, like ostriches and emus.
  • Song birds, like swallows, finches, and cardinals.

Probably Kosher

Or at least they don’t seem to fit cleanly into any of the forbidden categories and they definitely aren’t listed explicitly. Some people still disagree about them, though.

  • Ducks
  • Geese
  • Turkeys

If you are interested in an Hassidic Jewish perspective on kosher birds, check out this article from Chabad: What Are the Signs of a Kosher Bird?

P.S. WordPress is giving me a heck of a time keeping the formatting on this article the way I want it. It seems like every time I edit something, WordPress messes up all my formatting.

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.