Deuteronomy 14:3 – Food and Holiness
Deuteronomy 14:3 – Food and Holiness
Do not eat any detestable thing.Deuteronomy 14:3
One of the more daunting tasks in Bible reading comes with the sections called "Sundry Laws." You're prepared for a section that jumps from one thing to another, none of which seems edifying. Of course, you know it's Scripture and therefore profitable. The longest Psalm is an elaborate song of praise for God's saving wisdom in the Law. Still, reading about what you're supposed to do if a gecko falls into your cistern (Lev 11:29-38) does not seem, well, very spiritual.
What are we to make of the seemingly odd amalgamation of instructions in Deuteronomy 14:121? Remember that Deuteronomy 6-26 is Moses' "sermon" on the Ten Commandments, and chapter 14:1-21 deals with the third commandment. It focuses on the character of those who bear Yahweh's name. Moses begins by reminding them that "you are sons of Yahweh your God." Because of this, when mourning they are not to cut themselves or shave their foreheads on account of the dead. Such defilements were designed to identify the mourner symbolically with the dead, but Israel was to be identified with Yahweh's life. They could tear their garments, but not their flesh; they could loosen their hair, but not shave it. The priests were even more restricted in their mourning, with the High Priest the most restricted of all. Israel is reminded that they are a nation of priests. They were to maintain life in the face of death. They were people whom Yahweh had chosen and set apart from the other nations.
After this come laws about clean and unclean food? This strikes us as a bit odd. What does this have to do with the third commandment?
What are clean and unclean laws all about? In Leviticus 11-16, it's clear that clean and unclean laws are about access to the sanctuary. The person who is unclean isn't allowed to draw near in sacrificial worship. This means that the food laws aren't health laws. Noah knew the distinction between clean and unclean animals (Gen 7:2). When God gave Noah the right to eat of the animals, he didn't exclude the unclean (Gen 9:3). Abraham could've eaten ham all of his life. Moses' favorite dish could've been lobster – until he was eighty years old, that is. If health was the concern, would not the unclean animals have been precluded for Noah, Abraham, and the rest? Yes, you can get ill from improperly prepared pork, but you can get just as ill from improperly prepared chicken, a clean bird. There's nothing innately defiling about eating the flesh of unclean animals.
What's going on here? Leviticus 20:24-25 is Yahweh's own commentary on the food laws. As Israel had been separated from the nations, so Israel was to make a distinction between clean and unclean animals. Symbolically, eating unclean animals represents joining yourself to the way of life of the unbelieving nations. But Israel was holy to Yahweh, and they were not to join themselves to those who were spiritually dead. Israel shows this in how they mourn and in what they eat.
Animals that walk in the dust without the raised, split hooves are like the serpent who was cursed to crawl through the dust. Animals that don't chew the cud are like Adam who seized God's gift, instead of waiting for God to bless. (It's interesting that there are four "counterfeit" clean animals, three which chew the cud, but don't have split hooves and one which has a split hoof, but doesn't chew the cud. Israel may not even touch their carcasses, since they represent those who would lead them astray.) Similarly, the sea represents the nations (Ps 65:7) and the clean fish that move through it must have the symbolic protection of scales. The unclean birds seem to be associated with nighttime or the desert wilderness, that is, associated with darkness, away from the land. None of this is explicitly set forth, but as you look at the context and reflect on these laws, their general contours become clear.
Yet all of this may seem far removed from us. In Mark 7, Jesus declared all foods clean. Is not Deuteronomy 14 just so much dead letter? No, Jesus isn't repudiating the Old Testament Law, but fulfilling it; he is rejecting the demonic oral law. The Jews had forgotten the meaning of the Law and had turned it into works. The Law points to Christ, but the satanic purpose is to obscure this revelation. The laws of clean and unclean show what is in us: our sin, the old man in Adam. Adam was defiled and cast out because he allied himself with the serpent. The answer is in the meaning of the Law: Jesus Christ. In him, we have been chosen, made holy, and given access to the Father. This also means that in Christ, we are to be separated from unbelievers both in conduct and confession. We are to carry Christ's name in strength and not in vanity.
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