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the weird unclean food laws

Why were some animals and food declared clean, while others were labeled unclean? What was it that made camels, rabbits, geckos, mice, and pigs unfit for dinner? No amount of cocktail sauce could save the shrimp from being banned from the kitchen table! Why were these creatures classified as unclean?

If the primary purpose of the food laws was for health reasons, it is surprising that Jesus abolished them! There must be another reason. In Mark 7:18-19, Jesus said, “Whatever goes into a person cannot defile him” to which Mark interprets “(Thus he declared all foods clean).”

The observance of the food laws was the mark of the faithful Jew. Abstinence from certain foods set them apart from other peoples. As the laws distinguished clean from unclean animals, so Israel was reminded that God had distinguished them from all the other nations on earth to be his own possession.

This food-represent-people connection becomes evident when God shows Peter a vision of heaven opening “and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals … and there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’” Peter refused to eat any of the animals presented to him because the clean animals had been made “common” by being in direct contact with the unclean animals on the sheet. The idea of Gentiles being unclean (unacceptable) was so ingrained in Jewish thought, that Peter deemed it to be ‘unlawful’ (though God hadn’t) to associate with or enter the house of a Gentile. But “the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common’” (Acts 10:13-15). After God repeats this scenario three times, Peter finally gets the message.

When Peter meets with Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, he clarifies the symbolic meaning of the food laws. “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). In the vision, there were animals and Peter rightly interpreted them to represent people.

Peter continues to expound on his new revelation. “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him … Jesus Christ … is Lord of all” (Acts 10:34-36). The distinction between clean and unclean foods is as obsolete as the distinction between Jew and Gentile. The food laws were never meant to keep the Jewish people from associating with non-Jews. To be “set apart” to God’s purposes does not mean disengagement with the world. God had always intended Israel to be a light to the nations, so that by her light, salvation may reach the end of the earth.

According to Paul, “Food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” (1 Cor 8:8).  “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5). God’s kingdom isn’t about food and drink (Rom 14:17). When we seek his kingdom and righteousness, our food will be to do God’s will (John 4:34). 

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