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D'varim/Deuteronomy 14:3 You shall not eat any abomination.
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Here we go again, some will say, back into the minutiae of ancient dietary regulations that have nothing whatever to do with us. Yet this basic concept - that there are things that are an abomination to G-d and which we as His people should not touch - has consistently proved difficult for Gentile followers of Yeshua. The demand for holiness that the Torah consistently makes sits uncomfortably with the message the modern church proclaims that "Love is enough." Before we take a look at Mark 7, Acts 10 and Acts 15, let's work through what our text - one of the shortest verses in the Hebrew Bible - and its surroundings tell us.
Starting with the Hebrew text, the first word - , the negative particle, 'not' - tells us something important. Hebrew has two ways of saying 'not': means not now; means not ever. The verb - the Qal 2ms prefix form of the root , to eat, consume, devour, enjoy (Davidson) - implies on-going action. Without using the "all your generations" formula, Moshe is already reminding the people that this prohibitions is much more than simply the rules to be observed by individuals, here and now, in the wilderness; this is about the people Israel as a whole, as one. As long as Israel exists, as long as you are Israel, don't eat any abomination.
David Clines tells us that the word , a feminine singular noun from the root , "to be abhorred, abhorrent, abominable"1 - of both things and people - means "an abomination, abominable thing or deed"2 and ranges from "invalid sacrifices; prohibited food, gods and their images; sexual indecency", to lying lips and false weights and measures. They are things that deeply offend G-d and contradict basic attributes of His character - integrity, faithfulness, honesty and holiness. RabbiHirsch explains that "the forbidden animal food is thereby described as an 'abomination' as such, the eating of which is opposed to our moral nature and destiny, and therefore would be inclined to 'disgust' us." The anthropologist Mary Douglas observes that "Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different classes of thing shall not be confused. Holiness means keeping distinct categories of creation."3
We should notice that the block of material this verse introduces, D'varim 14:4-20 is framed by the statement, "For you are a people holy to the L-RD your G-d" (D'varim 14:2,21, NJPS).HaShem's people are to be consecrated - holy, set apart - because "the L-RD has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth" (v. 2, NJPS). The list of edible and non-edible species is similar to that given in the book of Vayikra, ending with the assertion, "I am the L-RD your G-d. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy ... For I am the L-RD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy" (Vayikra 11:44-45, NJPS). This is all about holiness, about not being defiled or contaminated, about remaining distinct and set apart for HaShem. Nevertheless, as Jeffrey Tigay points out, our text has no direct counterpart in the Vayikra material. "By adding it as a heading," he suggests, "D'varim places forbidden foods in the same category of abhorrence as idolatrous and immoral actions that would defile Israel's holiness."
The Jewish commentators agree that preserving holiness is the key concern. TheSforno says that "because you are a holy treasure out of all the peoples, it is improper for you to be nourished from the unclean and the abominable, for (through such an ingestion) you will become similar (to them) in temperament." By consuming the impure and the unclean we ourselves become impure and unclean; this is what the modern saying means: you are what you eat! Ibn Ezra provides the reasoning that "since you are a holy people, it logically follows that your mouths must be as consecrated as your hearts. If you indeed a holy people, it is wrong for you to eat something unclean and thus defile your essential nature." We defile more than our physical bodies by choosing to eat forbidden foods; we impact our inner identity.
Given, however, that Gentiles seem to eat forbidden foods with impunity - apart from the well-documented health hazards associated with eating meat, processed and pork meat in particular - is it appropriate to say that unclean animal meat is inimical to human life as a whole? Mankind as a whole are given permission to eat meat in very general terms after the flood: "Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these" (B'resheet 9:3, NJPS).Rashi re-particularises this to Israel, explaining that the words "any abomination" mean "Anything I have made abominable for you." Jeffrey Tigay again: "The language of the dietary codes indicates that what is impure for Israel is so because G-d declares it to be so: 'they are unclean for you' (D'varim 14:7,8,10,19)." The Abravanel summarises: "Since others eat them, we see that they are not intrinsically abhorrent to people; it is G-d to whom they are abhorrent, because they are all connected in one way or another with idolatry."
In the gospels, Yeshua seems to address the issue of dietary regulations head on as He spoke to the people: "Listen to Me, all of you, and understand this! There is nothing outside a person which, by going into him, can make him unclean. Rather, it is the things that come out of a person which make a person unclean!" (Mark 7:14-15, CJB). As the text makes clear a few verses later, "thus he declared all foods ritually clean" (v. 19, CJB). While the Gentile church generally takes this as abolishing the dietary laws, Jewish people recognise that speaking in a Jewish world, 'food' can only mean food that Jews can eat and the context makes it clear that Yeshua was talking about ritual steps such as hand-washing before eating. Similarly, Peter's vision in Acts 10 - which is usually understood by the Gentile church to be instructing Peter to eat unclean food, is explained by Peter both to Cornelius, "G-d has shown me not to call any person common or unclean" (Acts 10:28, CJB), and later to the council in Jerusalem, "If G-d gave them the same gift as He gave us after we had come to put our trust in the Lord Yeshua the Messiah, who was I to stand in G-d's way?" (11:17, CJB) - simply uses the issue of unclean food as a metaphor for including Gentiles as believers in Messiah.
The Jerusalem Council formally declared that Gentiles may be followers of Yeshua without becoming Jews. James proposes that "we should not put obstacles in the way of the Goyim who are turning to G-d. Instead, we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication, from what is strangled and from blood" (Acts 15:19-20, CJB) - essentially: nothing that has been sacrificed to idols, no sexual immorality, kosher slaughter and no blood. This minimum subset of the Jewish dietary regulations - similar to what are now proposed as some of the Noachide Laws - allow table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers. The Council confirms this in their letter to the the diaspora congregations: "It seemed good to the Ruach HaKodesh and to us not to lay any heavier burden on you than the following requirements: to abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication" (vv. 28-29, CJB). Historically, the Gentile church has largely ignored all the dietary components of this decision and obliged Jewish believers to eat, "whatever is set before you without raising any question" (1 Corinthians 10:27, ESV).
This highlights two of the major differences between the Jewish and the Christian worlds. Firstly, while Jews know that they are explicitly called to be holy and that being holy is something that they have intentionally to do, most Christians believe that they are made intrinsically holy by Yeshua when they become believers so that the requirement to be holy is satisfied by Him and only occasionally tarnished by sin that is automatically forgiven when confessed. Secondly, the whole idea of what being holy means has changed from a very visceral doing-living-being way of life that is well understood and regulated, to a looser and less focused idea of being morally pure - a more cerebral thinking-believing-declaring way of life. Ronald Clements tells us that, "it is evident that, even by the time of the NT writings, the varied meanings attached to holiness were sufficiently mixed and indistinct to make it a problematic term for use in a Christian context."4 Walter Brueggemann agrees, noting that "in Christian extrapolation from this identity of G-d's holy people, the declaration of 'clean and unclean' is seen to be problematic," adding that "Christians are endlessly vigilant against 'legalism' and 'works righteousness' ... a one-sided vigilance" that makes believers conform to the world "in the interest of not being excessively off and punctiliously different."5
If eating - and the verb also means consume, devour, enjoy - certain things is an abomination to the L-rd, why would a follower of Yeshua want to do that? We proclaim proudly that G-d never changes, so perhaps His opinion on these matters doesn't either. Peter echoes the call to "be holy for I am holy" from Vayikra, applying it to believers in his day and ours: "As He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:15-16, ESV). How are we to understand what 'holy' means? How do we live in G-d's choice and consecration of us in Messiah today? It has to be more than food; it extends to everything that we read, listen to, watch and enjoy. Following Yeshua's lead, it also includes everything we say: the things that come out of our mouths, not just what we put in them.
How can we get closer to Yeshua and experience more of His power and the Ruach> in our lives? The answer has to be: by working on our practical holiness so that we become set apart for Him and a clean vessel where the Spirit can dwell. Let's put aside the world's consumerist agenda and focus instead on cultivating the presence of G-d in our lives each and every day.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 491.
2. - Clines, page 485.
3. - Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London, Routledge Kegan Paul, 1970), page 53.
4. - Ronald E. Clements, "Deuteronomy" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 947.
5. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 159.
Further Study: 2 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8; Hebrew 12:12-14
Application: How can you develop holiness in your life so that you can be a clean and pure vessel for the Spirit to dwell and reveal the glory of Yeshua more transparently in these days? Ask the Chief Lamplighter how He can trim your wick and refresh your oil so that you burn clean and bright to let the glory of His kingdom show!
Comment - 01:41 01Aug21 Joshua VanTine: The comment by Anthropologist Mary Douglas I think is succinct, especially with regards to Christian mainstream worldview. What class are we? Focusing, prioritizing only goes one of two ways on the things above or below. Choose this day whom you will serve? The Ruach HaKodesh prompts and quickens "holiness in Messiah Yeshua" it is the heavenly class, you cannot blend with the things of the world. Being saved by the Messiah goes hand in glove with being transformed into a new creation, which necessitates pursuing holiness of the heavenly variety. Torah is the manual for holiness for the Bride's radical, precision makeover to be fit for the King, to become echad. May we seek His holiness so we can be echad with the Holy One of Israel!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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