Old Testament ‘Unclean Food’ Restrictions: Do They Still Apply Today?

no-pigsIn the past year or so, I have been really convicted to examine the foods we eat. It all started with some health issues, but has since morphed into a complete overhaul in our diet. At some point in the process I began researching pork because I was curious as to why the Bible considered it unclean. I have come across some pretty astounding and disgusting information, to be perfectly honest. But before I get into all that, let’s talk about “clean” versus “unclean” animals.

The first actual distinction in the Bible regarding clean and unclean animals appears in Genesis 7:2, when Noah was instructed by God to bring “seven each of every clean animal, a male and his female; two each of animals that are unclean, a male and his female” onto the ark. Later on in the Bible, in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, specific animals were identified as being clean therefore acceptable for consumption, and unclean therefore unacceptable for consumption. You can click this link to read all the food laws laid out by God in the Torah.

The question in my mind, however, was very specific: why were certain animals considered acceptable, while others were off limits? In my mind it seemed, well, a tad bit unfair. Why did other religions get away with eating whatever foods they want (hello?? BACON!), but God has to be all strict and limit our enjoyment of food. The answer actually surprised me.

Once I began researching the types of animals that were off-limits, I began to notice some common denominators. Generally speaking, God did not allow His people to eat scavengers; that is, animals that feed off the often decaying flesh of other animals or other decomposing organic matter. The sea creatures He forbade are the scavengers of the see: bottom feeders that eat dead creatures off the sea floor, or shellfish that feed on decaying matter that sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

You see, these are all creatures eating other creatures or organic material that are far from ideal for humans to eat. God didn’t want His people to eat animals whose diets would render them too unhealthy for consumption. These “unclean” animals were indisputably created for a purpose: to clean up the environment by scavenging for food that “clean” animals would not eat – but their purpose did not include being used as food for humans. The popular animal that seems to spark a debate on this subject is the pig. If you take the time to research pigs, you will find that they are actually extremely filthy animals who do not properly digest their food or eliminate toxins from their bodies, making pork actually among the most unhealthy meat choices out there. Bacon may taste good, but it’s really, really not good for you.

The next big question I had was this: do these dietary restrictions still apply today? One of the biggest arguments for eating whatever one desires is 1 Timothy 4:4 which states, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving.” Any verse can be cherry-picked and manipulated into saying what we want it to say. We need to always be careful to take the Bible in FULL context, remembering that it does not contradict itself, lest we be guilty of what is referred to just three verses earlier in that same chapter. Please read and prayerfully consider these words from Gordon Tessler, PhD:

1 Timothy 4:4
For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving

Another example of Scripture which is quoted out of context in order to approve the eating of unclean things, is 1 Timothy, Chapter 4, verse 4. Those who quote this verse insist that God is telling us to eat everything that He created. In order to interpret 1 Timothy 4:4 in this way, we must reject the clean and unclean laws of God, as well as endorse cannibalism! If we believe that God is telling us to eat poisonous snakes, rats, worms, spiders and each other, then God would be contradicting His word and would not be the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8)! The Word of God is consistent and carries a continuity and therefore, 1 Timothy 4:4 must have another interpretation which is consistent with the clean and unclean laws.

THE FOODS OF GOD

Paul, is the author of 1 Timothy and he is not making a distinction between creatures God created and those He did not create, for God created every creature. Every animal, every fish, every bird and every creeping thing is good because it was created by God. But not everything God created was created to be eaten!

FALSE DOCTRINE

We can avoid the “spirit of error” (1 John 4:6) or false doctrine only by relying on the Scriptures as our final authority. The problem of false doctrine is the reason that Paul is discussing creatures we may eat in 1 Timothy chapter 4. In order to fully understand why Paul has brought up the issue of eating animals, 1 Timothy 4:4 must read in its context, starting at the beginning of the chapter:

1Timothy 4:1-3
Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.

Some people in the church of the first century were “departing from the faith” teaching false doctrines. These people were advocating celibacy (forbidding to marry) and vegetarianism (abstaining from certain foods or meats). This teaching or doctrine was forbidding activities that God desires His children to do. The Lord certainly ordained for us to marry and He created certain clean foods “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” (Psalms 119:142) Those who believe and know the truth? The truth contained in the Scriptures which is our guide to correct doctrine. Being armed with the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17), we are not likely to be deceived by a doctrine of demons. Deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons will contradict the Word of God and 1 Timothy 4:1-5 warns us not to believe a doctrine which tells us not to eat foods that God has permitted for us to eat.

Now we understand that the purpose of the first part of 1 Timothy chapter 4 is to address a false teaching related to marriage and eating. If we believe and know the Word of God, such false doctrine would find no place in us. Paul finishes this discussion of the foods that the Lord created and sanctified (set apart) for us to eat by directing us back to His Word:

1 Timothy 4:5
For it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer

Paul is actually confirming to us in 1 Timothy 4:5 that we should eat only those creatures God has sanctified in His Word. The “it” refers to those edible creatures that are “set apart” for us by God in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. God’s word is exact and precise so that the children of God may “distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten.”
(Leviticus 11:47)

FOOD SANCTIFIED BY PRAYER

Since Yeshua (Jesus), a first century Hebrew, was eating only those foods that were clean, pure, and edible according to the Word of God; therefore, He never needed to ask God to bless His food. The food was already blessed by God. The only blessing required was to bless and thank God for His provision.

Deuteronomy 8:10
When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.

At the Lord’s Supper, Yeshua (Jesus) took bread and blessed. He probably spoke this ancient Hebrew prayer that is still used today at mealtimes:

“Blessed Art Thou, Oh Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth food from the earth.” There is an important difference between this traditional Hebrew blessing and the modern Christian dinner prayer that says something like, “Bless this food to our bodies”. God’s Word does not sanction the eating of a cobra thingytail, a rat roast, or a pig pie and all the well-meaning prayers said at the dinner table cannot change the Word of God. On the contrary, our dinner prayers should bless God and be thankful to Him for setting apart (sanctifying) by His Word, foods which have been created to keep us healthy.

The other main argument I hear concerning eating unclean meat is that “we’re under grace now.” I blogged once before about just what it means to be “under grace” in this post. It’s true that we’re no longer required to follow the law for the sake of salvation, as our salvation comes through nothing other than Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and the acceptance of this free gift – but let us not forget that Jesus did not come to abolish the law, rather to fulfill it. He did not do away with; He completed. Jesus stated in Mark 7:18-20, “Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods? What comes out of a man, that defiles a man.” What we eat does not make or break our salvation; it’s our hearts. We should strive to follow God’s commands out of love and obedience the Lord in response to His gift of salvation. We should strive to please God with our actions, and it’s my conviction that part of pleasing God is to research His commands and understand why He made the laws He did. He created food laws so that it may be well with His people (Deuteronomy 12:28). I do not believe it was ever God’s desire to be a big ol’ meanie and keep us from enjoying food; He made the food laws because He wanted His people to enjoy good health and long life. What this proves to me is that we have a loving God who wants only the very best for His creation. I don’t know about you, but I trust the food guidelines of the one who created us over any popular or cultural food trends, any day! 

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