The issues surrounding the laws of clean and unclean food have been heavily debated within the Judea/Christian circles for a long period of time. ‘Why should God be concerned about what we eat? The purpose of my research is to attempt to understand why these laws were set within the Old Testament and to compare and contrast different scholarly approaches to this very interesting topic.
Many have reviewed the dietary laws within Leviticus and Deuteronomy, questioning whether they were relevant to a certain nations? For example, Israel, tending to lean to an opinion that the laws were set within the Old Testament, and were obsolete at the point of the New Testament? Some argue that these laws are still applicable today whilst others oppose and question there relevance in today’s society.
My aim and methodology is to review the primary sources available within this area found in the Old Testament and review the evidence that supports the rationale behind these dietary laws. I will attempt to analyse and compare the evidence taken by selected scholars from various backgrounds, such as, anthropologists, ministers and professors, all who have credible background to share on this topic. I have grouped their views into the following three categories; Health/Hygiene, Symbolic/Holiness and Ritual Purification.
The word unclean is defined as ‘dirty, immoral, unchaste’ to be clean would imply the opposite definition. When we look closely and analyse the term clean and unclean within the Old Testament Bible, scholars have varied meanings and approaches to this law.
Health ‘is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity‘ When we apply good health our bodies are naturally in good shape. Health and Hygiene are closely linked and go hand in hand together. ‘Hygiene is the maintenance of health and healthy living’. Covering many areas such as diet, personal, domestic, public and mental cleanliness.
The following scholars support the view that health and hygiene has a significant role within the dietary laws, Jacob Milgrom, RK Harrison, and John Brunt.
All have commented in particular to the Pig, with a view that this animal carries a disease known as Trichinosis. Trichinosis is a parasite worm that lives in the flesh of pig meat, and is passed on when pig flesh is under cooked, and can grow into a considerable size within the intestine. The Hare carries tularaemia which is an acute infection resembling the plague, but not as severe. Scavenger birds, known as Carrion birds also carry disease, and fish with out scales and fins attract disease because they search for food in the mud.
Milgrom argues that a camel is a forbidden animal to eat according to the dietary laws ‘yet there is no evidence to support that this animal poses a threat to health or is unhygienic’. He also argues why just animals have been prohibited, as there are poisonous plants that are unhygienic and can be very harmful to the health of a human if eaten. This point highlights a weakness in the dietary laws.
Harrison argues that ‘the separation of clean from unclean meats should not be taken to imply that the true ruminants are completely free from parasitic organisms’. Harrison also uses further examples with regard to the Ox, which is a clean animal, but is also prone to transmit parasites.
Brunt argues that ‘we accept aspects of the teachings concerning what to eat, but do not follow through, for example when we touch an unclean insect we should wash our clothes’.
Symbolism ‘is the systematic or creative use of arbitrary symbols as abstracted representations of concepts or objects and the distinct relationships in between, as they define both context and the narrower definition of terms’.
Holiness is ‘the state of being holy, that is, set apart for the worship or service of God or gods. It is most usually ascribed to people, but can be and often is ascribed to objects, times, or places’.
The following scholars support the view that symbolic and holiness has a significant role within the dietary laws, Jacob Milgrom, G J Wenham, Gerald F Hasel and Lester L Grabbe.
The observance of the dietary laws could be seen as symbolic. God’s people have been set aside from the other nations to be an example, by observing dietary laws. This would mean that here would be a clear distinction between the Israelites and the other nations.
Milgrom states that ‘the diet laws have been implied by the concept of holiness’.
Wenham makes it very clear that ‘the diet laws were given in a specific situation to a specific situation to a specific period, they are part of the blueprint for making the people of Israel holy’Hasel refers to the observance of dietary laws ‘it is a holy people that continues to make a distinction between the clean animal and unclean’.
Grabbe states that ‘the dietary regulations had both a practical and symbolic function, symbolically they stood for the fact that Israel was to keep itself free from intercourse with non- Israelites’.
This is that ‘the aim of these rituals is to remove uncleanliness, which may be real or symbolic. Most of these rituals were created long before the germ theory of disease. Some religions have special treatment of particular body fluids such as semen and menses which are viewed as particularly unclean’.
Ritual purity during this period was an essential part of life to the people of Israel.
This prepared each individual to ensure that they were clean before they entered into the sanctuary to worship God. The following scholars support the view that ritual purification has a significant role within the dietary laws, Mary Douglas, John E Hartley, and John Brunt
Douglass states that ‘the impurity of an animal kind is part of the technical meaning of ritual purity’. Douglass also adds ‘ritual impurity imposes Gods order on his creation’ Hartley states that ‘the main purpose for the purity instructions was to keep the Israelites separate from the neighbouring nations in order to promote Gods call for Israel to be a holy nation’.Brunt states that ‘the New Testament rejects the distinction between clean and unclean, it is not speaking to the issue of health, it is rather addressing problems that were live issues in the 1st century, problems of ritualism and exclusivism’. Brunt argues that ‘for the Christian, all things are clean, true spirituality is a matter of the heart, not of ritualistic externals’.
The dietary laws debate will continue for many more years. However I have found this research very refreshing to review approaches of this topic from scholars who are not Seventh Day Adventists, from various backgrounds.
We can see from the categories where some scholars hold or share the same view and differ from each others in different areas. The most common theme that came out within the dietary laws and findings in most of the scholars approaches was the point regarding the eating of pork. Most appear to agree on the fact that this animal is prone to parasites, and depending on the way the meat is prepared it will be good for consumption.
This point came across very strongly among many of the arguments, arguing that even if the meat is heated well, it still does not rid the parasites and others oppose.
In November 2005, The National Geographic produced a documentary on longevity and featured an island in Okinawa, with the longest living people in the world, who accredited this to a soup dish made of pork skin which was boiled at a high temperature in preparation. Based on this finding, we can see that if meat is prepared well it can aid our health, although there may be additional factors that aid to their long life.
The dietary laws in the Old Testament would appear to specifically be relating to Israel – God’s chosen people, whether they are still relevant to modern day is a matter worth deeper research. The New Testament appears to have abolished the laws of ritual purity, Jesus reached out to all nations, Jews and Gentiles removing all barriers, and we find instances of this throughout the whole of the New Testament. This is something that I would like to research more in the future.