God’s will permeated every aspect of the lives of his people. Nothing was left untouched by the ways of God. His commandments affected virtually everything.
We bristle at things like this. We want our privacy, and we want our freedom. Our Wednesday morning coffee group has had numerous discussions about the way in which technology and advertising companies – and the government? – can monitor our every movement and our every internet search. Next will come vaccine “passports” that enable businesses – and the government? – to monitor our health history.
There is coming a day, it seems, when the government and its mandates never will be far from our minds. We always will know our place within our society, and we always will know who is in charge.
In a very different way, God’s Law gave his people every opportunity to remember their place with him. They were constantly reminded in their daily lives that they belonged to him. And, because of this, they were constantly reminded of his gracious actions and his character.
“For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
Already, the people of Israel had the Sabbath – a weekly break from their work to recall God’s resting on the seventh day of his creation. They were to recall on that day their Creator God.
And they already had the sacrificial system established in Leviticus 1-7. Regular sacrifices were made to remind them of their sin and their need for atonement and reconciliation. God provided a way back to him. They were to recall their Redeemer God.
And now, in Leviticus 11, we see God’s Law moved all the way down into the meals of his people. Some animals were clean, and some were unclean. Some could be eaten, and some could not. The people constantly were to distinguish between holy and unholy. They were to recall, even in their eating, their Holy God.
Meals are important. “A man’s got to eat,” we say. Our eating is our way to fuel our bodies. But it is more than that. It also is how we fellowship with one another. We eat together to bond. If you want to get to know another person, take him or her to lunch. Over that meal, you talk.
This is one of the first things to know about God’s intentions with his food laws. If his people could not eat with people of other nations, they could not assimilate into those other nations. It is hard to build relationships with people with whom you can’t even share a meal.
God’s people were going to enter into a land with other nations and other gods. And God expected his people to remain holy, to be set apart, to not follow false deities.
And so the constant paying attention to clean and unclean foods was important in steering his people toward holiness.
But why these foods? Why did God pick some foods as clean and some as unclean? There is much debate about this.
Some think it was a matter of hygiene. God wanted to keep his people healthy, and so he directed them to the best animals for food. His instructions were very pragmatic.
I don’t think this is the case. For one, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. The people were not to eat pork, but they could eat locusts? For health reasons? Really? And besides, Jesus later would declare all foods clean, something I don’t think he would do if it opened the door to a bunch of dangerous foods (Mark 7:19).
Others think God’s selection of these foods was a relatively arbitrary matter – like God’s electing of Israel in the first place. God picked Abraham to be the forefather of the nation – not because Abraham was a particularly good person but … just because God is God, and God chooses.
And so to eat only “clean” animals – declared clean only because God said so rather than any merited reason – God’s people were reminded of how God chose them in spite of themselves. There was nothing special about Israel except that God chose this people to give his blessings to the world.
I like this explanation.
Of course, I also like the way some scholars have noticed that God’s pattern of choosing animals may have connected with his creation order. God was very orderly in his creation of the universe. His people were not to eat animals that crossed over from one kind to another – like amphibians or fish without scales.
The sinful world is the world of chaos and boundaries that have been crossed. God wanted his people to remain holy and to eat only those foods that symbolized holiness. There are some holes in that theory, but it does seem to have some merit.
Still other scholars have said that all the unclean animals were connected to pagan gods and were sacrificed in those pagan rituals. This could be the case, but because such a wide array of animals were off-limits to the Israelites, it is hard to imagine all of those animals being key to pagan worship.
Still yet other scholars note that the Israelites were forbidden from eating carnivorous animals. God cared for life, and life was only to be taken at God’s command, and so carnivorous animals were unclean because they killed other animals. There may be something to this as well.
And so we can think long and hard about these things – why God chose the animals he chose for his people to eat. But the most important factor was that his people were to be holy, and they were to be able to distinguish between clean and unclean and holy and unholy.
This was to be a practice God’s people were to become skilled at, and they were to do so in order not to forget that they were the children of a holy God. Every time they sat down to eat, the issue of God’s holiness would be forced into their minds. And every time a foreigner entered the land of Israel and tried to have lunch with one of Hebrew people, that person would know that this was a peculiar group of folks.
Everything was focused on the holiness of God – and the holiness of his people.
Enter Jesus Christ. He fulfilled the Law. The selection of food was not the main thing, he told his followers. Rather, the holiness of God’s people was the main thing.
“Here me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. … Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? … What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:14-23).
Under the New Covenant, the food didn’t matter. God’s holiness was affirmed on the cross of Christ, and it resides within every Christian heart through the Holy Spirit. The food wasn’t the main issue. Rather, human action and obedience to God’s holiness was the main issue. Faithful living was the main issue. Sin defiles a person, not food.
Fortunately, Jesus covered over our sin.
The opening up of God’s dietary restrictions for his people also pointed them to the reality of God’s grace. Anyone can accept the good news of Jesus Christ and enter the kingdom, whether that person is a Jew or a Gentile.
Peter learned this while he was on his way to the home of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. Read Acts 10 when you have a moment.
“He fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened 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 reptiles and birds of the air. 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.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven” (Acts 10:10-16).
When Peter sat down to his first meal that included pork, I’m sure it was difficult. He’d been trained all his life to understand some foods as clean and some as unclean. And now God had declared all foods clean.
When Peter ate that first meal of pork, he would have done so understanding that God’s grace was available to Jew and Gentile alike.
Perhaps we should keep that in mind at our meals. We eat some strange things – chilled monkey brains even, as I recall a memorable scene from Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom. The freedom we have to eat – whatever – is a sign of God’s willingness to accept into his kingdom whomever.
“What God has made clean, do not call common.” If God made you clean – and not only clean, but holy – by the blood of Christ, you are no longer common. You have been given an extraordinary gift that must be cherished.
So how are we to live in light of all of this?
Appreciate the grace God has given to you. We ought to remember that we have been brought into God’s kingdom – made clean and holy – by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9).
And be holy. The call remains the same for us as it did for ancient Israel: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:16). We are to be set apart from the world’s ways. We aren’t fish with no scales. We’re fish that look like fish!
“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but 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 1:13-16).
This means just as the Israelites were careful with their food – just as they came to understand very easily the difference between clean and unclean foods – so we ought to understand the difference between good and evil actions. We don’t fall into the ways of the world. We separate ourselves from it.
We belong now to our holy God.
And God, too, knows the difference between holy and unholy.
We drove to California recently and made our way to the beach. It was a cold and windy experience, on the beach in Monterey in March.
When we arrived, I saw a guy with a metal detector in one hand and a shovel in the other. He was walking slowly along the beach, just outside the reach of the surf, waving the metal detector over the sand – back and forth, back and forth.
Behind him, were several piles of sand, where he had detected something and dug down to retrieve it. Some things, I suppose would be worthless – little scraps of metal or even tin foil. And he would drop them back into place. He would discard them.
The man on the beach was looking for something else, something special, something of value, something to take home with him.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:47-50).
As Jesus sometimes would say, “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:43).