A few minutes ago Pastor Eric Brown and I wrapped up recording episode 66 of the Gospeled Boldly Podcast—on Acts chapter 15 and the Jewish Laws. As listeners will hear, the tables were turned in the Backwards Life segment, and I found myself answering the question this time around. Specifically, Pastor Brown wanted to know why it is okay that the dietary laws (even, largely, the prohibitions James provided to the gentiles in Acts 15) have fallen by the wayside, while the laws concerning sexuality (and other moral imperatives) still abide today?
A great question, and one not infrequently asked both by curious Christians as well as by those who seek to ridicule the faith. I’ve wrestled with the issue enough over the years to have developed a relatively systematic and comprehensive set of answers (plural, because one answer tends to lead to another question). Since I didn’t get around to laying these out in their fullness in the podcast—I’m a bit rusty from not having discussed these in a while—I will lay these out over the next several posts.
Why do Christians uphold the sexual commands of the Old Testament, but disregard the dietary restrictions?
Let’s start with the most straightforward answer, and one that I briefly alluded to in the podcast. Namely that:
In the Old Testament, the dietary laws are noted to be specifically for the Jews, while proper sexual practices are expected of all the nations.
As I said, the dietary laws—and other laws on ceremonial cleanliness—were given as a mechanism for separating the Jewish people from the nations around them (among other reasons, as we’ll see later in this series). It’s a calling card, a unique distinguishing mark for the people God had set apart from the nations for Himself (cf. Lev 11:44-45). And indeed, for a visiting member of the surrounding nations, the fact that you had entered Israelite territory would have been made patently obvious by these practices—much as the unique incense burned at the Tabernacle would have made it instantly clear to your senses that you made the transition to holy ground upon approaching it.
The truth that these sorts of laws were required only of Israel is implicit in the qualifying language God uses over and over again when, for instance, delivering the list of unclean animals in Leviticus 11. This language clarifies that the category of “unclean” animal is specific “to you [Israel]”. See for example vv. 1-8 below.
And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Nevertheless, among those that chew the cud or part the hoof, you shall not eat these: The camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the rock badger, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.”
And yes, for my skeptical friends, that “to you” is there in Hebrew as well, as recognized by basically every translation out there.
As we can see, this qualifier indicates that we are not dealing with a universal statement of morality, and those laws are not put forth as normative expectations for all cultures at all times. The language used all but precludes this as it singles out Israel alone.
Conversely, the laws concerning sexuality are very much applicable to other nations as well. When giving certain sexual prohibitions in Leviticus, God is very explicit that he judges all nations, not merely Israel, by their adherence to such. Leviticus 18:24-30 reads as follows (following a lengthy list of sexual prohibitions):
“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God.”
We see here the undeniable claim that these sexual transgressions bring God’s wrath upon any people who practices them, whether Jew of Gentile. Note the additional, explicit mention that these laws apply not just to Israel—to whom the unclean animal prohibitions were unique—but also to the stranger among them. The gentiles in their midst, you might say.
If there are any clearer, more direct answers to Pastor Brown’s question than this contrast, I can’t think of any.
However, this observation does beg another question. Why would God impose certain additional rules on the Israelites/Jews, and not on the rest of mankind?
It is to this question that we will turn in part 2.
An Abominable End-Note
It bears mentioning that, in the podcast, Pastor Brown asked if the dietary laws included the “extra ‘abominable’ explanation,” as we see that the sexual sins above carry. Might this be another way for us to distinguish between the Jewish prohibitions and the general prohibitions?
Some have argued this way, and I’ve even seen scholars who should know better take this approach, but I don’t think it’s a good play to make. Here’s why:
In Deuteronomy 14, you actually do get a statement by God saying, “You shall not eat any abomination.” This statement is followed by a reprisal of the clean and unclean animal list from Leviticus 11, so it’s clear we’re talking about the same thing. And for those paying attention, the word for abomination in the text is tow`ebah, the same word behind the “abomination” mentions in Lev 18:24-30.
So, if you assert to the skeptic that a thing’s “abominable” status is what separates it from Israelite purity laws, placing it in the category of a general prohibition, prepare to stand corrected in the public square.
That said, the passage in Deuteronomy does actually reenforce the points I made above about these commands being exclusive to Israel. It does this by book-ending the list of clean and unclean foods with the clarification—lest anyone miss it—that these things are required because of Israel’s unique status as a nation set apart unto God.
Here’s the relevant passage:
“You are the sons of the LORD your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.
“You shall not eat any abomination. These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain sheep. Every animal that parts the hoof and has the hoof cloven in two and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cloven you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not part the hoof, are unclean for you. And the pig, because it parts the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch.
“Of all that are in the waters you may eat these: whatever has fins and scales you may eat. And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.
“You may eat all clean birds. But these are the ones that you shall not eat: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the falcon of any kind; every raven of any kind; the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind; the little owl and the short-eared owl, the barn owl and the tawny owl, the carrion vulture and the cormorant, the stork, the heron of any kind; the hoopoe and the bat. And all winged insects are unclean for you; they shall not be eaten. All clean winged things you may eat.
“You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God.“
Remember this idea of Israel as “set-apart” (holy), it will come up again in this series.