Last week, I discussed the “who” of the Old Testament dietary laws and concluded that the dietary laws were given to the people of Israel and not to the surrounding nations. Thus, Gentile believers have no obligation to keep the Old Testament dietary laws.
For the majority of believers, that’s enough for us to eat our bacon in peace.
But what about the Jews? Are they obligated to keep the Old Testament dietary laws?
To begin to answer that question, we must ask a second question of the texts (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14): Why has God given these dietary laws to the Israelites?
The answer is easy to find, but not quite as easy to interpret. Leviticus 11:44-45 gives several answers:
- For I am the Lord your God
- For I am holy
- For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God
- For I am holy
Deuteronomy 14:21 repeats the above:
- For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.
If we are to believe the Scriptures, we must understand that the reason the Israelites were to keep the dietary laws was because God is holy–and they were supposed to be holy like God.
In our modern understanding of the word “holy”, we struggle with how this fits. We see “holy” as being “good” or “clean” (which it is, in a sense). But “holy” goes beyond that. The word Kadesh, which is translated “holy”, literally means “apartness” or “separateness”.
God is apart from humanity, separate from us. He is the great Other, the One so far different from us, so far above us that we cannot attain to Him.
When God was calling Israel to be holy, He was calling them to be apart, separate, different from the nations around them.
To demonstrate how His people were different from the people around them, God gave them a collection of rules for proper behavior.
Some of those rules, what we call the “moral law”, spring from the nature of God or from the created order and, although they were given specifically to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai, they are universal for all humanity. Lying is wrong because God is truth. Murder is wrong because God is the author of life. Idolatry is wrong because God alone is worthy of worship. Adultery is wrong because God created marriage to reflect His faithfulness.
Others of the rules given to Israel are not universal. These laws had a specific target and a specific purpose. The laws regarding the sacrificial system were intended to reinforce the need for atonement and to point forward to the coming Sacrifice. The laws regarding how restitution is to be made if someone steals something or borrows and loses something or accidentally mistreats someone were intended for the government of Israel’s theocratic nation-state. Other laws, like the command to not wear garments mixed with flax and wool, were intended to set Israel apart from the nations around them.
The dietary laws, like the laws governing mixed fibers, were laws of distinction–laws intended to make Israel stand out from all the other nations of the world, just as Israel’s God stands out above every other god.
As mentioned last week, this series within a series on Old Testament “Food Rules” is going to keep going until it reaches its conclusion, probably another couple of weeks.