Clean and Unclean Foods

I have two main episodes in my life when issues of clean and unclean foods came up. The first was while working in a factory in Texas, owned by an Adventist family. When planning a company picnic the owners were going to provide all meats and forbade anyone else to bring meat to the picnic. This was because they were observant in dietary issues and did not want any unclean meats brought—a picnic in Texas, without pork or catfish, not likely! The next time was when setting tile in an orthodox Jewish home. One day during lunch I sent my brother to get us burgers and fries, so we could eat while working. The woman of the house, assuming I had brought in cheeseburgers (a kosher violation) called my boss to complain. I assured him and the woman that I had told my brother not to order cheese on the burgers, because of the kosher prohibition on mixing meat and dairy.

Most Christians do not follow the legal requirements declaring some foods clean and others unclean. The groups who primarily do this are among the Adventist variety. Because of contacts with some Adventists, the question has recently been asked of me in our local church: how do we answer the claims that we as Christians must obey the dietary laws? As a result this article was born. 

Many claim that the division of clean and unclean was understood much earlier because of the reference in the story of Noah. Genesis 7:8 tells us that Noah and his sons took pairs of all animals clean and unclean into the ark. This is used as evidence that God had set aside certain things from the beginning of time as clean and unclean. There are may problems with this. First of all we see no reference to man eating flesh before the flood. Of course, since they had shepherds, like Abel, they probably did but no reference to what they can or can’t eat until Moses. The only dietary restriction mentioned prior to this is the God’s command to Adam and Eve forbidding them to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In Genesis 9:3 God tells Noah: “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” In verse 2 he actually defines everything: “all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air,upon every creature that moves along the ground , and upon all fish of the sea; they are given into your hands.” So God was giving Noah and his family permission to kill and eat any animal that came into their hands. The only restriction on their diets was in verse four: “But you must not eat meant that has it’s lifeblood in it.” So long as Noah and his descendants bled out an animal before cooking and eating it they were fine—regardless of what the animal was. No definition of an animal as clean or unclean came until the time of Moses.

To understand the reference to clean and unclean animals in Genesis 7 we must understand that Genesis was written by Moses. This statement about Noah taking clean and unclean animals aboard is a parenthetical statement of Moses. Noah took pairs of all animals aboard, Moses comments that this includes those the Law was now defining as unclean.

In the Pentateuch Moses recorded God’s declaration that certain foods were unclean and forbidden for His covenant people—the most well known being pork. Lesser-known unclean animals would be rabbits, catfish, shellfish, horses, camels and birds of prey. All of which have been common foods around the world. For this East Texas boy the worst would be no fried Catfish or Shrimp Gumbo—would such a life really be worth living? Please, Lord—don’t take those!

My own personal preferences aside, we must look at scripture to see if these things are still forbidden for God’s covenant people or if such laws were for a specific purpose at a specific time. If the laws forbidding the eating of a BLT are in force today, then no BLTs are allowed. If they are not binding then we should find scripture evidence to that effect.

The best passages I have found for this argument are Mark 7:14-23 (with special emphasis on v19); Romans 14:1-4; Col 2:16-18. Another passage often used is Acts 10: 9-16, but I will show that this is actually a poor usage of the passage. I guess we should begin with that one. In the Acts 10 passage the issue being addressed is not whether or not God has declared the animals clean to eat, but whether Peter was going to recognize God’s cleansing actions in the life of Cornelius (the first Gentile convert). Peter was being shown that being cleansed by God made one clean. The unclean beasts were being used because eating them would have naturally repulsed Peter—just as Americans are today when they see what passes for food in some cultures. In the same way Peter would have been repulsed at the idea of going into Cornelius’ house and preaching the gospel to them. We see the Jewish mindset in this regard when we hear what those of the circumcision said in Acts 11:18: ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.’

I find it interesting that Peter was staying and eating in the house of a Jewish believer whose livelihood would have made him unclean, but would have still held up his nose at entering the house of a Gentile. Simon was a tanner, which would have made him unclean, because the tanners had constant contact with animal carcasses (Ben Witherington III, New Testament History, (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2001), p. 208). The stench from the process would have been unbearable. It was bad enough that tanners had to place their homes outside of the city (notice the passage tells us his house was by the sea). So Peter, who was staying in a stinking hovel would have turned his nose up at entering the house of a gentile. Peter could understand that God could cleanse a Jew doing an unclean occupation, but could not understand God cleansing an unconverted Gentile. This is why God had to command him to eat things that would have disgusted him—to get through this ethnic barrier. God’s interest in this passage was not declaring foods clean but teaching Peter to trust in His cleansing ability and to obey him in going to a Gentile home.

Now for passages which do address our issue. The best is Mark 7:19 (depending upon the translation used), which in the NIV says: “for it does not go into his heart but into his stomach and then out of his body. (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’)” The context here is purity and uncleanness in eating, with the immediate context being eating with unwashed hands. The problem with the interpretation of the parenthetical phrase is its vagueness. In the original it simply says: “cleansing all foods” (The Greek/English Interlinear New Testament, Tyndale House Publishers). Most modern translations make this a parenthetical statement explaining the previous statement: Jesus is declaring all foods to be clean. However, the KJV says: “purging all meats”, which at first glance seems to tie this directly to the final action of digestion. The biggest problem with interpreting the passage this way has to do with the fact that digestion and bowel evacuation did not result in cleansed matter but in unclean fecal matter. The only logical conclusion is that the writer of Mark is giving us the interpretation of the passage directly—Jesus is declaring all foods clean.

Another passage useful in this argument is Romans 14:1-4 with special attention due to verse 2: “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” Yes, I understand that the immediate question seems to be vegetarianism but this would be an oversimplification. The context is the interaction of believers at table fellowship. The criterion for what we eat at table fellowship is not clean or unclean but will my food make my brother stumble? Paul tells us that no food is ‘in and of itself’ unclean (Rom 14:20), but that it is sinful to use freedom to cause a brother to stumble. For example, use the issue of drinking wine. If I believe it is acceptable to drink wine, it is perfectly acceptable for me to offer it to any of my guests or to bring it to the Lord’s Supper. However, if there were a brother there with an alcohol problem, the loving thing would be to leave my wine in the cupboard and replace it with a non-alcoholic beverage. In this way I have my freedom but lovingly bind myself for my brother’s benefit.

The next passage to look at would be Colossians 2:16-23. Paul tells us that the observances of special foods and special days are simply a shadow of the reality, which is Christ. This point is very important, because the only way for a law to pass from enforcement is for it to be perfectly fulfilled—anything else is law breaking. Heb 10:1 tells us that the law is only a shadow of the good things that were coming, not the realities themselves. By this we know that dietary laws found their perfect fulfillment in Christ. It is in Christ we are sanctified and purified (1 Thess 5:23f; John 17:19). We can eat all the BLTs in the world and will never be defiled in God’s eyes for we have been made pure by the only source of purity and life—Christ!

Paul actually has some pretty scathing words for those who would try to bind us to the old laws and ways. In Col 2:18-23 he says that such commands are false humility and worldly principles. Let us thank God that we do not need to go to such extremes and that we are incapable of undoing the purifying work of Christ by what we eat.


Clean and Unclean Foods — 3 Comments

  1. Yes, Peter was a fisherman, and he had lived by the sea before starting his itenerant ministry. This was in Bethsaida. However, the men from Cornelius meet him at the house of Simon the Tanner, where Peter was a guest. His house was by the sea, because of the stench involved with the tanning trade. Cities actually mandated this. Peter had left off his fishing business long before and devoted himself to preaching and teaching. Paul even points out that Peter was supported by the churches he ministered to.

    As in most interpretation context is King.

  2. My wife and I recently went through a class on “The Maker’s Diet” which has opened our eyes and changed our thoughts on many foods. I became interested in the clean and unclean foods of the Bible. I love studying the Bible and learning the truth for myself, but your write up on clean and unclean foods is very helpful. Thank you.

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