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In the Bible it is written: “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.” (1Ti 1:8) This text is an assertion of something very simple and yet very profound: the Laws of God, all of them, are good. If we aim to be good, to please God and grow in grace, we must try to understand God’s Law, the Torah, His purpose in giving us Torah, and to obey Torah the best we can. This present article is an attempt to address the many challenges that face us in our attempt, which is, certainly, no easy task. There are many difficult questions that must be prayerfully considered, and there is no lack of skeptics who would ask them of us.
But we begin by observing that God has a warning for us as we start out; there is clearly an admonition for us at the very outset. Before we even take a single step, let us ponder its placement.
God’s warning is this: it is easy to use a good thing in the wrong way. The Law itself is certainly good, but there are multiple dangers awaiting those who tread here. If we are not very careful to align our first steps with God’s will for us, over time a poor trajectory will lead us into great damage, and we will find we are much worse for the journey. It would be better, if that be our way, to stop right now and go after something else.
The Apostle Paul, when writing the above text, preceded it by showing us the purpose of the Law, the Torah. “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: from which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling; desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm.” (vs 5-7). The goal of studying the Torah and trying to obey it is very simple: the goal is to grow in our love for God and others, purify our hearts, heal our consciences, and obtain a legitimate working faith, one that is not faked or pretended. These are worthy goals indeed, and they are not optional. If we pursue a study of Torah for any other reason, or seek any other result than this, we fall into a snare and a trap.
First, loving God with all of our heart and our neighbor as ourselves must be central to our pursuit of an understanding of God’s Law, trying to figure out how to apply it in our day and time. To miss this is to miss all. To get bogged down in the jots and titles of a legal code and miss its heart and intent is a complete waste of time at best. We must ever keep this in the fore of our minds and spirits as we seek to understand God’s ways.
In addition to this, the goal of Torah study is to cleanse our consciences. The conscience is that part of us that comforts or accuses us in the context of moral evaluations. The study of Torah helps us to align our consciences with the truth of God so that we react properly in moral scenarios. When we are reacting to the standard of the Torah in the course of everyday living, our conscience is that part of us that tells us how we are doing. It is very possible that this part of our internal working is very broken: we can excuse ourselves when we ought not, and we can also accuse ourselves when we ought not. By constantly seeking to align our minds to the standard of Torah, we cooperate with Jesus Christ in His work of purging our consciences from dead, lifeless works so that we may serve God more completely and more effectively. (Heb 9:14)
Finally, we must be in pursuit of a legitimate working faith, a heart and spirit that knows the truth and walks in that truth without hesitation or doubt. This is a process that lasts a lifetime, and constant exposure to the perfect standard of God in Torah is essential in the honing process that refines our beliefs and roots out the lies of the enemy. For a more complete analysis of these worthy goals, please see The End of the Commandment.
Having laid, I trust, a good foundation for the present effort, let us agree on our purpose. Let us consider how to apply Torah today in 21st century western culture. Let us consider which parts of Torah we can obey, and which parts seem beyond our reach at present. Let us look at the Law of God practically with hearts that want to obey all of God’s Law that we can, but inevitably find some of His commands to be arbitrary, inappropriate or even dangerous and outright objectionable. Let us also consider any and all texts which might be construed to teach us that some or all of Torah is no longer applicable to us. Let us discuss and think about these things together. This work is ongoing… so please feel free to contact me with the hardest questions you can offer.
Stoning the Rebellious Son One of the most common counterexamples one will hear in most any debate about the applicability of Torah concerns the command to stone a rebellious son. The text is found in Deuteronomy 21, and reads as follows:
18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of
his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will
not hearken unto them:
19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the
elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and
rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou
put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
This particular concept gets a lot of publicity in anti-biblical circles, notably by President Obama, who used it as an example of parts of the Bible that he doesn’t like. What should be our response to this kind of propaganda?
First, let us carefully consider that the command is not given to mothers and/or fathers to carry out in isolation. The law is given in a context where the entire culture is in alignment with the concept, and the punishment of stoning is to be carried out by the community. The male leaders of the community are to confirm the father’s accusation and help him carry out the punishment. It is the legal code of a civil society, not a command for individuals living in confusion in a Diaspora, such as we are, doing whatever is right in our own eyes.
Next, let us consider what it would be like to live in such a society where a father knows from the outset, when a male child takes his first breath, that if his son grows up to be openly defiant and disrespectful that he, as the boy’s father, will eventually be required to ask the community to join together in killing the young man in a most brutal and public fashion. What would such a perspective do to any remotely decent man?
What do you think, honestly? Would this tend to move the father to neglect the loving discipline of his son, move him to abuse the boy with unfairness and contempt? Would it move him to drunkenness and wild abandon to soothe his wounds in a cruel, disappointing world? Would it move women to marry capricious and callous suitors … thinking that one day he might be called upon to slay her son? And what of fathers considering suitors for their daughters … would it have any influence on such things?
I say! Would such a thing not move most any reasonable man to an earnest trembling to live as holy and godly and honest a life as he possibly can, and make him humbly prayerful and watchful for any signs of rebellion in his son? How could be not live constantly aware of his own weakness and seek God for grace to be a good husband and father? How could any sane man live otherwise? And how many young men, should they actually come to resent their mother or father, give themselves to reckless abandon in making a fool of himself in public?
This command touches the creation and maintenance of family life in a godly way at most every major decision point, in most every conceivable facet, does it not?
And what, do you think, would it be like to live in a society like THAT?
And how many young men, do you think, would actually grow up to deserve stoning in such a society?
If you care to inquire, there is no record of any young man ever being stoned for rebellion in ancient Israel: not a single one. I wonder why.
Perhaps, it might not be so bad to live in a society like this. Contrast it with ours, just for a bit.
On second thought, perhaps such a law might actually be a very good thing, if it is used lawfully. Would to God my own father had been subject to its weight, in such a society where men were drawn together in community to help one another walk in the way of holiness. What a blessing!
Evidently, in God’s paradigm, it is loving to destroy the rebellious individual for the good of the whole. The very threat of such destruction tends to preserve both individual and society.
In contrast, it is the ignorant, humanistic leniency and toleration of rebellion that promotes both individual sickness and societal chaos… as anyone watching the decline of western civilization may easily observe.
Stoning Adulterers Similarly, another common counterexample that arises in Torah debate concerns the application of the death penalty for adultery. Many of the insights mentioned above pertaining to the stoning of a rebellious son are also relevant here. Let us look at a relevant biblical text in Deuteronomy 22 very carefully.
13 If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her,
14 And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and
say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid:
15 Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens
of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate:
16 And the damsel’s father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man
to wife, and he hateth her;
17 And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy
daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity. And they shall
spread the cloth before the elders of the city.
18 And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him;
19 And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the
father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel:
and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.
20 But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel:
21 Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men
of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in
Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.
22 If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both
of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou
put away evil from Israel.
23 If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the
city, and lie with her;
24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone
them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city;
and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife: so thou shalt put away
evil from among you.
25 But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie
with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die:
26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death:
for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter:
27 For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none
to save her.
28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her,
and lie with her, and they be found;
29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver,
and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.
The initial protest against such laws as these is often rooted in a scenario in which we imagine suddenly creating and enforcing the laws in a rigorous, indiscriminate and brutal fashion in a culture where sexual promiscuity is rampant and accepted. This, of course, would indeed be problematic, and it is not necessarily what God did, or what He would do in our culture today. To give this topic a fair hearing we must consider what a culture would be like which was generally compliant with such laws, one where the people of that society were in general agreement with the Law over time. This is the only reasonable approach one may take in such a debate. One cannot take good laws and blindly impose them on a lawless society and rightly expect anything but chaos, injustice and suffering. Yet one must still be of a mind to move in the direction of improving a society, and to determine if particular laws would be appropriate in a healthy one. How we actually get there from here is an entirely different matter.
The above biblical text is interesting on a number of levels. It covers several types of common sexual misconduct, and pretty much approves of sex in only one context: a permanent relationship between a man and a woman. The short of it is this: any woman willingly giving up her virginity outside marriage is pretty much committing herself to the man she’s with, or to a life of celibacy (if her father doesn’t throw her out of the house), or to a life of prostitution in which she can count on being indefinitely vulnerable to abuse of all kinds … marrying someone else after such activity is pretty much out of the question. And any man taking a woman’s virginity outside marriage is similarly either endangering his own life (if the woman is committed in marriage) or subjecting himself to a rather large fine (think in terms of a year’s wages for a common laborer) to be paid to the girl’s father, and binding himself to her for life … if the father approves. Either way … bad move. And in looking at related texts, we find that most every other kind of sexual activity implies the death penalty.
God’s point in all this is self evident, at least to me. God cares a lot about the family, and about marriage in particular. He wants a man and a woman to enjoy sex with each other, and with no one else. He knows that instant gratification, short-sighted selfishness and twisted perversions in this area are extremely destructive in the long term and He makes very little allowance for it. He wants men to enter into marriages with women in an open, honest and respectable manner, responsibly considering each other’s needs and interests. And, do not miss it, central in this entire process is the woman’s father.
As with the stoning of a rebellious son, consider what it would be like to live in a culture like this, in which this kind of law was enforced by mutual consent across the entire society. How many fathers do you imagine would give their daughters to cute, careless, irresponsible, selfish boys? Or to ugly, callous, wife-beaters and drunkards? How many broken homes would there be? How much divorce and fatherlessness? How much sorrow and pain? There would certainly be some, even in such a culture … but my expectation is that it would be a whole lot less than what I see today.
I just learned that in the good ol’ US of A, in this year of 2012, for the first time in history the number of births to married couples is expected to drop below half of the total births. Short of a widespread revival of family values in the next few years (which seems unlikely) within two decades we will be living in a culture completely overrun by fatherlessness. The addictions, confusion, self-hatred, perversion, crime and poverty that accompany this kind of evil will be rampant. What do you suppose it will be like? Looking forward to it?
Please do not propose that God is being harsh to design civil laws for a just society in which those who violate the integrity of the family unit are destroyed in a brutal and public fashion. God knows what pain and suffering is involved in the breakdown of the family and He does not desire that anyone suffer like that. In love and mercy, God threatens the individual rebel with extreme discomfort in order to move all to fear breaking up a family, or even creating one carelessly. He does this for the greater good so we may live in peace and harmony together in a society where our neighbor is healthy and reasonable. When we remove such a threat in a culture that is largely unregenerate we destroy the family unit and expose that culture to chaos and pain of incredible varieties, intensities and proportions.
Dietary Laws I heard a strong Christian say once, “God can have my money … but don’t mess with my stomach.” She didn’t mind tithing, but she didn’t want to give up her bacon. When it came to the dietary laws of the Bible, she wasn’t even willing to discuss it.
Many a strong Christian of our day seems to feel similarly. We begin with the premise that freedom is being at liberty to do whatever we please, no rules or guidelines, that we can decide for ourselves what is good for us to eat. Giving this kind of “liberty” up is no small thing. It certainly isn’t the topic of many sermons today; our freedom here is simply presumed and taken for granted.
There are numerous texts in scripture which can be understood to support such a view. One key text is 1 Tim 4:1-5, particularly verses 3 and 4. It seems to teach that God has dismissed the dietary aspects of the Mosaic Law, implying that these laws are no longer binding on New Testament Christians. This is the view held by many a modern theologian, and hence by most modern Christians. Let us look then at the entire text very carefully.
1 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart
from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;
3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath
created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it
be received with thanksgiving:
5 For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
Notice first that this text evidently describes a prophetic word given to a community in which Paul was operating (it could have been given directly to Paul himself) anticipating a new kind of heresy among believers, a new kind of lie clearly born in the demonic. The professors of this error would be hypocrites, holding their doctrines selectively and arbitrarily rather than consistently, being completely deceived about what they were saying. Paul was pointing out the basic nature of their errors and was advising Timothy to remind the brothers of these things. (vs 6)
The deception would center on the concept of self denial, abstaining from pleasure in various forms, especially those pleasures associated with sexuality and eating. The demands of these heretics would be extreme, even to the point of excluding marriage itself.
Demanding such extreme asceticism requires a complete ignorance of the basic tenets of Scripture and implies a deep corruption in the conscience (vs 2), severely impairing the innate ability to determine healthy from unhealthy, right from wrong, good from bad.
Historically, we may observe that the Gnostic heresy that infiltrated much of the early Church matches this description quite well. Gnosticism denied the essential goodness of the material realm and it took two devastating forms. One view held that since the physical realm was evil, it really didn’t matter how one lived or what one did physically. This evolved into an antinomian view held by the Nicolaitans (Re 2:6,15), which taught that any biblical laws governing physical, tangible things could be ignored. This generally resulted in a life of open licentiousness, immorality and debauchery. The other extreme, which was evidently more common, was rooted in an excessive self denial. Wikipedia has the following note: “Evidence in the source texts indicates Gnostic moral behavior as being generally ascetic in basis, expressed most fluently in their sexual and dietary practice. Many monks would deprive themselves of food, water, or necessary needs for living.”
In addition to the historical context of this passage in 1st Timothy, we may also note that there is no indication in the text, or in the immediate context, that God’s dietary principles had recently changed. Paul does not mention any kind of new direction or guideline provided by God and revealed to the Apostles or to prophets of the early Church, but is evidently referring to a set of guidelines that is already commonly known by anyone familiar with biblical witness. Further, in looking at the broader context of the New Testament, there is no mention of any kind of clear, public revelation that God was changing or discarding any of the Mosaic Law. The Twelve Apostles were never aware of such a thing, and kept the law dutifully and carefully for decades after the Resurrection. (Acts 21:20-26) Trying to impose on the text the idea that Paul is actually introducing a new dietary concept to Timothy is patently absurd, and Paul makes no mention of any kind of change in the dietary laws accompanying or implied from revelations and a growing understanding of the nature of the Gospel. Such thinking must be imposed on the text: it is not explicitly stated.
So, it would appear that this biblical text is not about God changing or nullifying the dietary laws, but about deceivers rejecting the biblical witness concerning the nature of food itself. God has created certain plants and animals for the purpose of eating, and He has made this generally pleasurable for us. The Gnostic heresy denied these basic facts, and encouraged people to avoid enjoying these kinds of gifts from God. The context then would not lead us to the conclusion that we should reject the dietary laws or consider them obsolete, as many suggest. But then, how should we handle verses 4 and 5? The text seems to say, on the surface, that we are allowed to eat anything at all.
First, let us use some common sense and note that most every sane person will try to qualify this text in some way or other. “Every creature” includes, well, every single created thing, including people. If there is any living creature that we should not eat, perhaps a poisonous frog, a house fly, or your neighbor, we need to qualify the text. While a starving person may resort to eating such things, most of us recognize that there are certain of God’s creatures that are not fit to eat: they are unclean and should be avoided. We would not call such things good for the purpose of eating. But taking the text without any qualification seems to imply that we should do so, and thus violates our natural sense of healthiness and propriety. How then should we take the text?
Speaking for myself, when I was rejecting the dietary laws, I generally read the text for many years as if the words “of God” were not present. I read, “every creature is good.” In finally noticing these two words, I stumbled upon a kind of redundancy in the phrase “every creature of God” that puzzled me. The definition of a creature involves the idea of a Creator : a living animal designed by God and given life by Him. Why then say, “creature of God?” Every creature is already “of God” by definition, isn’t it? Why the redundancy?
Well, of God must suggest more than the idea of merely being created. In this context, it appears that certain creatures are “of God” in a way that other creatures are not “of God.” It would be reasonable in this context to think that there are certain creatures which are set aside by God from the other animals for some purpose. Since the immediate context is about food and eating, we may understand the text to be teaching that God has set aside certain kinds of animals from the other animals for the purpose of eating. These set aside animals are from/of God in this context in a way that other animals are not of God. This idea is continued (vs 5) in the concept of “sanctified (set apart) by the Word of God.” There is evidently explicit divine revelation provided to Man that shows Man how to determine which animals are set aside from the other animals when it comes to deciding what to eat. This step does no violence to the text, but rather sanitizes the text from irrational extremes and integrates it nicely with the remaining context.
So, where in “the Word of God” do we find God sanctifying certain animals for the purpose of eating? This cannot be a reference to what some would say is Christ’s revelation that all animals are now fit to eat (as some mistranslate Mark 7:19) for this does not set aside any animals, it treats all animals equally. In this context, Paul is referring to a set of detailed guidelines for helping us determine what is appropriate for us to consume. Where are these rules? What are these guidelines? If Paul is not referring to the Mosaic dietary laws, then what is he referring to?
Well, if we go back to the beginning, in Genesis, to look for such instruction in dietary matters, we do happen to find mention of the idea of certain animals being set aside by God. When God told Noah to gather animals into the ark, He instructed Noah to gather the clean beasts by sevens. The rest of the beasts, which God described as “not clean,” Noah was to gather by twos. (Ge 7:2) This is surprising in the sense that it is in a context long before Sinai, where we think we see the formal introduction of the idea of clean an unclean (and in which context we tend to apply any laws which we do not like only to the Jewish people). Long before Sinai we have an explicit indication that Noah already knew about this concept of clean and unclean. Noah knew exactly how to tell a clean animal from an unclean one. He also knew the difference between a clean bird and an unclean one, and how to tell one from the other. (Ge 8:20) And this was during the time when men were only eating plants: God had not yet instructed us to eat anything else. This is interesting indeed.
Some might argue that the concept of clean and unclean prior to the Flood had only to do with what animals were fit to offer up as a sacrifice to God. Though this is mere presumption at best, it may be partly correct. Yet it begs the question why any animal would be unfit to sacrifice. Why make a distinction between clean and unclean in the context of a sacrifice? Do certain animals sacrifice differently? Do they die differently? Are they dirtier? diseased? As people learned about the distinction between clean and unclean they naturally looked into such things, and wondered about the differences. Whatever we concluded, it appears that we were inclined to domesticate varieties of the clean animals, setting them apart in our thinking and keeping them close by, cultivating them and managing them, (Ge 4:2) and this life principle was securely in place long before God expanded the menu.
Then shortly after the Flood we find the first mention of eating flesh. “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Ge 9:3-4) Here, again, it would appear that every single creature is fair game (so to speak). Yet in the context, as Noah heard God speak and looked about at the animals available for him to eat, there were seven of every kind of clean animal and only two of all of the unclean ones, and he was quite accustomed to keeping the clean ones close by and shepherding them for the purpose of sacrificing. What then do you suppose Noah thought when he heard God say he could eat the animals? Are all animals just as good to eat as any other? If not, which ones are the best to eat?
As God had given Man plants to eat, and just as Man had participated in this instruction over time by determining which of those plants were actually good for him to eat, Man now has to figure out what kinds of animals are fit to eat. In the garden, fruit was the obvious initial choice. After the Fall, various kinds of grains and herbs were gradually included as Man departed from the lushness of the Garden and had to learn to cultivate and harvest. Exactly how men determined what kinds of plants to eat, what kinds of crops to grow, and how to cultivate these crops we do not know. Perhaps this was by trial and error, or perhaps there was some type of guidance or instinct provided by God to help us. Whatever the case, somehow over time we figured it out. Now, after the Flood, there is a big change coming in the area of diet and so there is now more to discern. But Noah already knows what a clean animal is and exactly how to determine this, and it so happens that he has three times as many of them to choose from than he has the unclean ones.
It is certainly clear, at least in the short term, that if Noah takes any of the unclean animals for food he will tend to drive that species to extinction. Noah has just left the ark and has no garden prepared. Everything around him now is wild and untamed. Unless he has enough food left on the ark to get him through a growing season, or unless he can manage to forage for enough sustenance among the weeds and trees growing in the vicinity, he will need to kill an animal fairly soon to feed his family. It is clearly not God’s design for him to take an unclean animal before these kinds of animals have had a chance to multiply: God just went to a lot of trouble to keep each and every species from extinction. The clean animals are going to be multiplying at a much faster rate than the rest, and some of these clean animals are already domesticated: Noah and his family are already used to taking care of them. The proper direction is quite clear; God did not leave us to decide what is good merely by trial and error.
This is not to say that if we are starving, or in some kind of extenuating circumstance, that an unclean animal or an insect will provide no sustenance. Certainly, most any kind of organism will provide enough nourishment to keep us alive until we can find something better. But just as in the plant kingdom, there are evidently poisonous animals… and eating poison is not a good thing. We need to be very careful even in desperation. Under normal conditions, when thinking of general principles to promote our health and well-being, it is clear that some kinds of animals are to be avoided.
In other words, in view of the total context of Scripture, it is unreasonable to think that God has left us with absolutely no guidelines in determining what is good for us to eat; we should not presume that we are left to our own devices here. Every kind of living creature is not on God’s menu. Anyone reading the text to imply such a thing is ignoring the entire context of Scripture. Dietary laws were in place well before the Flood, God laid them out in complete detail at Sinai, and there is no indication anywhere that God has revised or relaxed any aspect of these dietary guidelines since that time. These are the facts, friend. What shall we do with them?
Many will persist in spite of them, referencing another “problem” text in Romans: “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” (Ro 14:15) This text is understood by many as an explicit statement that the distinction between clean and unclean foods no longer exists, but it does not actually state this. If Paul had said, “I know and am persuaded … that there is nothing unclean” and stopped there, then we might have a case against dietary law. He did not say this. What Paul said was, “there is nothing unclean of itself.” This is different than saying “there is nothing unclean.” What does “of itself” mean and how does it affect the context?
Of itself is a phrase that seems to mean by itself or on its own. Consider the use of this phrase (in bold) in the following texts. “And the fat of the beast that dieth of itself, and the fat of that which is torn with beasts, may be used in any other use: but ye shall in no wise eat of it.” “A jubile shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed.” (Le 25:11) So Paul is saying that there is nothing unclean by itself or on its own. For example, a lamb is considered clean unless something happens to it to make it unclean. It cannot become unclean on its own or by itself. In other words, if a freshly slaughtered lamb was laying on a table, and someone disposing of a dead rat stumbled and dropped the carcass of the rat upon the lamb, then the meat from the lamb would be considered unclean according to Levitical law. (Lev 11:32) However, if nothing actually happens to the lamb, it cannot just become unclean somehow … on its own or by itself. Dietary law doesn’t work like that.
So why would Paul be making such a big deal about this to the Roman believers? What was going on that would cause him to devote half a chapter to this concept? Clearly, from the context, we are talking about certain believers, which Paul describes as “weak,” who think that all meat has somehow become unclean and have therefore concluded that they must become vegetarian or they will be in sin. These believers are also judging others who are eating meat and accusing them of being in sin. The other brothers who are freely eating meat are evidently doing so with a different kind of understanding about meat and Paul refers to these brothers as “stronger” or more mature believers. Whatever we make of the text must make sense of this entire context.
Now, if we were to claim that this scenario is describing some believers, strong ones, that have somehow come to an understanding that the dietary laws have been suspended, and they are therefore eating all kinds of things and ignoring Levitical law, and that the weaker brothers were the ones trying to impose Mosaic Law on the “free” brothers … how do we explain the vegetarianism clearly described in the context? (vs 2) Why are these weaker brothers grieved by others eating meat, even clean meat, which does not violate dietary law?
Any dispute about the obligatory nature of Levitical dietary law would not include an argument against eating meat. This is problematic: if the dispute were about dietary law then the entire context would have to be much more clear about this … because there never was a dispute recorded among the brothers of the early churches about whether God’s laws were relevant or not. (No, not even in Acts 15, which is fully explained in No Greater Burden) The debate must have been about something else.
A key is found in verse 15: “But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.” This is very strong wording, indicating that the moral objection to eating any kind of meat in this context was so strong for the weaker brothers that to violate it would have been very sinful for them. Wording like this is found in only one other place, Corinth: “And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” (1Co 8:11) It is in this Corinthian context where we find more substantive detail about what was going on and why Paul was taking so much time to address it.
In Corinth, the problem Paul was addressing is much more clearly stated: there was an open dispute about the appropriateness of eating food that had been offered in sacrifice to idols. This dimension of the conflict explains the vegetarianism component: “If we can’t tell whether a piece of meat obtained at the market has been through some ritual in the temple or not, how can we just eat it without knowing this?” Paul’s answer is simple: the temple ritual is not affecting the cleanliness of the meat … the ritual amounts to nothing at all. There is no mystical defilement that comes upon a piece of meat because someone offers it to an idol and does some chanting and dancing over it. Levitical law does not imply that this kind of activity makes food unclean, such an understanding cannot be implied from any principle or precept found in the Law.
Paul had studied this out fully, and had further confirmation of his conclusions by the Spirit of God. But weaker brothers, those not so familiar with biblical principles, were not as accustomed to thinking this way. Having been raised in idolatrous cultures and for so long having thought that the rituals in the temple actually were effecting the holiness of their food, they were not as easily convinced. They were weaker in their consciences and would have eaten the meat feeling very deeply that doing so was a sign of affection and loyalty to devils. In this case, it would be better not to eat any meat, and even for the stronger brothers to join the weaker in being vegetarians to keep the weaker brothers from sinning.
For additional reading on this topic, and an exegesis of a much more difficult passage, consider What God Hath Cleansed. This article presents a thorough examination of Peter’s vision of the sheet full of unclean animals on the rooftop, a text that most every Biblical commentator interprets to mean that God has annulled the dietary laws. This was, for me, the most difficult passage to align with the rest of scripture. In my younger days, after I had memorized the entire book of Acts, I didn’t see any way out of it — I literally scoffed at the idea that anyone reading the text couldn’t see that God had annulled the dietary laws. I thought this one was just too obvious, a slam dunk. Now, after a more thorough going at it, I see my earlier take on it as a fine example of the old adage: “Obviousness is the enemy of correctness.” Personally, I now see that no one can legitimately draw from this text the idea of an annulment of dietary law. I appreciate any candid feedback on it.
Clothing of Divers Sorts Another common topic in Torah discussions is the command governing the construction of our clothing. It appears twice in the Bible, as follows: “…neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.” (Le 19:19c). “Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together.” (De 22:11)
The topic initially raises much concern for the submitted believer first considering Torah since most of the clothing we wear today contains a mixture of fiber types. Garments of cotton and polyester are quite common, inexpensive, durable and comfortable. Why would God forbid clothing like this?
Well, in order to get back to a reasonable place, we must, as always, read this command VERY carefully. In both instances, the kind of diversity forbidden is specified very explicitly and clearly; and for anyone who knows anything about textiles, it is no surprise. The command does not forbid mixing just any two kinds of fibers, but fiber types that are distinctly different in a fundamental way. The example given is mixing linen and wool.
Textile manufacturers understand that wool and linen are fundamentally incompatible: linen is a plant-based fiber that creases easily and wool is an animal-based fiber that shrinks easily. The two types of materials also wear very differently and require very different types of care. Wool requires a different type of storage than linen due to susceptibility to moths, and a different cleaning protocol to keep it from shrinking. When only a portion of the fibers throughout a garment shrink while other fibers do not shrink the entire structure and weave of the fabric is compromised.
Further, recent scientific studies have confirmed that wool and linen both have very high electrical properties when reacting with light, and these materials work in opposite polarities. By themselves, garments of either wool or linen tend to energize the human body electrically and even help it to heal, but together these materials work against each other and cancel each other out. This effect tends to sap the strength of the wearer and may even cause blistering. A garment made from these two materials would be more difficult to care for, and may even be unhealthy to wear.
“One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.” (Ro 15:5-7)
Abolishing Ceremonial Law
“For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof. For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.” (Heb 7:8-19) This text, and its immediate context, clearly teach that some parts of the Law will eventually become obsolete. It would appear from a consideration of all of the relevant texts that this will occur when sin itself ceases and death is destroyed. This is after the new Heavens and the new Earth are created. It is true that the Law itself did not make anything or anyone perfect. The Law is simply a standard, and a standard has no effectual power in itself. Parts of it are indeed temporary, as temporary as sin. For a more complete analysis of this text in its context, please see Disannulling the Command.
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