By Jeff Boldt
Should Christians these days regard Torah observance as a stipulation of the divine will? Torah-observant Pentecostalism among Gentiles is a growing movement, particularly in Brazil. In the wake of Mark Kinzer’s ground-breaking work, Messianic Jewish exegetes have called into question a traditional assumption that the apostles intended to prohibit or condemn the practice of circumcision, kosher law, etc. If we go back to the Book of Acts, for instance, we find the apostles worshiping in the temple and taking vows. Paul even circumcises Timothy, whose mother is Jewish. Indeed, it’s unlikely that Jewish Christians would have wholesale abandoned their kosher cookbooks for Gentile ones. What if, after all these years, it’s perfectly fine, even desirable, that Christians adhere to these customs? If we grant that Torah observance is not supposed to be practiced as a work by which one “goes to heaven” when one dies, is there any reason to think God objects to this?
What I do find hard to “swallow” is the idea that, under the threat of a deuteronomic curse, any Christian is compelled to keep following the whole law. The New Testament seems to boil down the laws of kashrut to a single issue: has the food been sacrificed to idols?
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question….
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up….
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:5-6, 12-13, 19-21)
As James points out, this set of requirements is derived from Moses himself. This is what Leviticus states about Gentile foreigners residing in Israel:
I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.” (Lev. 17:10-12)
And God tells Noah, “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it” (Gen. 9:4).
With regards to livestock and birds, the Israelites only ate what was acceptable as a sacrifice: cattle, lamb, goat, and poultry, while the Gentiles in principle ate everything. Unlike the Gentiles, though, they refused to cruelly strangle such animals and eat meat with the blood. So it would seem that the Christian law of kashrut still implies a certain distance from pagan idolatry even if a broader range of animals, humanely slaughtered, can be eaten.
Indeed, the regulation against sexual immorality was also a bulwark against idolatry. For together, one’s relationship to food and child-bearing reveal who one worships. In her recent theological commentary on Hosea, Amy J. Erickson points out that for the prophet the origin of true religion lay in recognizing where the fruit of the earth and the fruit of the womb come from: the Lord. By involving themselves in the manipulative sacrificial system of the Baals — including child sacrifice — the Israelites failed to receive life as God’s gift. In this fundamental spiritual orientation, they had become like Hosea’s wayward wife, Gomer.
But the joining of adultery and food was likewise evident in the Torah when Israel worshipped the golden calf idol. Many of the apostles commented on this passage. What was Paul’s lesson?
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did — and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died… (1 Cor. 10:6-8)
The golden calf narrative here is stitched together with the story of the Midianite women that Balaam later used to tempt Israel into idolatry. The latter appears over and over again in the New Testament as a warning to the Church who is likewise tempted to turn away from God to food, sex, and money. Thus 2 Peter 2:13-15 and Jude 11 figure false teachers in this way:
Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed — an accursed brood! They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness.
Woe to them! … they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error…
Speaking to the church in Pergamum, Jesus uses the same figure of Balaam and the Midianite women as a way to chastise the church whose toleration of sexual immorality was what it signified: infidelity to God.
Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. (Rev. 2:14)
And again, but this time under the figure of Jezebel, who tempted Israel away from the Lord to the Baals, Jesus says of the heretics in Thyatira,
I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. (Rev. 2: 20)
So the joining of idolatrous food and sexual immorality is a very common figure for false religion in the New Testament — one that obviously supports the Council of Jerusalem’s regulations against such behavior. An enduring part of the faith, then, is a clear line on sexual morality and a single law of kashrut: the avoidance of food sacrificed to idols.
More interestingly, Paul argues that the logic of worship is the same between a pagan sacrifice and the Christian Eucharist with the exception that the worship of an idol is directed to a demon. It’s not as if the food of an idol sacrifice is somehow tainted; it’s that the system is set up by a fallen angel to ensnare a nation. Remember that Near Eastern religion understood that spirits were territorial and ethnic.
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
But the Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage. (Deut. 32:8-9)
The “sons of God” here are of course the angels, perhaps fallen, who guard the nations (see the archangel Michael, the Prince of Persia, and the Prince of Greece in Daniel 10). Why stay away from these demons? Again, it’s the enslaving and graceless system of eating and copulating; the way of life that systematically fails to acknowledge the giftedness of creation and the accurate identification of the Giver. One should think twice about forgetting to say grace!
So far it seems to me that all this points to mainstream Christianity’s shared concern with at least some of Judaism’s kosher laws. But what about the basic difference between clean and unclean animals? As mentioned above, the Israelites only ate what was acceptable as a temple sacrifice: cattle, lamb, goat, and poultry were considered “clean” (though clean fish and locusts were not sacrificed). Should Christians, or messianic Jews at the very least, be required to observe this distinction? James and the apostles certainly didn’t require it of Gentiles just as they didn’t require circumcision. Gentiles were simply not asked to become Jews, if Jewishness is defined by circumcision and food (which is why Messianic Judaism seems to be a more significant theological movement than Judaizing Pentecostalism).
When Peter, then, received a vision to “kill and eat” unclean animals, was he being tempted by a demon to cave to Gentile worship? To a Jew it might seem so. It seems to me, however, that Peter was being asked to offer up Gentile nations as a sacrifice to God. For the Gentiles — and vicious people — are frequently figured under the names of unclean, undomesticated animals in the Old Testament, while Jews — or virtuous people — are figured under the names of clean, domesticated animals. So, Satan is a serpent in Genesis 1 and Revelation 12, and his temptation of Jesus in Mark 1 is in the place of “wild animals.” Jesus, though, is figured as a sacrificial lamb (Isa. 53, Rev. 5). Similarly, the beasts that carry God’s throne in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation have moral meanings. Riffing on Ezekiel’s cherubim who stood above the waters of the Chebar River, Daniel sees four beasts emerge from the sea: a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a fourth beast that, described in Revelation 13, is a chimerical amalgamation of the others. One of these beasts, the lion, signified Nebuchadnezzar, whom God made to live with the wild animals and eat grass like an ox before he restored his sanity in Daniel 4. These “spirit animals” of the Gentiles can be contrasted with Israel’s Son of Man, who is always human/e. Having sat on the throne to receive his Father’s kingdom, he then receives dominion over “all peoples, nations, and languages” (14), or, as the psalmist says to the Father:
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas. (Ps. 8:4-8)
The Gentile beasts and birds even become throne guardians and worshipers in Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, and Revelation 4. So when Acts 10:11-12 says of Peter that, “He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners,” perhaps the sheet is the robe of the Lord (“the train of his robe filled the temple,” Isa. 6:1) and the “four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds” are the variety of merkhavah-bearers in 2 Kings (“fiery horses”), Isaiah (“fiery serpents”), Ezekiel, and Revelation (lion, ox, eagle)? If Nebuchadnezzar could be domesticated, think historically about how the other nations signified by wild animals in Daniel finally succumbed to the gospel: the Greeks, Romans, Assyrians and so forth. Think of how the fire of the Holy Spirit set them ablaze as living sacrifices to God.
If I am right about this, it would seem rather appropriate for the injunction against eating unclean animals to be lifted. Jewish Christians might prefer a traditional diet, but with the exception of food sacrificed to idols, there should be no law that prevents Jewish and Gentile table fellowship (Gal. 2). Does this mean Messianic Jews are wrong to follow kosher law?
I have to admit that I like the idea of Messianic Judaism. So while I think there’s nothing wrong with eating the beasts Peter saw, I would be willing to grant that a Torah-observant “ordinariate,” as it were, could live in the Church on analogy to the Rechabites of Jeremiah 35. An enemy of Baal worship in 2 Kings 10, Rechab implemented a rule for his family of not drinking wine as a way to remind them of their nomadic roots. Jeremiah approved and used them as an example of a people who held to their forefather’s tradition unlike the mainstream Israelites of his day. If practiced within, and for the sake of, the larger Church, perhaps a kosher Messianic community could be a similar witness in a time when the regulations of Acts 15 are largely ignored, and we “sit down to eat and drink and get up to indulge in revelry.” At the same time, a voluntary show of solidarity with Israel, whom the Church has so often persecuted, might be one way to show that Yeshua followers are serious about reconciliation.