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Forbidden Foods

I have argued that Deuteronomy 14:1-21 is an independent literary unit that applies the Third Word to the lives of Israelites from the time of Moses and Joshua. In this short pericope, Moses suggests broad and deep meaning by means of literary allusion to the stories of the creation and the exodus from Egypt. He also alludes to other laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, establishing a secondary literary allusion to the story of Nadab and Abihu. In this part of the essay, I seek to show what the combined meaning of these allusions would be, though I must admit from the outset that in the nature of the case, stories and the laws that are related to them abound with significance. The mine is too rich to be emptied in a short essay.

In order to unpack the meaning of these complex allusions, I exercise what I hope is sanctified imagination. I try to imagine what a Joshua or David might have understood, reading the text with the kind of literary sensitivity such men would have had. Thus, in this part of the essay, I am not trying to read as a Christian with a New Covenant perspective. However, my Christian thinking may have intruded itself into my thought experiment in ways that I have not noticed. All the same the attempt has been edifying for me and I hope it will be for the reader also.

As I said in the previous section of the essay, it is inconceivable that an Israelite in Joshua’s day — or any time in Israel’s history — could have read a passage which allowed certain foods and condemned others without recalling the story of the Garden. Forbidden food is at the heart of the first story in the Bible. When Moses forbids food again, a godly Israelite reading and thinking about his words absolutely must reconsider the original story.

Adam and Animals

Where would the Israelite start in his meditation? I think that perhaps even before considering the command about food, an ancient Israelite might have considered man’s first contact with animals, since it is particular animals that are forbidden in Deuteronomy 14:1-21. For moderns this might be difficult and might not be the most natural starting point because few of us have regular contact with animals. But in an agricultural society like that of Israel after the conquest, animals would be very much a part of the daily reality of the vast majority of the Israelites, even those who lived in the cities.

People with so much contact with animals would note the language used. For example, in Deuteronomy, the animals that are forbidden are called an “abomination,” a Hebrew word often associated with the immorality of the Gentile nations in Leviticus (Lev. 18:27-30) and with Gentile idolatry in the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 7:25-26; 12:31; 13:14; 17:4; 18:9, 12; 20:18; 27:15; 32:16). In the book of Leviticus, the forbidden animals are called “detestable,” a word which only appears 11 times in the Old Testament, primarily in Leviticus speaking of the forbidden animals (Leviticus 7:21; 11:10–13, 20, 23, 41–42; Isaiah 66:17; Ezekiel 8:10). These are striking labels for the unclean animals. In both cases, the words Moses used would have reminded readers and hearers of Gentiles, especially their immoral customs and idolatrous religions.

What is the connection with Adam? It is found in Adam’s naming of the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). Naming animals involves analyzing them and finding an appropriate “label” for each of them, one that depicts something of their character, especially — I assume — something of their relationship with man. God commanded Adam to name the animals in order to teach Adam who he was and to educate him about his relationship with other created things. With this background in Genesis, a foundational story for a godly Israelite, it would be natural to view animals as God-designed sermons on life. Adam listened to God’s basic instruction through the animals and won a wife. Then, God sent another animal to teach Adam and Eve about the tree.

In other words, on the basis of the Genesis story of creation, Israelites would view animals as God-given teachers. An Israelite reading about animals, especially when the animals are specifically tied to Gentile customs and idolatry, would have remembered the story of Adam’s naming of the animals and sought to understand the lesson Yahweh was trying to teach them through the laws of forbidden animals. In the case of some of the animals, at least, the instruction would have been obvious. For example, animals like lions or eagles that prey on other animals display a lifestyle that is similar to idolatrous Gentiles that make war on and oppress other nations. Though this does not give us a transparent rule for all of the prohibited animals on the list, it does offer a partial answer, the beginning of something deeper.[i]

Not only are the forbidden animals often animals that prey on other animals to live, they are also and more importantly animals that share a special relationship with the dirt that was cursed because of Adam’s sin. This is the more profound connection between the various forbidden land animals. Contact with dirt would be contact with death, with the land that called for man’s death. Animals without hooves walk on the ground with their bare feet, so to speak, and therefore are defiled with the dirt.

Beginning with this insight, it should not have been difficult to conclude that the forbidden animals are similar to the serpent in the Garden that was cursed to live in the dust and eat dust. So, animals that in one way or another resemble the serpent would be unclean.[ii] Also, the association of forbidden animals both with Gentiles’ lifestyle and the serpent in the Garden would remind the ancient Israelite that the Gentile nations’ worship of idols was not worship of nothing. It was demon worship. Idolatrous nations were enslaved to the Serpent and their lifestyles reflected their devotion to the devil. The Israelites were the sons of Yahweh and their diet was restricted to animals which had a lifestyle that reflected Israel’s calling to be a holy people.

Eating the Fruit

What else might a godly reader in Joshua’s day have discerned? To begin with, I do not think it is far-fetched to imagine that such a godly reader would have noticed the difference between a command like “Thou shalt not kill!” and a command like “Thou shalt not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil!” Adam was created upright and good, but at the same time, somehow, able to fall. There is a mystery here we cannot wholly penetrate, but the facts of the situation seem relatively plain. Given that Adam was upright, it is highly unlikely that the Tempter could have persuaded him to murder Eve and eat her dead body. But eating the fruit of an apparently arbitrarily forbidden-tree was something altogether different. The forbidden fruit constituted a test of trust, not a test of basic moral sense, a test of love and loyalty, not a test about something glaringly evil. That is part of the explanation for the possibility of the temptation.

I believe, too, that a reader in Joshua’s time could have thought through the test in the Garden and understood the story in some depth, as allusions to the story of the Garden suggest. Certainly he could have seen that as soon as Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit that they not only had their eyes opened, but they also came to know good and evil — albeit they knew good and evil from the perspective of the person who had fallen into evil and become its slave. That is part of what the Scripture means when it says that they knew they were naked.

Thus, as an ancient reader thought about the story, questions would come to mind, such as, What if Adam and Eve had refused the Serpent? (Do we as modern readers really imagine that a godly man in Joshua’s day would not have ask this?) The question seems inescapable. But what would have been the answer? It seems relatively apparent that had Adam and Eve refused the temper, they would still have come to the knowledge of good and evil. The temptation would have been a help to them. Obeying God’s command without temptation would not necessarily have taught them anything. But having been tempted to doubt God and then refusing the temptation by making a clear decision not to doubt His love or His word would have resulted in enlightenment. Adam and Eve would have understood that the essence of good is found in loving and trusting God and the essence of evil is not trusting and love Him. If they had trusted God’s words, they would have come to know good and evil from the perspective of one who had decided to stand with the good. Something like this line of reasoning should not have been difficult for a godly reader in Joshua’s time.

What would that mean for the food laws in Deuteronomy? The first and most obvious answer would be that the Israelites should trust Yahweh and obey His laws, whether they understand them or not. But they should obey in the hope that what they did not yet understand would someday be made known to them. The lesson would have been clear enough — right understanding, like all blessing, comes through faithful obedience.

Temporary Restriction

There is at least one more inference an ancient Israelite could have made as he reflected on the story of the Garden. As I suggested above, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that a godly Israelite in Joshua’s day would have asked himself, what if Adam had not disobeyed? He would probably have concluded that if Adam and Eve had been obedient to Yahweh’s command and refused the temptation to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would have attained the knowledge of good and evil. But he might have carried his reasoning one more step. He might also have concluded that once that had attained that knowledge, the prohibited fruit would be no longer forbidden. In other words, he might have reasoned that the prohibition would have been temporary because it had a specific purpose. Though the prohibition was arbitrary in one sense, it was not entirely so. It was intended to be educational. Once Adam and Eve had graduated from the school of the knowledge of good and evil, they would probably have been allowed to take the fruit of that tree in commemoration of their graduation.

If a person reasoned that far, it would be easy to take the next step and infer that the prohibition of Satan-like animals was also temporary and educational. What would have been the lesson? Perhaps a godly Israelite would think about it something like this: The serpent was under the curse, but until the coming of the seed of the woman, the conflict between her seed and the seed of the serpent would characterize human history. As the history of the world from the Garden to the Conquest had shown, the seed of the serpent often overpowered and persecuted the seed of the woman. Thus, until the coming of the Messiah to save the seed of the woman, the people of God would face trials and difficulties. They would be like sheep in a world of lions and wolves. But when the Messiah came, He would crush the serpent’s head, freeing the oppressed and leading to the fulfillment of the covenant promise that all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham (Genesis 12:3).

In this way, the prohibition of serpent-like foods would have been a reminder not only of the fall of man and the serpent’s power in history, but also of the promise of the Messiah. The godly Israelite, in other words, could have understood the prohibition of serpent-like food as “you may not eat these animals yet — not until the Messiah conquers the serpent.” The prohibited animals could remind the Israelites that someday the Messiah would come and conquer. They might also realize that after the Messiah had conquered the serpent, they would be able to eat the serpent-like animals because the Messiah’s dominion had been realized.

My suggested line of thought here may go too far for an ancient Israelite, but I do not think it would have been impossible. At any rate, the forbidden foods had a relatively clear connection with the serpent. If an ancient Israelite could have seen that, he would have been reminded of the promise of the Messiah who would defeat the serpent. He would be refusing certain foods in hope of the Messiah. Food laws contained the promise and an encouragement.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.



[i] Jordan notes that among fish, not all carnivores are forbidden. He concludes that forbidden carnivores among land animals are not forbidden because they are carnivores, but because of the other qualities mentioned in the text. It seems to me, however, that the prohibition of carnivores among the land animals and birds is not the kind thing that would go unnoticed. How could an ancient Israelite not associate the carnivores with the Gentiles’ lifestyle — even if that is not the whole explanation?

[ii] The restriction to animals that divide the hoof and chew the cud is more difficult to understand. James Jordan opines that the traditional interpretation is probably best. That is, that dividing the hoof refers to discernment and chewing the cud to meditation on God’s word. See, James B. Jordan, Studies in Food and Faith (Tyler, TX: Biblical Horizons, 1989), 204 ff. I am also indebted to Jordan for the insight that unclean animals are connected with the serpent.