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Joel Osteen says God doesn’t want us to eat pork or shellfish. I disagree, but let’s hear him out first.

Dr. Don Colbert, author of What Would Jesus Eat? seems to agree with Osteen. The summary on the inside cover of his book reads, “In this comprehensive eating program, Dr. Colbert reveals that Jesus’ diet is the ideal choice for those struggling in America’s food-frenzied culture. Thousands of years ago, God laid out a sensible approach to eating, with predictable results: a healthy body and long life.”

I know and have heard of fellow Christians who have decided to follow the dietary laws and prohibitions of the Old Testiment because they think they lead to good health. They believe that when God prescribed these commandments to the Israelites, he had their health in mind (at least partly). I suspect that some Christians for similar reasons believe that circumcision is healthier than leaving the penis intact. When I decided not to circumcise my son, for instance, my mom challenged the decision by asking me why I thought God required it of the ancient Israelites.

It’s not that I disagree with Mr. Osteen and others that pigs and shellfish are scavengers and are probably not the healthiest of animals to eat, but to say that the Bible mandates that we not eat certain foods is contrary to what the new covenant teaches, at least as I have always understood it. The council of Jerusalem’s decision as communicated by James in Acts 15 was:

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead 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. 21For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.

In 1 Timothy 4, Paul seems to have something to say about clean and unclean foods when he writes:

3They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

Again, in Romans 14, Paul writes:

14As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.

I understand that the specific instances Paul was addressing above were likely different from the present topic (especially the Romans passage, where Paul talks about food offered to idols), but the underlined phrases seem to set forth a general principle. No foods are unclean for Gentile Christians.

So what is meant by “unclean” anyway? Osteen seems to have in mind “unhealthy” or “unsanitary,” and he views the purpose of the prohibitions to be health-related. Exactly where in the Bible does it say that God had the Israelites’ health in mind, though? It doesn’t, as far as I know, and to view the commands in this way is thereforean an assumption. Even so, I’m a bit undecided on this. On the one hand, it is easy to see that most of the ceremonial laws maintained health and sanitation for Israel, but on the other hand, to assume that these are the primary or only reasons for the commandments may get us into sticky situations.

There is an excellent article by a guy named Ernest L. Martin on the subject, which you can read here. He astutely points out that any modern Christian trying to keep the dietary laws had best not eat in an American restaurant, since the oven, knives, and pots used in the preparation of his clean meat (beef, lamb, etc.) were undoubtedly used in the preparation of unclean meats (pork, shrimp, etc.) and are therefore unclean according to Leviticus 11:32-35. He quotes a scholar named Michael Friedlander from his book Jewish Religion:

We must take care that we do not consider these precepts exclusively as sanitary regulations, however important such regulations may be. We must not lose sight of the fact that Holiness is the only object of the Dietary Laws, mentioned in the Pentateuch.

Martin also points out that in Genesis 9, God blessed Noah and made no restrictions on what he could eat.

1 Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. 2 The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. 3 Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. 4 “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.

To sum up, I do not argue with anyone about the fact that many or even all of the restrictions and proscriptions result in good health, and it even seems likely that God was preserving his people’s health. It is extra-biblical, however, to read the definitions of clean and unclean animals, things, and practices as a health book. A lot of wrong conclusions can be drawn. For instance, does anyone know for certain if rabbits, which are unclean, are in fact unhealthy to eat? I have no idea, but I would tend to think that like other game, their meat is healthy. Again, I don’t know the answer. What about insects, which are also unclean? Are they unhealthy to eat? I seem to remember that some are actually good sources of protein.

Furthermore, saying that God wants us to observe the dietary restrictions leads to inconsistancy and opens the door for a lot of other regulations that we ought to be keeping. If we start eating clean meats because we think the Bible mandates it, what prevents us from observing the requirements for keeping our cooking utensils and ovens ceremonially clean? What about the other commandments about being ceremonially clean?

I have always found interpreting the Old Testament laws to be a sticky and confusing issue. For instance, (way too much information coming), when I first got married, I had to work through the issue of whether or not it was permissable to have sex during my wife’s menstruation cycle. Leviticus 18:19 is tucked in a series of moral commandments that we would all agree still apply. Why should I throw out only this restriction? What do you guys think about dietary laws, circumcision, etc.?

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