In the last two chapters of Deuteronomy and the resultant Bible studies, we read about one sanctuary and one God. We learned, too, about what that means for us today. Today’s lesson begins a series on one holy people. In Deuteronomy 14:1-21, Moses began and ended this passage with the statement to the Israelites that they are holy to the LORD God. In this sermon, Moses told the Israelites what it means to be a holy people of the LORD. The specificity for the next thirteen chapters begins in today’s study with the food laws God commands for the Israelites so they stay holy and set apart for Him. Before He gave specifics about the food laws, He gave two commands about mourning the dead. Each of these concerns the body - the external and the internal. Let us look now at these twenty-one verses.
Sons of the LORD
Verse 1 says, “You are the sons of the LORD your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave your forehead for the sake of the dead.” First, note that this verse is the only time the Israelites are called the “sons of the LORD your God” in the Old Testament. God wanted them to know He cherishes them and gives them commands out of love just as a father to his child. Note that the word “son” comes from the Hebrew word ben, which denotes a male child. In this circumstance, it can mean the people of a nation, too. God spoke to the whole of Israel as His children. The laws He gave were for His children who are His followers/worshippers. God gave these laws for His children and the nation He called His own.
The second half of verse one is interesting. What did God mean when He told them not to cut themselves or shave their foreheads for the dead? The custom of the nations around the Israelites was to cut their bodies or shave part of their head in the grieving of their dead family member or neighbor. Jeremiah 16:6 and 41:5 mentions this. The nations around the Israelites did this as a part of the worship of their gods, too (1 Kings 18:28). The Israelites saw the Egyptians shave their heads and eyebrows in the worship of their god, Isis. God forbade the Israelites to cut themselves or shave their heads to keep them separate from the worship of other gods. The Israelites cut themselves via circumcision as a sign of their covenant with Yahweh. To cut or mark themselves for funerary reasons, would put a mark of a false god on themselves. God’s laws told them not to harm themselves, physically and spiritually. To keep the Israelites from absorbing the worship practices and rituals of the surrounding nations, God gave them laws about certain practices, such as not cutting oneself or shaving the hair on one’s forehead. This law may appear arbitrary, but God was providing safeguards for anything that might become absorbed into the Israelites’ way of life, which was against God’s commandments.
A Holy People
In verse two, Moses explained why God gave the laws. He said, “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” God said He chose them. Remember in Deuteronomy 7:6-7, 10:15, and 12:5, God said He chose them to set His affection of love on them. He chose them as His own possession from every people group on the earth. In Leviticus 20:26, God said He set them apart from every people to be His. The English word “chosen” in this verse comes from the Hebrew word bachar, which means to be chosen, decided for, or elected. The word “possession” is from the Hebrew word vegullah and means a treasured possession or special treasure. As any father would protect his family, God’s love for the Israelites was protective. Because He loves His people, He provided every measure of protection over them to prevent their being deceived or led astray from Him. This verse, then, tells the Israelites the reason for the laws set out in the next nineteen verses. Because they are a holy (set apart and consecrated to God) people, they must do nothing that God’s laws prohibit.
The next nineteen verses told the Israelites what they could and must not eat. They must not eat any detestable or abhorrent thing, anything God considered detestable or an abomination (vs. 3). Over the centuries, people have tried to understand why God allowed the eating of some animal meat and not others. Four trains of thought about this have arisen. First, people think God disallowed the eating of certain animals because people used them in pagan rituals. This idea would stand to reason considering that pagans used animals in the worship rituals of idols, but people of other nations offered bulls to their gods, too. Another view is that God disallowed the eating of certain animals for hygienic reasons. The people of the time did not have the ability to clean and prepare certain meats so that eating the meats would not make people sick. Yet any of the meats could have made people sick if kept for more than a day since they had no means of refrigeration. Other people reckon God disallowed certain foods because of the symbolism. Because God only allowed animals that did not prey on other animals or did not die of their own as offerings or sacrifices, these were the animals God commanded the Israelites not eat. This reasoning makes sense, but does not account for all the animals. What makes sense of God’s reasoning of allowed and disallowed animals for eating? It comes down to what God says is “clean” or “unclean.” Before the Mosaic covenant, Noah knew without asking which animals were clean and unclean when God told him to take two pairs of unclean animals and seven pairs of clean animals on the ark (Genesis 7). God has sovereign choice. He did not choose Israel because they were the most moral people on the earth or the largest or the most devout. Along with this reasoning, God did not appear to choose which animals were clean or unclean based on human reasoning. He used sovereign choice. This reasoning fits when the others do not. God chose Abraham, Jacob, Mary, the Israelites, and which animals to be eaten and sacrificed. This point shows God’s choice and election just as discussed at the beginning of verse two.
What did God say the Israelites could and must not eat? Deuteronomy 14 and Leviticus 11 contain the list of clean and unclean animals. Deuteronomy 14 says the Israelites could eat any animals that had a divided hoof and chewed the cud. These animals included the ox, sheep, goat, deer, gazelle, roebuck, wild goat, ibex, antelope, and mountain sheep. They, too, could eat anything from the water with scales and fins, any clean bird, and any winged insect that had jointed legs above their feet with which to jump. Leviticus 11 does not give the list of divided hoof cud chewing animals like Deuteronomy, but lists the winged insects that are clean – locusts, devastating locusts, grasshoppers of all kinds, and crickets of all kinds. Leviticus 11 does not speak of the clean birds the Israelites must not eat. As to the unclean things, both Deuteronomy and Leviticus give much more detail, with Leviticus giving more than Deuteronomy. The unclean animals God forbade the Israelites to eat included the following - 1. Animals that chew the cud but do not divide the hoof (camel, hyrax/shipman, and rabbit); 2. Animals that do not chew the cud, but have divided hooves (pig); 3. Animals in the water that have no fins or scales; 4. Swarming/teeming life (insects) with wings; 5. Winged insects that walk on all four feet; 6. Whatever crawls on its belly; 7. Whatever has many feet; 8. Swarming things (mole, mouse, great lizard and all its kind, gecko, crocodile, lizard, sand reptile, and chameleon); and 9. Unclean birds (eagle, vulture, buzzard, all kinds of kites, falcon, ostrich, owls, sea gulls, all kinds of hawks, pelican, cormorant, stork, all kinds of herons, hoopoe, bats, ravens, and carrion vultures). Of the unclean animals, Leviticus is more specific about the swarming things. To this list, Deuteronomy adds that any animal that “dies of itself” must not be eaten (Deut. 14:21). Deuteronomy adds one other thing that Leviticus does not include. Verse 21b says, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” God gave this same law in Exodus 23:19 and 34:26. The rationale is not obvious, though Philo, the philosopher, conjectured God commanded this because milk symbolizes life and cooking symbolizes death; thus, you cannot have both life and death in the same pot. Notice verse twenty-one says they can give or sell any of these things to aliens/foreigners in their towns and cities, but they are not to eat it. For people who are not God’s chosen people like the Israelites, the laws of the LORD did not apply.
A Holy People – Reprise and Expansion
Moses repeated for them why they were to follow this law of God. He encapsulated the food law with this reason. They were a “holy people to the LORD God,” Moses said. God’s children, those who believe and trust in Jesus Christ, are the LORD’s “holy people.” What, then, does the food law mean for us today? First, remember that the Israelites lived under the Mosaic covenant, which was a covenant of relationship with God and other people, a covenant of community. The Mosaic covenant led the people to know of their sins and ask forgiveness, but it never provided absolute salvation from their sins. God’s laws were outward actions that did not always reach inside the people. The Israelites’ thought processes focused on keeping unclean things from contaminating their inward selves. When Jesus came to earth, He taught what goes into a man is not what makes him clean or unclean, good or evil, but what comes from the inside of man that makes him these things (Matthew 15:11; Mark 7:15-22). Jesus Christ taught that He came to fulfill the Law not abolish it (Matthew 5:17). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached on the attitudes of people. He taught that what is on the inside - in the heart, soul, and mind of a person - is what and who the person is. That is why He taught that the person who wants to be His follower must love the LORD God with all his or her heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). Since Jesus taught what comes from inside a person determines if he or she is clean, good, and right with God, a follow of Jesus can only be one who accepts Him with his or her whole heart - the inner man, not the outer man. Actions do not make a person acceptable to God, but the circumcising and giving of one’s heart. Actions do not lead to salvation; faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior from our sins does.Food Law Today?
What does that mean about God’s food laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? First, we must remember what Jesus told the Pharisees in Matthew 15:11, what enters a man is not what defiles him, but what proceeds out of his mouth does. Along with this, we must recall Peter’s vision from God in Acts 10-11. God lowered a sheet of many kinds of animals and told Peter to kill and eat them. Peter told God he never ate any unclean thing. God told him, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” From this lesson with God, at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, Peter said the Gentile Christians do not have to become Jews before becoming Christians. He instructed them “abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:28). Paul stated in Romans 14:14, “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” Paul spoke about not creating obstacles for Christian brothers and sisters. Later, in 1 Corinthians 10:25-26, Paul said, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without questioning for conscience’s sake; for the earth is the LORD’s and all it contains.” This alludes back to what God told Peter in His vision and what He said at creation, everything He created is good. Paul told Timothy this same thing in1 Timothy 4:4, “For everything created by God is good, and nothings is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude.” I think that is a major point. The attitude of the person receiving and eating the food determines if the God received glory or not when the person at the food. Remember what Paul wrote to in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” Glorifying, praising, and thanking God for everything while doing all things comes from the inside of a person, from the person’s heart and soul. From the inside of a person comes either good or evil. When a person glorifies God, God declares the person and his actions good. So what a person puts into his or her mouth is not what defiles him or her. What defiles is what comes out of the person’s heart via his or her mouth or actions. Hence, with these New Testament verses as explanation and with the new covenant that Jesus Christ brought, the food laws God gave to the Israelites are not valid for Christ’s followers. Jesus fulfilled the laws of the Mosaic Covenant and brought salvation through His once-for-all death and resurrection for sinful humanity.
This leaves us each to decide. Are you still living under the Mosaic covenant, not receiving the salvation Jesus paid for with His life? Have you come to believe Jesus is the Son of God sent to die the death penalty for your sins? Have you asked Jesus to forgive you and be the LORD and Master of your life? For those who are followers of Christ, have you allowed the laws of life to hold you down so you do not live a victorious life for the glory of God? Now is the time to let Jesus live and shine through your life – your submission, words, and actions. Will you let Him break the yoke of slavery to laws and sin in your life? It is up to you.
God’s plans were still unfolding; His promised Messiah’s time had not yet occurred. For the Israelites to stay in communion with God, they had to follow God’s laws, statutes, and commandments. These laws, statutes, and commandments led them to see God and keep Him in their lives, but the laws could never offer them perfect absolution from their sins.