Explaining the Food Laws

We treat the Bible like it’s arbitrary. I think it’s important that we understand that it isn’t.

Perhaps we read that the God declares a particular action to be a sin. We aren’t entirely clear what would be wrong with it—our friends and neighbours don’t think it’s bad—and so we decide to follow the Lord but shrugging our shoulders about why that would be.

Not the end of the world, we’re following the way of Jesus, after all. Except, if things are difficult and our faith is tested in whatever area we’re talking about, it can be easy to throw up our hands and follow the spirit of age if we think God is arbitrary.

Nothing is targeted more commonly with the ‘arbitrary’ brush than some of the Old Testament laws that we understand to not have force over us as Christians. It’s a common argument against something that we think does still hold sway that we wear mixed fibres (Leviticus 19) and eat shellfish (Leviticus 11). Primarily to highlight our seeming hypocrisy, which just shows someone hasn’t read the Bible or talked to many Christians about how they understand the Law, but also because it seems very silly.

Why can’t someone eat prawns? They taste great.

The food laws are an area that seem entirely arbitrary to us. It’s rare to hear someone expound not the content of them but why the people of God could and couldn’t eat particular animals.

I’ve occasionally heard it suggested that what’s going on is somehow a health code, because pigs carry disease or some such. That’s not it. Pigs aren’t unclean because they roll in muck and like it, they’re unclean because they don’t chew the cud (Leviticus 11).

But, we might ask, why?

Let’s zoom out to start with. These must be symbolic prohibitions, both because all foods were clean in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2—or all things that grew in the garden, anyway) and because all foods are clean for the church (Acts 10).

The prohibitions on eating that exist in the garden but not in the city—in the Old Covenant but not the New—existed for Israel, they don’t for us. Our meals tell the same story that the drinking of wine in church does.

Why are some foods unclean? It operates on the principle that to eat something is to become one with it. We are what we eat. Those we eat with become part of the family, even part of our bodies. Which is, of course, the logic behind communion. We can think Jesus overturned this logic in his willingness to eat with sinners and touch lepers—he doesn’t appear to be corrupted by association, the death doesn’t appear to transfer by touch. But that’s to misunderstand what’s happening: life beats death every time. When the Christ eats with sinners, they are saints. When the Christ touches lepers, they are clean. When the Christ touches death, “the dead man sat up” (Luke 7).

But why those animals? Let’s look at the prohibitions.

For land animals Israel was free to eat those that have cloven hooves and chew the cud (Leviticus 11). So, it has something to do with their footwear and something to do with their eating habits.


Cloven hooves matter because the ground is cursed (Genesis 3). Or more accurately the ground is tasked with administering the curse to humans. Also, the snake was cursed to slither in the dust, so there’s something about being in the dust that is associated with the curse and the serpent.

Symbolically speaking, wearing the right shoes means these animals don’t look like the serpent. It’s the same with people. We wear shoes when walking the earth but remove them when on holy ground (e.g Exodus 3, John 13). We too need to avoid walking in the dust, whatever that may be for us. Avoiding these foods was supposed to help Israel reflect on these questions.


Animals also had to be those that chew the cud. This is a little harder to figure out and moves further into the realm of speculation, but it seems likely that animals that slowly digest are a symbol of wisdom.

Why does that seem likely? Firstly, because it’s fitting, these animals slowly chew like we are to slowly chew and digest the word of God; secondly, because wisdom is associated with eating the right food. It’s also an image used in the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 119.103, Jeremiah 15).


For sea animals they have to have scales and fins (Leviticus 11), which while it rules out a host of wonderful things—who would want to live in world without oysters?—means that you can only eat fish that wear armour.

This is the same principle as the right footwear. In the Old Testament, the sea is the place of chaos, where the dragons live. Israel could only eat animals that wore armour against the influence of demons and are able to make purposeful movement through that water. Symbolically speaking, they needed to do the same.


The birds might be harder to spot, but the list of clean birds is particular about their feet, they won’t land on rotting carcasses (Leviticus 11)—the lesson is the same.

They look like snakes

To sum up a little, Israel couldn’t eat animals that looked (symbolically speaking) like snakes.

The lesson here is that by avoiding certain foods that look demonic they are being trained to avoid the table of demons. Peter Leithart puts it baldly: “They aren’t to incorporate unclean meat, so they’ll learn to avoid unclean people.”

New Testament food laws—and there are food laws if you hadn’t noticed them—are not about what we eat, but where and with whom. (1 Corinthians 10).

Why does this matter?

Two reasons. Firstly, and my reason for writing, so that we can see that the Bible is never arbitrary. Every law had a reason, and often a symbolic one. They were teaching aids. Now we have stepped beyond the guardian into the realm of wisdom (Galatians 4), our lessons are learned differently.

Secondly, it matters because we still need the same lessons: to avoid the company of demons. Which might make us start, didn’t Jesus eat with all sorts of people? Yes, he did. But we must wrestle with these lessons: Dust sticks. We need armour to swim in the sea. Don’t land on corpses. Digest the word slowly to learn wisdom. Don’t drift with the tide.

Photo by ray rui on Unsplash

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