Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kosher laws

There’s an academic debate regarding the kosher laws. Why were some animals declared clean/edible while others were declared unclean/inedible? The animals themselves don’t seem to yield a consistent distinction.

For Christians, the question is, of course, fairly moot. Nevertheless, it’s still important for us to understand the Bible as best we can. And even in the case of obsolete OT laws, there is some time’s an underlying principle which is still germane to Christian  faith and practice.

Desi Alexander has a useful observation on the kosher laws:

Moreover, the food regulations made it difficult for an Israelite to participate in meals provided by non-Israelites…They also had the practical effect of limiting contact with other people, which might compromise Israel’s special status.

T. D. Alexander, From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch (Baker, 3rd ed., 2012), 263.

It’s worth expanding on this observation. Eating is frequently a social or communal activity. Humans normally like to eat with other humans. Friends or relatives. And when humans congregate to eat, that social activity as often accompanied by other social activities, during or after the meal. As long as they are spending time together to share a common meal, they do other things together.

This can be perfectly innocent, but it can also be an occasion to indulge in sinful social activities–like a gateway drug. 

By limiting the dietary choices of Jews, so that Jews and pagans didn’t consume the same food, God was thereby limiting the opportunity of Jews to get drawn into the social activities of pagans. Heathen social activities were often immoral or idolatrous. If you ate with pagans, you’d be tempted to do other things with pagans in the same setting. Opportunity and peer pressure kick in.

So even if the kosher laws seem to be arbitrary, they may have a perfectly reasonable rationale. If we find it hard to discern the rationale, that may be because the purpose is indirect. We’re focused on the dietary prohibitions rather than the impact of the dietary prohibitions. Yet the kosher laws may not be concerned with the intrinsic difference between clean and unclean animals (which is tenuous), but with the mediate effect of limiting social contact with pagans by limiting the menu.

There’s an asymmetry here. Gentiles could eat whatever Jews could eat, but not vice versa. Just as Christians can eat kosher food, but observant Jews can’t eat non-kosher food.

Likewise, Christians can participate a synagogue service, and pray Jewish prayers–but observant Jews can’t participate in a Christian service, praying Christian prayers (or singing Christian hymns). Indeed, that’s why the Birkat ha-Minim was introduced–to exclude Christians (although that’s disputed).

Although Christians aren’t bound by the kosher laws, there is a principle of prudence which carries over. It is generally wise to avoid social activities which would tempt you to commit sin. Even if the social activity is innocent in itself, it may place you in a social environment that’s morally and spiritually testing. It’s easier to sin when it’s so convenient. It’s easier to sin when everyone around you is sinning.

Think of college students who hit the bars on Friday night. They may come for dinner, but that’s not all they come for. Indeed, that’s not primarily what they are there for.


  1. This is also reinforced in the Jewish wisdom literature, especially the principles in Proverbs on choosing friendships.

  2. I appreciate the redemptive-historical insight given by this post. It broadens some thoughts of mine on the separating-aspect of that which we identify as "ceremonial" in the Mosaic law. Thank you.