Why the Food Laws?

We have as a people a potentially unhealthy fascination with the motivation of God behind his laws. Many preachers and commentators will go well beyond the boundaries of faithful, biblical interpretation to tell us exactly what was in God’s mind as he gave a certain command. If we are not careful, we will develop an attitude that says to the Lord, “If I can understand why you gave this command, I will obey it. But, if not, I’ll do what I like.”


Take, for example, the way we often try to handle the food laws. In Leviticus 11, we come across the laws relating to clean and unclean animals. Of course, the concept of clean and unclean animals has been in biblical thought from long before the time of Moses. Noah carried different numbers of clean and unclean animals on the ark. But here, we see God instruct the nation and especially the priests with great specificity.


The rules are not terribly complicated. The people can eat land animals that are among the domesticated plant-eaters. They can eat fish with fins and scales, sorry, no shrimp. They can eat birds that are not birds of prey. And, they can eat insects that are hoppers, no crawlies.


  Why did God make these rules and these distinctions? Why couldn’t the Israelites eat meat-eating animals? Was it because of the prohibition against eating blood? Was it about health reasons? Was it about pagan religious practices and not looking like the Canaanites?


Here is what God said about why to obey his food laws:.


Leviticus 11:45 – “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”


God basically tells the Israelites in response to any question as to why not eat pork or owls, “Because I said so.” I think we need to grasp that this is a good, significant answer. God does not need to explain himself to the nation, not at all. Neither does he need to explain himself to us. If, for a season, God told his people, “no bacon,” we need to say, “Yes, Lord.” We can also thank God that we now live in the day when God has lifted that non-baconic legislation.


Mark 7:18-19 – 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)


It would be better for us, before exercising curiosity as to the potential rationale behind the commands, to see that God has the right to give such commands for no reason at all other than that he wants to. He might give those commands as a way to make Israel look different from other nations simply because he wanted them to. It could have been about health, about polemics, about blood, or about something else. But what is most important to us is that it was about the will of the Lord and his right to tell us what to do. And, he does not owe us any sort of explanation.


We must grasp that this is also true in the New Testament. For example, we can look behind the regulations for Christian living, and often we can explain why God’s rules are better for human flourishing than are the sinful ways of the world. However, we do not make the commands hang on our understanding of them for the betterment of mankind. No, the biggest reason that marriage is defined by God or that our sexuality is restricted by God or that divorce is regulated by God or that drunkenness is forbidden by God or that any other command is given by God is that God is God, holy, sovereign, and Lord over all. His rules are right and to be obeyed because he is God. His ways are by definition right because of his holiness. If we can understand the benefits of his commands, that is all well and good. If we cannot, we are still required to obey them for his glory, to distinguish ourselves from those who hate him, and to find joy in bringing honor to his name.