Within these chapters, food plays a big part. Most obviously, we have the discussion of clean and unclean foods in chapter 14. Among the historic religions of the world, Christianity is unusual in having no particular food laws or dietary restrictions, and perhaps that makes it hard for us to understand the point of these regulations.
Health and hygiene in the wilderness?
It’s one thing, after all, to follow a restricted diet for reasons of ethics or health. Both of my daughters are vegetarian, and one is currently being tested for food intolerances, so we need to check her food against a complicated list of ‘High FODMAP’ ingredients. I don’t really know what that means, but I understand the reason to be careful. Except when I forget first thing in the morning and put dairy milk in her tea…
We can see some health issues in some of the prohibitions in Deuteronomy – shellfish and pork are, after all, two of the main culprits in food poisoning, and in pre-refrigeration days they must have been a bit of a gamble. But I think that if we look for the health or hygiene reasons for the food restrictions, we miss the point. Cleanness and uncleanness are nothing to do with the presence of potentially dangerous bacteria or allergens.
Drawing the boundaries – of food and of the nation
The point of the food laws is, I think, to help establish Israel as a distinctive nation. It’s tied to a view of the world which is ordered and categorised – many of the animals which are not to be eaten are unclean because they blur the edges of types of creatures – fish are meant to have scales and fins, herbivores are meant to either have cloven hooves and chew the cud or to do neither. Anything which does one and not the other, or any water creature that’s not a proper fish, is unclean. This cataloging of creation runs through a lot of the cultural laws that come to characterise Israel – about the sabbath and marriage in particular.
Wiping away the boundary markers – the balti paneer pizza
I can only begin to imagine what Moses would have made of the ‘Balti paneer pizza’ I saw advertised in a takeaway window I passed the other day. One of the ways that multiculturalism has worked most widely, if not deeply, through British society is in the fantastic variety of different cuisines and restaurants from which we can now choose so easily. And the curry pizza may be the natural endpoint of this – though I hope not. I suppose it’s an attempt to bring together the most popular foods of different nations in the hope of creating something even more popular than either alone. I suspect it may be more of a financial than a culinary success. I think we’ll lose a lot if we forget entirely our varied kitchen traditions.
But I’m in danger of heading off the point. One of the most obvious markers of a nation’s or a culture’s identity is what’s on its plates. It doesn’t always have a rational connection to geography or history, but it’s part of what makes a nation hold together and part of what distinguishes a nation – or even a region – from its neighbours.
Israel had strict laws about food partly, I think, because God intended them to remain distinct from the nations around them. It fits with the whole pattern of drawing dividing lines around different kinds of food – the more important lines were the ones around the nation’s identity, and food was a marker. If those lines were drawn in a place that gave a hygiene or health benefit then we probably shouldn’t be surprised, but that’s not really the point.
How about us?
So if I’m right about this, why does Christianity not have its own set of food laws? Historically, of course, it’s because Jesus before and after his resurrection abolished them. But in terms of meaning, I think there’s something important here. We don’t have laws about what we can or can’t eat because we’re not meant to be tied to a particular culture, and we’re not meant to be drawing boundary lines around the church. If we want to eat curry pizza with added prawns and bacon then the only thing stopping us is taste. And if Christians from an Indian culture and from an Italian culture want to come together over such a culinary invention, great. I’ll stay clear, if you don’t mind. I’ll enjoy Italian and Indian food (and lots of others) at different meals, because I love the differences between us as well as the unity we have in the humanity we do share and in the faith we can share.
God was preparing Israel for life without Moses – and part of that was to make sure that they had the boundaries of their identity tightly drawn before they crossed the boundaries of their nation. The need for those boundary markers is over, because of Jesus. All things are clean to those who receive them in faith. And all people are welcome to come in faith. Whatever they eat.