A blog about everything about teaching the Bible. "And still I will show you a more excellent way..." (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Babel and Bacon

A church member asks:

Q. “According to Genesis 10:5, the descendants of Noah were divided into lands according to everyone’s own tongue, but according to Genesis 11:1, the whole earth spoke as with one language and speech. So, what does tongue mean in verse 5?”

A. Excellent question! In short, it means the same thing in both verses. The key to understanding here is to notice the structure of Genesis. With the exception of the very first part of Genesis, which begins “In the beginning,” each new section of Genesis is noted by the Hebrew word “toledah,” which is usually translated, “These are the generations of.” The section about what happened after the flood begins with an overview genealogy and general statement of what took place (i.e. Chapter 10). Then, in Chapter 11, we’re taken back a bit and shown what happened in detail.

The Israelites first reading the Torah in the wilderness would have wondered something like, “If only one family came off the ark, and all these nations are descended from it, where did all these languages come from and how did we all disperse into these various lands?” Through Moses, God answers that question by giving the genealogy which shows where everyone went, and then telling how they got there through the story of Nimrod and his “Tower of Confusion.”

When you read Genesis, just remember that not everything is a “this and then” ongoing narrative. The story unfolds for a while, and then we’re alerted to the fact that the story is moving on to another section with the “generations” phrase and often a genealogy. Then the story picks up (sometimes backtracks) and moves forward again.

A second question:

Q. “The Old Testament Scriptures are ‘for our learning’ (Romans 15:4). With that in mind, Deuteronomy 14 lists ‘unclean’ animals the Law forbade Israel to eat. Should we eat animals that were unclean to Old Testament people?”

A. Another good question. These days a lot of people search for some unrevealed reason why God may have forbidden Israel to eat certain animals in those old days. They assume there must be some hidden health reason why God labeled them unclean. I am convinced they were unclean because of their specific animal natures that often paralleled physical uncleanness among mankind according to the Law. Forbidden animals were those that wallowed in the mire, would eat corpses, etc. God revealed the real reason to Peter in a dream, written down in Acts 10. Unclean animals symbolically stood for unclean people (Gentiles) and Israel’s separation from them represented the split in humanity between Jew and Gentile. The Acts 10 text reads:

The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon's house, stood at the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there (Act 10:9-18 ESV).

The dream demonstrated to Peter that the unclean foods according to the Law were no longer unclean in Christianity. That symbolized the fact that Gentiles were no longer unclean in Christ. They did not have to keep the Law (i.e. become Jews) before they could come to Christ. Not only so, but even though Peter and the Jewish believers still did not fully understand it at this point, Jews didn’t have to be Jews (i.e. keep the Law of Moses) to be acceptable to Christ either (see Galatians 3:28).

As a final point, Mark reveals that, while his disciples did not catch it, Jesus had already declared all foods clean during his public ministry (Mark 7:19).

The Old Testament is for our learning, and even though many of its commandments are no longer binding, every last letter has immense value and even authority for Christians. We simply must interpret it as having its fulfillment in Christ, and then it will be for our learning.

So, to answer the question plainly, we are not forbidden to eat the formerly unclean animals, because according to the New Covenant in Christ they are no longer unclean. Pass the bacon!