Eating fish heads (how God’s list of clean and unclean foods in Deuteronomy 14 matters to Christians, part 1)

What do you consider disgusting food?  Brussels sprouts?  Tomatoes?  Hot dogs?  Fast food?  Fish?  We all have our likes and our dislikes.

For me, some of the most disgusting food I’ve had was on mission trips.  In India it was some kind cow intestine or worse.  In Malaysia I had Tom Yum soup which is actually from Thailand.

I spent the whole summer between my junior and senior year of college on a missionary internship in Guyana South America.  Much of my summer I worked alongside a Guyanese pastor, helping to start a new church in a neighboring town.  Toward the end of the summer, he and his wife had me over for dinner, and they served fish.  Their menu choice was no surprise, as they lived on Guyana’s coast where fish are abundant.  Mostly the Guyanese men fished with nets, but also, amazingly, with their hands!  Nearby sugar cane plantations built canals throughout their fields, and they used the canals to float harvested cane to the processing plant.  The canals were a great habitat for many species of fish, including some that would find safety in the muddy walls of the canals.  My Guyanese friends would hop in the canal, get down on their hunches, and start rummaging through the mud.  I was blown away the first time I watched this, as they pulled fish after fish out of the water, seemingly by magic.

As you can imagine, I ate fish often that summer, including the meal at my pastor friend’s house.  For dinner, the family prepared one whole fish for us to share: my friend, his wife, their young son, and me.  I was the guest, and they treated me with honor.  In Guyanese culture it is customary to offer your guest the head of the fish because they considered it a delicacy to suck the eyes out.  I had so many cross-cultural experiences that summer.  I had foregone deodorant because many Guyanese did.  I tried learning their dialect and changing my accent to match theirs.  I had many new foods, fruits and vegetables.  But when it came to fish head, and especially the eyeballs, I just couldn’t do it.

Food is amazing, isn’t it?  It can be so good, and so bad.  I was amazed in Guyana, which was exceedingly poor, how they enjoyed rice and hot spices with every meal.  I grew to love their rice, curry and daal.  But I also missed my American favorites.  One time we traveled to the capital city for some meetings, and we visited a KFC, and I was so ready for fried chicken!  My Guyanese friends considered it a treat too, but afterwards some of them were ho-hum about it, and they said they missed their rice! Another time the missionary I stayed with made a delicious mac & cheese, and my Guyanese friends said it didn’t have any taste.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  You know what they were referring to?  Spice.  It had no hot spices in it.  To them, that mac & cheese was bland.

They had their idea about what food was good and what food was bad.  We all have our ideas of good and bad food, right? Did you know that God also has some ideas about good food and bad food?

As we continue studying Deuteronomy, we come to chapter 14, verses 1-21.  Go ahead and open your Bible to that passage. As you’ll see, this very unique chapter focuses on food.  For the people of Israel, God said food is either clean or unclean.  In other words, some food is good, and some food is bad.  But God’s menu had nothing to do with taste or preference.  Have you heard of the word “kosher”?  What is kosher?  Deuteronomy 14 is basically God’s menu of kosher food for Israel.  For the rest of the week, we’re going to see how God’s menu for Israel matters to us!

As we’ll see tomorrow, when God wants to talk about clean and unclean food with Israel, he starts in a curious place: their identity as his children.

Published by joelkime

I love my wife, Michelle, and our four kids and two daughters-in-law. I serve at Faith Church and love our church family. I teach a course online from time to time, and in my free time I love to read and exercise, especially running,

4 thoughts on “Eating fish heads (how God’s list of clean and unclean foods in Deuteronomy 14 matters to Christians, part 1)

  1. I think as well, but may be wrong, that sometimes the divisions in food was for food safety reasons as some animals easily harbor disease and parasites or do not preserve very well.

    1. Thanks for bringing this up. In a post later this week, I’ll be addressing that. There is much scholarly debate about God’s rationale. You are correct that some find food safety concerns in the list of unclean animals, but others disagree with that. Another idea is that the animals God lists as clean were more plentiful. But I think the most honest commentators say that we don’t know for sure. In part 3 or 4, I’ll include what seems to be the majority view.

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