In this series of posts we are studying what, at first glance, might be a strange chapter of the Bible, Deuteronomy 14. While it starts out with a fairly familiar concept, that we are sons and daughters of God, the phrase that comes next in verse 1 is really bizarre and might be surprising: “do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.” What???
Here we need to dig a bit into Ancient Near Eastern culture. I want to mention two names that you may or may not have heard before. They are names of two gods that were worshiped by the nations in that area of the world.
Have you heard of Ba’al? (I’ve heard it pronounced “bail” or “buh-all.”) Then there is another god, El. (Pronounced like the letter L or “ail”.) In the Old Testament, the name “El” is used in conjunction with other words, to describe the Lord God, such as the Hebrew name El Shaddai? Sometimes El Shaddai is translated “God Almighty,” referring to Yahweh’s strength, power and sufficiency. That word “El” is also the name of another Ancient Near Eastern god, like Ba’al. Scholars tell us that in a story from ancient “Ugaritic literature, the god El gashes himself in mourning for the dead god Baal.” (McConville, Deuteronomy, 248) Because of stories like this, some of the nations in that region incorporated self-cutting in their funeral rituals. In 1 Kings 18, this practice shows up in the story of Elijah and prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel.
Here’s the thing, though. Israel was not to cut themselves or shave the front of their heads, because that was what pagans did. In other words, Yahweh was saying to Israel, that was not clean living. Cutting and other forms of self-mutilation are still practiced today, and in American culture they have rightly been given attention for how dangerous they can be. If you or someone you know is cutting or harming themselves in some way, I urge you to lovingly reach out to them. I am far from an expert in these matters, so I refer you to organizations like the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding and their extensive work on cutting and self-harm.
If self harm is not acceptable in God’s eyes, what are his standards for clean living? Deuteronomy 14, verse 2 is key, as Yahweh, Israel’s father, calls his sons and daughters to live like him:
“You are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession.”
Clean living is a life of holiness. Israel was to live a holy life because they were God’s children, and he treasured them. As you read Deuteronomy 14:2, notice how intimately and how lovingly God felt about them. Israel could look back over the last 40 years and see how God rescued them, provided for them, protected them, and so it was entirely reasonable for God to give them a new way to live, even if that way of life was totally different from the world around them. Clean living was about living a holy life, which is another way of saying, living God’s way.
Later in part 5, we’re going to come back to this, as verse 2 is central to the passage. For now, let’s move on, trying to observe the flow of thought into verse 3. Here Moses introduces what the rest of this passage, verses 4-21, is about: “Do not eat any detestable thing.”
We started the week in part 1, talking about our likes and dislikes when it comes to food. In this chapter, Moses is not talking about gross food. Instead, that word “detestable” in verse 3 is about what is kosher or not kosher. Kosher means “fit,” but not “fit” like a person who exercises and is in shape. Kosher refers to what is “fitting” or “acceptable” to eat. Another way of describing it is “clean” and “unclean”.
Still today in Judaism kosher law is a big deal. On a package of food, you might find some symbols like the ones in the picture, indicating that food is kosher or clean. If you’re interested in learning more about the process of how foods receive kosher approval in today’s Jewish communities, there are plenty of places online. A few years ago I enjoyed reading AJ Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he humorously details his experiences with contemporary Judaism, as he attempted to very literally live out teachings such as Deuteronomy 14. The heart behind kosher law is that Jews want to avoid anything that God has declared detestable.
We’ve seen the word “detestable”before in our study of Deuteronomy. In fact,we saw it last week in chapter 12, verse 31, where God told Israel that they were not to worship like the pagans around them, because pagan worship included detestable things, especially human sacrifice. The pagans practiced detestable religion, and Israel was to be different.
Here again, we that Israel is to be clean and holy, whereas the pagans were unclean and detestable. Quite a stark difference!
Verses 4-20, then, list all kinds of animals that are clean and unclean, very much related to the difference between holiness and that which is detestable. To our modern ears, these chapters can sound bizarre.
For example, they could eat sheep and goats, but not pig or rabbits. And they were not allowed eat insects, except for any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper, because they had jointed legs for hopping? Huh? In most Bibles, there is probably a text note saying that scholars don’t know the precise identification of all the animals in this list. Some of them are educated guesses.
What gives with all these clean and unclean animals? Why does God choose some and not others? Various Jewish and Christian commentators wonder if the unclean animals were banned by God because for hygienic reasons, because eating those animals would more likely negatively impact a person’s health. Some wonder if the clean animals were chosen by God because they were more prevalent in the Promised Land, and thus easier for Israel to hunt. Scholars have numerous opinions about these perspectives, but the one option they all agreed on is this: some, if not most, of the unclean creatures were used in worship of other false gods, and of course Yahweh wants there to be no association between his people and false gods.
McConville says that “The more important question is how this fits with the theology of Israel’s holiness.” (250) And that theology of holiness was simple: Israel was the loved children of God, and thus they were to live holy lives. They were to be different from the detestable, unclean people around them. Israel was to follow God’s way, a new clean way, called holiness.
That key word “detestable” in verse 3 is a major point God is trying to get across. Connect it with the words “for you” in verse 7 and 10 and 19, where God says, “Israel, certain animals are unclean for you.”
When we read that, we have to remember that God had Israel’s best interest in mind. As bizarre as this chapter looks to our modern eyes, we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God wanted Israel to thrive. He wasn’t trying to make life difficult for them. Instead he was trying to set them free to truly live. That is very instructive for Christians who might find some of God’s teaching for us to also be difficult. Even if we don’t understand how it might be in our best interest, we can trust that God wants us to flourish.
Also let us remember that these laws in Deuteronomy are part of God’s covenant with Israel. They are not part of God’s covenant with the church. In fact, this very concept of clean and unclean things is dramatically overturned in the New Testament. Tomorrow we’ll look at a few places.