You are what you eat

Deuteronomy 14 is full of allusions to events of Israel’s history and other portions of Scripture. What would an Israelite learn by mediation on these allusions? The answer, I believe, is at least fourfold.

Faith, Worship, War

For the ancient Israelite first hearing Moses’ sermon, or perhaps hearing it read again for the 30th time, the allusions to the Exodus and his special privilege as a son of God would strengthen his faith and encourage his worship of God. For understanding the allusions would help him see what it means that he bears the name of Yahweh not only in special worship, but also in everyday life in the food he eats or the food he rejects.

In special worship, the ancient Israelites faced a complex reality. On the one hand, a system of worship that forbade anyone but priests to enter the tabernacle told them in no uncertain terms that they were not worthy to enter Yahweh’s house. They could offer Him sacrifices, but they had to stand in the yard outside the house. In other words, most of you are not really welcome. Only special representatives could go into Yahweh’s house, and even then most of them were not allowed into the throne room of His presence. That was reserved for the most special representative who was only allowed to enter the throne room one day of the year for a brief ceremony. Does this sound strange? Perhaps it does, but in ancient Israel this law had a special purpose. For the whole priestly system and the forbidden house were designed to remind Israel of Adam’s sin and the fact that mankind had been cast out of the Garden with him.

On the other hand, however, the fact that the Creator of the world had chosen the children of Israel out of all the peoples on the earth and had made His abode with them communicated His grace and love in terms no less clear and certain. The declaration that they were the “sons of Yahweh” and the reminder that He views the nation as His “special treasure” would encourage the Israelites to approach Yahweh without fear, trusting in the mercy and grace of the God who saved them from Egyptian bondage.

Trusting in Yahweh’s love and grace and rejoicing in His goodness, of course, would mean enthusiastic participation in the sacrificial worship system, including both respect for the priestly system that keeps them away from Yahweh – in contrast, for example, with Korath, Dathan, Abiram, and On (Numbers 16) – and also thankfulness for redemption from Egyptian bondage — the theme of Passover, which began every new year, and the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:13-15), which ended each week.

Beyond this, worship for the ancient Israelite was connected to warfare in ways that most Christians do not think of. To begin with, the conquest generation could not worship Yahweh and at the same time refuse to go into the land and fight against the Canaanites. To believe in and worship Yahweh necessarily meant to fight His battle. If they were the sons of Yahweh and His holy people, they had to fight the holy war that He commanded them to fight. The allusion to Deuteronomy 7:1-6 would bring to mind the responsibilities of holy war for the people who have been blessed to be called His “special treasure.”

But that is not all. Even though “holy war” in the narrow sense would be over when the land of Canaan was conquered, there was another war implied by the food laws — a war against idolatry and the Serpent. Referring to forbidden food as “abominable” (Deuteronomy 14:3) reminded the Israelite of Gentile immorality (Leviticus 18:22, 26–27, 29–30; 20:13) and idolatry (Deuteronomy 7:25–26; 12:31; 13:14). Their separation from immorality and idolatry was part of the blessing of being Yahweh’s holy people, but it was also a call to the spiritual battle against idolatry in their own hearts and a political battle against all attempts to reestablish idolatry in the land.

The fact that the “abominable” animals were animals that were in one way or another reminiscent of the Serpent in the Garden would remind the godly Israelite that the real battle was against the Serpent himself. Throughout history the seed of the woman and the seed of the Serpent would be locked in deadly combat until the true Seed of the woman appeared who would defeat Satan and free man from bondage. Until He appeared, they were to fight in faith. Every act of sincere worship, in which the name of Yahweh was “lifted up” righteously, was a blow struck against the foe.

Self-consciously Wearing Yahweh’s Name

I argued earlier that in Deuteronomy 14:1-21 Moses sermonizes on the Third Word. Thus, the allusion to Exodus 4:22-23 and the declaration that each Israelite is a son of Yahweh his God was intended to impress on the ancient Israelites the fact that they “carry” the name of Yahweh all the time, everywhere they go, in all that they do. Just as Moses’ instruction about the First Word included an exhortation to love Yahweh and keep His words on their hearts (Deuteronomy 6:5-6), so also his instruction on the Third Word would impress them with Yahweh’s love for them and their responsibility to live as His children.

As we saw, the law forbidding pagan mourning customs links to the mourning law for the priests in Leviticus (21:1-6). Also, the allusion to Exodus 19:1-6 reminded the Israelites that they were a priestly nation. It would be clear, then, that the prescribed priestly conduct was intended to picture to the nation the life of Yahweh’s priestly people. The high priest in particular was the representative Israelite. He wore on his chest the breastplate with the stones for the twelve tribes and on his shoulders the names of the twelve tribes inscribed in stone, as if to say that in his every movement he carried the twelve tribes with him. His work was the work of the whole nation. But even more important than the name of the tribes on his shoulder and their stones on his breastplate was the name of Yahweh on his forehead: “Holy to Yahweh” (Exodus 28:36-38). The high priest bore the name of Yahweh as His representative.

In a secondary sense, then, for the people of Israel to be Yahweh’s sons and a priestly nation meant that they, too, always bore the name of Yahweh. Their clothing marked them out as Yahweh’s people because of the blue tassels they wore, pointing to the blue in the tabernacle and the priests’ clothing:[i] “And Yahweh spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them tassels on the wings of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the tassel of each wing a cord of blue: and it shall be unto you for a tassel, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of Yahweh, and do them; and that ye follow not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to play the harlot; that ye may remember and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am Yahweh your God (Numbers 15:37-41).

Just as their clothing was to be a testimony to them of Yahweh’s love and grace in order to remind them to do His commandments, the food laws also were to remind them to keep all of Yahweh’s commandments so that they would not profane the name of Yahweh by imitating Gentile idolatry, but “carry” His name righteously to honor Him.

Education and Food Laws

Instruction of the next generation was a high priority in ancient Israel. A godly Israelite would appreciate this deeply and perhaps think about education or understand his duty along the lines I suggest in what follows.

First, nowhere is the importance of educating the next generation more evident than in the book of Deuteronomy where the command to teach children the commandments of Yahweh is included in the application of the First Word as the daily expression of what it means to love Yahweh with all the heart: “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God is one Yahweh: and thou shalt love Yahweh thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

Second, in addition to this profound exhortation to devote oneself to teaching the next generation, we are given a concrete picture of ancient instruction in the rules for teaching children at Passover. Though it may not be entirely clear from the passage, it seems that Exodus 12:26-27 is establishing a sort of ceremonial form of instruction that would be repeated each year at the Passover: “And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, ‘What mean ye by this service?’ that ye shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of Jehovah’s Passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.’ And the people bowed the head and worshipped” (Exodus 12:26-27).

Though encouraging children to be inquisitive may seem superfluous, in this law godly curiosity is endorsed through a ritual in which children ask the meaning of the Passover. Of course, this sanction of natural curiosity in the celebration of Passover at the beginning of each year would have broader ramifications. Children would feel free to ask the meaning of other laws as well — which is, no doubt, exactly what Yahweh intended. In other words, the law in Exodus 12:26-27 corresponds to the instruction in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The one law commands parents to teach children; the other law encourages children to ask questions promiscuously.

We must also note that the answer to the question above is a story, however abbreviated. I assume that at Passover, the whole story would be told over and over, which is why the abbreviated form would communicate. But the point is, to the question, “What does this mean?” the answer is to be a story, not a philosophical discourse. Israel was called to be a story-oriented, story-full people.

It seems obvious, therefore, that the same process would be repeated with the food laws. Children would ask their parents what it means that some animals are clean and others to be “detested.”[ii] It would have been easy to imagine why mice or cockroaches should be detested. But why should horses be detested? They have noble bearing and are beautiful animals. Children might also ask why the people in the caravans traveling through Israel ate pig meat, while it was forbidden to them. They would wonder why the aliens living with them were allowed to eat animals that died naturally, but they were not. In short, the food laws would have provoked multitudes of questions.

When children asked about the animals and food laws, the parents should have known how to respond because Deuteronomy alluded to stories to introduce the food laws — the story of the Garden and the story of the Exodus and the revelation of Yahweh at Sinai. These stories are rich enough that they can be told over and over from many different angles. And, of course, the stories themselves would provoke other questions.

Just as every Passover was a time of instruction, every meal afforded opportunity to remind parents and children of the story of the command in the Garden and Adam’s disobedience, the story of the promise of the Messiah and the first animal sacrifice, the story of Abraham and the patriarchs who received the covenant promises that were fulfilled in the Exodus, the story of Moses and Pharaoh, and the story of Sinai. Since the food laws spoke of Israel’s special calling to be different from the Gentiles and to fight against the Serpent until the coming of the Messiah, each meal could and should have been an opportunity to teach children by constantly rehearsing the stories and promises. To put this another way, the food laws were given to stimulate natural curiosity so that children could learn about and trust in the Messiah to come who would defeat the Serpent and free not only Israel, but all the nations of the earth (Genesis 12:3).

Israel’s Mission and the Food Laws

A godly Israelite would have realized that the geography of ancient Israel was important. Every godly Israelite would have recognized that Yahweh gave His special people a strategically located land which linked Europe and Asia to Africa. The Cambridge Ancient History refers to a “network” of trade-routes running through ancient Israel.[iii] These routes were profoundly important for trade between the great ancient empire of Egypt with kingdoms and empires in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Media or even further to the East. To have major trade routes on both sides of the Jordan river meant that numerous caravans would be traveling through Israel, carrying the riches of Egypt to Babylon and Persia, and vice versa. Since the land was about 180 miles long, it would have taken perhaps five days or more for a caravan to travel through it.[iv] Caravans would need places to rest, to water and feed their animals, and places to buy food (cf. Genesis 42:27).[v]

In other words, Yahweh led His people to a place where the world would come to them to hear the Gospel, so that every people could be blessed through Abraham. Confronting a new and different diet, travelers would almost certainly have asked the meaning of the food laws and customs. Given such an opportunity, Israelites were supposed to be ready to tell them stories, beginning with the story of the forbidden food in Genesis and continuing all the way to Sinai and the new laws of forbidden food that distinguished Israel as Yahweh’s beloved people.

If Israelites had kept the laws of Moses, it would have afforded them numerous opportunities to tell the story of Yahweh’s redeeming grace to Gentiles traveling through the land when they asked about the Israelites’ strange clothing and diet. The Sabbath would have been surprising to foreign travelers, who no doubt would have been amazed to see not only the Israelites resting one day in seven, but the slaves and animals resting, too.[vi] Even the Mosaic law of capital punishment for murder would have been surprising, since in other ancient Near Eastern societies murderers could usually buy their way out of punishment.[vii]


In this part of the essay, I have tried to show how a godly Israelite with a well-educated and sanctified imagination might have meditated on Deuteronomy 14:1-21. There was much for him to consider. The rich web of allusion in these verses invited the ancient Israelite to mediate on his special calling and to remember Yahweh’s gracious love in order to encourage him in the face of temptation. It was not only the nation as a whole that was Yahweh’s son, each individual Israelite, too, was given that name. Because the nation was Yahweh’s special treasure, so were the individuals that made up its people. This testimony of Yahweh’s love meant that in a secondary sense each Israelite could be thought of as bearing Yahweh’s name in a manner analogous to the high priest, who had Yahweh’s name inscribed in gold on his forehead.

Among the allusions were some that would remind him of the sin of Adam in the Garden as well as the sin of Israel at Kadesh. The Israelites who first heard Moses’ sermon knew they faced great battles ahead and that they must not imitate Adam’s disobedience or that of their fathers. Related to this, food laws would have had special significance for people who for forty years had been eating mostly manna. Their diet was about to change, but they had to enter the land first. The food laws covered what they could and could not eat after they crossed the Jordan when the manna had ceased. Thus, prefacing the food laws with allusions to stories reminding Israelites of past sin should have spiced each meal with warning and encouragement.

The detestable animals, with their Gentile-like violence and serpent-like closeness to dirt, would also remind Israelites that they had been delivered from Egypt in order to serve Yahweh as His special people. They were not to live like the Gentiles or worship their gods. Rather, they were part of a history-long spiritual battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. When the true Seed of the woman appeared, He would deliver them.

All of this counted as very practical instruction in what it means to bear the name of Yahweh. Since they lifted up His name in praise and prayer, the Israelites were called to a lifestyle like that of the sacrificial animals. Most especially, they were to eat every meal in hope for the coming Messiah who would crush the head of the Serpent.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.

[i] Every use of the word “blue” in the five books of Moses is to the tabernacle or the priests’ clothing, except the one reference to the tassels on the Israelites robes (Exodus 25:4; 26:1, 4, 31, 36; 27:16; 28:5–6, 8, 15, 28, 31, 33, 37; 35:6, 23, 25, 35; 36:8, 11, 35, 37; 38:18, 23; 39:1–3, 5, 8, 21–22, 24, 29, 31; Num 4:6–7, 9, 11–12).

[ii] Strictly speaking, the word “detestable” is not used for all unclean animals and is never used in Deuteronomy. In Leviticus, the Hebrew word “detestable” occurs 9 times, but it is only used of unclean fish, birds, and insects (Leviticus 7:21; 11:10–13, 20, 23, 41–42). However, in Deuteronomy a parallel word is used and translated “abomination.” In Deuteronomy 14:3, the word “abomination” seems clearly to cover all the unclean animals. Since the two words are rough synonyms, it seems fair to say that all the unclean animals are “detestable,” though the word “abominable” would be more correct.

[iii] The Cambridge Ancient History, edited by I. E. S. Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 2.2, 582.

[iv] A camel traveling 4 miles per hour for ten hours could cover 40 miles a day, but that seems like a hard pace to keep up for a long time. 30 miles a day would be six days.

[v] The story of the Levite traveling through Gebeah suggests that in many places lodging for travelers depended on private hospitality (Judges 19:15). Even though Gebeah was situated on or near a smaller trade route, it apparently had not developed inns by the time of the Judges. But in Jericho, Rahab ran an inn. So, even in ancient times, there was lodging and food for travelers in some cities. By the time of David and Solomon, trade would have developed much more and the major trade route on the coast would have been in Israel’s control, as well as port cities like Joppa and Ashkelon.

[vi] There was apparently no parallel to the Israelite Sabbath in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. See, John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context: A Survey of Parallels between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989) 35.

[vii] The laws of Ur Namu seem to demand the death penalty for murder [Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1995) 72.] But the Hittite laws specifically allow for compensation [Ibid., p. 215], which was apparently most common [A Companion to the Near East, ed. by Daniel Snell (Malden, MA.: Blackwell) 162]. However, there seem to have been significant variations among societies. Conclusions are somewhat difficult because the information available is partial at best [A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, ed. by Raymond Westbrook (Leiden: Brill, 2003) 77-79, 130, 176, 515-518, 644-649, 810-811, 961-962, etc.].