I grew up in a home with a Jewish father and a Gentile mother, however, in honor of Passover we always without exception ate roast leg of lamb at Easter. I was taken aback to learn that many Christians eat baked ham at Easter. Ham comes from pigs and pigs are unclean animals. Then I became a believer in Jesus and learned that the dietary laws under which Jews live did not apply to Christians. It was a totally liberating but, I must confess, a little guilt-producing thought. Here’s the background on Jewish dietary laws.
It was a burdensome life for observant Jews living under the laws of the Old Testament. Scholars have counted 613 Old Testament laws which Jews must obey: 365 negative laws and 248 positive laws! Imagine the kind of fearful life they must have lived knowing that to break one of God’s laws required offering up an animal sacrifice to atone. The 613 laws were subdivided into three categories: dietary laws, ceremonial laws, and moral laws. To violate these laws rendered one unclean, hence the need for a sacrifice to atone for sins to become clean again. Let’s look at the first of the three categories of laws, dietary laws.
Regarding dietary laws, Jews were prohibited from eating certain food items (Leviticus 11:1-47). If eaten, these foods rendered one spiritually unclean. Included among the forbidden foods were any meat from a pig (including pork, ham, bacon, sausage, etc.) or a rabbit. Jews were prohibited from eating any type of shellfish (crabs, clams, lobsters, shrimp, etc.), shark, or whale. Unclean birds included any bird that was a scavenger (eagle, vulture, ostrich, stork, owl, etc.). Unclean insects included any winged insect. Additionally, crocodiles, alligators, lizards, mice, moles, snakes, worms, grubs are all regarded as unclean. To eat them or even to touch them rendered a Jew unclean. If any unclean insect fell onto a stove or a pot, Jews were required to smash the stove or pot. Clean meats included anything made of the sheep, cow, deer, gazelle, etc. Clean fish included any fish with scales and fins. Clean birds included chicken, dove, etc. Finally, clean insects are grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts (think of John the Baptist’s diet of locusts and wild honey).
Are there practical reasons for why God protected His people from unclean foods? Yes. In the ancient world pigs often carried trichinosis, shellfish contain a poison which in large quantities can harm you, scavenger birds could pass along all manner of disease. I’m sure there are even more reasons but those alone would suffice to keep Old Testament Jews from defiling themselves.
So, Irv, are Christians today bound by these same dietary laws? Does this mean we shouldn’t be eating ham at Easter? The answer is we are not under the Old Testament law. Jesus Christ kept the Old Testament law perfectly and in Him we are free from the law of sin and death. Also, in Acts 10, the Apostle Peter saw a rooftop vision in which a huge sheet was lowered from heaven and in it were unclean animals, birds, insects of all kinds. God spoke to Peter and commanded him to “Kill and eat!” Peter responded that he’d never eaten unclean food in his life to which God replied, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This was confirmed to Peter three times for every fact is confirmed by two or three witnesses. Jesus tells us that food is not what defiles us. He says, “Hear and understand. Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (Matthew 15:11). Sin defiles us, not food.
Finally, the Apostle Paul tells us in his inspired letters that food will not render us unclean or clean. It is spiritually neutral. He says, “But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat” (1 Corinthians 8:8). Paul tells believers in Ephesus, “. . . God has created (food) to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth for everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:3-5).
Well, there you have it. We are not under the Old Testament law and its dietary restrictions. We are free in Christ to eat whatever we choose.
Pass the ham, please,