Monday, 7 March 2011

Food laws: why we should eat less meat and more bread and wine

Sermon on Deuteronomy 11: 18, 26-28, 32; St John’s, New Hinksey, Oxford; 6th March 2011

Well , I am delighted to be here today to preach to you. One of the reasons for me being here is that I understand from my friend Margaret Rayner that the issue of Jewish food laws was raised during a sermon a few months back and she thought that I might have something to say on the subject and so Father James invited me along.

I should say at this point that I am really no expert on the Jewish food laws but I am interested in food - as many of us are. But in addition to enjoying cooking and eating it I am also a food researcher. During the week I am employed by the University of Oxford to run a research group called the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group which is based in the Department of Public Health and my research group carries out research into healthier eating. Some would say we are responsible for the traffic-light labelling of foods you can find on some foods sold in the UK.

I also happen to think that we don’t think and speak enough about food within our churches: food is fundamental to human existence and identity but we can so readily take it for granted.

Moreover a meal is the central act of Christian worship and yet we can so easily come to see the Mass, the Eucharist as purely symbolic and forget that what we share is – as well as being the body and blood of Christ – real bread with real nutrients made with real wheat grown in real fields by real farmers who are often the people to suffer most when times are hard, and real wine made with real grapes from real vines and containing real alcohol to make us really glad.

If you think about it for a moment bread and wine are amazing things.

No wonder then that the Bible has a lot to say about food from the fruit of the tree of knowledge that was eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to the fruit of the tree of life that we are to share at the end of time, at a heavenly banquet, according to the writer of Revelation.

No wonder too that rules about food were central to the Law of the Old Testament. Our Old Testament reading today – while not mentioning the Jewish food laws in particular - does talk, in general, about the laws God gave to Moses to pass on to the Children of Israel. They come in a section of the book of Deuteronomy which starts: ‘This is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel; these are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which Moses spoke to the children of Israel when they came out of Egypt.’ The last of today’s verses from the Old Testament was: ‘And when you possess [the land your God gives you] and live in it, you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the ordinances which I set before you this day.’

The writers of Deuteronomy go on to set out these statutes and ordinances in Chapters 12-27 and these chapters contain the food laws. These foods laws can also be found in the book of Leviticus earlier in the Old Testament (Chapter 11). Some of these food laws are well known such as, ‘Only be sure not to eat the blood [of animals]’ (12: 23) and, ‘The swine because it parts the hoof but does not chew the cud is unclean for you’ (14: 8) – which means that the Jews were forbidden from eating pigs. Some are less well known such as, ‘Of all that are in the waters you may eat these: whatever has fins and scales you may eat. And whatever does not have fins and scales you may not eat’ (14: 9). This of course means that the Jews should not eat shellfish such as oysters and crustaceans such as lobsters.

Today I want to suggest that these food laws – despite being rarely preached on – are worth thinking about – because they reveal things about the goodness of God and his relationship with his creation which we might otherwise miss. In the Old Testament there are major rules - such as, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ – one of the Ten Commandments – and minor rules such – ‘Thou shalt not eat lobsters’ just as there are today in 21st Britain. We are still not allowed to kill people (naturally) but there are a host of minor rules that we also have to follow such as, ‘Thou shalt drive your car on the left’ – or to take two food related examples, ‘Thou shalt not sell flour mixed with chalk dust’ and, ‘Thou shalt not sell food which has passed its sell by date’. These minor rules are not unimportant: in fact they are vital for the smooth running of society. It was not just the ancient Jews who had food laws – we still have them today.

But of course the Jewish food laws sound slightly strange and odd. Why for example were the Jews forbidden from eating pigs? Many people have suggested that Jewish food laws are an early form of the sorts of food laws we have today – designed to ensure that people don’t get sick when they eat. There may be some truth in this –for example humans catch diseases from the animals they keep and pigs are particularly dangerous in that regard. Think swine flu here. This is because pigs are omnivores not herbivores and we therefore tend to feed them on scraps including animal products that have passed their eat-by-date and this in turn means that pigs can also be housed in much greater proximity to us than sheep, goats and cows.

But the laws clearly are not just written for public health reasons. I want to suggest they tell us a lot about God and his relationship with Creation and they therefore make no sense without first thinking about some of the first stories in Genesis and in particular what they say about food.

There is a lot about food in Genesis. We learn from Genesis 1: 29 that humans when first created were vegetarians, or more accurately fruitarian – eating just fruits and seeds not even roots and leaves. In other words the ideal state for humans is to be fruitarian. And this I think is interesting given the increasing realisation that we eat much too much meat today – too much for our own health but also too much for the health of the planet. The Brazilian rain forests are being destroyed – at great cost to the environment – to fuel our insatiable lust for burgers. But this is not to say that we should all turn fruitarian or even vegetarian at once.

Adam and Eve may well not have eaten any meat. There is no record that they did and but their son Abel – certainly did. He was a herder of sheep and presumably ate some of them. You’ll remember that Abel the first herdsman gets killed by his brother Cain the first farmer essentially over a dispute about which type of food production method God preferred.

But the first time we hear that God gives explicit permission to humans to eat meat is after the Flood. When the waters have subsided Noah and his family leave the ark and rather strangely start killing and cooking – as a sacrifice - some of the animals that that have been their companions for the last 40 days. This was supposed to be for God’s benefit but it is not at all clear that God wanted this. But he does then, and only then, seem to shrug and say, ‘OK if you must eat meat you must. But when you do you must do so reverently.’ He tells them, ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you: and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything’ (Genesis 9: 3), i.e. ‘It is only now that I give you animals, as opposed to plants, to eat’. But he also says, ‘Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is its blood’. He gives a reason for this, which he connects with a prohibition against the violence that humans are clearly prone as demonstrated by the story of Cain and Abel: ‘For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of [a] man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.’

This is a difficult couple of verses but this is the first explicit law to be found in the Old Testament if you discount the prohibition from eating of the fruit of the tree of good and bad. And it connects permission to eat meat, with both a restriction on the way meat should be eaten (without blood) and a prohibition against men killing men and so shedding blood. It says, I think, something very profound about food and violence. It means also that the later Jewish food laws that we are thinking about today are all about animals rather than plants, all about meat rather than fruits, vegetables, grains and the things they are made from such as bread and wine.

So Noah is told that any animals can be eaten but only to be eaten if they must and then only in a particular way. Why does God, through Moses, then announce that certain animals are not to be eaten at all? We surely all feel that certain animals should not be eaten. We know instinctively that it’s wrong to eat our pets and other animals that we have formed a relationship with e.g. by giving them a name; we feel that it is wrong to kill and eat animals that are nearly as intelligent as ourselves us such as chimpanzees; we have a sort of gut feeling that we shouldn’t eat animals that eat other animals particularly dead animals like vultures. Eating animals is then something which is deeply problematic. God through Moses tries to give us some help here.

What the texts before and after the food laws in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy emphasise is that by following them the people will become holy just as God is holy, that being created in the image of God humans should behave like God the creator.

The creation accounts in Genesis suggest that heavenly bodies – the sun, moon and stars – plants and animals, including humans, were created according to an ordered plan in relation to:
• place (the heavens, the waters and the land),
• whether they move (plants no but heavenly bodies and animals yes),
• whether they have life (heavenly bodies no, animals yes).
• If animal how they move, (walk, fly, swim or swarm/slither),
• their form or other words the notion of something being ‘according to its kind’, and
• what they should ideally eat (animals: all plants and humans fruit and seeds).

The process of creation is therefore one of separation, into different places, static and moving beings, inanimate and animate beings and then animals including humans according to their locomotion, their form and how they sustain life.

The food laws suggest that what is contrary to this plan is not perfect, is not holy and therefore ideally should not be eaten.

Re. place. All plants that grow in their rightful place - on land - are by implication good and nearly perfect for sustaining life. Animals with no proper or an ambiguous place to live, such as reptiles and amphibians are not.

Re. movement and locomotion. Animals that move in appropriate ways such as animals that live in water but walk as on land such as lobsters are imperfect, as are those that live on land but swarm as if living in water (such as wingless insects, spiders, centipedes, insect larvae). In Genesis 1 tells us that the swarmers belong in the waters.

Re. form: Animals with an indefinite form (such as oysters and other shellfish) with a deceptive form (such as eels (fish that do not look like fish)) or an incomplete form (such as animals with a cloven hoof) are not perfect and thereby contrary to God’s perfect plan.

And finally animals that do not conform to the original idea that animals should only eat plants are not to be eaten, i.e. animals that eat other animals or do not chew the cud, the mark of ruminant animals that eat what God originally gave all animals to eat: green leaves of grass and other plants.

You can I hope begin to see that what at first sight might seem a random set of prohibitions turns out to have a logic to it and is closely connected with God’s plan for creation by separation.

And just as the food laws embody this idea of creation by separation, the food laws themselves became are one of the means by which the Jews came to see themselves as distinct, as separate from other people. At the end of Leviticus God calls on the Children of Israel to keep the food laws so that ‘You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine’ (Leviticus 20: 26). Clearly eating certain foods and not others separates us from others even today. Think of the way vegetarianism or food allergy, becomes for some an important, even major, part of their identity.

I would suggest that customs and laws around food are important in defining us all. I have tried to show that the Jewish food laws remind the Jews not only of the created order but of God the creator of order, not only of the intelligible separation of forms but of the mysterious source of form, separation and intelligibility. Of course the coming of Jesus heralds a new covenant, including a transformed set of rules for God’s people to follow. One of the consequences of this is that Christians need no longer follow the Jewish food laws, but this does not mean we can just forget them.

Furthermore Jesus has given us some new instructions around foods. This is to remember that whenever we eat bread and drink wine we are to remember his life, death and resurrection. The observance of this instruction amongst many other things, makes us, a separate, a holy people. Just as the Jewish food laws were designed to remind the Jews of the God the Creator the Eucharist reminds Christians of God the Saviour. It brings together the sacred and divine with the ordinary and every day and thus recalls the incarnation. It is not just the solitary eating of certain foods and not others: it is a shared meal. It reminds of the God who is a trinity of relationship.

I said near the start of this sermon that I hoped, that in thinking about the Jewish food laws, we might discover things about the goodness of God and his relationship with his creation which we might otherwise miss. The Eucharist tells us so much about God than the Jewish food laws but as a foreshadowing of the Eucharistic instructions I think the Jewish food laws still have their value. In particular they remind us to eat meat- and indeed other foods such as bread and wine – only with reverence and care.

Acknowledgement. Many of the ideas in this sermon come from Leon Kass and in particular his book 'The hungry soul: the eating and perfecting of our nature', 1991, Free Press.


  1. Of course it isn't that long since the law enforced the addition of chalk dust to flour!

  2. Alan

    A comment, hurrah! My first ever! (Lesley's two and my one don't count.) But surely a bit opaque? 1860 Food Adulteration Act? Explain.
    Do you mean calcium fortification of flour? I think the law sitll does doesn't it?

    Now to find out how comments can be relayed to my e-mail inbox!