1 “You are the sons of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead. 2 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.
3 “You shall not eat any abomination. 4 These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, 5 the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain sheep. 6 Every animal that parts the hoof and has the hoof cloven in two and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. 7 Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cloven you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not part the hoof, are unclean for you. 8 And the pig, because it parts the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch.
9 “Of all that are in the waters you may eat these: whatever has fins and scales you may eat. 10 And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.
11 “You may eat all clean birds. 12 But these are the ones that you shall not eat: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, 13 the kite, the falcon of any kind; 14 every raven of any kind; 15 the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind; 16 the little owl and the short-eared owl, the barn owl 17 and the tawny owl, the carrion vulture and the cormorant, 18 the stork, the heron of any kind; the hoopoe and the bat. 19 And all winged insects are unclean for you; they shall not be eaten. 20 All clean winged things you may eat.
21 “You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.
“You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” – Deuteronomy 14:1-21 ESV
The people of Israel had been set apart by God. They had been created as a nation by His divine will and, by virtue of that fact, they belonged to Him. As His chosen possession, they were to reflect His character and glorify His name through their lives. They were expected to return His love for them by obeying His commands and willingly submitting to His plans for them. God had set them apart from all the other nations of the earth and had given them His law as a clear indication of just how separate and distinctive their lives were to be.
Upon entering the promised land, the Israelites had a God-ordained obligation to completely eradicate the Canaanites, the collective name used to describe the land’s current occupants. This divine dictate, while seemingly harsh, was necessary because God knew the people of Israel would be highly susceptible to the sin of compromise and prone to take the easy road of assimilation. But He had called them to live separate and distinctive lives. They were to have nothing to do with the Canaanites or their pagan practices. Every command God had given the Israelites was intended to set the Israelites apart, creating a glaring contrast between themselves and the rest of the nations.
In this chapter, Moses outlines a series of prohibitions, each of which is tied to the subject of food consumption. Even the diet of the Israelites was intended to separate them from the rest of the world. God required them to be holy, not unholy and clean rather than unclean. Everything about their lives was to reflect their set-apart status, from the way they dressed to the food they ate, from the manner in which they worshiped to the way they treated their own bodies. Which is why Moses starts out this portion of his message by warning them:
“Since you are the people of the Lord your God, never cut yourselves or shave the hair above your foreheads in mourning for the dead. You have been set apart as holy to the Lord your God, and he has chosen you from all the nations of the earth to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 14:1-2 NLT
Don’t do as the Canaanites do. That’s the basic message Moses was trying to get across. They were not to adapt or adopt the ways of the Canaanites. And yet, cultural assimilation is not only easy, it’s also preferable. Standing out from the crowd can be difficult while blending in can make one’s life much simpler and less complicated. But God was not interested in a people who were indistinguishable and unremarkable. He had chosen the Israelites as His own special treasure and expected them to shine as lights in the darkness.
Even the food they consumed was intended to distinguish them from the pagan nations of the earth. Every single command regarding their diet was meant to identify them as God’s people. And while the commands found in these verses are all tied to food-consumption, they are really associates with the third commandment.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” – Deuteronomy 5:11 ESV
We tend to associate this command with the sin of cursing or using God’s name flippantly or disrespectfully. And while these actions can and should be avoided, the real point behind this command is that of behavior that contradicts our expressed belief in God. When the command states, “you shall not take…”, it is really communicating the idea of bearing something. The Hebrew word is nasa’, and it can be translated “to bear” or “to carry.”
It seems that God was telling the Israelites not to bear or, to put it another way, to wear God’s name in a vain or false manner. As His chosen possession, they bore His name. They were His special treasure. And they were to treat their designation as His people with property dignity and respect. They bore His name. They were His earthly representatives. But if they were not careful, the manner in which they lived their lives could end up giving a false perception of who He was. Their actions and behaviors could end up casting a negative reflection upon God’s character.
Even the food they consumed could end up painting a false view of God. While bearing His name, they could do damage to His reputation by defiling their bodies by eating food He had deemed as unclean and unacceptable. And it is important that we note that all the food items that God had declared as off-limits to the Jews were fully acceptable to the Canaanites.
God’s rules regarding diet were not intended to be about the denial of certain foods, but the distinctiveness of the Israelites. The primary issue was not to be, “you shall not…” but “you shall be…” God wanted the Israelites to be holy, distinctive, different, set apart – even when it came to the kinds of food they could eat. And He was very specific. Why? He gave them the answer: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:21 ESV).
The Hebrew word translated as “holy” is qadowsh, and it simply means “sacred” or “set apart.” They belonged to Him and their lives were to reflect their unique status as His people. They were not to be anything like the nations around them. Their lifestyle was to be markedly different, from the food they ate to the way they worshiped. Everything about them was to be distinctive, setting them apart as belonging to God. They bore His name, and they were not to do anything that would reflect negatively on His character.
If an Israelite disobeyed God’s commands concerning dietary restrictions, he or she would end up bearing God’s name in vain. They would display a false idea of what it means to be a child of God. By eating like the Canaanites, they would dilute the differences between them. In a sense, accommodation would be a form of abomination. For someone bearing the name of God to attempt to blend in with the prevailing culture would reflect falsely on the character of God. Their distinctiveness would be lost. Their uniqueness would be compromised and the integrity of God’s character would be jeopardized.
All of this had less to do with food than about faithfulness. At the end of the day, these commands were aimed at the heart. Were the people of Israel willing to love and trust God, accepting His commands as being just and right? Would they do what He said out of love for who He was?
While these dietary laws come across as restrictive and even a bit arbitrary to our modern sensibilities, they were designed to reveal the true nature of the heart. Hundreds of years later, Jesus would declare that the problem with man stems not from what goes into the mouth, but what flows from the heart.
“It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.” – Mark 7:15 NLT
And when His Jewish disciples shared their confusion over His statement, He added provided them with clarification.
“Don’t you understand either? … Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes). – Mark 7:18-20 NLT
The willingness of the Israelites to obey God’s command would reflect the true condition of their hearts. They bore His name, but would they willingly bear the call to obey His commands?
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.