The Bible Is (NOT) a Diet Book – Part III

The below article is Part III of a IV part series documenting the evolution of my beliefs and attitudes towards food in my quest for the healthiest way to live over the past four years. Click here to read Part I and here to read Part II.

The Bible is not a diet book. Nor does it claim to be. Nor does it give specific dietary laws based on nutritional significance from the mouth of God (in my opinion). Nor should we make our own dietary choices based off of the examples in the Bible over what we know now from science.

It’s funny how eating grains is the only thing people use this argument on. If God told his people to eat grains, why shouldn’t we? or Jesus ate bread. Therefore, I should, right? go the questions. Why can’t women pray or prophesy in many churches today though they clearly exercised such positions in the early church (1 Cor. 11:5)? Why don’t we have slaves today though they were acceptable in scripture? Why do many Christians think it is a sin to drink a glass of wine though Jesus and everyone else (except those under a Nazarite vow) drank wine throughout scripture? Why do most people think the “kingdom of God” = “the-church-only”? Why do many think that God, Jesus, and the apostles were anti-semitic after Jesus came? Why do we emphasize individual salvation over community holiness? Why is the cross emphasized over the resurrection? Why is Jesus often elevated above God these days?

These are all questions of context and culture. The purpose of this next article in this series (click here for Part I, and here for Part II) is not to answer the above controversial questions (though I am sure you have your own staunch opinions!), but to offer a new perspective from which to base your decision-making. I do not have all of the answers, yet I firmly believe that you were created in the image of God, that you were given a brain for a reason, and that through knowledge, wisdom, and discernment you can make your own decisions about what to put into your bodies.

Anachronistic Tendencies

Anachronism is “an act of attributing a custom, event, or object to a period in which is does not belong” according to my Apple dictionary.

People have a tendency to read backwards into anything written before today. We all do this to some extent and it is only through awareness, practice, and study that we begin overcome it. What this means for scripture is that we take our twenty-first century culture, thoughts, values, and beliefs and transfer them to the people and cultures we read about in the Bible. This is dangerous on many levels because it affects our understanding of the true intention of scripture.

For example, in Part I of this series, I began my quest for the healthiest way to live. I assumed that God’s dietary laws were based on nutrition because that is a question many people care about today. In Leviticus, the Israelites are commanded to never eat fat (Lev. 3:17). At that point in my journey I assumed, because fat is vilified today, that God told his people NOT to eat fat because he knew that fat was bad. I assumed that all of God’s commandments possessed some improved physiological significance. But this is reading anachronistically into the text and making assumptions based on my twenty-first century beliefs. I’ll come back to this momentarily.

After dispelling my anachronistic tendencies in favor of context and culture, my world shifted. I no longer needed to reconcile the Bible with my dietary results because the Bible is not the answer that question. It wasn’t written for that purpose. And I therefore should not read things into the text that simply are not there. Let me explain.

Considering Context and Culture

Have you ever taken a literature class or read a classical book in school? Does your professor or teacher jump right into the book? Do you immediately read it and discuss it?

Or does your instructor instead take a day to discuss the context of the writing – the genre, setting, time period in which it was written, culture of the day, social and political events going on at the same time, main characters, purpose of the writing and so on?

Why do they insist on doing this? Because it influences your understanding of the literature. It gives you a fuller picture of what is going on and a frame of reference from which to understand the true intentions of the author.

No one would argue that the cultural impact of the Great Depression influenced the writings of John Steinbeck. Nor would they take the truth of the meat packing industry in Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle, out of context. Nor should we forsake the significance of allegory to spread ideas without incurring capital punishment, such as in the book Animal Farm by George Orwell.

In the same way, we should not read the book of Psalms without considering the structure of poetry, Leviticus without considering the common beliefs and religious practices of the time period, or Revelation without considering its allegorical significance within the culture of the Roman Empire.

We fastidiously practice considering the context and culture in every piece of literature except the Bible. When was the last time you read a book on Ancient Near Eastern thought, beliefs, and practices to better understand the setting and common beliefs of the Old Testament? When was the last time you considered the reason Genesis was written to that particular group of Israelites at that particular time in history?

This is important because it affects how we interpret scripture. And it becomes challenging to get into the head of a person and culture from such a vastly different time period. I know this may seem overwhelming at first because certain beliefs and dogmas are so ingrained within us, but it is possible and I have included a reading list at the bottom for those interested in beginning such a study of scripture.

The context and culture of Genesis – Deuteronomy matter in our discussion of diet and God’s law because telling us how to eat today was not the intention of the writing. Genesis and Exodus were written to a group of slaves who had just left 400 years of slavery in Egypt. It was written to encourage the people and tell them how to live on their own again. It was written to assure them of God’s hand in their lives since the beginning, that God is faithful to his promises (i.e., to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), and that he will continue to be faithful to them by giving them a land to live in and defeating their enemies before them.

It is also important to note that the Israelites were not the only ones practicing sacrificial systems. By looking at the surrounding cultures of the Ancient Near East, we can ascertain to the best of our ability with the evidence available what the common beliefs and systems were among the Israelites and the surrounding peoples. From there we can also note the differences and gain a fuller understanding of the reasons behind this or that commandment.

Few people talk about the sacrificial system and the pervasive importance of the customs in both the Old and New Testaments. Think of an altar as a big grill. Priests were the butchers with certain rituals and customs to please and invoke the presence of God. Not only did this involve offering certain parts of the animal as food for God, but it also involved a communal meal (e.g., think church potluck). Within close proximity to the altar would be a big place to eat – for the priests and for the individual people and families offering the sacrifice. In this way, the people took part in their sacrifice by eating it to the glory of God for whatever specific purpose, i.e., peace offering, goodwill offering, sin offering, etc. (e.g., I Cor. 10:18). People not only sacrificed animals, but also oil, wine, grains, etc. Keep this idea in the back of your mind as we continue because anything pertaining to food in the Bible usually pertains to sacrifices to God or to the surrounding cultures’ gods.

Other cultures also sacrificed to their gods. For example, in the Ancient Near East the organs and fat of an animal were considered to be the preferential food to their gods. The organs were thought to be the “seat of life and of emotions” (Beckman). This was likely true for the Israelites as well since Leviticus spells out the parts of the animals to be offered to God, including most of the organs and all of the fat.

Perhaps the fat was seen as the most valuable part of the animal and so a better sacrifice than other parts. Who knows? That is my speculation based on the observation that many hunter-gatherer cultures and Native Americans prefer the fat and organs of an animal above all else.

My point is that the dietary customs and rules spelled out in the Old Testament were based on similar practices in other surrounding cultures. This does not negate anything in the Bible by any means, but reinforces the significance of the differing portions of their practices. For instance, all world religions pray. Christians also pray. Does that make the practice of prayer any less valid for anyone or any religion? By no means! It is simply a common feature to all. In the same way, the culture and context of the ancient near eastern religions possess many commonalities and our records from the surrounding cultures can help us understand the Bible better.

You see, God always meets people right where they are and then takes them where God wants to go. This is no different with the people of the Bible. God met them on the common ground of how to do religion in the ancient near east according to accepted methods of sacrifice, worship, and rituals; and then added God’s truths and covenants with God’s people (e.g., you shall worship no other God besides me). The Israelites law, their holiness code, including some of the dietary laws, set them apart from the rest of the nations.

So why did God tell the Israelites to eat grains if they are bad for you? God did not tell the Israelites to eat grain. They were already eating grain. Since the rise of agriculture, most populations began farming in order to increase food supply, build cities, and populate the earth. Jerrod Diamond has some interesting works on the rise of agriculture that are worth reading. This does not mean that grains are good or bad. It’s simply where they were at the time and God used that to give them stipulations on how to offer grain offerings. (Of further interest, we do not know their preparation techniques or the exact strain of grain, which should be noted if you want to push this question further)

You may be wondering about the start of agriculture and where that fits into this picture and the story of the Bible to compare/contrast/confirm/negate evolutionary theory with creationism. And that is an interesting question that I do not know the answer to. But I do know that the Bible is NOT that story and the sooner we stop making it that story, the better.

Now It Gets Interesting

Sorry if you got lost or bored by the preceding section. That was only a taste of the importance of culture and context but it really comes alive when you begin applying it! Let’s consider some “food” passages in the Bible now to understand the real reason for specific instances of food choice.

Remember in 1 Corinthians 10 when Paul is writing to the Corinthians about eating meat sacrificed to idols? This may seem like a small issue to us, but it was a HUGE deal to the people at that time. Click here to read that full chapter now.

The sacrificial system persisted from the ancient near east into the Roman empire. Instead of the grocery store, people bought their meat from pagan temples after it was sacrificed to a god. This was a common practice and yet a very religious thing to eat said meat because it implied support and an act of worship to a pagan god. Obviously it was affecting the church at Corinth because Paul addressed it in his letter. Ultimately, under the law of the spirit, what does it matter if your dinner was sacrificed to a pagan god since you know it means nothing? But for the sake of a brother or sister’s conscience do not participate.

Now let us come full circle to the story in Daniel 1 that I mentioned in Part I of this series. (Note: It will help to read all of chapter 1. Below is an excerpt)

The king assigned them (Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank… But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank… Then Daniel said to the steward… “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.” So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days. At the end ten days it was see that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food. So the steward took away the food and wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables.

We know from ancient near eastern literature that all of the food, i.e., meat and wine, the king ate would have been sacrificed to an idol. By participating in eating the king’s food, Daniel and friends would have participated in the worship of an idol and thus defiled themselves in the eyes of God. The point of this story is NOT that Daniel and friends forego meat and wine in favor of vegetables and water, but that they refuse to go along with the crowd, i.e., the rest of the Babylonians in the king’s court, and eat food sacrificed to an idol when it would have been easier to do so. And God blesses them for it.

I hope you can see how the intention of the writing of the Bible was not to instruct us as to what is the most nutritious foods and how we should eat today. The purpose of the Bible is to tell the story of God’s overarching plan since the beginning, God’s desire to make God’s dwelling with us, and how we should live in light of that. Because of this, the Bible in no way, shape, or form tells me how and what I should eat in my quest for the healthiest way to live

There will be one more installment of this series in order to flesh out all of the goodness contained in this question! Next, we’ll talk about what we can ascertain from science about what we should eat and why. God blessed us with those noggins up there for a reason. And I firmly believe God works in all things so that we, competent sentient human beings that we are, can make educated decisions once we are aware of the full range of effects of foods.

What do you think about this? Is it new to you? Is it what you expected? Do you agree? Disagree? Thoughts? Post them below!

References:

  • “How Religion Was Done” Gary Beckman
  • Bible, ESV
  • Photo Credit: “Model Food Offering In Form of Bound Gazelle” Brooklyn Museum

Recommended Reading:

4 Comments

  • Rach

    Reply Reply January 10, 2012

    Oh my goodness, yes! I could not agree more with what you wrote about the purpose of the Bible. Not to mention what you wrote about God always meeting us where we are. So much truth.

    I just read all 4 parts of what you wrote and I definitely agree that the Bible was not intended to be a cookbook or diet book. With that said, however, I’m still in the early stages of trying to eat mostly whole foods and leaving behind the processed stuff so I’m definitely not quite where you are yet, haha! 🙂

    • gerilyn

      Reply Reply January 11, 2012

      Amen Rach!

      It’s all about the journey and making yourself aware. I think you’re in a great place! 🙂

  • Le

    Reply Reply May 21, 2012

    I found your writings here very interesting, because I have thought about this lately. I have one question or comment for you.

    When i read the Bible and when i read Lev. 7:21-25 it seems like God not wanted them to eat the fat from the animals, because God wanted that to be a part of the sacrifice. It was the best part of the animal and God not wanted the Israel children to “steal” it away from the sacrifice.

    When I read the Bible, it seems more and more clear that God has no objection about meat and fat after the flood. Something happened there that changed it. I dont know what and why?

    (English is not my language so apologize if I not have understand you correct.)

    Isa 25:6 And in this mountain shall the LORD of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.

    • gerilyn

      Reply Reply May 21, 2012

      Hi Le,

      Thanks for your insightful comments. And I completely agree with you. That is my assumption too – that God requested the most valuable part of the animal because it was a more valuable sacrifice. It is only speculation as I have not studied the issue to the degree that I would like to, but it may be plausible.

      I agree that it is interesting that there is no mention of fat with sacrificial offerings until the law was given to Moses. I suspect there is some cultural reason there in the command to not eat fat – as in, to differentiate the Israelites in some way from the surrounding nations and further “set them apart” or make them holy to God. But again, I haven’t studied Ancient Near Eastern literature enough to make a sounder theory. 🙂

      Appreciate your comments and good luck in your journey!

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