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A Table in the Wilderness: Israel’s Diet

Category Articles
Date October 2, 2007

For years, modern readers of the Bible have shunned the food laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy about as religiously as the ancient Israelites shunned pork and shrimp.

A recent New York Times bestseller, however, touts the benefits of the biblical food laws for obese and unhealthy North Americans. In his book, The Maker’s Diet,1 Dr. Jordan Rubin advocates a diet in large part aligned with the Israelite diet, which predates modern science by more than 3 millennia.

A Messianic Jew, Dr. Rubin believes the Bible offers basic guidance on diet. He doesn’t agree with the rabbinical kosher laws. Yet, he does believe that biblical teaching, including the Old Testament, is important and helpful, especially to an overweight and unhealthy society. Dr. Rubin himself emerged from a severe case of Crohn’s disease by undergoing a rigorous diet derived in part from the biblical food laws. In an array of books on health and diet, Dr. Rubin serves up a blend of these biblical food laws and more generic health food dogma. His books frequently quote Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. They include an exposé of the farming and food industries, as well as average American eating habits. Dr. Rubin traces cancers and many other health problems, in part, to the use of pesticides, toxic environments, stress, and negative thinking.

All this raises some interesting questions.

What were the food laws for?

It is worth noting the fact that God speaks to man regarding his diet. He did not leave man simply to find his own way. As Creator and Provider, He directed man to suitable provisions to sustain and nourish his life. In Eden, of course, God directed Adam and Eve to a diet of fruits and vegetables (Gen. 1:29). After the flood, the Lord added that man could eat meat (Gen. 9:3-4).2

The most extensive food laws of the Old Testament are recorded in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. These chapters serve a number of purposes:

1. To teach man about the concepts of purity and impurity.

The ceremonial laws were a curriculum to teach man about spiritual things, about Christ, the kingdom of God, and life under the banner of God. Paul explains in Colossians 2:16-17 that these laws are the shadow of Christ, who is the substance. Every time an Israelite cooked food, they had to operate with the concepts of purity and impurity in their minds. And so, when the prophets showed the people their sin and said, ‘But we are all as an unclean thing’ (Isa. 64:6), the people had a picture in everyday life of what that was like. In fact, Ezekiel says that the priests in God’s new temple will ‘teach my people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean’ (Ezek. 44:23). Thus, these food laws had a pedagogical purpose.

2. To show that God’s precepts concern not only our inner being, but also our outer being.

It remains true that God’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, and ‘within’ a person. However, God commands that all of life be lived under his direction, including even the food we eat. The New Testament teaches that the food laws are fulfilled and abrogated; nevertheless, ‘Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Cor. 10:31). Leviticus 11, the chapter on the food laws, includes the well-known call: ‘Ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy’ (v.45; cf. 1 Pet. 1:15-16). This is the ethical purpose.

3. To show the merciful hospitality of God to his children.

The Bible regularly portrays God as a kind and gracious Host. He fed his people with manna in the wilderness and with water from the rock (Deut. 8:3). He furnished a table in the wilderness (Psa. 78:19). In Israel, God spread an array of milk and honey, fruits and vegetables, meat and fish before his people. He, as it were, set the table, and provided from his storehouses, a bounty to show his mercy. As Host, God will not let his children eat any of the unclean animals that he himself does not accept for offering (Num. 28:2). He feeds them with food convenient for them (Prov. 30:8). He fills the hungry with good things (Luke 1:53). This is the evangelical purpose.

How should we eat?

The New Testament is clear that Christ has fulfilled and abrogated the ceremonial laws, and that we need to guard our liberty in the gospel (1 Cor. 10:29-30). The Belgic Confession says it well: ‘The ceremonies ceased at the coming of Christ and the shadows are accomplished, so that the use of them must be abolished among Christians'(Art. 25). Thus, as Paul said, ‘All things are lawful to me’ (1 Cor. 10:23). Yet, he quickly adds, that not all things are expedient and edifying. And the Belgic Confession says: ‘We still use the testimonies taken out of the law [among other things] to regulate our life in all honesty to the glory of God, according to His will’ (Art. 25). There is no doubt that our Western marketing machine puts before our eyes and mouths, foods of which the origin, nature, and effect are hidden behind trendy names, exaggerated claims, and glossy games. Ignorance, here too, is not bliss. How then should we eat?

1. Moderately.

Gluttony is nowhere sanctioned in Scripture. Of course, the Bible does speak of feasting. However, there is a way to feast without making a god out of one’s belly (Phil. 3:19). Self-control is a Christian grace, which should come into evidence in matters of food and drink as well (Gal. 5:23; 2 Pet 1:6).

2. Healthily.

Paul cried out to the Philippian jailor: ‘Do thyself no harm’ (Acts 16:28). Of course, the context of this text is one of attempted suicide. Nevertheless, the Bible would not approve of subjecting one’s self knowingly and intentionally to harm, unless, of course, a greater good could be achieved. The body of a Christian is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). On the other hand, it is possible to be so obsessed with health and food that other exhortations of Scripture against anxiety and misplaced focus (Matt. 6:25-28), and the like go unheeded.

3. Thankfully.

Paul answered the question, ‘How should we eat?’ very succinctly and clearly. He writes in 1 Timothy 4:4-5: ‘For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.’ Ecclesiastes counsels us to be joyful when we eat (Eccles. 9:7). We need to see every provision as an undeserved gift from God, and be thankful. This may be the hardest of all, given our unthankful hearts by nature.

4. Hospitably.

The Bible frequently displays the saints showing hospitality, and calls for God’s people to do so as well (e.g., Heb. 13:2). In our Western world, we have an ironic term, the ‘hospitality industry,’ which refers to services like restaurants and hotels. When did hospitality become the pride of Wall Street and Madison Avenue? Christians should have a generous and ready heart to break bread with others, especially strangers and those of the household of faith. All the food we enjoy, we have only because God has opened is creation table to us. Should then our tables remain shut?

What do our souls feed on?

Sadly, many of the diet fads, as well as much that goes for Christian health and diet today, put the body over the soul. It is part of man’s focus on this world and this earth. Many are no longer strangers in this world. Few can identify with Paul’s longing to be clothed upon with our house that is from heaven (2 Cor. 5:2). Many have their reward now. Many think more about how what goes into the body defiles the body (Matt. 15:18-20). Do we think about what defiles the soul? How often do we think about how our soul defiles everything around us? Does the plague of our heart (1 Kings 8:38) keep us busier than the threat of this or that disease?

May God deliver us from a dietary pharisaism, which cannot redeem our souls from going down to the pit. True, let us not neglect the body. But especially, let us frequently visit the marketplace of the soul. There we will learn about our spiritual toxins: ‘Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?’ But the divine Host will also meet us and say: ‘Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live’ (Isa. 55:2-3).


  1. Jordan S. Rubin, The Maker’s Diet: The 40-Day Health Experience That Will Change Your Life Forever (Lake Mary,FL: Siloam, 2004).
  2. There is some debate whether the ‘moving things’ (Gen. 9:3) refers to animals in flocks and herds (cattle, sheep), or animals in the wild. Presumably, it includes both. However, the Lord stipulates that this meat to be consumed be ‘living.’ He is telling man not to eat what he finds dead (carrion), but instead, something he kills for that purpose. Obviously, the risks of eating spoiled meat lie behind this stipulation. Secondly, man was not to eat the animal with the blood still in it. This command would have instilled in man a regard and respect for blood, which God calls ‘the life.’ Man was not to consume animal meat barbarically, but in an orderly way. Any terminating of life, even of an animal, was to be done in a way that acknowledged God as the Giver of all life.

Dr. Gerald M. Bilkes is an instructor at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This article is taken with permission from the September 2007 issue of The Messenger, the official publication of the Free Reformed Churches of North America.

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