Should Christians observe the dietary laws? Dr. Michael Brown recently gave his answer to this question in a short YouTube video. Since Dr. Brown is a highly respected theologian and Messianic Jewish/Christian apologist, I think it will be good to examine his arguments in light of biblical teaching on this topic.
Like most evangelical Christians, Dr. Michael Brown takes the position that God’s dietary laws are not binding on Christians today. He says that Christians are "free" to keep God’s commandments about what not to eat, but he doesn’t believe that they must keep them. Before I get to his arguments, it’s worth pointing out that Dr. Brown seemed to indicate in his video that Mark 7:18-19 and Acts 10 are greatly lacking in proving the position that God’s dietary laws have been abolished. Those passages are two of the most common “proof-texts” used to support the position of denying the validity of God’s dietary laws. It’s refreshing to see an evangelical theologian acknowledge the weakness in appealing to those passages to support such a position. (See my article, Acts 10 – Peter’s Vision and Unclean Animals.)
Did God permit Noah to eat unclean animals?
Dr. Brown begins by pointing out a statement from God to Noah in which God seemingly gives Noah permission to eat unclean animals after the flood. This is what Dr. Brown says:
What we do know is that in Genesis 9 God says that every living thing, every earthly creature, you can eat. So He did not establish dietary laws at the foundation there in Genesis 9 after the flood.
Presumably Dr. Brown makes this point to draw a distinction between universal laws for all believers and laws that, in his mind, were given only to Israel. The argument that the dietary laws are not binding on Gentiles will be covered later in this article, but for now let’s focus on the verse in question. Did God permit eating unclean animals in Genesis 9:3?
It should be noted that scholars have differing views on the meaning of the Hebrew word remes, often translated “every living thing,” in Genesis 9:3. While some hold that remes in that verse would include unclean animals, others hold that it is limited to only animals permitted by God’s dietary laws. It seems reasonable that there were limits to the types of “living things” that God permitted when you consider how Noah had already been instructed to make distinctions between clean and unclean animals in Genesis 7. (Michael Brown acknowledges this point, but suggests that the purpose of making those distinctions was only with regard to sacrifices.) Furthermore, the next verse applies limits to remes by prohibiting the eating of blood.
In the NIV Application Commentary on Genesis, Hebrew scholar Dr. John H. Walton observes:
The noun (remeś) and the associated verb (rmś) each occur seventeen times in the Old Testament, ten times each in Genesis 1-9. This word group is distinct from both the wild (predatory) beasts and domesticated flocks and herds. Neither verb nor noun is ever used to refer to larger wild animals or to domesticated animals. In no place is remeś a catch-all category for all creatures. It is one category of creature only. The division of the Hebrew terms used up to this point in Genesis reflects the nature of the animal.
Since remes does not indicate literally every living thing, it therefore is not necessary to assume that Genesis 9:3 would include unclean animals. But in either case, we don’t have to question which animals are permitted for us to eat since Scripture clearly defines them for us in Leviticus 11. The question is, do these laws apply to all believers?
Were God’s dietary laws given only to Israel?
Dr. Brown’s second argument is that the dietary laws given in the Torah were never given to non-Israelites:
And then when he gave the dietary laws to Israel, in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, he never said they were for all the nations […] You never see in the Old Testament where God ever judges a foreign nation for not keeping the dietary laws.
While Dr. Brown is correct that we never see God judge a foreign nation over that particular sin, that doesn’t therefore mean that He’s okay with people who call upon His name breaking His dietary laws. Just because the Bible never gives the breaking of dietary laws as a reason for God judging a foreign nation doesn’t mean that those laws aren’t important. Indeed, foreign nations are not our example of righteous living for the Father. Israel was to be the example to the nations:
See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)
Israel was to keep God’s laws to show the nations how great God is and how righteous his laws are. And when the people from the nations chose to join the community of Israel and follow the God of Israel, they too were expected to live by God’s laws—including the dietary laws. In fact, one verse in the Torah that can be easily missed explicitly states that both Israelites and the strangers (non-Israelites) are instructed to hunt only clean animals:
Any one also of the people of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. (Leviticus 17:13)
In his book Messianic Kosher Helper, John K. McKee points out:
It cannot go overlooked that both the native Israelite and sojourner are limited to the types of animals that they may catch in the wild. V. 13a says, asher yatzud tzeid chayah o-of asher yei’akeil, “who he-hunts animal wild or bird that he-may-be-eaten” (Kohlenberger). The clause asher yei’akeil is rightfully concluded to mean, as some dynamic equivalency versions have put it: “is approved for eating” (NLT), “which is ritually clean” (Good News Bible), or Hartley’s rendering, “that is lawful to eat” (WBC). R.K. Harrison notes these animals to be “the blood of clean game caught in the hunt.” […] That the ger or sojourner, within the community of Ancient Israel, was anticipated to observe the kosher dietary laws along with the native, is definitely detectable. It would not make any logical sense for the ger or sojourner to only be limited to eating permitted, clean animals caught in the wild—but not have the same prohibition for domesticated animals.
Right here is a clear indication that the dietary laws were not given exclusively to Israel. The stranger from the nations who chooses to sojourn with Israel was also expected to live by God’s dietary laws. Why would it be any different today? Whether Jew or Gentile, if we want to have a relationship with the God of Israel, we should follow His rules.
What about in the New Testament?
So in the Old Testament it seems to be clear that God’s people—Israelite and non-Israelite—were to keep the dietary instructions. But what about in the New Testament? Did something change? Dr. Brown makes his third argument from this basis:
There’s not a single verse anywhere in the New Testament that says the dietary laws are mandatory for all believers, including Gentile believers. Not a syllable.
This is what’s called an argument from silence. But silence gives us no premise for a valid conclusion. Just because a commandment isn’t explicitly given in the New Testament doesn’t necessarily mean that God doesn’t want us to keep it. The New Testament doesn’t reiterate many commandments found in the Torah, such as “don’t practice necromancy,” yet Christians still believe we should keep them. And although it’s true that the dietary laws aren’t explicitly reiterated in the New Testament, they are implicitly reiterated in the New Testament. For instance, Yeshua instructed His disciples to make disciples of “all the nations” and teach them all that he had commanded them (Matthew 28:19-20). “All” that he commanded them most certainly would have included the dietary laws since they are part of the Torah that Yeshua affirmed in Matthew 5:17-19. Moreover, Paul said that “all Scripture” is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). Certainly “all Scripture” includes the dietary laws.
In conclusion, I don’t see any biblical basis for ignoring God’s dietary laws. I highly respect Dr. Michael Brown’s scholarship, but I do believe he is wrong on this topic and I would encourage him to revisit it. Dr. Brown does amazing work and I greatly appreciate his uncompromising stance for biblical marriage and against LGBT activism. Although he is 100 percent right in his position on those issues, his arguments are weakened when he affirms the validity of some of God commandments but denies the validity of others.