Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Part 7 (Clean, unclean, and violence)

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Clean and unclean

To the modern reader, one of the more puzzling elements of the Torah is the teaching on clean vs. unclean foods and people. There is no obvious reason why salmon should be clean and crabmeat unclean. In few cases, we can imagine health reasons (trichinosis in the case of pork), but there is no obvious reason why camel meat should be unclean.

Moreover, there are degrees of uncleanness. Touching an unclean animal, such as a camel, does not make one unclean, but touching a corpse does. Killing someone not only makes you unclean, your uncleanness requires your death!

Wenham suggests that uncleanness is based on two principles. First, some unclean things are truly contrary to the nature of God. God is the enemy of death — and so corpses are unclean — and contagiously so.

Second, some things are unclean as a matter of election. Indeed, one major theme of the OT is that the Israelites were chosen by God to be his special people just because. That is, God elected the Israelites for reasons having little to do with their merits.

(Deut. 9:6 ESV) 6 “Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.”

(Deut. 7:6-8 ESV)  6 “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.  7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples,  8 but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

So why did God choose Abraham? Why Israel? Well, why did he choose salmon and beef rather than crab and camel? Perhaps the rules on cleanness are a reminder of God’s choice of Israel in contrast to the Gentiles — based on nothing but God’s will?

These distinctions made in the food laws between clean and unclean foods thus match the divisions among mankind, between Israel the elect nation and the non-elect Gentiles. They served to remind Israel of her special status as God’s chosen people. Just as God had selected just one people to be near him, so Israel had to be selective in her diet. Through this system of symbolic laws the Israelites were reminded at every meal of their redemption to be God’s people. Their diet was limited to certain meats in imitation of their God, who had restricted his choice among the nations to Israel. It served also to bring to mind Israel’s responsibilities to be a holy nation. As they distinguished between clean and unclean foods, they were reminded that holiness was more than a matter of meat and drink but a way of life characterised by purity and integrity.

These food laws not only reminded Israel of her distinctiveness, they served to enforce it. Jews faithful to these laws would tend to avoid Gentile company, lest they were offered unclean food to eat. This may partially explain the reluctance of Daniel and his friends when exiled in Babylon to eat the food provided by the royal court: they feared they might be defiled, so they insisted on eating only vegetables (cf. Dan 1:8–16).

These food laws also fit into the broader framework of the uncleanness laws. If God is identified with life and holiness and uncleanness is associated with death and opposition to God, the food laws symbolise that Israel is God’s people called to enjoy his life, while Gentile idolaters are by and large opposed to him and his people and face death. 

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 140.

If that’s true, then the gospel surely reverses the food and other laws involving cleanness. No longer has God restricted his covenant relationship to the Jews and so no longer are the Jews required to symbolize their chosenness by their choice of food and such.

For that matter, with the resurrection, it’s no longer necessary to think of death as being in opposition to God. The dead are only asleep in Christ, as Paul likes to say. Death has been defeated, and so we are not rendered unclean by being around the dead.

Violence

Some commentators cannot reconcile the teaching of Jesus on violence with the very violent passages found in the OT. To some, it’s as though the God of the OT is not the God of the NT. Jesus reveals a God who desires peace and opposes war. How do we reconcile the OT God with the NT God?

The same pattern of thought explains Jesus’ attitude to violence: in the new creation there will be no more conflict and no more retaliation. The prophets looked forward to an age when

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4)

They awaited a time when Jerusalem would be a city undisturbed by war or other conflict: ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem each with staff in hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets’ (Zech 8:4–5).

Contradicting many of his contemporaries who believed this new age would be brought about by violent revolution against foreign oppression, Jesus insisted that it was not only characterised by non-violence but initiated by the non-violent. The antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount reach their climax with two final contrasts outlawing revenge:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:38–39, 43–45)

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 146.

So we can easily see that both the OT and NT point us toward shalom, a desire for peace and reconciliation. Neither considers violence desirable. Neither testament wants God’s people to be continually at war.

Sadly this vision of peace is rarely realised in Genesis, but the patriarchs are portrayed as endeavouring to live peaceably with their relatives and foreign neighbours (e.g. Gen 13:8; 14:22–24; 21:22–34; 31:44–54; 34:30). Both the Jacob and Joseph cycles climax with great scenes of reconciliation between brothers who had previously plotted to kill each other (Gen 33:4–11; 45:1–20). The book reaches its peak with Jacob’s blessing, a vision of the twelve tribes each enjoying prosperity and security in their allotted territories. It is thus clear that Genesis views the conflicts with which its pages are filled as a declension from the harmony of the first creation and that it looks forward to a restoration of true peace in the land promised to the forefathers.

Similarly Deuteronomy, the most militant book of the law, looks forward to a time when the LORD ‘gives you rest from all your enemies, round about, so that you live in safety’ (Deut 12:10). It closes like Genesis with a blessing from its central character portraying this golden age.

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 148.

That is, both testaments point to God’s desire for his people to be at peace with each other and their neighbors.

Now it cannot be denied that many people in Old Testament times tended to glorify war as they have in many cultures before and since, but that certainly is not the stance of the implied authors of Genesis and Judges. Despite the fact that many of the military campaigns they relate were sanctioned by God, they would surely say, ‘From the beginning it was not so’. Indeed if Israel had not sinned, says Judges, they would not have been overrun by their enemies. The book of Judges presupposes that God wants Israel to enjoy peace at home and abroad, but it shows that the nation’s methods of trying to achieve peace led to ever greater external oppression and internal, intertribal strife.

So unlike Hays I do not think the testaments are deeply opposed when it comes to violence. Both testaments see human violence and conflict as contrary to God’s will. Both encourage the people of God to make peace and promote reconciliation. Both look for a future era in which God will be acknowledged as king by all and peace will reign. Where they differ is in affirming that the new creation has been inaugurated and the reign of God has begun with the coming of Jesus. But this is not to contradict the Old Testament, rather it is to affirm its fulfilment.

Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 149–151.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Part 7 (Clean, unclean, and violence)

  1. John F. says:

    It should be pointed that that being unclean was NOT sinful. Ritual purity was the point. Touching a leper made one unclean, but not sinful. Jesus touched the leprous. Jesus was not SINFUL in doing so. The baths pf the Qumran community, as the baths of cleanliness had nothing to do with redemption or forgiveness, but ritual purity. I think a significant point that should not be overlooked.

  2. When Jesus redefined uncleaness to be caused by what comes out of the heart instead of what enters the mouth, he pointed to the reality of which the law of clean & unclean was the shadow. The shadow separated Israel from her neighbors; the holiness of heart to which Jesus calls us separates the people of God from the pollution of the sinful world.

  3. Dwight says:

    I have always heard the reason for God making the pig unclean was because of trichinosis and catfish because it eats from the bottom, but this doesn’t work for some of the other animals and I love catfish.
    I think many of God’s laws weren’t to condemn the Israelites on many things, but rather to have God included on many things. God wasn’t just a God of their worship, but their lives, so God was intertwined in their lives through the law.
    This also made them as a whole different than their neighbors in not just one point, but many.

  4. Monty says:

    Jay said,

    “These distinctions made in the food laws between clean and unclean foods thus match the divisions among mankind, between Israel the elect nation and the non-elect Gentiles. They served to remind Israel of her special status as God’s chosen people. Just as God had selected just one people to be near him, so Israel had to be selective in her diet. Through this system of symbolic laws the Israelites were reminded at every meal of their redemption to be God’s people. Their diet was limited to certain meats in imitation of their God, who had restricted his choice among the nations to Israel.”

    This is of course true and I believe it’s why God gave Peter the vision of the unclean animals in Acts 10 and said “eat.” There would be no more separation of Jews and Gentiles as was first expressed by the dream of no more separation in dietary restrictions which were different from the nations. Of course the Judaizers were still trying to hang-on to the distinctions of circumcision and refusing to eat with Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:12) which was in some ways perhaps an extension of the segregation of the “Grecian” widows from getting food as readily as the “Hebraic” widows in Acts 6.

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