We have been looking closer at 3 Overlooked Dietary Laws in the New Testament. The last installment discussed why the admonition to abstain from strangled food was not merely meant to placate the Jews.
We mentioned that commentators struggle with Acts 15:20, 29; and 21:25 because the prohibition against eating strangled meat (a seemingly ceremonial law) is side by side an obviously moral law (abstaining from sexual immorality).
In Was The Early Church Trying to Placate the Jews with This Dietary Law? we noted that many commentators assert this law was intended to avoid offense to the Jews. In addition, they maintain that the law was ceremonial and is therefore not binding today.
Yet, when we study the law more closely, we see several important truths:
- The law was given by “the Holy Spirit” in the New Testament era.
- It was practiced faithfully by the early church.
- It was called an “essential” part of the Christian practice.
- It did not have its origin in the ceremonial law, but rather an older law.
- If the law was meant to placate, why not have the early Christians circumcised?
Focusing in on Strangled Food.
Now we are going to look closer at what is actually meant by “food that is strangled.” Before we begin, it is important to note that “food that is strangled” has a very close tie with the 3rd overlooked dietary law — to abstain from eating blood.
These laws have their foundation from after the flood when God permitted mankind to eat the flesh of animals. Since they were God’s creatures, God had the right to tell man HOW they should slaughter and eat His animals. Genesis 9:4 gives the command: “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.”
Later, Moses expands and gives application to this law.
“Only you shall not eat the blood; you are to pour it out on the ground like water.” Deuteronomy 12:16
“Only be sure not to eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh.” Deuteronomy 12:23
When these two verses from Deuteronomy are put together, we see:
- Blood that has been shed from an animal is not to be eaten
- Blood that is still inside an animal after slaughter is not to be eaten
This is where “meat that is strangled” comes into play; for meat that is strangled, has not been properly drained of its blood. And God forbids the eating of blood. When a person slaughters an animal, they are to drain the blood. And if an animal dies of itself, it is not to be eaten. Deuteronomy 14:21 states, “You shall not eat anything which dies of itself.“
These verses do have a ceremonial nature, because those who ate food that died of itself were considered ceremonially unclean and had to go through prescribed rituals to be declared clean. And the person who ate blood would be “cut off” or “excommunicated” from the congregation of Israel. But, these laws did not originate at Sinai, they originated in a deeper, older law. And, these laws were upheld by the Holy Spirit, the Council of Jerusalem, and the early church.
Yet, the New Testament negates the ceremonial nature of these laws. This can be seen in Romans 14:14: “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.” Here Paul is likely talking about food that is sacrificed to idols. He acknowledges that these foods do not defile a person spiritually (as the Jews believed). Yet, in I Corinthians, Paul urges that food sacrificed to idols is not be eaten unless unaware. In so doing, he actually upholds the dietary law’s application while rejecting the ceremonial nature grounded in the law of Moses. Commentators apply Romans 14:14 to the remaining dietary laws as well, declaring that they have passed away.
Even if the prohibition of eating food that had been strangled carried with it a ceremonial nature, the ceremonies were clearly done away with in Christ. And yet, after Christ did away with the ceremonies, God still forbade the eating of food offered to idols, food strangled, and blood. And the last two, as previously mentioned, are rooted in an older law which we believe is binding for all time.
What Is Strangled Food?
Strangled food is food that has not been killed in the prescribed manner by God. The prescribe manner of death is slaughter by exsanguination, or bleeding out.
Elliott’s Commentary says,
“Things strangled.—Literally, of that which has been strangled. The prohibition rested on Genesis 9:4, and was connected with the symbolic meaning of the blood as representing life, and therefore consecrated to Jehovah. It was repeated in the Law (Leviticus 3:17; Leviticus 7:26; Deuteronomy 12:16; 1Samuel 14:33), and has been maintained with a wonderful tenacity. For this reason, long after sacrifices have ceased, the Jew will still, if possible, only eat what has been killed by a butcher of his own persuasion. Meat so killed, which may be eaten without defilement, is known technically as Kosher… Practically, the effect of the rule would have been to compel Christians to buy their meat, poultry, &c., from a Jewish butcher or a Christian who followed the Jewish mode of killing, and in some places this must have entailed considerable inconvenience.”
And from things strangled – That is, from animals or birds that were killed without shedding their blood. The reason why these were considered by the Jews unlawful to be eaten was, that thus they would be under a necessity of eating blood, which was positively forbidden by the Law. Hence, it was commanded in the Law that when any beast or fowl was taken in a snare, the blood should be poured out before it was lawful to be eaten, Leviticus 17:13.
And Matthew Poole shares,
From things strangled; such creatures as had not their blood let out, and therefore were not to be fed upon, by the law of God, Genesis 9:4, given as soon as the use of flesh was allowed for food.
and from things strangled; that is; from eating them, and design such as die of themselves, or are torn with beasts, or are not killed in a proper way, by letting out their blood; but their blood is stagnated or congealed in the veins.
Applying These Principles.
There are several points of application I wish to make when considering these laws.
- First: Because these laws had a ceremonial application in the Jewish law does not mean they are no longer binding. It is possible, as demonstrated, to hold on to the law and abandon the ceremony. The ceremonial nature of the law to abstain from food strangled left an offending Old Testament saint defiled spiritually just by eating. The New Testament teaches that it is not what enters the mouth that defiles. Therefore, eating food strangled does not defile spiritually in the sense that we must go through some ritual to become clean. We become clean in Christ in all things. Christ is the fulfillment of the law. Yet, this does not automatically mean that it is permissible to eat food that has been strangled. Especially when we see that this law originated before the giving of the law of Moses.
- Second: The ceremonial consequence for eating food that was not properly bled out under Moses was not severe. It could be remedied by washing and isolation until evening. Eating blood, however had a much higher consequence: to be “cut off” from the congregation. One might not know how the animal they eat is slaughtered. Whereas one who “eats blood” likely knows full well what he is eating. So when it comes to eating meat, we can fall back on Paul’s admonition to eat whatever is available at the meat market without asking questions. We will discuss eating blood in another post.
- Third: We would do well to heed the warnings here to eat meat that has been properly bled out. Most butchers do have a process for bleeding animals. We will look more at this in a future post.
- Fourth: We ought to consider further investigation into slaughtering techniques. There are many laws in the Bible which we do not understand. Yet when we apply them, we reap physical benefits here on earth. An example is circumcision, a ceremonial law, which also had its beginning before the law of Moses, yet was clearly abrogated in the New Testament. Yet, science confirms that circumcision has health benefits, such as preventing cervical cancer in women.
In future posts, we will look closer at the slaughtering techniques used by the Jews even today and compare those to modern slaughtering techniques. We will also delve deeper into what it means to abstain from eating blood. And in so doing we will come to understand that there are health benefits and scientific reasons for abstaining from the eating of blood.
You can access the next installment in this series here: The Truth About What Makes Meat Kosher.
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