You have tattoos? And you eat shellfish?!

TatYou have probably heard the frequently posed question regarding “cherry picking” passages from the Old Testament in order to reinforce Christian morality. The Atheist poses this question rhetorically, attempting to illustrate a contradiction, while many Christians may genuinely struggle to understand which OT passages are in fact applicable. Do you eat shellfish? Do you wear mixed clothing (meaning clothing made from more than one fiber)? Yes, I do eat shellfish, and yes, I do wear mixed clothing, and here’s why.

The cherry picking criticism is derived from a basic misunderstanding regarding scripture. Christians read and understand the Bible as a comprehensive whole, not a disjointed collection of arbitrary statements. Covenantal theology addresses the various covenants God made with his people. For example, the covenant God made with Abraham, or the covenant God made with the people of Israel. Anyone who has read Romans, Galatians, Ephesians or Hebrews will have a better understanding of covenantal theology.

And here is the crux of this entire misunderstanding. We are not geopolitical Israel. Meaning, we are not ancient Israel, with whom God formed a conditional covenant with specific qualifications. This Covenant was formed with the Nation of Israel while the New Covenant with a redeemed people (not the theocratic state of Israel), us. Accordingly, not all of the six-hundred + laws we read about in the OT are applicable to modern Christians, who are under the New Covenant. But who decides or how do we decide which are in fact applicable?

In this case, good hermeneutics and a historical understanding of the Ancient Near East, as well as Israel, are imperative. In addition, the NT elaborates considerably regarding what is and is not germane. Coupled with the Holy Spirit, we can be reasonably certain we are not “cherry picking.” Here are some basic rules to assist in interpreting these aspects of scripture.

1. There were various types of law as it pertains to God’s covenant with geopolitical Israel. There are three major categories. Civil (taxation, penal), ceremonial (sacrifices, cleanliness) and moral (ten commandments, for example). Some of these prescriptions were narrowly applicable to ancient Israel, while others are more broadly applicable to everyone (moral law).

2. Consider the spirit of the law. Jesus often directed us to the ethical underpinnings of the OT law. Matthew chapter five is a perfect example. In this series of statements beginning with “you have heard that it was said,” Jesus points to an OT law, then ferrets out the ethical principle buried in the particulars. These principles are often more difficult to follow than the original law. Do not murder becomes do not be angry. Do not commit adultery becomes do not lust. Jesus takes even the decalogue and asks us to dig deeper.

Exodus 21:13 is an instance where we can draw out the spirit of the law from the cultural particulars. “When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his.” This instance sounds almost impossibly foreign to us, yet we can derive an underlying principle from the particulars. If our actions result in the misfortune or harm of someone else, we should attempt to make restitution. 

3. God’s covenant with Israel was conditional. Accordingly, the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law do not apply to us. Hence, we don’t sacrifice or keep Passover, for example. However, we can derive benefit by examining these principles and the underlying ethical considerations, as was mentioned in the previous paragraph. They are also part of the narrative that led to Jesus, and thus exhibit great value. The Acts 15 Council is an early illustration of this very issue. Were non-Jewish converts and Jewish Christians required to maintain the expectations of the covenant?

28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

The council reached the conclusion that non-Jews and Jewish Christians were not required to keep the laws of theocratic Israel. Paul even goes as far as to admonish Peter regarding this issue. Apparently, Peter was pushing converts to adhere to this plethora of laws that would be quite foreign and unnecessary.

4. Have a cursory knowledge of ANE and ancient Israel. I’m not suggesting you cannot read your bible without having an exogenous knowledge, but I am saying is that it’s extremely helpful in this instance. Israel lived in relationship with other ANE peoples such as the Canaanites. Many of the prescriptions God gave Israel had to do with their particular interactions with these people groups.

For example, Exodus 23:19 prohibits Israel from boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk. This enigmatic and strange command most likely had to do with neighboring pagan rituals. It would have been an idolatrous or occult practice. Do not wear clothing of mixed fibers, do not make marks on your flesh for the dead…the list of particulars goes on. Again, I think there is an overarching principle of not allowing culture to sculpt our faith, but the OT particulars seem rather irrelevant to modern believers (at least for the purpose right living before God).

A basic understanding of covenantal theology and the progression of the biblical narrative allows us to debunk the cherry picking objection. It further allows us to understand why we adhere to certain OT laws and neglect others. If I may be so bold, it should also cause us to examine some of the age old Christian assumptions that are in fact based on these OT texts. Tattoos are a great example. Leviticus 19:28 prohibits cutting the body on behalf of the dead or receiving tattoos. Long have Christians used this to condemn tattoos while ignoring the immediate context, which also prohibits cutting your sideburns and beard. How about tithing? There is some food for thought! Christians admittedly have been guilty of some cherry picking. Let’s be astute in moving forward with a proper hermeneutic, so that we may illustrate the truth of scripture.

2 thoughts on “You have tattoos? And you eat shellfish?!”

  1. The one thing you can confidently state, regarding hermeneutics and dispensationalists, is that none of the old testament laws were meant for new covenant Christians (and I use Christians in the sense of believers of Jesus Christ). Many call themselves Christians, such as Jehovah Witnesses who fully believe that Jesus is not God, Mormons, who believe Jesus was a prophet and a God but not the one God, and Catholics who worship the saints and Mary on equal footing as Jesus. They call themselves Christians in name but do not follow the doctrine of the scripture entrusted to Paul. You are one of the first writers, outside of my family and Joseph Prince perhaps, that understand or at least have some realization of the two dispensations within the bible: That which is for Israel and that which is for the Church. You can clearly see the message for Israel fade in Acts 10 when Paul is commissioned by God to take the message of the Gospel to the Gentile Nations. That is not to say that Israel has been pushed aside, but rather placed on hold after the Kingdom of Heaven was rejected by the Jews a third time after Jesus was crucified. The OT is rich with information, symbolism, type and shadow. and prophecy all for the revelation of the Messiah or the Christ, whom the Church recognizes as Jesus. Even in the first three words “In the beginning” which best translates the single Hebrew word Bereshyth – which is drawn from the ancient Hebrew pictographs which represent “The Son of God consumed on the cross by the works of man. Even the first word of the Gospel of God indicates the entire purpose of His divine plan. Be careful in your study of Acts, because there is a period of time of Judeo-Christian belief where the two are mixed because of the Jewish converts to Christianity. Many of these including the Disciples still worshipped in the Synagogue and held on to Jewish traditions and customs. A great example of this is in Matthew 16:21 After Jesus asks His disciples who people say He is and asks them who He is. Peter tells Jesus He is the Christ (This means Messiah for the Jew – any Jew) and the Son of God. Jesus tells Peter He is blessed because it was Jesus’ Father who had shown this to Peter. Yet in Verse 21 We see that this is the first time, ever, that Jesus tells His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, suffer, and die for them (mankind). In Verse 22 Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes Him or at least tries to – Why? Because Peter did not understand Jesus as Savior, he only understood Jesus as Messiah for the Jews and the redemption of Israel politically from Rome in all aspects of the land, the rule, and the restoration of the Nation of Israel. Peter did not see the church (the body of Christ) none of the Jews did until Paul was commissioned to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. Today, many church systems mimic Jewish discipleship in their effort to follow Jesus – this is in error on many levels for the church because Jesus and Paul taught believers are led by the spirit. This occurs 4 times in the bible, to be led by the spirit. Twice it is used for Jesus exclusively in the wilderness or desert. However, it is used twice for the church and in both cases the word led is in the passive – meaning it is not something you do but something done for you – being led by the Spirit is something that Jesus and the Holy Spirit does for you – it draws you or pulls you.
    There is nothing applicable for the Christian in the law. Paul says that it is the source of bondage and it’s strength is sin. In fact, according to the flesh and walking in the flesh all refer to living or seeking righteousness through the law of Moses. Paul states that the law was a guardian until something else comes – that something else was Jesus and He stated that He had come to fulfill the law – so just as He who knew no sin became sin so that sinners could be made righteous, He also fulfilled the law that no man could in order that God would judge Him in our place and as benefactors we (believers) could receive the free gift of righteousness by faith. And in doing so, God’s plan for salvation has kept the freewill of man intact. So when you study the Jewish customs and beliefs, you are right to remember that God promised Israel the land in an unconditional covenant with Abraham that was sworn by God and Abrahams only part was benefactor of the covenant by righteousness through faith. However, the covenant of the law with the Nation of Israel through Moses was conditional for the Nation of Israel in that they boasted that anything God asked of them they will do! You see, the Hebrews swore on their will and not God’s will – that they could do whatever He asked by their own self efforts or self works. Even after every need had been met by God thus far in their journey. The law was given to Israel to show them that they needed a Savior a Messiah – but the message has been missed and in the end they rejected Jesus and put Him to death on the cross – or so they thought.

    Good to read your posts and Kind regards,
    J Arnn
    Jewish Studies for Christians

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