Of Crawfish and Bacon: Christians and Those Quirky Old Testament Laws

A few pounds of boiled crawfish (just like the ones pictured above) are a Louisiana delicacy! The worst thing about crawfish is that they’re only available during the first half of the year; though we eat a lot of other shellfish, such as shrimp and crabs, crawfish is the king of shellfish in Louisiana. Between the months of January and May, residents of my home state are willing to pay top dollar for a few pounds of crawfish. Restaurants near my home even have special tables with trash cans in the middle in which to discard the crawfish’s body once we’ve ripped the meat out of the tail! People have parties centered around boiling crawfish, there are different techniques on how to peel a crawfish correctly, and families horde their secret recipe for the perfect crawfish boil.

Enter the Old Testament Law: “All creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean.”[1] Obviously, crawfish—along with shrimp and crabs—have no fins and scales; thus, per the Law, they are unclean and must not be eaten.

You may see the problem here: Louisiana is in the buckle of the Bible belt—there are churches everywhere. Sitting in the pews of Louisiana’s ubiquitous churches are people who do two seemingly contradictory things: They claim to be Christians, yet they give no second thought to directly disobeying the Old Testament Law. Why is that?

Let’s make the problem even stronger: Louisiana is a relatively conservative state. The people who disregard the Old Testament prohibition on shellfish are the same ones who might quote Leviticus 20.13 to a homosexual: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”[2] Are these Christians not living a consistent life? Are they just hypocrites? Are Christians picking and choosing verses from the Bible to obey?

There’s actually a solid answer for why Christians disobey so much of the Old Testament Law. In a nutshell, we don’t follow the Old Testament Law due to the different covenants in the Bible. All 39 biblical books before Matthew are part of the Old Testament, which means that they took place before Jesus; thus, how people related to God was a little different, though not as different as you might imagine. We don’t live in the Old Testament under the Old Covenant; instead, we live after the New Testament under the New Covenant. Therefore, there are some differences in how we relate to God, our ability to eat shellfish being just one of the differences.

Let’s look at the in-depth explanation of why we don’t follow the Old Testament Law. To do so, we’ll have to look at what may be the strangest story in the New Testament: Acts 10.9-16. 

The Story

If you read Acts 10.9-16, you’ll see a few really interesting things. First, I’m not quite sure what to make of the giant “sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.”[3] I also have difficulty understanding how this sheet “contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.”[4] Those two features aside, perhaps the most interesting part of this story comes when God gives the apostle Peter a direct command and Peter tells God “no.” Though the pious among us would faint at the mere thought of telling God no, Peter actually had good reason to tell God no.

To understand why Peter, one of the most famous Christians of all time, told God no, we need to put ourselves in Peter’s shoes. Peter was born and raised an Old Testament, Law obeying, Jewish boy. That means when he was a little boy, pork sausage—which we Louisianians put in gumbo and jambalaya, two other Louisiana delicacies—and bacon weren’t on the breakfast menu, or any menu for that matter. It was unthinkable to eat pork because the Law forbade it! The clothes he wore were always made of a single type of fabric, in keeping with the Law. If he ever planted anything, he didn’t plant more than one type of crop per field. He had never tasted—and for this, I pity him—any type of seafood with a shell on it like shrimp, lobster, or the Louisiana delicacy of boiled crawfish. His entire life was ordered around keeping the Law as revealed in the Pentateuch.[5] This was the only life he had ever known. Obedience to the Law was something that pervaded every detail of his life! The reason he was so shocked and told God no in Acts 10.14 is that God told him to break Leviticus 11.4-8.

Before you start to do some really interesting, and probably heretical, theology, it’s important to consider why God gave Peter this command. God told Peter to break the Law because God was about to send Peter to Cornelius’s house to preach. Cornelius was a Roman soldier, but more importantly, Cornelius was a Gentile. In an effort at obeying the Law, Jews would not hang-out with, or even enter the house of a Gentile for fear of being made ceremonially unclean. In Acts 10.9-16, God wanted to teach Peter that since Jesus had fulfilled the Law,[6] Peter no longer had to worry about being made unclean.

Here’s the argument behind what’s happening in Acts 10: Under the Old Covenant, if a person disobeyed certain parts of the Law, that person became unclean. So, if Peter no longer had to worry about being made unclean, then Peter was no longer obligated to keep those parts of Law, including the dietary restrictions. The reason for this is not that God’s Word is unimportant or can be disregarded;[7] instead, the reason for this is, once again, that Jesus changed everything by fulfilling the Law. Peter no longer approached God in worship through being clean; because of the cross, Peter now approached God in worship through the blood Christ shed on the cross. As Paul would later put it, Christians are “not under the law, but under grace.”[8] Since the Law, which the Jews had used to drive a wedge between Jew and Gentile, had been fulfilled, Peter was now free to eat shellfish and be close to Gentiles. In short, God was overcoming Peter’s objections to going to Cornelius and telling him about Jesus. On a macro-level, this story marks the beginning of an important process, the results of which affect our personal lives.

How This Affects Your Personal Life

This story affects our personal lives because this story forms the basis for why we don’t obey the Law. If you think you keep the Law, remember that eating pork, crawfish, and shrimp are all forbidden. What’s more, if you obey the Law, you can’t get any kind of tattoo. Also, wearing clothes made of two different fabrics, planting two different types of seed next to each other, and shaving are all violations of the Law. If you do any of these on a consistent basis, then you can’t honestly claim to keep the Law. Acts 10.9-16 is important because it marks the beginning of the process through which the Church, under God’s guidance, began to realize how significantly Jesus had changed the way in which humans relate to God. What the Church realized was that instead of approaching God through the commands of the Law, believers approach God through the cross of Christ! This in itself was a veritable theological earthquake with aftershocks reverberating through history into the present! When Christians fully grasped this concept, they realized that they no longer had to keep portions of the Law.

Though we don’t obey the Law, we aren’t free completely to disregard its commandments either. The Law is still God’s word and is still important to everyday life. The best way to understand how the Law applies to you is to get a handle on the differences between the Old and New Covenants in the Bible. The Old Testament Law is a part of the Old Covenant. The words testament and covenant mean the same thing; in modern English, a covenant is similar to a deal, a contract, or an agreement. So, in the Bible, there’s the Old Contract and the New Contract, to put it in modern English. The main division in a Bible is between the writings of the people that lived under the Old and the New Contract. If you can wrap your head around this, the entire Bible will start to make more sense and you’ll be on the right path to understanding how the Law applies to you.

Like any contract, the Old and New Contracts in the Bible have terms that must be fulfilled. We call the terms of the Old Contract the Law. In Deuteronomy 6.20-25, we’re given a pretty succinct explanation for why the Israelites obeyed the Law. In this passage, Moses uses a hypothetical situation to explain why they obeyed the Law. Moses says that if a child were to ask his or her parents why they obeyed the Law, the correct answer would be that they—the Jewish people—obeyed the Law because God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and had given them the land labeled “Israel” on your world map. As a result of God doing all of these things for the Jewish people, God commanded them to obey certain commands, which came to be called the Law. Obeying these commands, in turn, brought blessings from God while disobeying the commands brought curses, such as deportation to Babylon, which forms the basis for Jeremiah’s jeremiad. So, the Law was God’s instructions for the way in which the Old Testament Jews were to live. The grand point of the Law was that since God had done so much for the Jewish people, they were going to live lives that were as honoring to God as possible.

We don’t obey the Old Testament Law because we were not slaves in Egypt, God did not rescue us out of slavery in Egypt, nor did he lead us into the land of Israel. Thus, we are not under the Old Testament Law because we are not under the Old Covenant, or the Old Contract.[9] There are significant differences between how we relate to God and how Old Testament Jews related to God.

We as Christians are under the New Covenant, or the New Contract. But, things are not as different as you might think, for the Old Contract was a foretaste of the superior New Contract. We, like the children of Israel, were rescued from slavery by God in a miraculous way, and we too are being led to a new land; furthermore, just like the Jews showed their thankfulness to God through obeying the Law, we show our thankfulness to God by obeying His commands as revealed in the New Testament.[10] What’s more, a lot of Jesus’s commands in the New Testament are simply revised commands from the Law. In fact, most of the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 can be understood as Jesus’s revision of the Law. So, Jesus fulfilled the Law, but He did not destroy it. Instead, He adjusted it and applied it to people who had not been rescued out of literal slavery in Egypt but had instead been rescued out of spiritual slavery to sin. The entire truth is that some of the Old Testament Law still applies.

We recognize three kinds of laws in the Old Testament: moral laws, ceremonial laws, and civil laws. Christians still obey the moral laws. These laws include such commands as those listed in the famous Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The New Testament also teaches that the moral laws are still binding. We call the parts of the Law that Christians disregard the ceremonial laws and the civil laws. The ceremonial laws are the sections of the Law that cover the things that could make a person clean or unclean, such as the dietary laws that God told Peter to disregard in Acts 10.9-16. We don’t obey these laws because we worship in such a different way than the Old Testament Jews. The civil laws were the laws that dealt with daily life in Old Testament Israel. These laws are comparable to the laws which the United States Congress enacts. We don’t keep these laws because they were not intended for the United States; instead, this section of the Law was a law code for an ancient theocracy in which we do not live.[11]

The process of discovering which parts of the Law were still to be obeyed began with Acts 10.9-16. What God taught Peter in Acts 10.9-16 was that Jesus changed everything. No longer was Peter, or any other believer, to be defined as an Orthodox Jew whose ancestors had been rescued out of slavery in Egypt. Peter’s new identity was much greater, for he had become a child of the King through the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross! Therefore, Peter was to show his thanks to God like a Christians shows thanks to God. Based on what God told Peter in Acts 10, Christians obey the parts of the Law that are taught as binding. But, since Christians are not under the Old Covenant, we know that some parts of the Old Covenant no longer apply.

Notes & Sources

[1] Leviticus 11.10, all quotations are from the NIV

[2] Leviticus 20.13

[3] Acts 10.11

[4] Acts 10.12

[5] Another way to say the first five books of the Bible.

[6] Matthew 5.17

[7] A good discussion of the reasons why you should read and study all of the Old Testament Law can be found in Gordan D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 175-181.

[8] Romans 6.14

[9] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hayes, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 362.

[10] Fee and Stuart, 172.

[11] Ibid., 173-4.

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