Diet, dirt, dates, and deliverance, Part 1: Introduction

This is the introduction to a new series of blog posts, which will emerge on the blog over the next few weeks. If you have any comments or questions, do get in touch!

Put yourself for a moment in the shoes (or should we say sandals?) of an Old Testament believer. Let’s say you live somewhere in the south of the country, the land of Judah, in the reign of King David. You’re not a priest or a prophet or anyone special really – just an average Joe (Joseph? Jochebed?) with a house and a family and a farm.

What’s on your mind?

Well, any number of things, we might suppose. Will the crops grow? Will the kids ever stop bickering with each other? When is he going to fix the whole in the roof like I asked him to? What are the folk next door doing? Humans have human concerns no matter where or when they live.

But I want to suggest that the old covenant believer might have had four concerns that we probably don’t share. They are the four Ds: diet, dirt, dates, and deliverance. Later on we’ll think more about why these should be their concerns; for now, I’ll briefly describe what each means in terms of the day-to-day life of our average Israelite.

Diet

The old covenant had strict laws about which food was permissible for the Israelites to eat (the laws are mainly laid down in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14). As well as avoiding certain animals entirely – like pigs, prawns, and ostrich – they were to avoid certain culinary practices, such as eating any meat with blood still in it; eating anything that you found already dead; or boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk. So when preparing a meal, as well as considering whether there was enough to go round and whether the kids would like it, you would also have, at the very forefront of your mind, the concern: “is this OK? Did I get all the blood out? Is that meat we got from the market really lamb, or is it camel? Is this permissible? Is this allowed?”

Dirt

Closely related to diet is the idea of dirt, or uncleanness. This wasn’t really to do with physical dirtiness, but with ritual purity – that is, whether you were able to play a full part in the communal religious life of Israel. Sin could make you unclean, but so could all manner of other things – childbirth, touching a dead body, having a spot on your skin – that were not sinful (the instructions for this are mainly contained in Leviticus 13-14). Being unclean meant you might have to leave the camp and be separate from the people, and that you couldn’t approach the tabernacle to make sacrifices. Sometimes the uncleanness “went away” after a period of time; sometimes it required some kind of cleansing sacrifice or ritual; in some cases it was permanent. So once again this would have to be at the forefront of your mind as an average Israelite: “is that a new mark on my shoulder? Is that patch in my house mould? Am I on my period? Am I still clean?”

Dates

Then there’s dates. The year was very carefully divided into times of fast, feast, and festival – a Sabbath every week, a New Moon every month, celebrations called things like the Feast of Booths and the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 25). Every seventh year was special, and every 50th year very special. Often these were times of great joy and feasting, but even so there were regulations for each one which must be obeyed, things that you must and must not do, even wholesale social and economic changes that automatically came into place at certain times. So as well as being concerned about what you were eating and your ritual purity, you – the average Israelite – had also to ask: “what day is it? What week is it? What year is it? Should I be working, or resting? How long before the next trip to Jerusalem, and what should I save up to take with me?”

Deliverance

Finally, the life of an average Israelite – not counting a few years of peace and prosperity – was very often under threat from enemies. The Philistines would be lurking just over the border; or the Amalekites or the Ammonites would make an incursion against the people; or (later) the Assyrians and Babylonians would glower menacingly from the North. Or perhaps a plague or a sickness would sweep through the land; or a wild beast or swarm of locusts would attack; or a famine or a drought would strike. In these cases, the appropriate response from the Israelite would be to cry out for deliverance; to ask God to intervene and remove the threat. But the answer to this prayer was far from straightforward. Many of these threats came about because the people themselves had transgressed the covenant – perhaps even because they had not been properly concerned for the first three Ds (as predicted in, for example, Leviticus 26). And so when the enemy threatened, even as you prayed for deliverance, you would be thinking: “is this our fault? Is this my fault? Have we gone too far this time? Is the covenant still viable?”

Why we don’t care

So here is the life of the average Israelite. Among other things, if you were taking the covenant seriously, you would have a deep concern for these four aspects of life – diet, dirt, dates, and deliverance. What should I eat? Am I ritually clean? What time of the year is it? Will we survive the next threat?

And it’s worth noting that – if you were a pious and godly Israelite – these would be profoundly theological concerns. The real question at the forefront of the serious old covenant member would be: am I behaving in these areas in a way that pleases God? What does God think about my diet, my diary, my bodily emissions? Is this current crisis a punishment from God, and if so, will he deliver us?

But who cares about those things now?

Certainly, as a Christian living in the West in the 21st Century, I’ll confess these things very rarely come into my mind at all. Let’s briefly explore why that might be.

The new covenant

The first reason we perhaps don’t care too much about the four Ds of the old covenant is that they are… of the old covenant! In fact, if you are an evangelical Christian, you may be confused about why we’re talking about this at all. We don’t bother about our diet because Jesus told his disciples that all foods were clean (Mark 7:19). We don’t bother about our dirt because Jesus has made us clean (Hebrews 9:14). Those are easy.

We don’t bother about dates – at least not the feasts and festivals of the Levitical year – because they were mainly about commemorating the Exodus and preserving the old covenant system, and something better is here now (Hebrews 8:6). We might celebrate Christmas and Easter, because they’re about the gospel; and we take communion once a month or so; and we go to church once a week, and perhaps we call that last one “Sabbath.” But wasn’t Paul a bit scathing of people celebrating all the old covenant festivals (Gal 4:9-11)? So why are we still talking about them?

And finally, we actually do talk a lot about deliverance – but that’s because we believe it’s done. Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead is our deliverance. We have been delivered from our sin and guilt (Acts 13:39), and look forward to our deliverance from our death and God’s coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10), all because of Jesus. This one is a little trickier, because we’re perhaps unsure what to do with our present distresses or world crises or enemies. Should we pray for deliverance from them? Are they related to our sin? Are they a sign of God’s displeasure? What should we expect God to do? But for most of us, I suspect, the end point of this tricky thinking is to shrug our shoulders and focus our minds on the future deliverance to come. After all, that is the most important deliverance – being eternal – and the New Testament is clear about encouraging us to fix our minds on it (Colossians 3:1-4).

The modern world

But there’s another reason why, perhaps, these things don’t tend to occupy much of our thought today. It’s because we live in the modern world, where our lives are almost completely detached from the realities which the four Ds represent. (I’m aware I’m generalising hugely here; but I suspect most people who will read this will resonate with this generalisation.)

We don’t think much about diet because we can pretty much eat whatever we want, whenever we want. Food is cheap and abundant, and most of us get it pre-packed from the supermarket rather than via any interaction with soil or farmyard. Because of globalisation we don’t even have to eat seasonally – we can get strawberries in January if we like – and so we don’t really think about food at all.

We don’t even have a mental category for the concept of cleanliness, I suspect. We live in a world which is sanitised and medicalised: things like spots and mould and bodily fluids are briskly and efficiently dealt with behind closed doors, and we regard them as minor inconveniences. Most diseases can be cured and – at least before Covid-19 – we were not in the habit of quarantining or socially ostracising those who have them.

As for dates, modern technology has made us progressively less aware of the rhythm of the seasons. With air conditioning and central heating we can make our houses the same temperature whatever time of year it is; and (in the UK at least) we have long since stopped keeping track of the saints’ days and feast days which marked our liturgical and agricultural calendar. The digital revolution has meant that even the temporal line dividing work and play has become blurred – we can answer emails in our beds at midnight and take a break in the middle of the day to watch a YouTube video. As one writer has recently put it, “everything is an occasion for everything else.”

Finally, we rarely feel any need for deliverance, simply because we trust ourselves to deal with our problems. We live in a time of relative peace and prosperity; we have the technology to (we imagine) cope with most of what life throws our way; we have not been involved in a major war on our own shores for many decades; and most of us will live to a long age. We don’t need deliverance, particularly – and if we do, we’re pretty sure we have the ingenuity and the resources to cope with it ourselves.

Should we care?

So the four Ds are pretty much absent, we might think, from both new covenant spirituality and modern living. So what’s the point of considering them?

As we begin, I should state for the avoidance of doubt that I am not advocating for a return to old covenant practices. I’ve read Hebrews and Galatians, and I think they’re both true. Nor do I think that we’d all be happier if we abandoned modern life and went back to agrarian subsistence living. But two considerations make it worth our while to consider these things afresh.

Dissenting voices

First, there have always been dissenting voices on these topics. Some have come from Christian theology, claiming that we are missing out on the blessings God intends to give us by so rapidly jettisoning these old covenant concerns. Some of those voices want a radical rethink of the shape of Christian practice and ethics (more on this when we think more closely about “deliverance”). Others just want a change in emphasis – a greater awareness of the liturgical calendar, perhaps, or a more robust ethic surrounding our food consumption.

But some of these dissenting voices come from our secular society. Many in our modern world are dissatisfied with its “always-on” digital culture, and our sanitised detachment from rites and rhythms which were once considered important. Chefs appeal for a return to seasonal eating; technologists warn that the devices we use to circumvent some of the “mess” of life are rendering us unable to live rightly in it. In creating the shiny, healthy, sterile, autonomous way of life in which we now live, many feel as though we are missing out on something fundamentally human.

This is particularly true in the light of the recent coronavirus pandemic, in which the cast-iron assumptions we may have had about our lives have taken a bit of a knock. For a moment back there, we didn’t have all the food we needed, and it freaked us out a bit. We have become acutely aware of cleanliness issues, such that many of us are very nervous about touching things that are “unclean.” Lockdown has removed all sense of time, both with the eerie sense that every day is the same (“what day is it again?!”) and the removal of the traditional markers of the year’s progression (which, in our world, are largely sporting occasions). And we are beginning to wonder who, or what, could deliver us from this disease. Perhaps we are not so robust and self-sufficient as all that. Perhaps we can’t stop this one. Perhaps it’s our fault…?

So – especially in this extraordinary time – these dissenting voices need to be taken seriously. And without short-circuiting some of the thinking we’ll be doing, it’s worth noting that we may find that some of them may be right. Indeed, we may find that we need to hear the voices from both groups – the disaffected secularists as well as the Christian theologians – to get to the Bible’s wisdom on what it means to flourish as human beings. For example, we might discern from the Scriptures that there really is no set liturgical calendar which a Christian ought to follow. And yet we might also find that an awareness of the rhythms of the seasons is one of the paths to biblical wisdom – and there would be no formal contradiction there. After all, the gospel is designed to restore us to our true, embodied humanity, not leave us detached from the physical world; and a wise response to the gospel might go beyond a formal entailment of the gospel.

Deeper understanding

Indeed, even if we emerge from this exercise with our basic theology and practices relatively unchanged, my hope is that we’ll end up with deeper understanding. With apologies for the spoiler – we won’t end up thinking that having a spot on our nose makes us ritually unclean. But as we carefully trace our way through biblical theology to determine why it ever did – and why it no longer does – we’ll end up, I pray, with a deeper and richer understanding of the gospel; an understanding which will cause us to live more wisely in the world God has made, and give more glory to his precious Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Are you ready to dive in?