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Peter & Ezekiel Argue with God and Win: Acts 10 in Light of Ezekiel 4

food in sheet 2We’ve been discussing the Traditions of the Elders, Halakah and food laws in Mark 7.[1] Convinced that the Christian church is not responsible to keep Torah food laws (And rightly so, I believe) many have gone too far in their understanding of Jesus’ remarks, which are summarized for many in Mark 7:19…“Cleansing all foods.”

The Traditions of the Elder’s, however, are a body of laws decreeing the innate uncleanness of every gentile and provoking hatred between Jew and gentile in a general abandonment of Israel’s commission to the gentiles. Jesus denounces these codes, however, and takes up the gentile mission himself, a mission his disciples will be called upon to complete.

This brings us naturally to Acts 10 in which Peter is directly challenged to do this very thing, extending the offering of the gospel of Jesus Christ to gentiles without seeking Jewish conversion first. In Acts 10, as in Mark 7, this launch is perpetrated upon a discussion of Torah food laws, leading to a common misunderstanding of the text among gentile believers.

Act 10:9-16 reads:

The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.  And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

The interpretation seems obvious doesn’t it?

God is telling Peter to get off his Jewish high horse and to stuff his face with some of the tasty vittles that we in the gentile world have long learned to appreciate… heart by-passes be darned. Peter is stubborn, however, talking back each time. He has to be ordered again and again to forget all that Torah stuff and just do as he’s told.

A few things bother me about this interpretation, however.

First, if Jesus had really cast off Torah food laws, in spite of declaring in Matthew 5:18 that he had no intention of doing so, wouldn’t Peter have heard all this before? Of course, Peter didn’t get a lot of things that Jesus taught and predicted, so I’ll let this one pass.

The real issue for me is 2nd the nature of Peter’s argument, 3rd his puzzlement over the implications of this event, and 4th his declared interpretation of the event in later verses… none of which suggest in any way that the common Christian interpretation is accurate.

Today, I’d like to address only the first of these final three… the nature of Peter’s argument.

There is a big difference between making a statement and quoting a text in a situation. To answer a challenge or a command or a question with a quote is often an indirect answer whose true meaning is woven into a complex dynamic of issues involved in source material from which one draws the quote.

In Peter’s case, his answer, drawn from Ezekiel 4:14, is both a complex dynamic woven into Ezekiel’s context and a direct answer to the voice from Heaven… “No way, no how, ain’t happening, forget it, I won’t do it.” Though an angel from heaven decree it, Peter’s not budging.

In Ezekiel, YHWH commands the prophet to stage a prophetic play in which he predicts the exile of the people. (Read Ezekiel 4:1-13 if you get a chance.) Ezekiel is to eat his food cooked over human dung, so that they will know that, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations where I will drive them.”(Ezekiel 4:13) The food laws, which are taken by the Jews as one of several signs of the holy covenant in which they are bound,[2] were known to choose death rather than violate these signs.[3]

When Ezekiel rebuffs YHWH’s command to defile himself with food cooked over human dung, YHWH “relents” and permits the use of animal dung.

One might easily imagine YHWH’s command as a test for his servant, who, in a time of great perversity and pollution to the holy spaces of Israel, stands strong for Torah even in the face of divine command. Though an angel from heaven decree it…

This is certainly what Peter garners from the episode when he, in the face of a voice from heaven commanding that he violate Torah, refuses like the hero, Ezekiel.

Peter quotes Ezekiel’s opening and paraphrases his words from the LXX version of Eze 4:14.

Ezekiel says, “Μηδαμῶς, κύριε (By no means Lord) God of Israel: surely my soul has not been defiled with uncleanness; nor have I eaten, that which died of itself or was torn of beasts from my birth until now; neither has any corrupt flesh entered into my mouth.”

Peter says, “Μηδαμῶς, κύριε  (By no means, Lord) for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” In good YHWHist fashion, Peter refuses to call clean that which YHWH has, in His Torah, declared unclean.

The retort from heaven, far from driving Peter away from this conviction, builds upon it. Just as Peter refuses to call clean that which YHWH has declared unclean, Peter is not to regard as unclean that which YHWH has declared clean.

And what is that you ask?

It’s not lobster. (Though I adore lobster.)

It’s the gentiles which Jewish Halakah has, in Peter’s days, abandoned as defiling even to touch.


[1] “Jesus May Have Declared All Foods Clean But I Still Won’t Eat Chilled Monkey Brains,” and “Jesus vs. the Law: Torah, Halakah, and Jesus’ Declaration of Dietary Deliverance in Mark 7:19,” & “Mark 7:19 and the Little Participle that Could.”

[2] The other two signs are the keeping of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:13) and the wearing of the Tassels (Numbers 15:38-41).

[3] I Maccabees 1:62-63 reads, “Howbeit many in Israel were fully resolved and confirmed in themselves not to eat any unclean thing. Wherefore the rather to die, that they might not be defiled with meats, and that they might not profane the holy covenant: so then they died.”

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