For generations a group of people operated on codes of conduct and rites to govern personal and social responsibility in a way which steered them toward holiness. Thanks to a few books and legacies of rabbinic interpretation, they could try to walk uprightly if they simply behaved within a set of margins. Of course, with any kind of system governing behavior, it could be abused and misused. People could – and did- take advantage of loopholes and try to find ways of technically living within the rules while still getting what they want.
It’s nothing like today, really.
So in reading a passage in the book of Acts recently, I was struck by the Council’s decision when it came to how to condense the main points for new converts who didn’t come with a background of Judaic customs of behavior. Peter led the way with a dream allowing bacon (all praise be to Jesus for that significant contribution to religious life), then relaxing the rules for a not-so-insignificant surgical procedure, surely putting several squirmish men at ease.
The Council was tasked to narrow down the Big Things for gentile converts to try to stay within. They needed to draw a few lines for direction, and hundreds of food laws and ritual washings and customary prayers and teachings on cleanliness needed condensed.
First, I’d like to thank my Jewish forefathers for the generosity of spirit to forgo the requirements they held dear. They practiced such rites not only because they liked repetition or suffered a bit of OCD with their washing. They believed it mattered to God (because he said so), so it mattered to them. In these practices, they found connection with the divine. It takes a generous spirit to say, “perhaps not everyone would connect in the same manner” about practices they hold dear.
But now to the stumper. They picked 4 ways the gentile converts needed to stay close to Torah, and they were:
- Avoid food sacrificed to idols
- Avoid blood
- Avoid meat of strangled animals
- Avoid sexual immorality
Let us again celebrate the bacon. And cheeseburgers. And bacon cheeseburgers.
But is anyone else thinking, “613 ways of Halakha and strangled animals makes the top of the list?” I mean, they axed “don’t have sex with your mother-in-law” over that one. Lets weigh the seeming moral consequence of those 2 misgivings.
These guys (because unfortunately they were all guys) didn’t have much else to do but sit around and think, so I’m certain they had rhyme to their reason. I’ve spent the past several days trying to catch the beat.
Food sacrificed to idols seems pretty common sense. If you’re not in the place to eat such food, you’re probably not in the place of worship the idol to which it was sacrificed. Ultimately it’s a safeguard, it seems. However, later Paul sort of writes this one off to the Romans with a “well, if it doesn’t bother your walk with God or anyone else’s, then it’s just meat, but if someone gets upset, exercise restraint and politely decline.”
Blood also seems like a good inclusion. No one really likes the stuff anyway once it’s out from under the skin.
But seriously? Strangled animals?
I imagine being a shepherd of a small herd in the the mountains, coming upon a favorite ewe. Not only am I down a head, but we can’t even use it for nourishment. Double whammy.
So in the protective way that the idol food kept followers from getting too close to idolatry, I have to wonder: is the strangulation clause a cautionary way of asking followers to treat all of creation with respect? If a herder can’t eat the carcass, then perhaps they’d be inclined to take a little better care of it. They’d keep a closer eye, maybe keep the fences that pose a threat in better shape. Maybe an owner would let less time go by before they said, “When did I last see Bessie Mae?”
And by provoking the eating, even the non-herders are asked to grow a social and ecological conscious. Before buying, they must ask “How did this goat die?”. And guess what: by asking a simple question, the goat goes from being dinner to being part of God’s creation, worthy of a humane life and death. We’re called to care for more than our bellies.
Now, in reflection, I wonder if the idol meat and the blood serve a similar purpose. When a follower saw blood, which he must avoid, it serves as a reminder that it came from a living being, and by the blood being someplace other than within, it means pain or even death. I believe it was common thought to think of blood as the very life and seeing it poured out meant that someone’s life was leaving his body.
The Generous Jewish Council perhaps found ways to condense what the 613 rules were trying to say; love God by loving others. And not just people, but anything that God created. In fact, honor others more than ourselves. Forgo a meal to preserve dignity. Pass on the meat to keep free from giving it a place of honor in your life. Remember that the life you’re enjoying often comes from the death of another.
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