Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #834 -- November 19, 2021
To safeguard one's health at the cost of
too strict a diet is a tiresome illness indeed.

La Rochefoucauld [1613-1680]

The Divine Shellfish Sanction
Are Christians Required to Abide by
Ancient Jewish Dietary Restrictions?

I recently received the following email, "My wife and I are currently on a seven day Caribbean cruise and something came up in a discussion. I was just wondering if you've ever written a Reflections article on the subject of eating shellfish, and if it is sinful for us (Christians) to do so today. As always, I appreciate your time and opinion. Have a blessed day!" Most students of the Bible are aware that God has throughout human history placed various dietary restrictions upon mankind. Even prior to the time of Moses, and of the laws given through him for the people of Israel to live by, the Creator gave direction to His creation on what was good to eat and what was forbidden. I have dealt with this in some depth in my study titled "The Antediluvian Diet Dilemma: Were Pre-Noahic Hominids Carnivorous?" (Reflections #543). Although some of the principles foundational to God's dietary direction might still apply to later times, the shellfish prohibition still puzzles the people of God. What does God have against shrimp, lobster, clams, oysters, and other delicious delicacies from earth's rivers, lakes, and oceans? If God had forbidden us to eat decaying roadkill (a skunk, for example), 99.9% of us would have no difficulty following that dietary restriction. Andrew Zimmern may have a taste for "bizarre foods," but not many of us would even consider consuming such foul fare. But, shrimp? Lobster? Really, Lord?! These taste great! It doesn't seem to make any sense. It reminds me somewhat of an article I did back in 2009 titled "God Hates Lambchops: An In-depth Study of Amos 6:4-6" (Reflections #410). Does God really hate such things? Or, perhaps, have we just failed to grasp "the bigger picture" pertaining to His eternal purpose for His creation, and for mankind especially?

The "shellfish" restriction for the people of Israel (and it should be kept in mind that this was a prohibition for a particular people, not for all of humanity) is found in the following two passages in the Pentateuch:

  1. Leviticus 11:9-12 - "Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scales. But 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 detest. And since you are to detest them, you must not eat their meat and you must detest their carcasses. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you" [New International Version, some translations read "abomination" instead of "detest/detestable"].

  2. Deuteronomy 14:9-10 - "Of all the creatures living in the water, you may eat any that has fins and scales. But anything that does not have fins and scales you may not eat; for you it is unclean" [New International Version]. Notice again that this restriction is for a specific people: "for you it is unclean." This is an important distinction, as we'll note later in this study.

Look at those two passages carefully. Nowhere in either passage is any "creature" named, regardless of whether they are clean or unclean. Shrimp, lobster, trout, bass, clam, tuna, oyster ... NO specific species is ever named. The only factor in determining what may or may not be eaten (what was or wasn't "clean") was: does this living creature have fins and scales?! Eat the ones that do, abhor the ones that don't. "In the case before us, not a single typical fish is given by name, and the law itself is expressed in the briefest and most generic manner possible. It was evidently left to those upon whom the administration of the law devolved to define it more minutely in order that it may be observed in practical life" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, p. 377]. The Jewish leaders, as one might imagine, quickly stepped into the silence and wrote numerous "clarifying" rules and regulations to determine more precisely what was good for human consumption and what was not. For example, what about fish having scales but not fins (and vice-versa)? They tried to think of everything, so that they could be legally precise in their obedience to this dietary restriction. Those who earned their living fishing would have been made aware of these specifics, and this can be seen in one of our Lord's parables: "The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad fish away" (Matthew 13:47-48, Parable of the Net).

Those living creatures of the waters with fins and scales were "commonly regarded as true fish" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The Old Testament, vol. 1, p 327]. They bore on their bodies the "sign of divine acceptance" (fins and scales), thus making them distinct from all other species in the waters, just as the people of Israel, so it was reasoned by the rabbis, were distinct from all the other peoples of the world by circumcision (a visible "sign of acceptance" on the physical body). By eating only those fish that bore this distinguishing mark (fins and scales), the Jews would thereby avoid "bringing Levitical uncleanness upon themselves" [ibid]. "The reason, then, for these injunctions is basically spiritual, though there may be other reasons growing out of psychological and sanitary considerations as well" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 101]. They were a called people: called to lives of holiness, called to be separate from all those nations around them; a separation God desired to be reflected not only in behavior, but also in such visible externals as dress and diet. "As His holy, treasured possession, Israel was to follow God's injunctions to distinguish themselves from the surrounding peoples, because the pagan Canaanite culture was inimical to the holiness of the Lord" [ibid, p. 100], and some of the foods of these pagans "had associations with Canaanite religions" [ibid, p. 101], thus the command to "detest" those foods; to regard them as "abominable." "In the last analysis, this was what distinguished Israel from the nations: Their call to holiness had separated them from the nations and from all that was 'common' or 'profane'" [Dr. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 140-141].

A significant part of that separation from the nations was in how God's people lived, dressed, ate, and drank. These were to be points of distinction easily noted. Such may seem of little significance to us today, but in that time, place, and culture, such considerations were huge. This can be seen, for example, in the challenge facing Daniel as he was taken into captivity. In chapter one of the book of Daniel, we find that the young men taken captive were to be fed, at the king's order, "a daily amount of food and wine from the king's table" (vs. 5). "But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way" (vs. 8). Daniel had no intention of being assimilated into the culture and lifestyle of the Babylonians; he was determined to remain distinct, even in his diet. In the end, after a series of challenges, he was permitted by King Nebuchadnezzar to maintain his own diet. Again, it was not the food itself that was the problem, necessarily, it was rather a matter of remaining visibly distinct in every way from the godless peoples around him, as the Lord God had commanded. "There was to be a separation between them and other nations; and a more effective barrier to intercourse could scarcely be found than one which made association at the same table all but impossible" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 3, p. 240]. In similar, though very symbolic, fashion, the apostle Paul warned the disciples in Corinth about the deadly dangers of trying to eat at the Lord's Table as well as the table of demons (1 Corinthians 10:18-22). Paul even said, "Consider the people of Israel" (vs. 18), some of whom were eating the meats that had been sacrificed by pagans to their false deities (vs. 20). Such "participation" with this practice, through what was being eaten, could "arouse the Lord's jealousy" (vs. 22), and thus result in dire consequences for the offenders. "Let no one, then, think of this distinction between clean and unclean meats as a trifling one" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 3, p. 240]. "By the ordinance of God, certain creatures, meats, and drinks were made unclean to the Jews, and this taught them holiness in abstaining from the impure communion with the wicked" [ibid, p. 237]. This makes it more clear why words such as "detestable" and "abominable" are employed along with the concept of one being ceremonially "unclean."

A number of scholars over the centuries have tried to explain this particular dietary restriction (along with similar restrictions on eating certain animals and birds and insects) as God's way of ensuring the good physical health of His chosen people. If the pagans wanted to eat unhealthy, disgusting food, then that was their problem, but His people were going to eat what was healthy and nourishing. Maimonides (1138-1204), "a Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages," embraced this view, as did other leading Jewish and Gentile scholars. These laws, according to this view, were "public health regulations" for the people of Israel only, and not necessarily required of surrounding nations. Indeed, these public health regulations would further spotlight the distinctiveness of God's people over the pagans. "The OT gives no explanation of these laws of cleanness. No reference is made to demons or spirits, but the laws were wonderfully fashioned by God for the general health of the nation" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 569]. I found it a bit interesting that some commentators said almost nothing about the sealife consumption restrictions, relegating it exclusively to a matter of health or taste. Adam Clarke, for example, wrote that those fish with fins and scales were suitable for consumption "because these, of all the fish tribe, are the most nourishing; the others, which are without scales, or whose bodies are covered with a thick glutinous matter, are in general very difficult of digestion" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 1, p. 541]. That's all he wrote. Much the same with Drs. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown (quoting a scholar by the name of Whitlaw): "The fins and scales are the means by which the excrescences of fish are carried off, the same as in animals by perspiration. I have never known an instance of disease produced by eating such fish; but those that have no fins and scales cause, in hot climates, the most malignant disorders when eaten; in many cases they prove a mortal poison" [Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 91-92]. This source went on to say that shellfish "enjoy a reputation they do not deserve, and have, when plentifully partaken of, produced effects which have led to a suspicion of their containing something of a poisonous nature" [ibid].

Most scholars, however, don't feel God's primary focus here in these dietary restrictions was the establishment of sound public health policy. That may have been a blessed side-effect, but that is most likely the extent of it. "The effort to try to connect these regulations of the law with modern laws of hygiene is arbitrary and breaks down when applied in details. It has no more to commend it than an allegorical exegesis of the same laws" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 587]. Simply stated, God is holy, and He desired His chosen people, through whom would come the Messiah, to be holy as well. This would require that they NOT join in intimate communion with the pagan nations around them; that they "come out of them and be separate." This they would do in all visible areas of life, so as not to be in any way influenced by these people and their culture to stray from God. Thus, these restrictions were for a specific purpose, for a specific people, for a specific period of time ... in other words, they were temporary in nature; never intended to apply to any other nation, nor intended to last forever. "The restraints introduced were only temporary. They were only intended to serve a purpose for a time, while the principle underlying them is of permanent application" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, p. 172]. The permanent principle is that God's people are to be separate from the pollution of sin embraced by godless, worldly lifestyles. We are in the world, but we are not to be of the world. The particulars of how that is done in the daily life of each of our societies and cultures can vary quite a bit, but the reality of our visible distancing from their lifestyles should be visible to all.

"It may be asked, 'What has all this to do with Christians now?' We reply, 'Little or nothing, so far as these special details are concerned, but much every way, so far as we have to do with the principles which underlie these details.' That so far as details go, the Law is done away, is understood. The symbolic meaning is no longer in force, hence the symbol is needed no longer. From the yoke of these forms we are emancipated" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 3, p. 240]. What this simply means is that the people of God today (among whom there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free), who are from every nation, tribe, tongue, people, and culture, are no longer bound by such rigid dietary restrictions and regulations. The purpose for such is no longer there, for the distinction between spiritual Israel and the world about us is far more spiritual and moral than physical and ceremonial. I can be uncircumcised and a frequent patron of Red Lobster and still be an accepted child of God the Father. The nature of my distinction is not diet, but disposition. It's not about crabs, but character. If Jesus is my Savior, then shrimp can be my supper ... and I'll be no less saved! Jesus made this point very clear (although many then and now still don't grasp it) in Mark 7:14-23 as He talked about Truth over tradition. "There is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man" (vs. 15). "And He said to them, 'Are you so lacking in understanding? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him? It is because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated.' Thus, Jesus declared all foods clean!" (vs. 18-19).

This also applies to various peoples and cultures, a lesson Peter had to learn; a lesson in which God again used various foods and the prior legalistic restrictions with which the Jews were familiar (Acts 10:9-16). Peter got the message, and thus went to share "the greater light" of the Good News of the faith of Jesus and His atoning sacrifice to this non-Jew named Cornelius. "God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean" (Acts 10:28). The shadows of the past covenant are gone, the substance of the present covenant have replaced them. "Therefore, no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day" (Colossians 2:16). "Why do you submit yourself to decrees such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!'?" (Colossians 2:20-21). Paul says some will depart from the faith; "men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude" (1 Timothy 4:1-5). So, to my friend and brother enjoying his Caribbean cruise with his wife, I would simply say, "Enjoy that seafood platter that the Lord has graciously provided from the sea ... and have an extra grilled shrimp for me!!"


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Readers' Reflections
NOTE: Differing views and understandings are always welcome here,
yet they do not necessarily reflect my own views and understandings.
They're opportunities for readers to voice what is on their hearts, with
a view toward greater dialogue among disciples with a Berean spirit.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Al, as much as I enjoyed your latest article titled "The Prophet and the Widow: A Reflective Study of 1 Kings 17" (Reflections #833), I enjoyed the readers' reflections section equally so! From the brother in Missouri who was able to see and hear you preach via the video presentation you did at the request of Patrick Mead for Our Safe Harbor Church in Tennessee, to the brother in England who is likewise spreading God's Word, to the brother in New Zealand who brought up a great point about Naaman. There was a reader in Florida who challenged you with a great passage in 1 John 3, while a brother in Canada is using one of your Reflections on his own blog site. Finally, the last reader, who is from Colorado, was particularly intrigued by your teachings on the subject of baptismal salvation. What all of these readers (and the others as well, which I didn't mention here) have in common is that they eagerly search the Scriptures and sit at your feet as you teach and expound on the riches of the Word of God. I don't want you to get "the big head" when I say this, but I consider you a modern-day Gamaliel, a man full of wisdom, who is eager to share his thoughts about what it means to live in Christ. Much love and blessings to you, my brother!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, your article "The Prophet and the Widow" is a very interesting and informative read!! It's surprising how often God calls upon the faithful to exceed the boundaries of their existing faith, and to rise to new levels of faith, even to the point of believing in something that has never to that person's knowledge happened before! Many blessings, my friend.

From a Reader in Missouri:

GREAT Lesson, Al. The story of Elijah and the widow shows God's care is amazing in every situation! Just when we might think that "it's all over" ... HE shows up to care for and bless us!!

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Al, thank you for your latest issue of Reflections. I was just thinking the other day about the widow of Zarephath: about how her faith was so amazing! She had only one meal left, but she didn't just "roll over and die;" rather, she held on to the very end, and her faith was rewarded. Also, I was just rereading the comments and questions from your Reader in Colorado. I appreciate his sincere and open desire to understand. Regarding the phrase "baptized into," Paul uniquely uses this expression: twice in reference to Christ, once in regard to Moses. It is unfortunate that some of our brethren have lumped all "baptism" passages together without any distinction between them - e.g., "baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" is a different expression, and many people don't differentiate. Spiros Zodhiates says of 1 Corinthians 10:1ff, regarding Moses, that this means "to identify oneself with," and I agree. Baptism, as we well know, can be used in a physical, spiritual, or metaphorical sense! By the way, I will begin teaching the book of Esther in about ten days. God bless, brother.

From a Reader in South Carolina:

Al, I really appreciate you letting me use your article (for which I gave you full credit) titled "The Saga of Sister Sadie: The Life of Sarah McCoy Crank - An Early Stone-Campbell Preacher" (Reflections #827) in my book "The Spirituality of Women Serving in Worship." I am sending you an autographed copy, and I hope you find this book spiritually enlightening. If you know of anyone who would like a copy, they can email me at and request one (or more). The cost is only $9 (which includes shipping). Thanks again, and have a wonderful day! Dave Hill

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, what have you written on the topic of Preterism? It is becoming a real issue in the church in some places, and has become a source of infighting among brethren in India. I even know some people personally who are being affected by it. As for the book of Revelation, which they appeal to, I believe it was written about 95 CE.

From an Elder in Oklahoma:

Al, I am preparing a study for our elders regarding women's roles in the church. I have looked through the 21 Reflections articles you have done on this, which are listed under the heading "Role of Women" on your Topical Index. I did not find in those studies a listing of all the instances under the old covenant where women were prophets, judges, or leaders. Did I miss it? If not, could you provide such a list of scripture texts? The only two I have found are Deborah, the prophetess and judge, and Anna, the prophetess in the temple when Jesus was presented as a baby. Thank you for all of your Reflections over the years. Many of them have been a great help to my thinking and study.

From a Reader in Hawaii:

Aloha, Al. I have a book by Dr. William Barclay titled "New Testament Words" that has become a valuable part of my library, as I have been able to dig much more deeply into the Greek words than I can from a lexicon. That said, I found the following thoughts by this author in his book to be very interesting, and it has caused me to ponder those thoughts for a good while. I'm attaching a photo of the page to which I'm referring. What do you think of his insight here? Mahalo.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, I just saw this article by Wayne Jackson in the publication "Christian Courier" (November, 2021): "Do Human Beings Have An Immortal Soul?" How often do you interact with Bro. Wayne Jackson?

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