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Food consumption is the most integral part of physical and mental survival and health.
Religious teachings include that consumption is a part of spiritual survival and health as well. Jewish teachings claim that Yahweh puts a restriction on what is to be eaten and who is to prepare them. Christian teachings claim that Jesus puts no restrictions on what is to be eaten, however food put out for idols should not be consumed. Muslim teachings claim that Muhammad distinguishes food that are permissible (halal) and non-permissible (haram). All three religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – demonstrate these similarities and differences in the preparation and consumption; sacrifice; and meaning and ethics of the food.
Preparation and Consumption
In the Hebrew bible, there were clear indications that it was Yahweh who provided humankind food for preparation and consumption. In the priestly source, the first creation story claimed that Yahweh had provided food such as ‘grains and fruits’ (Genesis 1:29), and the second creation story claimed that Yahweh had created an orchard – Garden of Eden – so that people can take charge and take food from ‘every tree’ (2:8-9) except for the ‘tree of knowledge.’ Before the ‘Great Flood’ (9:2-3) of Abraham’s time, all people and animals were vegetarians. However, after the flood, Yahweh extended the diet to include all meat except for pork (Leviticus 11:1-8). Seafood was also allowed for consumption, although it was limited to fish that had ‘fins and scales’ (Leviticus 11:9; Deuteronomy 14:9-10). This type of food discrimination was not due to any other reason than to not perturb the harmonious nature of all species. For consumption, people had to slaughter these animals. Jewish law made sure that the slaughterer was Jewish, and the meat was ritually salted to remove traces of blood. Observant Jewish people only ate meat that was certified ‘kosher’ meaning ‘fit’ for consumption.
In the New Testament, Christians did not seem to have any dietary restrictions. This was most clearly indicated when Peter had three visions where he was instructed by a voice, presumably God, to ‘kill and eat … all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air’ (Acts 10:12; 11:6). Peter first refused due to the dominant Jewish belief that there were dietary restrictions. However, the voice claimed again that ‘what God has called clean, you must not call profane’ (Acts 10:15). If Christians had one consumption restriction, it was a restriction made for the benefit of other Christians who thought that consumption of food that was ‘offered to an idol’ would ‘defile themselves’ (1 Corinthians 8:7). For Christians who were aware that idols did not ‘really exist,’ they refused consumption of idol food as they could cause their ‘weaker brothers and sisters’ to fall (8:13). In terms of slaughtering animals for consumption, in lands that had a dominant Christian population, Christians were given priority. Christian butchers were allowed to sell meat to both Jews and Christians, which benefited them but had negative consequences for Jewish people who needed kosher meat. Christians were also forbidden to consume meat from Jewish or Muslim butchers, as it supported Jewish and Muslim rejection of Christ.
In the Qur’an and the Islamic law (Shari’ah), there was a clear-cut differentiation of lawful (halal) and unlawful (haram) food. The consumption law was set in place by jurists and medical doctors for the ‘preservation of health’ by safeguarding people from spiritual and physical harm. When people consumed unlawful foods, they were seen as transgressing against Allah’s words: ‘…forbid not (yourselves) the good things which Allah hath made lawful for you and transgress not. Surely Allah loveth not the transgressors.’ (Al-Ma’idah 5:87). Allah also claimed: ‘O you who believe! Eat of the good things wherewith We have supplied you, and render thanks to Allah if you are (indeed) His worshippers.’ (Al-Baqarah 2:172). He seemed to have prohibited foods not for his own sake, but for the sake of His people whose bodies, judgements, and development could be harmed in the consumption.
The Qur’an classified four types of forbidden food: ‘Forbidden unto you (for good) are death-meat, and blood and flesh of the swine, and that over which is invoked the name of other than Allah, and the strangled, and the dead through beating, and the dead through falling from a height, and that which has been killed by (the goring of) horns, and the devoured of wild beasts, unless you have cleansed (by slaughtering) it in the proper, lawful way, while yet there is life in it, and that which has been immolated unto idols…’ (Al Ma’idah 5:3). As said above, slaughtering had to be lawful, ex. cutting throat from beneath, at the part next to the head. The way the Islam people slaughter was seen as most ethical, as the animal was not caused as much pain when being killed for consumption. Seafood was also seen as halal: ‘Lawful to you is the pursuit of water-game (sayd al-bahr) and its use for food, for the benefit of yourselves and those who travel.’ (Al-Ma’idah 5: 96). On the other hand, consumption of blood was seen as haram as Muslim physicians claimed that blood was a medium for carriers of disease. Also, the physicians believed that drinking blood was ‘repugnant to human decency.’ Pork was considered haram as it was impure in its nature, even if it was fed wholesome food and was adequately cooked. Only Allah knew why pork was unclean but one main reason was that He wanted to protect His people from having impure meat. Muslim people were also meant to say Allah’s name when slaughtering and sacrificing animals. This helped distinguish true believers of Allah with non-believers. For those who were in desperate need of food, and only had prohibited meat that was edible, there were 3 conditions that had to be met: the man had to be driven by absolute necessity to save his life and the people who depended on him, there were absolutely no intention to break the law of Allah but was driven by necessity, and if they had to eat the unlawful food out of necessity they should not take more than necessary.
All three of the religions placed an importance on people not being gluttonous. The Hebrew Bible introduced greed in the story of manna. When Moses commanded people to not gather any manna on the seventh day, the Sabbath, people decided to go against his words. However, when they went out, they discovered that there was nothing to gather as a consequence for their actions (Exodus 16:1-30). The New Testament also introduced greed when Paul claimed that ‘…Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9–10). He included ‘the greedy and the drunkards’ as not being people of God, as Paul believed that ‘the body is meant for the Lord’ (6:13). Lastly, the Islam faith introduced greed when they claimed that it was haram to eat and drink in excess as it could lead to illness. They also claimed that a little room should be left for food to be digested comfortably.
Both Jewish people and Muslim people made sacrifices in what could and could not be eaten. In the Hebrew Bible, prohibition was made on eating pork, as stated above. Additionally, people were not allowed to consume blood, as blood represented the life that Yahweh created, and represented ‘making atonement for your lives on the alter’ as it is blood that makes atonement (Lev 17:11). Thus, abstaining from consumption acknowledged God as the owner of all animals and He atoned for all human sins. If people ate the forbidden foods, they were rendered unclean and were ultimately ousted from the community. In the Qur’an, prohibition was made on consumption of animals that were killed unlawfully, blood was not allowed to be consumed due to it being prone to disease, and pork was not allowed due to their impurity.
Sacrifices of food to the poor was also emphasized for Jewish and Christian people. In the Hebrew Bible,
Sabbatical year regulation requires farmers to let their fields lie fallow ‘so the poor of your people may eat’ (Exod 23:10-11); those who have no crop have a share in crop of others and ‘eat their fill’ (Exod 14:29). The gospel traditions support feeding the hungry to the point of self-sacrifice – Jesus’ feeding miracles recounted 6 times. Few loaves and fishes are given to Jesus who blesses them, and he feeds 5 thousand people and gather the remnants. Jesus doesn’t take the excess of what they have and distributes it (Matt 14:16). Jesus describes a rich man ‘who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:16–31). Outside his gate lay poor Lazarus, who ate the crumbs from the rich man’s table—his excess. Both men die. The rich man in Hades first unsuccessfully begs Abraham to send Lazarus from heaven to give him a drink, then he asks Abraham to “warn his brothers.” But Abraham replies that they have already been warned and did not listen. Jesus teaches people to feed those who wil not be able to repay (Luke 14:12-14). This new community does not include just family but extend to wider community of those who are unable to contribute to it. Some people have food that they could eat at home so that there will be enough for the communal gathering (1 Cor 11:22), but instead, they start to eat before everyone is present and eat and drink to excess (11:21; cf. 5:11; 6:10). Other people receive nothing and are humiliated. He urges them, “Wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation” (11:34).
Sacrifices may be intended as food for Yahweh, but Yahweh is not dependent upon the food. The sacrifices were primarily intended for Yahweh in order to establish and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship between god and man. There are 2 different locations of the divine: the smoke from the altar goes up to the sky, but all rituals are performed in front of Yahweh. Tamid offering, is sacrificed in the morning and the evening, and is made up of a whole lamb burnt on the alter. There are 5 main types of burnt offerings: the Whole Burnt offering, the Grain offering, the Sacrifice of Well-being, Sin offering, and Guilt offering; the most important being the first 3. Whole Burnt offering includes entire burning of the sacrificial animal on the altar as offering to Yahweh; Grain offering includes burning of a token portion mixed with frankincense and salt on the altar to create smoke as fire offering to Yahweh, whereas the rest of the grain/flour is given to the priests; Sacrifice of Well-being includes burning of only the fat and kidneys for Yahweh, whereas the breast and one thigh of the animal are given to the priest and the rest of the animal is eaten by the donor and the household as part of sacrificial meal. These three sacrifices share similarities in that they are turned into smoke as Yahweh ‘eats’ the smoke of the offering unlike humans who would have eaten the meat/grain. This creates a difference in the way that Egyptian or Mesopotamian people have presentation sacrifices to their deities.
Ethics and Meaning
Food is most essential component of God’s blessing, gift of God as creator to all creatures. Saying blessing on meal invokes God’s blessing on food, which overlooks that fact that food is God’s blessing. God ‘blesses’ us with food, and we ask God to feed us when we pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matt 6:11). We should not worry about what we will eat because God feeds the birds of the air and people are more valuable (Matt 6:26). Enjoying food is most primitive form of gratitude and worship; ‘rejoice’ when offering first fruits (Ecclesiastes 10:19). First fruits sacrament represents God’s historical involvement with Israel from time when God ‘brought us into this place and gave us this land (Deut 26:9).
Festival of unleavened bread (Exod 23:15; 34:18) and Passover (Deut 16:1-8; Exod 12-13). Unleavened bread memorialized the haste in which Israelite slaves had to leave Egypt + Passover lamb memorialized death of firstborn of Egypt. When Jesus is sent to die, he dies at the house when Passover lambs were slaughtered (John 19:14). In this sense, Jesus become the Passover meal. ‘The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… my my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ (John 6:51,54).
There can be loss of land by disloyalty to God. Just as God can provide, God can take away the blessing, and drought and hunger will replace rain and crops (Deuteronomy 11:13-17). If Israel repents, God will restore food that he had taken away – they will ‘eat in plenty and be satisfied’ (Psalms 126:4-6).
In order to ensure one’s health, one should consume food with full ethics (adab) of eating. People must recite the basmalah before eating and drinking. It is undesirable to eat with the left hand as the left is reserved for unclean duties associated with toilet. People should take food only when they are hungry as this can ensure easy digestion. They must not delay and interrupt food from one time to another time.
- De Hemmer Gudme, Anne Katrine. 2014. ““If I Were Hungry, I Would Not Tell You” (Ps 50, 12): Perspectives On The Care And Feeding Of The Gods In The Hebrew Bible”. Scandinavian Journal Of The Old Testament 28 (2): 172-184. doi:10.1080/09018328.2014.932559.
- Deuraseh, Nurdeng. 2009. “Lawful and Unlawful Foods in Islamic Law Focus on Islamic Medical and Ethical Aspects”. International Food Research Journal 16: 469-478.
- Freidenreich, David M. 2013. “Food-Related Interaction Among Christians, Muslims, And Jews In High And Late Medieval Latin Christendom”. History Compass 11 (11): 957-966. doi:10.1111/hic3.12101.
- Mann, Thomas W. 2013. “Not By Word Alone: Food In The Hebrew Bible”. Interpretation: A Journal Of Bible And Theology 67 (4): 351-362. doi:10.1177/0020964313495515.
- Webster, Jane S. 2013. “That One Might Not Fall: A New Testament Theology Of Food”. Interpretation: A Journal Of Bible And Theology 67 (4): 363-373. doi:10.1177/0020964313495520.
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