Did Jesus Christ abolish the health laws given in the Old Testament, or are they still relevant today? Can biblical health laws, given thousands of years ago, be meaningful and practical in today's society? The answer may surprise you!
The health laws found in the Bible pose an interesting dilemma for anyone who believes in following biblical teachings. The Bible clearly states that certain foods are not to be eaten, and that certain behaviors are sinful and an abomination in God's sight. Yet people have been claiming for centuries that Jesus did away with these regulations, and that they are burdensome, outdated, bizarre and even barbaric.
But just how did these laws come about? Who authored them, and why were they given? Did Jesus really abolish them, or are they still applicable today? Medical science and history and sound Bible scholarship agree—the answer is absolutely contrary to what most who profess belief in Christ wrongly assume!
Origin of the Health Laws
The biblical health laws are usually referred to as the Laws of Moses. Many scholars assume that Moses collected primitive taboos to form a code of laws. Some claim that the reasons for clean and unclean foods are purely arbitrary, irrational or unexplainable. Some anthropological speculations suggest that unclean animals are imperfect members of their species—tell that to a pig and you will probably get a well-deserved snort of disgust! Educated scholars also claim that the biblical laws have nothing to do with health, but were merely rituals to separate the Israelites from their pagan neighbors, and that only Jews need to observe these laws today. However, all these attempts to explain the biblical health laws are inadequate, as we will see in this article.
In Leviticus 11–20, where these laws are first outlined in detail, we find that "the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, 'Speak to the children of Israel, saying, "These are the animals which you may eat"'" (Leviticus 11:1–2). This same introductory statement precedes the enumeration of other health laws in the book of Leviticus. According to the Bible, the author of the biblical health laws was not Moses—but God Himself! God explained to the Israelites that if they obeyed His commandments they would experience "none of the diseases" that plagued other nations (Exodus 15:26). God gave these laws to His chosen people so they could be an example to the world! God wanted their better health to be noticed by surrounding nations who could then inquire how they, too, could gain the same results (see Deuteronomy 4:1–8). While some theologians have naively suggested that these "regulations" were given to Israelites to punish them for their disobedience, these laws were actually given by a God of love to show human beings a better way to live. The health laws were to be taught by the priests, because of their fundamental importance!
It is quite instructive to read what Bible reference books have to say about the health laws. Halley's Bible Handbook states: "Moses' Law… [including] its Health and Food regulations, was far purer, more rational, humane and democratic than, and showed a wisdom far in advance of, anything in ancient legislation, Babylonian, Egyptian or any other" (24th edition, p. 138). Eerdmans' Handbook of the Bible states: "Today we are able to understand and appreciate the sound principles of diet, hygiene and medicine which these laws express\ (p. 176). The Expositor's Bible Commentary, commenting on Leviticus 11, states that \the Levitical laws of cleanness have no known extensive parallels in surrounding cultures," so the idea of Moses borrowing primitive taboos does not hold up, because "surrounding cultures exhibit little of this sort of law."
While some scholars assert that the biblical laws were not given for reasons of health, this same commentary states that "the spiritual and hygienic reasons for the laws may still be affirmed. They are remarkably valuable in the area of public health… These laws protected Israel from bad diet, dangerous vermin and communicable diseases... These were rule-of-thumb laws that God gave in His wisdom to a people who could not know the reason for the provision" (ibid.). Thus, the idea that these biblical laws are outdated and old-fashioned and have nothing to do with health is simply nonsense!
The most familiar biblical health laws define clean and unclean meats—creatures that are acceptable to eat and those that are not—yet most people (even theologians!) have little or no understanding of the medically sound reasons behind these instructions! The scientific wisdom behind the biblical dietary laws is seldom taught today; instead, these laws are commonly viewed as Old Testament regulations that are no longer applicable. However, as Eerdmans' Handbook of the Bible comments: "These lists [of clean and unclean creatures] have a significance often ignored. Far from being based on fad or fancy, these lists emphasize a fact not discovered until late in the last century… that animals carry diseases dangerous to man" (p. 176). In fact, the same animals labeled unclean in Scripture still carry parasitic diseases that are still dangerous to human beings today!
"Clean" land animals are ruminants—grazing animals such as cattle, sheep, deer and elk—whose digestive tracts are designed to turn grass that human beings cannot digest into meat that we can digest. Most unclean animals are carnivores or scavengers that can transmit dangerous diseases to human beings. Pigs eat roots and grains, rather than grass, and thus are ecological competitors to human beings. Clean fish have fins and scales. Unclean aquatic organisms like clams and oysters are filter feeders that purify water, and that concentrate poisonous chemicals and pathologic bacteria and viruses in their tissues. Eating an oyster is like eating your vacuum cleaner bag—yet modern connoisseurs do not like to think about this! Crabs and lobsters are scavengers that eat dead things on the bottom of bodies of water. Most unclean birds are carnivores or scavengers. God in His wisdom inspired laws that protect humans from contracting dangerous diseases, but also protect "nature's clean up crew" by making them "off limits" as food for mankind (for more information on this subject, request our free reprint article, Do You Really Want to Eat That?). These biological principles still operate today. As a point of illustration: the SARS outbreak was traced to an area in southern China where civet cats (an unclean animal) are eaten as a delicacy!
However, the laws of clean and unclean meats are not the only biblical instructions that concern diet. In Leviticus 3:17, we read that "you shall eat neither fat nor blood" (cf. Leviticus 7:23–27). One of the most significant discoveries in the last century was that high fat diets are linked to increased levels of heart disease, stroke, cancer of the colon and breast and a host of other pathologies—including obesity—that bring additional complications. Our challenge is to learn to recognize major sources of fat in our diet (visible fats on meat, fatty cuts of meat—like bacon, generous amounts of heavy dressings, spoonfuls of oil, etc.), and reduce our intake of fats that are high in calories and often high in saturated fats. It has also become painfully obvious in recent decades that contaminated blood and blood products can transmit AIDS and hepatitis. The simple principle of avoiding fat and blood is a powerful principle of prevention—if it is followed—because it still works today!
Biblical principles also cover the use of plant foods—carbohydrates. Ezekiel was instructed to make a nutritious bread from "wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt" (Ezekiel 4:9). This was a multigrain bread containing complex carbohydrates for energy, different kinds of fiber and multiple amino acids for proteins and bodybuilding. It was not a highly refined product like today's common breads that have most of their nutrients removed, then are misleadingly called "enriched" when a few nutrients are added back.
The Bible advises us to use sweets like honey or other simple sugars sparingly (Proverbs 25:16; 27). We are warned against overeating—gluttony (Proverbs 28:7). Modern books on health give the same advice! The biblical dietary guidelines are not old-fashioned, burdensome regulations—they are divinely inspired guidelines that have taken mankind's science thousands of years to understand!
Many sincere religious people believe it is evil and sinful to drink alcohol. Yet, when we look at the biblical health guidelines, we find that drunkenness is what is sinful—not the use of alcohol. Warnings against the misuse of alcohol run throughout the Bible (Genesis 9:20–21; Ephesians 5:18; 1 Peter 4:3). Yet, it is worth noting that Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding feast (John 2:1–11). He would not have done this if drinking alcohol were a sin! However, priests were forbidden to drink on the job (Leviticus 10:9). Paul advises Timothy about the medicinal value of wine for an upset stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). The beneficial effects of moderate amounts of alcohol have been one of the surprises of modern medical studies. People who use alcohol in moderation—a glass of wine a day—have fewer heart attacks than alcohol abusers or total abstainers! Elderly people with digestive problems caused by a lack of stomach acid experience improvement when they take a small glass of wine with meals. Biblical instructions about alcohol are in harmony with scientific evidence, and are still applicable today. We may use alcohol, but we must develop character to use it properly.
At first glance, some may think that biblical instructions about childbirth are biased against women. At the birth of a male child, a woman was considered unclean for 7 days and continued in a state of purification for 33 days; following the birth of a female child, the mother was considered unclean for 14 days and her purification period was 66 days. (Leviticus 12:2–5) However, these instructions fit very well with modern scientific discoveries about childbirth and development and disease prevention. By declaring a woman who had just given birth unclean, the biblical health laws required whoever touched the new mother (especially the midwife) to wash and to avoid immediate contact with other people—a practice designed to prevent the spread of diseases such as childbirth fever, which claimed untold lives throughout history. It was not until the mid-1800s that an Austrian physician, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, recognized that the spread of childbirth fever could be prevented if birth attendants washed after a delivery—yet biblical health laws had promoted this practice almost 3,000 years earlier!
But there are even more benefits in these instructions. While a new mother was unclean (7–14 days), she was free from the duties of cooking and ordinary housework—giving her time to regain her strength after delivering a baby. During the purification period (33–66 days), she remained in semi-isolation, thus avoiding crowds and contact with disease germs that could harm her or her newborn child. She was not required to travel to a place of worship to make an offering until the end of her purification period. Since travel was often arduous, this gave a nursing mother time for her breast milk to come in, to establish a feeding routine and for the baby to build antibodies and gain strength. The longer period for female babies was not due to male chauvinistic bias. Even today, female babies often have lower birth weights and higher mortality rates, so this longer period at home with the mother was meant to give them a better start in life.
The Bible instructed that male babies were to be circumcised on the eighth day (Genesis 17:12–14; Leviticus 12:3). Modern scientific studies have shown that the blood-clotting mechanism in a baby is not fully developed until the eighth day, so it was not wise to do a surgical procedure earlier because of the threat of hemorrhage (see None of These Diseases, McMillen, pp. 20–21).
While some well-meaning people consider male circumcision barbaric, medical science shows that circumcised little boys have a reduced risk of urinary infections, circumcised men have lower rates of cancer of the penis and women married to circumcised men have much lower rates of cervical cancer!
The custom of female circumcision is a totally different matter. It is non-biblical, and should not be confused with biblical circumcision of males, where only the foreskin is removed. Female circumcision, however, actually removes part of a woman's genitalia, rather than just skin tissue. Female circumcision is simply mutilation, and has nothing to do with biblical circumcision.
Sanitary Laws and Quarantine
The biblical laws of sanitation were clearly ahead of their time! There was really no way to fully understand the reasons for these laws until the invention of the microscope, the discovery of bacteria and the pioneering work of pathologists in recent centuries, yet these ancient biblical laws have proven scientifically valid today! People who touched a dead or diseased animal or person—or even garments or secretions from a sick person—were to bathe and wash their clothes and avoid contact with others. Contaminated garments were to be washed or burned—important sanitizing principles that are still followed today. Dwellings that showed signs of mold, or that had harbored sick individuals, were to be cleaned, repaired or destroyed, to prevent the spread of disease (see Leviticus 13–15). Porous vessels that came into contact with dead animals were to be broken, since they would harbor bacteria. People showing signs of sickness were to be isolated—quarantined—until examined by a priest and declared well. People were to wash after having sex. Tattoos and cuttings on the flesh were also forbidden (Leviticus 19:28), for reasons that include the risk of contracting disease. Modern physicians warn that tattoos and body-piercing carry a risk for contracting infectious diseases like hepatitis B, hepatitis C, syphilis and HIV/AIDS (International Journal of Infectious Disease, 2001, 5(1), 27–34).
In Deuteronomy 23:9–14, we learn that human wastes were to be buried, away from human dwellings. Today we call this sanitary waste disposal, and its benefits are widely understood but not always practiced—especially in poverty-stricken areas. History is filled with epidemics of typhus, cholera and dysentery, linked to the careless dumping of human waste into streets and rivers, or feeding human waste to animals that are then eaten. Burying human waste breaks the life cycle of many parasitic organisms that spread disease. This simple practice is much more effective, and less expensive, than treating disease after it breaks out—and God put this principle in the Bible thousands of years before mankind's science understood its benefit!
Many of the moral laws of the Bible also have definite health implications. Adultery and fornication are clearly forbidden in Scripture (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 18:20; 1 Corinthians 6:9) because they threaten not only the stability of the family and society, but also the health of the individual. One of the most easily demonstrated facts of medical history is that promiscuity spreads diseases—often dangerous and deadly diseases of which AIDS is only the latest and most notorious. Sexually transmitted diseases bring suffering, disfigurement, infertility and death. This is one reason why Paul advises us to "flee sexual immorality," and warns that the person "who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body" (1 Corinthians 6:18). One reason why prostitution is labeled a sin in the Bible is that it spreads disease. Serious health risks are among the reasons why the Bible prohibits homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22) and bestiality (Leviticus 18:23–30). Sexually active homosexual men have a much shorter life span than the average man, and a much higher risk of contracting—and dying from—a serious disease. The Bible warns that people practicing immoral sexual activity "lack understanding," because they do not grasp the serious risks they are taking—healthwise or otherwise (Proverbs 6:32). These health-related moral laws—and the consequences of breaking them—are still very much in force today!
God is the author of the biblical health laws. The Bible reveals that God does not change (Malachi 3:6), which means that His fundamental laws do not change. The laws of biology did not suddenly change, or stop operating, when Jesus died on the cross! The same factors that caused or prevented disease in the days of Moses still operate today.
Most ancient cultures had extensive lists of medicines and procedures for treating disease. The health laws that God gave to Moses, however, did not focus on treating disease, but instead focused on preventing disease and promoting health! This is why medical historian Ralph Major describes Moses as "the greatest sanitary engineer that the world has ever seen" because "Moses recognized the great principle that the prevention of disease is usually simpler and invariably more far reaching than the cure of disease… His doctrines [in the book of Leviticus] could be summed up by the objects of sanitation today—pure food, pure water, pure air, pure bodies and pure dwellings" (A History of Medicine, vol. 1, pp. 62–64). The biblical health laws are timeless! They were valid in the days of Moses, and they are just as valid—and applicable—today. The Bible reveals that when Jesus Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God on this earth, the laws of God will be proclaimed to the world from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2–4). As human beings around the globe learn to live by these simple yet fundamentally important laws, their health will improve—and the plague of disease will begin to disappear (Isaiah 35:5–7). This is part of the gospel! You can play a vital role in this incredible transformation (Isaiah 30:20–21)—if you learn the value of applying these biblical health laws in your own life today!
Did Jesus do away with fundamentally important biblical laws concerning human health? Those who believe this usually cite Mark 7 and Acts 10. Some Bible translations of Mark 7:18–19 say: "Jesus declared all foods clean"—yet other translations render the verse differently. When you compare Mark 7 with a similar account in Matthew 15, you find that Jesus was not even addressing the subject of clean or unclean foods—the issue in question was eating without a ceremonial washing of the hands! Acts 10 describes Peter's vision of a sheet coming down from heaven containing unclean animals that he is told three times to kill and eat. Peter, who had been trained by Christ for more than three years, understood that this was wrong and resisted! While Peter pondered the meaning of the vision (Acts 10:17), several Gentiles arrived at his home. On hearing their mission, Peter grasped the meaning of the vision: "God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (Acts 10:28). According to Scripture, Peter did not conclude from this vision that the laws of clean and unclean foods had been eliminated. This is confirmed by a prophecy that indicates when Christ returns He will bring judgment on idol worshipers and those who persist in eating unclean animals (Isaiah 66:15–17).