What is Food?
What is food? A simple question, really, yet it has sparked debates time and time again within religious (usually Messianic) groups. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines food as:
“1 A: material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy; also: such food together with supplementary substances (as minerals, vitamins, and condiments)
B: inorganic substances absorbed by plants in gaseous form or in water solution
2: nutriment in solid form
3: something that nourishes, sustains, or supplies <food for thought>”
But the question that a Believer should be asking is: how does the Bible define food?
Nutrients. The giving of nourishment. Sustenance. Simply stated, it is defined as something taken into the body that is good for the body to help it function properly. In our modern world, we see as "food" whatever product that is marketed as fit for human consumption. But what should matter to us most - as believers - is how the Word defines "food."
First, examine Genesis 1:29. The word used for "food" is oklaw, a noun defined in the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament as "food," or "nourishment."  It is the same word used in Genesis 6:21, both in the context of some meant for food. The word oklaw is the feminine form of okel, having the same meaning, and both are derived from akal, a verb meaning "to eat." Together they account for over 60 occurrences translated as food, eat, consume or devour. The words always carry the implication of, as in Genesis 1 & 6, something meant to be eaten. It is also interesting that in Ezekiel (15, 21 and other chapters) the word is used in the phrase “food (fuel) for the fire.” Again, meaning that by being fed, it is sustained. If a fire runs out of food (fuel) it burns out.
There are other words in Hebrew that are sometimes translated as food. Ma’akal is also derived from akal and implies something seen as food. Biryah is used only in 2 Samuel 13 in a specific incident, translated as food or meat. Zeydaw is used 11 times, twice it is translated as food. The rest of the time it is usually translated as "provision." So the implication for the other two uses (Judges 20:10 & Psalm 78:25) of provision is inferred by the context. (Judges mentions having a supply of food for people while Psalms is talking about the manna, which is obviously speaking of provision)
There are a few other words used, but oklaw and okel are the primary words used in Hebrew when speaking of food and, again, refer in general to something that is intended to be eaten.
Part of the argument that comes into play over what is food and what is not is the term “unclean food.” This is seen in a number of places in Scripture. It leads people to the conclusion that there is clean food, and then there is unclean food. So when they read Mark 7:19 “because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.)” they automatically assume that unclean food is now clean. In fact, most commentators reach this very conclusion, with the IVP, Cornerstone, Holman, Wiersbe, and others all saying the same thing. But there are a number of flaws with this line of thinking.
The holes in the “thus He declared all foods clean” theory become clear when we realize there is technically no such thing as unclean food. You have food, which is by default clean (as in, intended for human consumption), and then you have unclean things. Food may become unclean, but if it does it is no longer able to be eaten, and thus is not food. Here's a couple examples.
Hosea 9:3 “They will not remain in The Lord’s land, But Ephraim will return to Egypt, And in Assyria they will eat unclean food.”
Ezekiel 4:13 “The Lord said, “In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled (unclean) food among the nations where I will drive them.”
Both of these verses are typically rendered using the words “unclean food” and yet they should not be. For instance, in Hebrew Hosea 9:3 does not contain the word “food” at all. It says they will “eat unclean.” That is, they will eat things that are unclean, yet these unclean things are NOT called food. Next in Ezekiel 4:13 in English it reads “eat unclean food” but yet again the word food does not appear at all in the Hebrew, which is why it is italicized. What it actually says, as the context clearly shows, is that they will eat bread that has become defiled (unclean). We see from Leviticus 7 and Leviticus 11 that food can become defiled (unclean) when it comes into contact with something that is unclean. However, it is no longer edible once that happens and as such is no longer considered food. Once it is defiled, it must be thrown away. Likewise, unclean animals (swine, shrimp, etc) are not considered food because they are already unclean, and therefore are not to be eaten. As the dictionary definition listed above indicates, food is something that is good for the body, nourishing. Unclean animals are not. No Jew in the first century considered these things food. Pigs existed in Israel, as did dogs and other animals, but they were not viewed as something fit for consumption by them.
The next piece of misunderstanding comes into play regarding Messiah Yeshua’s statement in Mark 7. The English is usually rendered as: “because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.)” but what does it REALLY say? First, the context.
Mark 7:14-23 (NASB):
“14After He called the crowd to Him again, He [began] saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15there 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. 16["If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.]” 17When he had left the crowd [and] entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” ([Thus He declared] all foods clean.) 20And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21″For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22deeds of coveting [and] wickedness, [as well] [as] deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride [and] foolishness. 23″All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
But before this makes sense, consider first verses 1-3:
“1The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, [thus] observing the traditions of the elders;”
So the whole thing was started by eating with unwashed hands, not by eating an unclean animal. Therefore given the context, it would be foolish to assume the “uncleanness” being spoken of is unclean meat. Yeshua’s statement here is that eating with washed hands (after the tradition of the elders) or eating with unwashed hands is not what defiles a man. Now the biggest thing here is verse 19. It seems pretty clear that here Messiah “declared all foods clean.” Again, we know from earlier Scriptures that food that is unclean is no longer food. So did Yeshua really declare them clean? (Remember Isaiah 5:20 “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!")
Let’s examine the Greek text here. The literal, word-for-word translation is rendered as “because not it enters of him into the heart but into the belly and into the gut goes out cleansing all the food.” So in the Greek there is NO declaration. That’s why the NASB (as quoted above) puts the “thus He declared” in brackets. Other translations use italics, but it means the same thing: the words were added. So what is it actually saying? It says simply that the body naturally cleanses itself. Remember, the context is eating with unwashed hands. If you eat without washing your hands, you risk getting bacteria and such, but your body processes food the same way as if you ate with washed hands. And if anything, your stomach will “cleanse the food” in your gut whether you wash your hands or not. If you have dirty hands, the stomach will cleanse the food nonetheless. This does NOT mean that the stomach is capable of turning something that is not meant for food (unclean) into food (clean). When reading the parallel account in Matthew 15 we see this a little more clearly.
Matthew 15:16 “And Yeshua said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17“Do you not understand that whatever enters into the mouth goes into the stomach, and is cast out in the sewer? 18“But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and these defile the man. 19“For out of the heart come forth wicked reasonings, murders, adulteries, whorings, thefts, false witnessings, slanders. 20“These defile the man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.””
Matthew’s account offers a little bit of extra detail. Here Yeshua plainly states what is being discussed: eating with washed hands, based on the tradition of the elders. This was not based on Scripture. In both gospel accounts Yeshua quotes the prophet Isaiah (Mark 7:3-13 & Matthew 15:3-9) stating that the people have forsaken YHWH, instead choosing to teach man’s commands over YHWH's. That is what is taking place in this altercation. Yeshua was pushing back against man’s tradition (which they taught as law) while upholding The Torah.
Next, consider a little logic-based analysis. The Father declared certain things to be unclean. Swine, flies, shrimp, catfish, owls, etc. These things He Himself said were unclean, not to be eaten (Leviticus 11). He also said He does not change (Malachi 3:6). Yeshua said in MANY places in the gospel of John that The Father sent Him. He said in John 5:30 “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” John 7:16 “So Yeshua answered them and said, “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. “”
Yeshua did not teach anything contrary to the teaching of The Father. The Father’s teaching (Torah, Law) is perfect (Psalm 19:7 & James 1:25). If He gave a commandment through one prophet (Moses) and declared the commandment “good” and “perfect” through others (Romans 7:12, Psalm 19:7 and James 1:25), and He never changes (Malachi 3:6) then we can safely believe that the commandments are STILL good. Yeshua our Messiah taught only what The Father gave Him to teach. The Father’s teachings never change, so Yeshua only taught what The Father had already expressed. As such, we then know that Yeshua never could have called something unclean, clean.
The last things to mention are the writings of the Apostles. I will briefly address 1 Corinthians 8 & 10 and then spend more time on 1 Timothy 4. Lastly I will address Peter’s vision in Acts 10 (since that is often brought up). In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is answering some questions that the Corinthian congregation had regarding food sacrificed to idols. Notice 1 Cor. 8:1 “And regarding food sacrificed to idols…” So the context is pretty clear. This is not speaking of UNCLEAN meat, it is speaking of meat offered to an idol. Fast forward to chapter 10 vs. 27. 1 Cor. 10:27 “ And if any of the unbelievers invite you, and you wish to go, you eat whatever is set before you, asking no question on account of the conscience.” People read this verse and then they stop. They say, “hey, right there Paul says eat that pork chop when the unbeliever puts it in front of you. It’s better than offending them!” Again, unclean animals are not the subject here. Read the next verse. 1 Cor. 10:28 “And if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it because of the one pointing it out to you, and on account of the conscience, for “The earth belongs to Yahweh, and all that fills it.” Here the context shows that the issue with the food in front of you is not whether it is clean or unclean, but rather whether or not it has been offered to idols.
Next is 1 Timothy 4:4. Here is 1 Timothy 4:1-5:
“But the Spirit distinctly says that in latter times some shall fall away from the belief, paying attention to misleading spirits, and teachings of demons, 2speaking lies in hypocrisy, having been branded on their own conscience, 3forbidding to marry, saying to abstain from foods which Elohim created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4Because every creature of Elohim is good, and none is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5for it is set apart by the Word of Elohim and prayer.”
Verses 4 & 5 is where trouble normally starts brewing. People will say, “I can eat it as long as I pray over it and receive it with thanksgiving.”
A few things to point out. First, see how Paul says there are some that have said to abstain from FOOD which Elohim created? Remember, unclean animals are not considered food. True, he says that Elohim created every creature to be good. That does NOT make every creature food, and Paul does not even insinuate such. The Father created poison dart frogs, does that make them food? If I pray and receive it with thanksgiving, does it render the poisonous, unclean frog clean? Of course not! Now verse 5 is the real key here. It is set-apart by the Word of Elohim and prayer. The Word (Scripture) defines what food is, and what food is not (Leviticus 11). In 1 Tim. 4:5 Paul says that nothing is to be reject that is set-apart by prayer AND the Word. It takes two to tango. So if you pray over a ham sandwich, but the Word does not say it is okay to eat it, then it is not okay to eat it. Only Scripture can determine whether or not it is actually food.
So what, then, is Paul getting at? I believe he is discussing the same thing he is saying in Romans 14.
Romans 14:2-3: “One indeed believes to eat all food, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. 3He that eats, let him not despise him who does not eat, and he that does not eat, let him not judge him who eats, for Elohim received him.”
Here Paul is contrasting the eating of only vegetables to the eating of other things (most likely including vegetables, but also meats). This is not about eating things that are unclean. The same thing he is teaching in 1 Tim. 4: there is nothing wrong with creatures which God created, that are set-apart by prayer and THE WORD. Unclean animals are not set-apart by the Word for the purpose of eating. The “abstain from foods” phrase that he uses in verse 3 is not in reference to the unclean but rather in eating what has already been declared as FOOD. Only Scripture can define what food is, and it is not anything that is unclean. Whatever we seek to eat must be in accordance with The Torah. If it’s not clean it’s not food.
This passage is likely a reference to groups, possibly the ascetic types throughout the Greco-Roman world or even some sects within Judaism, who taught that eating meat was wrong. These people also, in some instances, taught celibacy. It is noted that the Qumran sect (Essenes, according to most scholars) taught celibacy. Josephus says "they neglect wedlock." 
We must remember that Paul also believed everything in the Torah and the Prophets, as he himself says in Acts 24:14. Paul was raised as a Pharisee, and we know from his letters that he had extensive knowledge and, likely, memorization of the Old Testament. He knew very well what was clean and what was not. What was food and what was not food. Paul also defends himself in Acts 21:20-24 from accusations that he taught against the Torah. The elders say in verse 21 that they have been informed Paul teaches against circumcision and against the Torah. In verse 24 they tell Paul to go be cleansed with men at the Temple so that “all shall know that what they have been informed about you is not so, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Torah.” So he was accused of teaching against the Torah. And he went to the Temple to be cleansed to prove to the Jews that he did not teach against Torah. So we know, then, that Paul believed, walked according to, and taught the Torah (Acts 21 & 24).
Matthew 5:18 “For truly, I say to you, till the heaven and the earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall by no means pass from the Torah till all be done.” Heaven and earth have not passed away, all is not done, so not one jot or one tittle has passed from the Torah.
The final point to address is Peter’s vision in Acts 10. I find this one simple as Peter himself gives the meaning of it, but I will expound on it nonetheless. Acts 10:9-16:
And on the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the house-top to pray, about the sixth hour. 10And he became hungry and wished to eat. But while they were preparing, he fell into a trance, 11and he saw the heaven opened and a certain vessel like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth, 12in which were all kinds of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping creatures, and the birds of the heaven. 13And a voice came to him, “Rise up, Peter, slay and eat.” 14But Peter said, “Not at all, Master! Because I have never eaten whatever is common or unclean.” 15And a voice came to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you do not consider common.” 16And this took place three times, and the vessel was taken back to the heaven.
The first red flag going up should be on account of God never having declared unclean animals were clean. “What God has cleansed you do not consider common,” does not mean God cleansed unclean animals. We should be wary of falling prey to the same explanations that many commentators have given, namely reading our beliefs into the text, rather than digging out the meaning of the text. We need to let Scripture interpret Scripture, and we find in this instance that Peter does the job for us.
In vs. 1 we learn that Cornelius, a Roman captain, is a believer. We are told he had a dream telling him to find Peter. We learn that he sent messengers to find Peter. That leads us into vs. 9 as we read above, when they (those sent by Cornelius) were approaching the city. The men go to the house and ask for Peter. The Spirit tells Peter (vs. 19-20) to go with the men and he does. Verse 28 is very important.
Acts 10:28 “And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.”
First we need to determine what law Peter is talking about. There is not one single law mentioned in the Torah about not associating with a foreigner, nor is there a law about not visiting him. There are, however, various discussions found in the Talmud (Jewish teaching and tradition that formed a large corpus of extra-Biblical laws and statutes, and was written 300-500 years after the NT) that would bar Jews from entering the house of non-Jews. One such example of found in tractate Avodah Zarah (which refers to the worship of idols), and notes that eating with a gentile is forbidden from eating food cooked by a gentile.  This is why Peter says it is unlawful.
It is also worth noting that in the Greek NT, the word nomos is used for “law.” This is used in nearly every place where the English reads “law.” It is used in reference to Torah as well as the laws of man, the law of sin, the law of flesh (see Romans 7). The word for lawless is anomos which literally just means “without law” or “against law.” (commonly, "lawless") The word used here in Acts 10 for “unlawful,” however, is athemitos. This word is used only twice in Scripture. Once here, to mean "unlawful," and once in 1 Peter 4:3 to mean “abominable.” So it is not anomos or anomia (depending on usage in the Greek) used in Acts 10 as it normally is for “lawless,” but rather a different word altogether. This implies that Luke, when writing Acts, did not intend for the reader to assume he was referring to a law in the Torah.
So what does it all mean? Examine again verse 28. Peter says God has shown him not to call any man common or unclean. In Jewish culture at the time, non-Jews were considered lesser beings. There was a huge disdain for them and the Talmud contains many laws concerning the treatment of gentiles. That is why we see no reaction in Mark 7:25-30 when Yeshua compares the Greek (gentile) woman to a dog. He wasn’t truly calling her a dog, obviously. He was testing her faith. But there was no reaction to His statement because it was common to bear disdain for foreigners. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Why was it a big deal that a Samaritan stopped to help the man? Because Samaritans were looked down on by Jews. That is why he is contrasted in the story with a priest and a Levite, the elite caste in Jewish culture.
The whole point of Peter’s vision was to give him a picture of something he understood very well. In this case it was the sheet of unclean animals. He was told to “rise up, Peter; slay, and eat” because that would get his attention. Notice what the voice says in verse 15, “what God has cleansed, you do not consider common.” He was never told those animals were cleansed. Skipping down to verse 28 Peter says that God has shown him he should not call any man common or unclean. It was men God was talking about, not animals. It was men, humans, people, that had been declared cleansed, not animals. But God used the concept of clean and unclean that Peter understood best, as represented by the food laws.
I hope this study has blessed you.
 Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 47.
 Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 605.
 Babylonian Talmud. Tractate Avodah Zarah, 37b.
9/12/2017 01:51:34 pm
Great article! I have only one critique. In the last paragraph, you say that it was a sheet of unclean animals. All of the versions that I have read say "all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air". If there are all kinds of animals, creatures and birds, wouldn't that mean that there are clean and unclean?
7/4/2020 03:27:22 pm
Thank you for your insightful comment from a few years ago here, Robert. I would like to build upon your insight with something your idea made me connect the dots with, if I may.
7/4/2020 03:32:20 pm
**Continued due to it being cut off above**
7/4/2020 03:37:11 pm
Thank you for the awesome blog post, brother Jonathan. As brother Robert did, I too have but one critique to offer. I am not convinced about the importance of distinction you made between the common term anomia/os with the rare athemitos term. If we look at the cited 1 Pet 4:3 passage, athemitos is used as an adjective to the otherwise common NT term for idolatry/ries G1495. This means the athemitos "unlawful" term is being used by Peter in a Torah context. This then rules out the blog post claim here that the term cannot be applied to the Torah proper, as the idolatry term is a generic one.
7/4/2020 03:41:46 pm
I will leave it at the discretion of our article author as to whether this direct link to my personal post and consequent comments, will be allowed to be disclosed here:
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J. A. Brown