Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Goat’s Milk and the Christian

Occasionally I hear someone say that they belong to a “New Testament Church.” The speaker usually means that the New Testament and not the Old Testament is their standard for faith and practice. Such a statement has both true and false implications. True, the New Testament teaches the beginnings, theology and practice of the Church. False, the New Testament does not reject the Old Testament’s applications and meanings for the Church.

Most Christians, including “New Testament Christians,” agree that the Old Testament provides a basis for much theology—creation, original sin, prophecies of Christ, etc. But “New Testament Christians” find little use for the Old Testament law and much of the prophets in their preaching and teaching. This could be because (1) they genuinely dismiss much of the Old Testament as sub-Christian or (2) they simply do not know how to deal with the clearly non-Christian elements found in the Old Testament. This second issue furnishes the focus of this article.

First, a shock treatment—Every part of the Old Testament, in particular the Law, since that is the locus of concern for many, can be taught and preached in the church in a manner that neither violates the historical interpretation of the Old Testament nor imposes sub- or non-Christian beliefs and practices on the Christian.

John Bright (The Authority of the Old Testament, pages 112-14) provides the key for Christians to understand and use the Old Testament personally or in ministry. The key “is to be found in the theological structure of both Testaments in their mutual relationships—that is to say, through the study of biblical theology.” To put the issue on the lower shelf, every law has an underlying reason for its existence; the primary point that transfers across the dispensational boundaries between the Old and New Testaments is the underlying theological reason. The law itself may be historically or culturally determined, and therefore changeable, but the theology remains consistent. For further discussion refer to my book, Shekels, Dollars & Sense, chapter 3, “Two Testaments; One Theology.”

Now to “Goat’s Milk.” “You must not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). How do we interpret and preach this Old Testament text? How can it be used as a text for a Christian sermon with an application that is hermeneutically proper, theologically legitimate and practically useful?

Hermeneutically, every passage of Scripture must be understood in its own contexts. So our question, what historical, cultural, or religious context made this Mosaic injunction so important that it was repeated three times?

Historically, we remain in semi-darkness. Perhaps someday archaeologists will turn over the shovel in the right place and bring into the light the situation in life that precipitated this law. What does appear sure to most scholars, however, is that it had something to do with the religious practices of Israel’s pagan neighbors. This was first suggested by the Jewish scholar Maimonides (1195 AD) and still considered plausible today. Craigie states (Ugarit and the Old Testament, 76), “. . . it remains highly likely that the biblical text prohibits something central to the religion of Canaan and Ugarit.” If true the “something central” would most likely include their celebrated idolatrous worship.

Theologically, the Laws of Moses teach something about God’s Person. Tithing, for instance, concerns itself primarily with the transference of the divine character traits of justice, mercy and faithfulness into the life of God’s people. The 10% requirements are secondary matters. (See my book Shekels, Dollars & Sense)

So how does “You must not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” reflect on God? If such an activity was indeed idolatrous as suggested above, it would have been a pagan custom in honor of a pagan deity. For Israel this would violate the 1st and 2nd commandments, “You shall have no other gods before Me . . . . You shall not worship them or serve them” (Deuteronomy 5:7 and 9). This lies at the heart of the monotheistic faith of Israel and therefore fitting for a three-times-repeated negative command.

Practically, granting for argument’s sake the validity of the cultural and religious function of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, such an act by Israel would represent a violation of its covenant with God and place the nation in jeopardy of experiencing the curses of the Law instead of enjoying its blessings. In such a scenario, the practicality of the command is undeniable; fellowship with God is the vital issue.

But now we must relate this Old Testament command to the New Testament. Taking our lead from John Bright, we focus attention not so much on the details of the command itself that may be historically and culturally defined but on the theological understructure for the command—idolatry. The question then arises, “Was idolatry an issue in the New Testament, and if so, how did it display itself; what were its cultural or religious trappings?”

Numerous New Testament passages speak negatively about idolatry. 1 John 5:21, for example, states unequivocally, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” Or take the problem of eating meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. Idolatry in the Christian era did not include boiling a kid in its mother’s milk; it took other forms. And since idolatry in any form “replaces” God, the Old Testament edict carries a clear New Testament parallel and must be avoided. As in the Old Testament, spiritual fellowship with God stands in the balance.

Both boiling a kid in its mother’s milk and eating meat offered to idols equate to idolatry. The further question cannot be ignored, “What are today’s idols? Money, sex, power, material possessions? If anything stands between the Christian and God, it must be classified as an idol and John’s command applies as much to the Christian Church of the 21st century as it did in the 1st century, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.”

In conclusion, I suppose that someone will comment, “Why bother going through this whole interpretive scenario? Why not just use 1 John 5:21 as the text for the sermon? I could give a number of reasons to justify using the Old Testament, but allow me simply to suggest that a sermon titled “Goat’s Milk and the Christian” with the text being “You must not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” would undoubtedly create interest and alertness in the pews. What a novel idea!