Parables of Intimacy: A Biblical Theology of Eating and Drinking (Part 2)

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I’m finishing a paper on a Biblical Theology of Table Fellowship.  So, for the next 5 days, I will post short excerpts from my paper that help us think about what we do, and the significance of eating and drinking with one another.  Here’s part 2: Table Fellowship in the Law. (Or go back to read part 1)

table fellowship

The remaining meal occurrences in Genesis develop these themes further. The gracious provision of food and drink figures prominently in the re-commissioning of Noah (Gen 9:3), the blessing of Abram by the priest-king, Melchizedek (14:18), Abraham’s hospitality to the three visitors (18:6-8), and the Lord’s provision for the nations through the inspired stewardship of Joseph in Egypt (41:57). Likewise, shared meals in Genesis reveal willingness to associate with others. A ‘feast’ accompanies the ‘sworn pact’ between Isaac and Abimelech (26:28-30), and similarly between Jacob and Laban (36:54). But even as table fellowship fosters camaraderie, its refusal also marks animosity, as when the Egyptians in Joseph’s court refuse to eat with his Hebrew brothers, ‘for that is an abomination to the Egyptians’ (42:32). It is also interesting to note the repetition of a meal eaten in haste, as Esau elevates carnal lust for a quick bite to eat over his birthright of sustained blessing (25:24).

Food in Exodus builds upon the themes already observed in Genesis. Yahweh memorializes his provision to rescue Israel from oppression with a regular Passover meal (Exod 12:11-17), and tends to his people’s physical needs with water (15:24-25), meat and bread (16:8). He also initiates great intimacy with Israel by hosting a meal in his presence (24:11). The ironic juxtaposition of Yahweh’s covenant meal with the elders of Israel, proceeding to drunken feasting and revelry to a golden bull (32:6) heightens the outrage of their idolatry. Once again, the physical provision and intimate fellowship of a generous God is traded for expediency. The treachery is enacted in mealtime drama.

Perhaps the clearest and most paradigmatic development of table fellowship in the Torah is the rigor of dietary laws imposed on Israel under the Mosaic covenant. In the commissioning of Israel as a distinct people, Yahweh provides several distinguishing marks that consecrate this people from all the nations of the earth. These distinctions include circumcision, God’s tabernacle presence, and the wisdom of their divinely inspired legal system, but also their unique dietary regulations. While all of these different components set Israel apart, their special food restrictions might constitute the most significant distinction for daily life. Hartley summarizes,

In following these dietary laws, the Israelites obeyed God’s instructions several times each day, developing deep in their consciousness an attitude of obedience to God. That all the people observed the laws at every meal was a mighty force of solidarity, uniting the people as God’s special treasure (Exod. 19:5). It separated the Israelites from their polytheistic neighbors and became a distinguishing mark of their national identity. . . They erect a high barrier against assimilation and amalgamation of the Jewish people, which would lead to the loss of their racial identity.[1]

So it follows that the dietary laws imposed a significant matrix that affected interpersonal dynamics. The faithful Jew could not enjoy table fellowship with an outsider, without the foreigner first submitting to the Mosaic food codes. In a very real sense, Jews could not share meals with outsiders unless they, at least functionally, became insiders. Under the food restrictions of the Old Covenant, Israel faced a constant reminder that they could not associate with foreign people at the level of intimacy implied by table fellowship.

(Continued in Part 3)

Notes:

[1] John E. Hartle, Leviticus, (Dallas: Word Books, 1992), 163.

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