Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Theology of Food: Why We Eat (Fulfillment, Enjoyment, and Symbolism)

Authors Note: This is a guest post by Karolina Beveridge, who holds a BA in Liberal Arts from Providence Christian College. She runs her own gluten/dairy/soy/refined sugar free blog. There will be five more posts in this series. 


          God created a world whose inhabitants must eat in order to live (Schaeffer 114, Jenks
251). No one can be unconcerned with food (Schaeffer 113). So intense is the need for food that Scripture records the hungry man longing so strongly for food such that it enters his dreams (Jenks 251, Isaiah 29:8). To recognize this evokes humility. We are not self sustaining gods. Life is sustained in complete dependence on God’s grace-gifts of plants, sunlight, food, water, earth, imagination, cooking, community, and so on (Wirzba 1, 111; Jenks 251, 252). Furthermore, to eat is to participate, whether consciously or unconsciously, in a vast network of social, biological, ecological, and global systems (Wirzba 4). Food is and always has been relational (Schaeffer 126). Food also demonstrates both symbolically and literally in the most basic way, the fact that the cost of life is death. Creatures die for the nourishment of the next generation, just as the cost of our eternal living was death (Wirzba 53). Fertile soil requires death and decomposition in order to be replenished (Wirzba 1, 53). While food also sustains life, eating simultaneously shows mortality. No matter how healthy humans attempt to eat, all are mortal and will eventually die (Wirzba xi). To understand this reality reminds us that, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19, Wirzba 53) This earth is not yet the place where our promised eternal life has seen the consummation of its anticipated fruition.

            In order to have a scripturally informed understanding of food, one must turn to the meditation of the Word of God. The Old Testament and Judaism are the background of New Testament theology so both must be consulted in order to understand the biblical theology of food for our time today(Burge, 26). A hermeneutical principle states that the Old Testament and New Testament work concentrically, one shedding light upon the other. The New Covenant finds its basis upon the Old Covenant promises which it fulfilled, and vice versa (Edersheim 7; McCartney/Clayton 10).

            Another principle of hermeneutics states that for proper interpretation readers must be knowledgeable of the past and present cultural makeup (Burge 11). When something is done or said in a culture, the values of that time and place are always presupposed. To understand the philosophies, lifestyle, and expectations of Judaism is an important step in the right direction for having a basic understanding of truth. It sets a framework for accurately interpreting the work of Christ because the way he worked was done in relevance to his own Judaic culture (Edersheim 7). The subtle symbolism within their traditions would not be noteworthy to an outsider (Burge15). When readers are unaware of presuppositions in Scripture, oblivion to the nuances and subtleties that make up large parts of the message is not uncommon (Burge 11). All of life is framed within a particular cultural context. Understanding the cultural differences between one
historical point in Scripture and another is necessary to truly understand the teachings (Burge 10). This study will employ these steps towards a right interpretation of the biblical theology of food and conclude with implications for faithful, Christian life today.

The Theology of Food in the Old Testament
            Beginning with the teachings of the preacher in Ecclesiastes is appropriate for it gives one of the most explicit accounts of biblical food theology. The book of Ecclesiastes states that man is to enjoy life wholeheartedly, for that is the will of God and his gift to man (Whybray, 87). Ecclesiastes uses the literary tool of repetition seven times, in rising degrees of emphasis. Moreover, seven is one of the biblical numbers of completion, so the preacher-writer uses this fact along with the tool of repetition, heightening the effect, depth, and actuality of the truth being expressed (Whybray, 95). Juxtaposed between the seven joy-statements are seven passages of despairing lamentation in which the preacher-writer, Qoheleth, expresses the vanity of life (Eccl. 4:1-3). He begins with an objective statement of vanity, and again uses emphatically
rising repetition, culminating finally, in the paradoxal statement of final lamentation at which he becomes personally broken, in 4:2-3 (Whybray, 93). However, the seeming brokenness of the Qoheleth is ironic, because it is told in the same text as the final joy statement. It is not a contradiction; rather it is expressing the state of all man, upon the realization that death is the unavoidable end, apart from trust in God. The greater one understands the joy of the gift of life, the greater one realizes how truly hopeless humanity apart from him is. There are other such paradoxal parallels in Job 3 and Jeremiah 20:13-18. To live life apart from receiving joy from God is vanity (Eccl. 2:18-23, Whybray 90). Trust in God, enables recipients of his grace to have
the gift, joy, in eating and drinking. It is the will of God; therefore he gives us that joy. For this reason, the problems are framed in the book in such a way as to direct the audience to the seven answers. Framed adjacent to the deepest expressions of despair is the paradoxal and exquisite contrast of God’s magnificent plan.

            The first of the seven passages with the answer of eating and drinking in joy, begins in the indicative tense. “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment…” (2:24) This is followed by four more, emphatic declarations of the indicative (3:12, 3:22, 5:18-20, 8:15), concluding upon two imperative statements (9:7-9. 11:7-12:1). The indicative is a state of being. From the first of the seven, it is clear that the gift comes from “the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Eccl. 2:24b-25). This is the indicative enables the imperative command of the sixth and seventh (Eccl. 9:7a-9a, 11:9a, 10a, 12a) (Whybray 88). It is significant, and perhaps even surprising to some, that the seven solutions have to do with joy in food. The significance of food is often forgotten, as the abuse or neglect of food is the norm in society, and eating just an every-day task. Yet this entire book in Scripture indicates that it is the gift of God, delight in which the Preacher of Ecclesiastes presents as the answer for the overwhelming vanity of life. Not only is it good, but nothing is better than to have joy in our eating and drinking.

            Ecclesiastes makes it incredibly clear food is a good, creational gift of sustenance, even within the depths of the soul due to the reality of its symbolism in spiritual and eternal life. That points to creaturely dependence on God, holistically upon every realm of life. Throughout Scripture, food symbolism matters. It is metaphorical for our salvation showing the destitution of the soul apart from God, just as the state of the body apart from food.

            The book of Song of Solomon, a metaphor for Christ and the church, expresses this gift in its exquisite value. The groom here describes his bride, in a way that is often baffling to those unaware of the food significance of that cultural context. He compares her eyes to doves (1:15), her hair to a flock of goats (4:1), her cheeks as pomegranate halves (4:3). Her lips like nectar and her tongue like milk and honey (3:11). This is because the livestock one owned was wealth itself in a predominately agricultural society. Alongside this livestock and the best of the harvest served sacrificial purposes in Judaism. The best of the firstfruits were incense to God, and doves were temple for sacrifices (i.e. Joseph and Mary when they brought Christ to the temple for his naming and circumcision). Milk and honey were the signs of the Promised Land the Israelites in the wilderness yearned for, was “the land flowing with milk and honey.” Food products signified of blessings and assurance of promise-fulfillment. The groom describes the love of his bride as better than wine (1:2). Psalm 104, amidst celebrating the gift of food to all creatures, declares
that God has given wine to make the heart glad (3:10) (Jenks 251). This reiterates the message of Ecclesiastes, that the gift of God to man is to eat and drink and take pleasure in it (Ecc. 3:12-13). Throughout the Psalms there are worshipful praises to God, for food. Psalm 63 states, “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips…” (Ps. 63:5). In the context, the Psalmist is in desperation, crying out for provision in a land where there is no water. In the sanctuary of God he lifts up his hands to God with praises because the steadfast hesed of God is better than life (vs. 3,4). He praises God for the confidence of his hope in a time that will come of abundance of food. In Hebrew poetry, parallel lines express similar ideas with intensification. In the first line of this stanza, he expresses his soul being satisfied with food, and the second stanza takes this statement further to the soul being in the
ultimate state of glorifying God with praise. The first line is presuming the typology of food with God’s spiritual blessing that is in the second line.

            When God’s people do not find joy in his gift of food to us, it is to go against the will of God. Psalm 78 speaks of God’s wrath against the Israelites because they do not recognize his provision of manna and water from the rock in the wilderness. They demanded more food from him testing him sinfully. God displayed wonders for them yet they did not believe in his power to continue to sustain them (vss. 21-22). He fed them with the grain from heaven, manna which was the bread of angels, and meat fell on them like rain, and yet they still did not remember his grace (vss. 24-25, 27). On a surface level this Psalm teaches the vital importance of recognizing with thankfulness, God’s marvelous provision that he bestows on a daily bases in the form of food. Yet, it was eschatological, looking forward to the fulfillment in Christ. Later this paper will discuss the commentary that Christ himself gave in John 6.

Author's Note: To read the next installment, click here.

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