It would be interesting to conduct a major George Barna style survey and determine how many people in the Christian pews of America think that the point of Peter’s sheet vision in Acts 10 and 11 is about God reversing his commandment to Israel not to eat unclean animals.
Some have called this story the first example of a “pig in the blanket” (sorry, a little humor there).
I am reading Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words because I will be reviewing it in the Spring issue of Kesher (kesherjournal.com). It was on page 205 that I found this quote (by a scholar, mind you, not a layperson):
While it is certainly true, for instance, that both God and the author of Deuteronomy once forbade the eating of reptiles (Deut 14:8), it is equally true that God is no longer saying this, or at least he is not saying it in the same way (Acts 11:4-10). Historically speaking, the church has never had much trouble admitting that God has sometimes said one thing and then another.
This quote is very revealing and should give pause to a lot of people who have certain assumptions about the Peter and the sheet from heaven story. Sparks is trying to prove that the Bible has many contradictions and that our view of the Bible’s authority must change to compensate.
I doubt if most people who believe that Peter was given permission to eat lizards would share Sparks’ skeptical view of the Bible (he believes the Bible is our authority, but he has to radically adjust what that means from traditional understandings).
In case you don’t know the story, Acts 10 and 11 is about Peter coming to Cornelius, a God-fearing non-Jew who attended synagogue, kept at least some of the Torah, and whose gifts to charity and to the synagogue caused God to hear his prayers (note Acts 10:4 which says that acts of kindness cause prayers to ascend to God — just didn’t want you to think I made it up).
Now Peter, at that time, was unwilling to enter the home of a Gentile. So God did an Ezekiel on him, giving him a vision to teach and persuade him.
What did Peter see in the vision?
Here again, many people imagine something that is not in the text. Many people have an image in their mind of a sheet or screen coming down from heaven (IMAX?) with a banquet laid out: suckling pig, bacon and eggs, ham and macaroni, lobster tail and shrimp cocktail, oysters on the half shell and clam chowder, etc.
Actually, he saw on the sheet “all kinds of four-legged creatures and crawling creatures of the earth and birds” (10:12).
Mmmm, lizards, roaches, rats, and crows. Anyone hungry?
What lesson did Peter derive from this vision? Was it about God saying: “I made a mistake earlier, when I forbade eating tasty reptiles. And pork, oh pork, I am so sorry I made you guys abstain. I am the God of the Universe, but I do make mistakes.”?
Well, no, Peter seemed to get the message. It was a lesson that Peter should not call unclean what God has made clean (10:15). What did God make clean? Lizards? No, Gentiles.
This is not to say that Gentiles were ever called unclean by God anywhere in Torah or prophets. Far from it, Israel was supposed to be the priestly people to the Gentiles. All men and women from all nations were always supposed to hear from Israel about God.
It was in the customs of the time, aggravated by turmoil between Jews and Romans, that Gentiles were excluded and often regarded as a source of uncleanness (note John 19 and the chief priests afraid to defile themselves in Pilate’s hall).
God was not saying, “I changed my mind. Gentiles used to be unclean, but now I have made them clean.” Neither was it God saying, “I changed my mind about bacon. It’s good.”
It was about God teaching Peter a lesson. Peter, who said he had never eaten anything unclean, needed to learn that Gentiles are not unclean. It is sad that Peter needed to learn this lesson, but he did. Ever since Yeshua had told him to go to the nations with the message, he had not been doing it.
Sometimes God has to go to extraordinary measures to get even his top servants to learn something new.
That brings me back to Kenton Sparks, professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. His use of the Acts 11 example is one of numerous cases in which he quickly assumes errors and contradictions in the Bible.
But do well-meaning people who want to read Acts 10 and 11 as overturning a commandment of God want to join this skeptical bandwagon? Is the law which God gave and which he repeatedly told us was perfect and beautiful (read Psalm 19 and 119, if not the Torah itself) something bad, a mistake God made which he needs to correct in the New Testament?
Of course not. Sparks should know better. He should engage the text on a more critical level. Shame on him for using this example so prominently (at the beginning of his case for a new way of understanding the Bible’s authority).
Peter, being a Jew, did not go on to start a revolution of Jewish pork-eating (or lizard-eating). Nor did Paul. Note that in Acts 21:17-26, Paul affirmed that he never violated a Torah custom or even a Jewish tradition. It is very hard to read Acts 21 assuming that Paul and the other Jewish apostles were having lizard banquets.
But Peter and Paul did support the idea that non-Jews are not bound by the sign commandments of Torah (Acts 15).
So, Christians are right, according to Acts, to find eating pork permissible (and lizards, but who wants to?). But it is not because, as many assume, that God changed his mind. Gentiles were never bound by dietary law (Deut 14:21).