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Why Did Peter Refused To Eat God-Given Food?

Peter once saw an enigmatic vision while praying: “The sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat!’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.’ Again, a voice came to him a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy’” (Acts 10:11-15 NASB).

Peter refused to eat the animals in his vision, calling them κοινὸν καὶ ἀκάθαρτον (koinon kai akatharton) “unholy and unclean.” It is a common assumption that the apostle was offered only unclean animals forbidden to Israel (cf. Lev 11; Deut 14). In reality, the vision showed a variety of clean and unclean animals mixed together.

Most modern readers miss the meaning of this passage entirely because they do not fully grasp what these words meant to Peter in his cultural context. To many modern readers “unclean” simply means “dirty,” but for a first-century Jew, “unclean” (ἀκάθαρτος; akathartos) referred to “defilement” (טָמֵא; tameh) – a ceremonial worship-related temporary disqualification (e.g., Lev 5:2; 15:32).

The second term in the vision, translated as “unholy,” is κοινός (koinos), which can be even more confusing. It is an equivalent to the Hebrew חֹל (chol), meaning “common,” “ordinary,” or/therefore “unsanctified.” There is nothing “bad” or “sinful” in the term translated as “not/unholy.” In fact, the Greek word for “fellowship,” κοινωνία (koinonia), comes from the same linguistic root. In Jewish tradition, the intermediary days of a long festival like Passover are called חֹל הַמּוֹעֵד (chol hamoed) because they are “ordinary” days and not holy days of rest.

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The heavenly voice in the vision insisted, “What God cleansed for you do not make common (κοινός; koinos)” (Acts 10:15). Peter refused to eat what he saw because the clean animals in the vision were mixed with unclean ones and thus became defiled. Many interpreters suppose that God cleansed all animals for Peter, but remember that there were two kinds of animals in the vision.

The Torah divides all animals into categories – “unclean” טָמֵא (tameh) and “clean” טָהֵר(tahor). The “unclean” animals are prohibited as food altogether and only clean animals can be classified as κοινός (koinos) / חֹל (chol) “common”, for ordinary everyday use. Only the meat of these clean animals, which is “common,” can become “holy” קָדוֹשׁ (kadosh) if it offered to God on the altar.

Both clean animals (and people) can become “defiled” and “unclean” temporarily. But they can also be purified and restored to their previous status. And that is exactly what the divine voice is telling Peter. God purified the clean animals, believers from the nations, in the vision for Peter. And they are not “common” but actually “holy” (קָדוֹשׁ; kadosh).

By: Prof. Pinchas Shir
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Pinchas Shir is nearing completion of his Ph.D. at the department of Religion at Groningen University in the Netherlands. His areas of academic interest are intercultural meals, table interactions between Jews and non-Jews in antiquity, and dining culture and ancient culinary contexts in general. Pinchas is also keenly interested in Ancient Mediterranean and Israelite archaeology of the Second Temple era.

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