“Be Tolerant (Deut 15,21)”

by John Wijngaards, LAWS FOR LIFE Series in the New Leader, 31 March 1974; in Telugu Bharata Mithram, 2 November 1975

“You may not eat any animal that dies of itself. You may give it as food to the stranger who lives in your community or you may sell it to a foreigner.” (Deuteronomy 14,21)

Jews were not allowed to eat animals that had died of themselves. The reason was that such animals had died with the blood remaining in their flesh. The Jews were instructed to remove all the blood from the animal when slaughtering it (see Gen 9,4:. Lev 17 10.14). The blood of the animal to be eaten had to be poured out because the blood is life Itself (see Lev 17,11 ; 11 Sam 23,17). Life was considered to be something sacred. It played a special function in sacrifice (Ex 29,16; Lev 1, 5.11). Blood could reconcile God and people (Lev 17,11). It could consecrate people to God (Ex 12,22.23; 29, 21). It could ratify a covenant (Ex. 24,3.8). For all these reasons Jews were forbidden to eat blood. Their respect for blood gave expression in respect for life itself and for God, tbe giver of life.

What about non-Jews?

The Jews coneldered themselves as an especially “holy” people, a people dedicated to God. At the same time they realized that some of the obligations put on them by God’s covenant did not necessarily apply to others. The interesting element in tbis particular law is that tbe lawgiver gives explicit permission for Jews to give meat from animals that died of tbemselves to their non-Jewish brethren. Meat, of course, was rare in Palestine especially for poor people, as it is for us today. It would be a pity if the poor non-Jews would not be allowed to benefit from the availability of meat, on account of some special prohibition for the Jews alone.

This illustrates in a concrete instance that Almighty God, the Supreme Lawgiver, acknowledges different applications of morality for different people. God could not tolerate a Jew to eat flesh with blood in it, since the Jew saw the connectlon between blood, life and God as life-giver. But non-Jews, with their different concepts and their different religious approach, could not be judged by the same moral prinoiple. The non-Jew should be judged by the principle which he had formulated in his conscience and in his religious traditions. As St. Paul was to say much later: Jews will be judged by the law of Moses, but non-Jews will be judged by their conscience. (Rom 2,12-29)

It is obvious that this law has much application today. When judging our Hindu or Muslim brethren, for instance, we should allow them to serve God In the way dictated by their own conciences and by their own religious traditions. Things that may not be allowed to us because of our religious principles, may be perfectly allowed to them on account of tbe different understanding of morality found with them. We have to tolerate in tbem things which are not wrong in themselves, but whioh we ourselves would never do.

Charity or Profit?

Thelaw says that this particular kind of meat should be given freely to the stranger or may be sold to the foreigner. Here the lawgiver distinguishes two kinds of person. In those times there were quite a. few poor people, many of them of non- Jewish origin, wbo lived in Palestinian cities. To such “poor” strangers the meat should be given free of cost. The lawgiver often reminds the people of their duty of charity towards the non-Jewish poor living among them. They may not be oppressed (Dt 24,14). They must be protected in court (Dt 24,17). They must be given a share of the tithe (Dt 14,28-29), They must be given a share in the sacrifices at Penteoost (Dt 16,11). The command to give this meat freely to such strangers is therefore a reminder that the Jew should not draw financia1 profit flom the fact that his animal died. Rather, he should be happy that his poor non-Jewish neighbour eould enjoy the meat which he himself was not allowed to eat.

The “foreigner'” to wbom he may sell the meat is a different person. From a comparative study of the laws we know that he was some kind of businessman, often a money-lender, perhaps representing houses of import and export with the countries of trade. The lawgiver allows his people to be strlct with such “foreigners” when demanding the repayment of debts (Dt 15,3) or the taking of interest (Dt 23,21). In this case he allows his pe ple to gain financial profit when handing over a dead animal to such a merchant.

The literal details of this law are no Ionges applicable to us. Most of us do not possess oattle and even if an gnimal dies of itself we would be allowed to eat the meat. What remains a lesson for us is the attitude taught with regard to those belonging to other religious traditions. We should be tolerant towards tbem and treat them, not according to our own norms, but according to the norms which they understand and according to which they worship God.