Clean and Unclean Foods Leviticus 11:1-47


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Leviticus 11:1-47

Tonight we take up the question that occurs to any attentive reader of Leviticus: why in the world were some animals approved to be eaten and others not. Why was beef or lamb allowed, but not pork? Why were some birds clean and others unclean? This distinction seems pointless to the modern reader, almost superstitious. When I was growing up, the way to defend this distinction between clean and unclean animals to the modern mind was to argue that the principle of differentiation was hygiene. The Lord of course knew what his people did not know: that pork and the flesh of certain animals and birds were more likely to carry disease or cause illness and so, in his kindness, he forbade his people to eat what was unhealthy for them. That is an explanation that appeals to modern people, more conscious of hygiene in general and the relationship between health and the food we eat than any previous generation of human beings. There are still some Christians who teach that view today, though it has always been bedeviled by severe, if not fatal problems. Not only is it impossible to prove that some of the unclean animals were actually any more of a health risk than the clean ones, the Lord Jesus eliminated this distinction in the first century long before anyone knew anything about trichinosis. Are we to believe that he wished Israelites to avoid sickness, but didn’t mind if both Jewish and Gentile Christians in the new epoch got sick from the food they ate? But if not hygiene, what was the principle of differentiation?  Let’s read the text first and then consider the question.

This chapter begins a new section that continues to the end of chapter 15 dealing with the causes and the remedies of ritual impurity. We read in the previous chapter, in v. 10, that one duty of the priests was to teach Israel to distinguish between “the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” In other words God’s people needed to be able to distinguish the three ritual states: that of the holy, the common or pure, and the impure. These next chapters provide the instructions regarding ritual states that the priests were to communicate to the people.

The beginning and the end of the chapter identifies the animals that are clean and those that are unclean. The section in the middle, from v. 24 to v. 40, also explains what one is to do if he becomes unclean by touching the carcass of such an animal.

Text Comment

v.6       A hare does not literally “chew the cud” in the sense that a cow does; but it is among the animals that chew their food thoroughly. It is not so much the nature of the digestive system but the appearance of the animal that is being described. [Sklar, 165-166] That is, such an animal did not have to belong to our category of ruminants, animals that have multiple stomachs. [Levine, 66]

v.8       The first category of animals listed is land animals at least as large as a rabbit. It isn’t hard to understand the general classifications, though the reason for them is another question. They are not the classifications that would be used by a modern biologist.  Animals could be eaten that both chew the cud and have a split hoof, such as cows and sheep and goats; but that would exclude horses on both counts, for example. Any animals that chew the cud but don’t have divided hooves or vice versa are unclean. The pig, for example, has a divided foot but does not chew the cud.

The requirement is that unclean animals must not be eaten or touched when they are dead. One did not contract impurity, for example, from riding a camel, only touching a dead one. Nor was anyone forbidden to touch a dead camel; but, if he did, he would have to remove the impurity. Obviously dead animals would have to be disposed of and that would require contact.

One brief observation before we proceed. Israel’s was obviously not a vegetarian culture. Meat was expensive and they ate much less of it than we do, but they were definitely meat eaters. There are evangelical Christians nowadays who argue that Christians ought to be vegetarians, but those I have read, admit, as they must, that the Bible does not command this or even illustrate it, apart from Daniel’s decision, when carried into exile in Babylon, to eat only vegetables, a decision that had nothing to do with some scruple against eating meat per se. Whether in the OT or the NT, God’s people have always had a great deal of freedom to choose the food they wish to eat, but sacrificial worship in the ancient epoch required meat and meat was a staple of the Christian table in the New Testament as well. We know that the Lord Jesus ate meat, and that should settle the question for all of us whether there is any moral necessity for vegetarianism.

v.12     Among the marine animals, fish with scales and fins are clean, but those without scales and who move by another means — think of eels or shell fish — are unclean.

v.13     No clean birds are listed here, but we already know that turtledoves and pigeons were pure and could be used for sacrifice, the Lord himself provided quail for his people in the wilderness, and we gather that ducks and geese were likewise edible. [Levine, 68] Honesty compels me to admit that, though the ESV has provided translations for all these birds, the names themselves are rare and for that reason some of them cannot be identified with any certainty, though the general classifications are probably accurate. [Hartley, 159-160]

v.23     Most insects were unclean, but a few were not, including the locust or grasshopper family. It is not just in the Middle East that people still eat locusts. For those of you who love fried grasshoppers, you can find your pathetic and disgusting tastes affirmed here.

v.27     We are given a clarification here: animals with paws are likewise impure. So dogs or lions could not be eaten.

v.28     There are two different situations contemplated here. Those who merely touched the dead animal had simply to wait until evening to be restored to purity. Having to wait to be restored to purity was a common requirement in the ancient Near East. But those who had to handle the carcass had both to wait until evening and wash their clothes. In other words, the method required to remove impurity was enough to remind God’s people of the point but never more than a minor inconvenience.

v.32     An entire tractate of the Mishnah, a later collection of rabbinic laws from the period slightly before and then somewhat after the time of the Lord Jesus, is devoted to the purity of vessels and foodstuffs. [Levine, 70]

v.38     Again the translation makes the identification of these small animals, both reptiles and rodents, seem obvious, but some of the translations are really just a guess. There is more detail here because this is the sort of animal one finds dead everywhere and all the time. Again the method of cleansing is quite simple. Some items that have been touched by the dead body simply had to be washed with water, others, such a clay pots, had to be discarded, but earthenware was easy to make and inexpensive. On the other hand, sources of water, such as springs or cisterns were not rendered unclean by having a dead mouse found in them. [Sklar, 170] There are no onerous difficulties required of God’s people to observe these laws of purity.

v.40     Clean animals that die of natural causes can be eaten but touching the carcass renders the person unclean and he would have to be restored to purity by the normal means. Interestingly, once Israel had settled in the Promised Land, they were no longer permitted to eat animals that had died naturally (Deut. 14:21). Presumably, at that point they wouldn’t need the meat as much as they would have in the wilderness. This serves as a reminder that the requirements of ceremonial purity that were imposed upon Israel always took into consideration her practical necessities; nothing was made overly difficult for her.

v.45     Again, a clarification: snakes should be included in the class of swarming things that have already been mentioned in vv. 29-30. A special emphasis seems to fall on the impurity of these creatures because they are so ubiquitous and so they are used to summarize the importance of these laws.

Now, in one sense, the point of all of this instruction is clear enough. The sanctuary was up and running. Purity and holiness were its essential features. Were the sanctuary to be defiled, the Lord’s holiness and presence would be betrayed and Israel would suffer the penalty. So it was important to know who was pure and who was not, who could come to the sanctuary and offer sacrifice and who could not. The idea of ritual states and of moving between them was a commonplace of ancient Near Eastern religious life, as was the distinction between clean and unclean animals. These forms of Israel’s religious life, therefore, as we have already noted in respect to many others, were taken over from the culture round about, even as they were altered in significant ways and invested with a revolutionarily different theology.

Chapter 11 describes both the first common way of contracting impurity and the methods of removing it. All of this was true for the Israelite at home, of course, it governed his daily life at all points, but it was particularly important to ensure that everyone understood this for the sake of the purity of the sanctuary. But what any interested reader nowadays wants to know is why one animal was clean and another was not. Why the sheep but not the pig, why the pigeon but not the eagle, why the grasshopper but not most bugs? Many who read this chapter are simply baffled by the whole idea of distinguishing animals from one another in this way.

There are five basic theories. [Sklar, 166-167; Ross, 252]

  1. First, it has long been argued, as I already mentioned, that the distinction is based on hygiene. But undercooked beef can be quite as dangerous as undercooked pork, transmitting e coli or salmonella. And no one in the first century knew anything more about trichinosis than they had in the 15th century B.C. What did the Lord have against the Christians following Pentecost that he encouraged them to eat pork when he knew it was bad for them?
  2. Second, some have advanced an argument from cultic practices. That is, the forbidden animals were either associated with or represented pagan gods. But Israel ate and used for sacrifice many of the same animals that pagan nations used at the same time and only some of the forbidden creatures are known to have been associated with pagan gods, most of them not, in fact.
  3. Third, it has been argued that the animals were understood and so distinguished symbolically, that a clean animal’s behavior represented some virtue and that the unclean animal’s behavior represented some moral defect. For example, chewing the cud reminded people to meditate on God’s law, or the filthy habits of the pig represented moral impurity. But this explanation can be made to work for only a few of the animals and not all that well even in those cases. Generally the whole explanation has struck most scholars as contrived.
  4. Fourth, some have argued that the classification is completely arbitrary. There is no explanation as to why one animal was clean and another unclean except that is what Yahweh decreed. Israel didn’t need to know the reason, they had only to respect Yahweh’s will and obey. There are many problems with this theory, not the least of which is that it doesn’t account for the widespread practice of dividing the animal world into clean and unclean in the rest of the ancient Near Eastern world.
  5. Fifth, and finally, there is the sociological explanation. This theory originated in the investigations of the British anthropologist Mary Douglas in the mid to later 20th century. Her theories have been critiqued and corrected in various ways over the years, but they have captured the field and almost all our best Bible-believing scholars hold this opinion in some measure and, in my opinion, it seems by far to make the best sense of this material.

What Douglas noticed was that every culture seems to have a concept of fitness or appropriateness or an image of the ideal. Things are judged according to a standard. They have an ideal picture of something or someone. For example, in the modern west we have an ideal of what women should look like and fashion models are chosen accordingly. Women struggle to live up to this ideal precisely because they know what the ideal woman is supposed to look like as surely as any man does. And it is so in a lesser way with our physical image of the ideal man. Other cultures have different ideals, but we know what ours is. We certainly have such a conceptual framework for food in our culture. We eat hamburger by the ton, ground beef, but we are repulsed by the thought of eating a dog. Some Koreans, on the other hand, enjoy dog meat as do people from China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. We do not eat horse meat, but the French, Germans, and Chinese do. It isn’t that we think dog meat or horse meat is less healthy; but, for whatever reason, the thought of eating it is unwelcome to us; it offends our sense of what is fit or appropriate.

Well, if you recognize this fact, for fact it is, you will also realize how universal this feature of a culture is and how deeply it influences perception and behavior. We all think we know what is fit, what is appropriate, what most closely approaches an ideal.

For an Israelite, the standard, or normal, or ideal domesticated land animals were cattle, sheep, and goats. They were the animals they raised, these were the index of wealth in that culture, and all of them had a split hoof and chewed the cud. That is what an ideal land animal looked like and how it behaved. So deer and gazelle were also clean, because they were more like ideal animals, while animals that fell short of that standard, in one way or another, were unclean and not to be eaten.

In a similar way, they had a concept of the ideal bird. It was a bird that sang, that could alight on a branch or twig, and that ate seed or bugs. The birds that were unclean, you will have noticed, were birds that eat carrion, that tear at a dead animal’s flesh, and are more likely to screech than to sing. They were no Israelite’s idea of the quintessential bird! We’re probably pretty close to the Israelite’s in our own sense of an ideal bird. We are much more likely to think of a cardinal or nightingale than a vulture!

In the same way, we all have an idea of what a fish is. A fish for the Israelites, and to a great extent for us today, is a marine animal that glides through the water, propelling itself by its fins. Virtually all such animals also have scales. Is it not true that we hardly even think of shrimp as a fish, or lobster as fish, or clams as fish? We may generically refer to all of them as seafood, but salmon is, in our minds, a much higher and purer form of seafood than eel, no matter the proliferation of sushi restaurants. Who ever goes to a restaurant and orders eel and chips or jellyfish and chips? For all I know eel may be a delicacy in some parts of the world, but not in the United States, though it may have been among the dishes at the famous meal the Pilgrims had with the Indians that is celebrated as the first thanksgiving.

The same principle applies to insects. There is in the mind an ideal form of insect and, for the Israelite, and for many of us today, grasshoppers fit the bill, but spiders do not. As a little boy I used to catch grasshoppers by the score in the field around our cabin in Colorado; but you would never have caught me catching spiders!

One important thing that this understanding of the distinction between clean and unclean animals teaches us is that these classifications were not invented in the wilderness at Sinai. Israel knew them long before. They were rooted in a view of things that stemmed from their culture, their way of life. If you had asked them, they would have immediately distinguished between animals in this way. As far back as Genesis 7, in the instructions that the Lord gave to Noah for taking animals into the ark, a distinction was made between clean and unclean animals. Whether the distinction was drawn in precisely the same way in Noah’s day as later in Moses’ day, who can say? But what this means is that there is no intrinsic reason why sheep should be clean and pigs unclean. In some other culture it might have been the reverse. The distinction is founded upon cultural perception not on the nature of things and the Lord is simply employing that cultural perception. As in so many other ways bearing on Israel’s worshipping life, the Lord employed the cultural senses of familiarity and fitness to distinguish between two classes of animals because he wanted to establish the idea of purity and impurity in the Hebrew mind and impress it upon Israelite life. The same general idea will lie behind the impurity that originates from childbirth, skin diseases, and from bodily discharges. Representative dimensions of human life: eating, sex and sleeping, illness and health, and childbirth are in this way all rendered subject to the demands of the divine holiness.

Now, before we ask for more specifics about why this was done, why various animals were separated into clean and unclean categories, let us first remember that the New Testament does precisely the same thing if in a more general way. Various dimensions of human life are there too brought into subjection to the demands of holiness. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God,” is just a different way of saying that our eating life is part of what we must submit to God, as we must our sexual life, our working life, our life as parents and children, and so on. This point was made in a more embodied way in the ancient epoch, but the point is the same, the demand for holiness is the same, and the comprehensiveness of that demand is the same. Once the gospel made its way out into the whole world and began encountering many different cultures, such a program of education in holiness as was represented by the distinction of foods could no longer be employed. Everyone had a different idea of what was clean and unclean, ideal and less than ideal. But the demand for holiness in every dimension of life, the demand that we be pure before God remained the same.

In the same way, in that ancient time an Israelite couldn’t turn one way or another without facing the demands that God’s holiness had placed upon his or her life. He or she couldn’t get up in the morning, couldn’t prepare or eat a meal, without reckoning with what it meant to be the people of God. Nor should we be able to do any of those things without reckoning with what it means to be the people of God.

That was the general purpose of this distinction between clean and unclean animals and the requirement to be purified when rendered unclean by contact with a dead animal. But this distinction functioned in certain specific ways to fulfill that purpose.

  1. For example, one of the functions of these laws was to prevent Israel from assimilating with her Canaanite neighbors and being absorbed in Canaanite culture. Canaanites ate pork, for example (Ross, 251), and the fact that Israelites couldn’t served to divide them from the Canaanites. Similarly, Israelites could eat beef, while Egyptians did not. Arab food included the camel and the hare and the mouse. This was one important way in which Israelite identity was preserved.The pledge of allegiance to the flag identifies an American; a Scottish tartan identifies a particular clan; the Union Jack identifies a ship as British. [Waltke, OT Theology, 453-454] Well, in the same way, all over the world and throughout human history, what one eats identifies a person as a member of a particular people and, in that way, separates him or her from others. A Japanese eats one way; and Indian another.So powerful is this principle of identification by food that, as you know, when the church began absorbing Gentiles who didn’t eat the same food as the Jews had eaten for centuries, the Jewish Christians found it very hard either to serve ham to their Gentile guests or to eat a pork chop at a Gentile Christian’s home. A particular diet was so fundamental to their self-identity that, no matter what Jesus and Peter had taught them, they struggled and often failed to overcome their Jewish identity for the sake of their Christian one. But this same principle served them well in the centuries before, keeping them separate from people whose philosophy of life was so toxic and destructive of their own.
  2. Second, it would have been obvious to any faithful Israelite that the whole concept of ritual purity was a device meant to enforce moral purity. I think any thoughtful, pious Israelite would have told you straight away that the entire system of ritual purity served to teach and to emphasize a deeper, far more important kind of purity and that it was the latter that was most important to Yahweh. The Old Testament makes this point frequently when it uses the language of ritual purity to describe the moral purity that Israelites were to practice. Consider, for example, Psalm 24:3-4:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

And who shall stand in his holy place?

He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

Who does not lift up his soul to what is false.

That is the language of ritual purity, but what is being described in honesty, integrity, and loyalty to God’s law. Or consider this from Isaiah 1:16-17, where the prophet appeals to Israel to repent and return to the Lord:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;

Remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;

Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;

Bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

There, again, we find the language of Leviticus 11 used to describe not ritual cleanliness but moral holiness or a godly life. The prophets were always telling Israel that God wasn’t really after outward acts of ritual purity; they were signposts to a deeper purity of heart and of life that God had called his people to. And, insofar as the demands of ritual purity touched their lives at every point, the Israelite was forever being reminded that he or she was to be holy because Yahweh was holy. [Cf. Sklar, 173]

I can certainly understand the difficulty Christian believers today can have in appreciating such teaching as we find in Leviticus 11. The NT leaves the concept of ritual purity largely behind, though baptism is a ritual cleansing; as a result the idea of ritual cleanliness is unfamiliar to us as a practice. However, as I said, it did not leave behind the concept of moral purity. It rings the changes on that. It too tells us to be separate, not to be like the unbelieving people around us, not to behave as they do and to be holy because our God is holy. Only the ways in which this fundamental feature of believing life is taught is changed in the New Testament, not the thing in itself.

And once you realize how culturally universal the distinction between clean and unclean animals is, how it rests on the very same sort of preferences we unthinkingly recognize today, every one of us, all the time, you can appreciate how homely a way it was to help God’s people, before they had a Bible of their own, to remember always and at every turn that they had a calling to be holy, pure, and clean because the God of perfect and infinite holiness had called them to be his own people.

So the next time someone offers you a dog sandwich, or the next time you bite into a hamburger or a steak, remember that no matter whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you are to do it to the glory of God!