‘The Holiness of the Laity’ Deuteronomy 14:1-21 August 23, 1992
Up to this point in the Book of Deuteronomy, however originally directed it obviously was to God’s ancient people and to her specific circumstances as she prepared for the first time to enter the promised land, it has not been difficult for us to see how directly and immediately relevant its teaching is for us today.
But what are we to make of these commandments about clean and unclean animals? What is more, Deuteronomy, in its recapitulation of the Mosaic law, gives but a brief account of the laws of cleanliness. This paragraph in Deuteronomy 14 should be understood as representing the much longer legislation touching ceremonial cleanliness in Leviticus chapters 11-15. There we learn not only the laws distinguishing between clean and unclean animals, but about uncleanness contracted by a woman through childbirth; uncleanness from skin diseases; uncleanness in one’s home from the appearance of mildew, and uncleanness contracted by men and women from discharges from the sexual organs. In each case we are taught how Israelites became unclean, what the consequences of that uncleanness were; and how they were to remove the uncleanness.
Now, it almost goes without saying that those chapters in Leviticus are regarded by most Christians as some of the strangest in the Bible. And Deuteronomy 14:1-21 belongs to that same legislation. What does this mean? In particular, what is the significance of this distinction between clean and unclean animals? What are we to learn from it? How are we to trust and obey this particular passage of Holy Scripture?
It is perhaps right that we should begin by saying that there is much that remains obscure in this legislation of the Mosaic law, and in these particular laws distinguishing between clean and unclean animals. In actual fact, the identity of some of the animals named in the verses we read is not certain. But, more important, the principle of distinction between the clean and the unclean, why one animal was clean and another unclean, this too is by no means certain.
There are, as a matter of fact, at least five major theories proposing to explain this distinction between clean and unclean animals.
First, there are those who maintain that the division is entirely arbitrary. God divided the animals this way and gave these laws as a test of obedience. If there is a rationale for the particular distinctions between types of animals, birds, and insects, God only knows what it is. That is a possible solution. But it is to be remember that this distinction between clean and unclean animals is of very great antiquity. It already existed in the days of Noah, as we learn from Genesis 7:2. This surely suggests, if it does not demand, that there was some basis for this distinction and that this basis was known to various peoples of the ancient world.
Second, others argue that the division between clean and unclean animals is due to the use of the same animals in pagan worship. The animals, or at least some of the animals Israel was forbidden to eat, we know were held to be sacred in various foreign religions. The Canaanites used the pig in their religious rites, so perhaps that explains why the pig was unclean for Israel. The raven, mentioned in v. 14, was a totem of certain Arab clans, and perhaps that explains why it should be unclean for Israel. This explanation gathers strength from the prohibition in v. 21 against cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk, which is now known to have been a pagan practice in the ANE and is hard to explain as anything else but a commandment not to do what pagans do. But this explanation hardly accounts for all the facts. Pagan religions also made extensive use of the bull, sheep, and goat, even in sacrificial ritual, and these are all clean animals.
Third, one of the most popular explanations for this distinction between clean and unclean animals is that it is rooted in hygienic considerations. Many of the unclean animals were, in fact, carriers of diseases, and would have been known to be so in the ancient world, which was much more sophisticated in such matters than modern folk may think. The pig, as you know, is more likely to be a carrier of disease than a cow. The birds which are unclean are mainly birds of prey, scavenging birds which ate carrion and more unhealthy for that reason. But this explanation likewise leaves much unexplained. Why, for example, was the camel unclean? Another question, of another kind, if the distinction is rooted in hygiene and good health, why did Jesus so readily abolish such distinctions in his own teaching?
Others argue a fourth theory, namely that animals are categorized as clean or unclean according to a symbolic significance: the clean animals representing traits Israel is to emulate. For example, chewing the cud reminds one of contemplative meditation upon God’s law. Sheep remind one of the shepherd. Pigs, on the other hand, suggest nothing positive. This explanation, however, leaves much more unexplained than it can account for.
Finally, there is a new interpretation gaining ground among biblical scholars. We might describe it as the ‘sociological explanation’ for the distinction between clean and unclean animals. It has been advanced most successfully by a British sociologist by the name of Douglas in several books published in the 1960s and 70s. Ms. Douglas argues that in any culture there is an instinctive recognition of certain things as right, fitting, proper; as the standard or ideal against which other things are judged. These are things as they ‘ought’ to be. Certain things in the culture aesthetically proper and beautiful, others aesthetically repulsive.
We have many such standards of fitness in our culture, or of aesthetic attractiveness or repulsiveness, thousands upon thousands of them, we just rarely think of them in a considered way; they lie in the foundation of our thinking, responding, and feeling about life. For example, dogs and cats should not be eaten. Pizza is not a breakfast food. Cars should have four wheels, not three; and so on. Well, so it was in the ancient world. Birds with wings and two bent legs that eat seeds are ‘proper’ or ‘normal’ birds. Killer birds, straight legged birds do not conform to the ideal, and were thus improper and unclean. Fish with scales and fins conformed to the ideal concept of fish. Others which did not were unclean. Because the cow, sheep, and goat were the standard fare in the ANE, and hence normal, those animals that did not conform to their pattern of cud-chewing and cloven hoof were abnormal and unclean.
Some of Ms. Douglas’ explanations work better than others, as is true of everyone of these theories. It can much better account for uncleanness for bleeding associated with childbirth or during menstruation for the prohibition on sexual intercourse in the period following childbirth than some other theories. But the hygienic explanation better accounts for the cleanliness laws concerning infectious skin diseases with their requirement of what amounts to a two-week quarantine for those suspected of such infections. The scourges of mankind, until recently, were fever diseases with skin eruptions — small pox, scarlet fever, measles, etc. — which ran their course in two weeks or so.
It does not appear then that any perfectly satisfactory explanation has been yet advanced to explain why certain animals were clean and certain unclean or to explain all of the other laws of cleanness and uncleanness which are given elsewhere in the Books of Moses. Perhaps the true explanation lies in a combination of several of these theories. But, if that is the case, then surely we may safely conclude that it is not necessary for us to know everything about the origin of such laws, to receive the instruction from Deuteronomy 14 which Paul says we are to receive from every single passage of the OT.
Moses himself indicates the general significance of this legislation about clean and unclean animals with the statement he makes in v. 2. There the concern is the particular matter of practices for mourning the dead, with which the chapter opens, but, clearly by implication, it is the reason for all the rest of the commandments which follow. And if there is any doubt about that, it is put to rest by the fact that in Leviticus 11, where we are given the most comprehensive account of clean and unclean animals, the whole subject is concluded, in v. 45, with this statement: ‘I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore, be holy, because I am holy.’
God’s people are to live a life which reflects their special relationship to God and which is a mirror in which his own holiness is reflected in the world. To live and move in the Almighty’s presence, as Israel did and would, required that her life conform to the standards of his holiness and be a fit environment for God’s glorious presence. It was this purpose lying beneath the various regulations contained in the chapter which led one commentator to entitle the chapter: ‘The Holiness of the Laity.’ All of God’s people — not just priests and professional Christians, not just the exceptional and noteworthy Christians are to be holy. [The RC doctor of holy orders ]
Now, we are speaking here in Deuteronomy 14 about the ceremonial aspects of his holiness, the outward and liturgical forms in which God’s holiness was to be reflected in the life of his people. The Bible does not teach that one kind of animal, for example, is essentially holy while another, by its nature, is essentially unholy. Jesus would later make the point, in Mark 7:15, that it is what comes out of a man, not what goes into him that makes a man holy or unholy; and he abolished all distinctions between clean and unclean foods in his own ministry, for there specific applications was temporary.
These laws and regulations were for a time and served to reveal principles of holiness which are revealed in other ways today. But, even in the days of Moses, the chief way holiness of life, God’s own holiness and righteousness and goodness and perfection, were to be reflected by God’s people [not in ceremonial purity of the type Deuteronomy 14:1-21 is speaking of], in love for God and for one’s neighbor, justice and honesty in one’s dealings, kindness and compassion for the needy, and so on. ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’ These ceremonial forms of purity were important more for what they signified or symbolized, for the picture they painted and the principles they embodied.
It is not difficult to see what the laws of ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness taught God’s people about God’s holiness and how it had to be practiced and reflected by his people. These laws brought the demands of divine holiness deep into every part, every aspect of a faithful Israelite’s life. At every turn he or she was faced with the demand that God’s people be holy because her God was holy and in her midst. At every tum she had to face and do justice to the reality of God’s holy presence among his people and of his sovereign rule over his people.
God was present with them in their own homes, so the homes themselves had to be pure and undefiled. God was present with them in their bedrooms, so that even the sexual life of husbands and wives was subject to the demands of God’s holiness, as was every childbirth, every woman’s period, even, as we will later read in Deuteronomy 23, the place chosen for the bathroom. And here, in Deuteronomy 14, we are reminded, that God’s holiness was to prevail also at their tables and at the taking of meals: they were the people of God and in their eating and drinking, as in every other part of their lives, they were to be holy as their God was holy. The family could not sit down to a meal without the requirements of their heavenly Father’s holiness impinging upon them. They were the people of God; he was among them; and that fact effected everything!
In this way Israel was constantly impressed with the need to be fit for God’s service, fit to approach him, to worship him, and fit to reflect something of his glory in the world.
Do you begin to see something of the significance of all of this for us? What was signified by all these regulations of clean and unclean animals, acts, and so on is a message as much needing to be embraced by Christians today as ever it was needing to be embraced by believers in the old epoch. We too are God’s people, those of us who are in Christ by a living faith. We too are required to be holy, because our heavenly Father is holy. God saved us as well to be his holy people and to reflect his own holiness and glory in the world. And though the demands of God’s holiness upon us are not illustrated and taught and recollected for us in the same way they were in the days of Moses, the demands themselves are the same, just as comprehensive, searching, and universal as they were in that ancient time when, no matter where an Israelite turned, he bumped into reminders of the fact that he had to behave as a child of the All-holy God.
Today too we stand under rules governing our eating and drinking. We cannot eat as the world eats or drink as the world drinks. Whether it is the requirement that we thank God for our daily bread, or that we eat in moderation, or that, as Paul puts it, ‘whether we eat or drink we are to do all to the glory of God’ our meals are to be taken with an eye to God’s presence among us and the demand of his holiness that in this his people reflect his glory and do honor to his name.
In the same way, the comprehensive demands that God be first and that our thoughts, words, and deeds reflect his purity, love, truth, wisdom, goodness, and justice, stand over love-making in a Christian marriage as Paul teaches, over the birth of our children, over our worship of God, indeed, over absolutely everything we do.
Paul gives a NT summation of the whole point of Deuteronomy 14 when he commands us: ‘whatever you do in thought or in deed, do all to the glory of God.’ And, that is precisely the example our Savior set for us: he lived wholly to the glory of God; every aspect of his life reflected the presence of God with him and his love for and devotion and submission to his Father in heaven. Whether at table, or in conversation with friends or strangers, or alone in prayer by himself, the holiness of his Father was writ large over his life.
And that is your calling and mine! You and I have only just begun to give answer to this summons and calling. Some of you have not begun to give glory to God and to reflect his holiness at your family tables: his name is not much mentioned there, little thought is given to whether what you eat and how much of it and in what manner you eat is fitting for a son or daughter of the Most High.
Some of you have not really begun to be holy as your Father in Heaven is holy when you are in you marriage beds and it is high time that in that most important aspect of life you do full, willing, and grateful justice to the demands of a holy God who expects husbands and wives to be loving, thoughtful, self-sacrificing, and devoted in the very way that he has been all of that to us.
Some of you, I fear, have not yet begun to appreciate and others have only the barest appreciation of how in your parenthood the claims of God’s holiness are to be honored at every turn, and how you are to raise your children and love them so differently because you are the people of God and must give him glory! Whether you are at table, or work, or in bed with your wife, or raising your children, or at play, it should be immediately and wonderfully apparent that the Almighty God is your Heavenly Father and that his presence is with you.
With the Israelites, at least the faithful among them, there was never any doubt whose people they were, and to whom they owed their highest allegiance, and in whose service they spent their lives. His claims were written all over their lives and no matter what they were doing, in one way or another they gave glory to God and were holy like he.
It ought to be no different for us, though the way in which we express this comprehensive loyalty will be different in some ways. We are to be evidently and unmistakably a different people, not of this world, who live by different principles and for a different Master. The heavenly direction of our lives ought to be apparent no matter when we are seen, no matter what we are doing.
There is not the smallest part of our lives, not the least activity which is not subject to the demands of the holiness of our Heavenly Father and in which we are not to be holy as he is. Or, as Abraham Kuyper so memorably put it: ‘Not the breadth of a thumb exists in all our life, but Christ claims, “IT IS MINE!'” You and I are to live our lives so that it couldn’t be clearer that we are the holy people of God if the Lord Christ himself, in his own hand, had written on our foreheads in letters of gold, ‘IT IS MINE.’