In chapters 1 to 7 of Leviticus there were instructions on the various offerings the people were to sacrifice to the Lord. Then, in chapters 8 and 9 there were instructions on how to ordain the priests. Then, in chapter 10 we had the account of the death of Aaron’s sons who offered unauthorised fire before the Lord. And the lesson from chapter 10 is that it’s necessary for God’s people to approach him in the right way — which is the way that he has commanded. Aaron’s sons try to approach him in the wrong way; and they perished. And that leads on naturally to chapters 11 to 15 which contain instructions on how to distinguish between what is clean and what is unclean, because the people could only approach the Lord if they were clean. That is, they could only come to worship him if they were ceremonially or ritually clean. As we read in chapter 15 and verse 31: the Lord said to Moses and Aaron:
You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling-place which is among them.
The purpose of all these rules and regulations in chapters 11 to 15 about what is clean and what is unclean was to prevent the people from perishing in the presence of the Lord. God had provided a way for his chosen, but sinful people, to dwell with him. And in order to dwell with him, you had to keep yourself clean. And so, verses 1 to 23 of chapter 11 contain instructions to teach them how to distinguish clean food from unclean food.
And the passage can be divided into three parts. First of all, verses 1 to 8 are about distinguishing between animals which live on the land. Secondly, verses 9 to 12 are about distinguishing between creatures which live in water. And thirdly, verses 13 to 23 are about distinguishing between creatures which fly.
Verse 3 contains the basic principle for animals which live on the land: they may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and chews the cud. If one of those things is missing, then that animal may not be eaten. For instance, the Lord mentions the camel in verse 4 which chews the cud, but which doesn’t have a split hoof. And the passage mentions other animals which were also to be regarded as unclean.
Verse 9 contains the basic principle for creatures which live in water: they may eat any creature that has fins and scales. Anything living in the water that doesn’t have both of those things is detestable or unclean.
A list of unclean birds is given in verses 13 to 19. With regard to insects which fly, according to verse 20, any insect which flies and which is able to walk on all fours is detestable or unclean. However, there were some exceptions given in verses 21 and 22: these seem to be insects which hop rather than walk. They are clean and may be eaten.
Various explanations have been proposed for these distinctions. The first isn’t really an explanation, but it’s the suggestion that we don’t really know. The Lord no doubt has a good reason to explain why one kind of creature is clean and another is not, but we don’t know what that reason is. It’s beyond our knowing; and the duty of the faithful Israelite was to obey the word of the Lord without understanding why. However, as one the commentators puts it, this is really only a position of last resort; and shouldn’t be accepted until every other explanation is found to be groundless.
So, another explanation is that these animals were used by the pagans when they worshipped their false gods and idols. If that’s the case, then the Lord wanted his people to have nothing to do with those animals. However, while it appears to be true that some ancient pagans regarded the pig, for instance, as sacred, this doesn’t explain why others animals used by both pagans and Israelites — sheep for instance — were regarded as clean by the Israelites.
A third explanation is that it’s all to do with hygiene: God wanted to protect his people from certain diseases which are carried by certain animals. For instance, pork is not safe to eat unless it’s been prepared properly. However, while hygiene can account for some of the prohibitions, it doesn’t account for them all. And if hygiene was the real issue, then why did the Lord Jesus pronounce all food as clean in Mark 7? He wouldn’t have abolished the food laws if eating any of these creatures would make us sick.
A fourth explanation is that underlying the food laws is the notion of what is normal or what is the standard. Take land-animals first of all. It’s normal for animals to have split hooves and to chew the cud. For example, the animals which God accepted for sacrifice — sheep, goats and oxen — are all like that. Anything that deviates from that norm is unclean. It’s normal for fish to have fins and scales. Anything that deviates from that norm was unclean. When it comes to birds, the ones that are listed as unclean are all birds of prey or carrion birds; that is, birds which feed on dead animals. Again, the only birds which God accepted for sacrifice — doves and pigeons — do neither of these things.
So, the norm for birds is that they do not do these things, either because they should be herbivores or else because birds should not be killers. Anything that deviates from that norm was unclean. Finally, it’s normal for insects to hop like a bird, instead of walking on all fours like an animal. Anything that deviates from that norm was regarded as unclean.
According to this explanation, what makes a creature clean is whether or not it is whole and complete and doesn’t deviate from what is normal. In the same way, only animals without defect could be offered to God as a sacrifice; and men with a physical defect could not serve as priests. In other words, the Lord is concerned with wholeness and with what is perfect.
This last explanation — and there are many more details which I don’t have time to mention — is perhaps the best explanation for why some creatures were considered clean and others unclean. Now, when we move on to consider the purpose of these laws, we need to see that these food laws taught the people of Israel two things: it taught them about God’s grace; and it taught them about their calling to be holy.
First of all, it taught them about God’s grace. You see, every time they prepared a meal, or had to distinguish between what was clean and what was unclean, it reminded them of the fundamental division which God had created in the world between the people of Israel and the other nations. Just as they had to restrict their diet to certain food, so God had restricted himself to choosing the Israelites to be his special people. Just as they had to select their food from all the food that was available to them, so the Lord had selected them from all the nations. And they did not deserve to be chosen by God; they were not greater or better than the other nations; but God graciously, freely, chose them to be his people. And so, every meal — every time they sat down to eat, and they had to choose between what was clean and what was unclean — was a reminder to them of God’s grace and how he chose them to be his holy people.
NT Connection 1
However, after the Lord’s death and resurrection, things changed, didn’t they? God now calls men and women and boy and girls from every nation to belong to him. And so, the food laws — which once signified his choice of Israel over against the other nations — have now been discontinued. That’s the lesson which the Lord taught Peter in Acts 10. Do you remember how Peter saw a vision of all kinds of unclean animals; and the Lord commanded him to kill and eat them? Peter protested that he had never eaten anything unclean. And the Lord said to him:
Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.
The point of the vision was not so much to do with food, but it was about accepting believing Gentiles into the church. The barrier between Jews and Gentiles has been abolished; and the gospel is to be proclaimed to every nation. And since that barrier has been abolished, then there is no reason to keep the food laws. So, whenever you eat some bacon, or some shrimp, give thanks to the Lord, because just as you’re not restricted in what you can eat, God’s grace is no longer restricted to Israel, but has been extended to all the nations and to you in particular.
However, these food laws served another purpose. Having to distinguish clean food from unclean food and having to keep themselves from whatever was unclean was also a reminder to them that they needed to separate themselves from all that is evil and wicked. As God’s holy people, they had to live holy lives and every day they needed to choose between doing what is good and right instead of doing what is wicked and wrong. So, every time they prepared a meal, and had to choose what was clean over against what was unclean, it reminded them that they had to choose what is good and they had to turn away from all that is evil. And since there’s this analogy or likeness between being ceremonially unclean and being morally unclean, we often see the psalmists and the prophets longing for inward cleansing:
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
NT Connection 2
And so, as we saw from Mark 7 a couple of weeks ago, what really makes us unclean before God is not what we eat or drink; it’s what’s in our hearts. The human heart is a house of horrors, filled with all kinds of evil thoughts and desires and inclinations. And the only solution to the problem of the human heart is not found in following food laws, but it’s found in trusting in Jesus Christ the Saviour. Through faith in the Saviour, we receive forgiveness for all our wickedness; and we receive a new heart to enable us to love the Lord; and we receive the Holy Spirit to help us to walk in the ways of the Lord.
What counts is not what we eat or drink; what counts is faith in Christ who cleanses us from the guilt of our sins and who gives us his Spirit to make us holy. And so, whenever you eat some bacon, or some shrimp, give thanks to the Lord, because you’re free to eat whatever you like, since we’re pardoned and made holy because of Christ. And give thanks too, because, relying on the Lord Jesus and what he has done for us, we’re able to come into God’s presence to worship him and to pray to him; and we can look forward to coming into his presence in the life to come and dwelling with him for ever and ever.