Monday, January 29, 2007

Leviticus 11

Leviticus 11: Rules for clean and unclean food


This chapter gives some rules and regulations for creatures that were to be considered “clean” or “unclean”. I think the last verses of the chapter are a good way to start off this summary:
These are the regulations concerning animals, birds, every living thing that moves in the water and every creature that moves about on the ground. You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten. (verses 46–47)

The most important effect of rules about whether an animal was “clean” or “unclean” was whether or not the Israelites were allowed to eat those animals; if a rabbit is considered unclean, then they weren’t allowed to eat rabbit. But the rules go a little further than that; in numerous places, it is said that the Israelites were to “detest” unclean creatures. For example, in verse 11 it says “And since you are to detest them, you must not eat their meat and you must detest their carcasses.”
  • For animals which live on the land, the Israelites were allowed to eat any animal that has a spit hoof, completely divided, and that chews the cud. Other animals were to be considered unclean, and the Israelites were not to eat their meat, or touch their carcasses.
    • Some animals, such as the camel, the coney, and the rabbit, chew the cud but don’t have a split hoof, so therefore, they were ceremonially unclean
    • Similarly, the pig has a split hoof but doesn’t chew the cud, so it was unclean as well.
  • For creatures that live in water, the Israelites were allowed to eat any that had fins and scales. No examples are given in the text, but this rule would mean that things like shrimp, lobster, and crab would be considered unclean for the Israelites.
  • For birds, there is no general rule for the Israelites to follow, for which birds are clean and which are unclean. Instead, there is simply a list of the unclean birds:
    These are the birds you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat. (verses 13–19)
    There is also a footnote, indicating that “[t]he precise identification of some of the birds, insects and animals in this chapter is uncertain.”
  • For insects, any insect that flies and “walks on all fours” were to be considered unclean. There is an exception, though: insects that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground, such as the locust, katydid, cricket, or grasshopper.
We’re all familiar with the rule that Jews aren’t allowed to eat pork; that is part of the rules outlined in this chapter. I don’t know if it’s as commonly known that things like shrimp, or owl, or many insects, or rabbit, would also be considered unclean.
  • If anyone touched the carcass of an unclean animal, he had to wash his clothes, and he would be unclean until evening.
Here’s where things get even more interesting. “Uncleanness” could spread; if you touched something that was unclean, you yourself would become unclean. You will notice, however, as the rules progress, that cleanness did not spread; if something clean touched something unclean, the unclean thing “contaminated” the clean thing; the clean thing wouldn’t make the unclean thing clean.
  • For animals that “move about on the ground”—I assume this means animals that crawl on their belly—there was a list of animals that were unclean: “the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard, the gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon” (verses 29b–30).
    • As with the other unclean animals, if anyone touched one of these unclean animals, he was unclean until evening.
    • In addition, if one of these animals died, and fell on (or in) something, that article would also be unclean. For articles which could be washed, they were to be put in water, and would remain unclean until evening. Clay pots, on the other hand, were not to be washed, they were simply to be broken. Anything which was in the pot was also to be considered unclean, and, as with anything unclean, that uncleanness would spread. e.g. if there was water in the clay pot, and that water touched anything else, that thing would also become unclean.
      • There were exceptions to this rule, however: if one of these unclean animals fell into a spring or cistern, or onto seeds that had not yet been planted, it would not be considered unclean. (However, if water had been put on the seed and a carcass fell on it, it would be considered unclean.)
At this point, the rules about how uncleanness spreads are getting a bit more complex. At first, the rule about springs and cisterns not becoming unclean made sense, in my head, because if they were considered unclean when an animal fell into them, the Israelites would have nothing to drink—and I’m sure that it’s very common for lizards to die and fall into wells! But then the rules about seeds—especially planted vs. unplanted seeds—made things seem much more complex.
  • When a clean animal died—I assume this means dying on its own, rather than being slaughtered for food—anyone who touched the carcass would have to wash his clothes, and would be unclean until evening.
  • Anyone who ate some of the carcass would also be considered unclean, and had to wash his clothes, and would remain unclean until evening.
When it talks about eating some of the carcass, I assume this means even if it’s cooked. If someone went out into the field, and found a dead sheep, and slaughtered and cooked it, he would have to wash his clothes, and would be unclean until evening. But anyone in his family who ate the meat from the sheep would also be unclean, and would have to wash their clothes, and would remain unclean until evening.
  • Every creature that moves about on the ground was to be considered detestable. They were not to eat any animal that moves about on the ground—“whether it moves on its belly or walks on all fours or on many feet; it is detestable” (verse 42b).
I’m very confused by this rule, because in the passage above, it talked about animals that move about on the ground, but had only a specific list of unclean animals. But in this passage, it says that all animals that move about on the ground are “detestable”. My first thought is that perhaps “detestable” is different than “unclean”, but the result seems to be the same: they were not to eat these animals.

And finally, another passage which sums up the reasons for these rules:
Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. (verses 43–45)


I don’t know if any of the Old Testament rules have sparked more debate, through the centuries, than the rules about dietary restrictions. They were allowed to eat beef, but not pork; they were allowed to eat cod, but not shrimp; they were allowed to eat chicken, but not owl. Why did the LORD’s rules declare some animals clean, and some unclean?

The main theory, that I’ve seen floating around—with the usual caveat that I didn’t go to Bible school or anything, and haven’t studied such things at length—is that the main intent behind these rules was to set the Israelites apart from the nations around them. Some people go even further, and postulate that the animals listed here as “unclean” might have been animals which would routinely be used in worshipping other gods, by the nations around them; if Baal worship included sacrificing pigs, and the Israelites didn’t eat pig, it would further distinguish them from Baal worshippers. (I don’t know what Baal worship involved; I’m just using that as an example.) Some people feel that the rules, which seem arbitrary, really are arbitrary. That the point wasn’t whether or not a camel was unclean, but whether or not the Israelites would obey God’s rules, regardless of whether they understood them.

I don’t have an opinion on the reasons behind the rules. I’m just passing them on, as I read them.

Another thing to note, however, is that uncleanness is not sin, in and of itself; if you touched an unclean animal’s carcass, it made you unclean, but it wasn’t a sin, that you would have to atone for with a sacrifice. You’d simply wash your clothes, remain unclean until evening, and the next day you’d be clean again. (I believe there are certain forms of uncleanness that did have to be atoned for; if so, and I’m remembering that correctly, we’ll see those coming up in later chapters.) However, uncleanness did prevent the Israelites from worshipping the LORD. (Again, I can’t remember if we’ve seen examples of this yet, but there will be examples coming up.) Priests weren’t allowed to carry out their duties if they were unclean, for example. Whether or not it was sinful, becoming unclean made an Israelite “unholy”; verses 43–45, quoted above, indicate that God gave the Israelites these rules for them to try to be Holy, like Him.

With hindsight, and with the knowledge of all that Jesus did for us on the cross, we can better understand the Old Testament rules. The perfection that God demanded of the Israelites was total perfection—they had to keep all of the rules perfectly, and even above that, couldn’t even defile themselves by touching things that were considered unclean. We’ll see some rules, later on, that say that a Levite couldn’t serve as priest if he had any kind of physical defect—that is a kind of perfection the man wouldn’t even have control over! But that’s the point: The Israelites couldn’t follow the rules perfectly, nobody could, because we’re born sinful. That’s why Jesus had to come and die on the cross, to take the punishment for our sins. The rules in Leviticus do a very good job of pointing out to us how far we are off the mark from deserving to be in the presence of God; reading these rules and regulations should give us a better picture of how much Jesus has done for us.

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