Understanding the Old Testament

The Clean and the Unclean

All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible translation)

Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 list the “clean” animals that the Israelites were permitted to eat, as well as “unclean” animals that were forbidden. The former included animals with split hooves that chew the cud (e.g., ox, sheep, goat, deer, gazelle, roebuck, wild goat, ibex, antelope, and mountain sheep); river and sea creatures with fins and scales (i.e., most fish); locusts, crickets, grasshoppers, and some birds.

The unclean included, among others: pigs, camels, and rabbits; animals with paws, such as those in the canine and feline families; snakes and other reptiles; most predatory and carrion birds; and most insects. In addition, any animal which died a natural death was considered unclean.

Most—and perhaps all—of these rules appear to have been based on good nutrition and hygiene, because unclean meats tended to be infected with bacteria, viruses, parasites, and/or toxins that were usually absent from the clean meats.

A person who touched an animal or its carcass was unclean until evening, and objects which came in contact with an unclean animal had to be washed or, in some cases, destroyed. And a person who touched the dead body of another person was unclean for a week. These rules make perfect sense in light of our modern understanding of how disease-causing bacteria are spread to humans.

Additional rules regarding “uncleanness” are found in chapters 12 through 15 and 17 of Leviticus, chapters 5, 19, and 31 of Numbers, and chapters 23 and 24 of Deuteronomy. Most of these rules provided for temporary ceremonial uncleanness, such as for a menstruating woman or a man who has a seminal emission. One exception is Leviticus chapters 13-14, which set forth rules regarding leprosy, a highly infectious disease for which people had no cure until relatively modern times. To keep the disease from spreading, the leper was required to live outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:46)

Question to ponder or discuss: Several New Testament verses seem to say that these rules regarding unclean foods do not apply to Christians—see, for example, Matthew 15:11, Acts 10:9-15, and Romans 14:14. If God laid down these rules in the interest of our good health, should we follow them anyway?

Copyright 2017 by Don Davidson

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Understanding the Old Testament


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