12: The Bible’s Ubiquitous Weirdness Pt 3

  What is the role of the clean and unclean on the Old Testament?  Copan explains.  Can you imagine a society that needs to be reminded to not blur categories that the Creator established?  We should bring all this stuff back!
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8: The Bible’s Ubiquitous Weirdness? Kosher Foods, Kooky Laws? (II)

Kosher Laws

The Hebrew word kashrut means to be proper or correct. Observant Jews will be alert to Kosher food labels with the letters kshr (in the Hebrew root form) on them. Israelites were to avoid foods such as pork, shrimp, and squid. Why were such foods unclean (not kosher)?

The listing of clean and unclean animals is found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. An interesting feature to these lists is that certain animals were unclean but still could be handled (for example, camels used for transportation). The issue arose when there was death. Unclean animal carcasses rendered a person impure, not necessarily touching the animals when they were alive.

Scholars have suggested various reasons for the distinction between clean and unclean. We’ll look at a couple of unsatisfactory suggestions before zeroing in on a more likely solution.

• Health/hygiene: Argument: Israelites were to avoid eating vultures because these creatures eat roadkill and carnivores’ “leftovers.” And who knows what kinds of diseases these birds carry? We know that pigs can transmit diseases such as trichinosis, while the hare and coney/rock badger commonly carry tularemia. Shrimp shouldn’t be eaten because they raise your cholesterol level! Problem:[1] The health idea just isn’t the concern in Leviticus 11 or elsewhere in the Old Testament. And why aren’t poisonous plants considered unclean? To top it off, why did Jesus declare all these foods clean if health was really the issue in the kosher foods section of the Old Testament?[2]

• Association with non-Israelite religions: Argument: Animals were unclean because they were associated with non-Israelite religion in the ancient Near East. Problem:[3] If that’s the case, the bull should have been an abomination; after all, this animal was central to Canaanite and Egyptian religion. Yet the bull was the most valuable of Israel’s sacrificial animals. As it turns out, the Canaanites sacrificed the same sorts of animals in their religious rituals as did the Israelites! (Hittites did sacrifice pigs, however.) On top of all this, ancient Near Easterners generally considered pigs detestable and typically avoided both eating them and sacrificing them in their religious rites. While Israel was to differentiate itself from neighboring nations in many aspects, animal sacrifice wasn’t one of them.[4]

These two suggestions, therefore—health and religion—aren’t good solutions. A couple of related angles will help us get at an answer: creation (Gen. 1) and the fall, death, and abnormality (Gen. 3).

Angle 1: Creation

Genesis 1 divides animals into three spheres: animals that walk on the land, animals that swim in the water, animals that fly in the air. Leviticus 11 lists as unclean certain animals that are connected to land (vv. 2-8), water (vv. 9-12), and air (vv. 13-25). As we’ve seen, these animals symbolize a mixing or blurring of categories. In contrast, the clean animal has all the defining features of its class given at creation. So animals that “transgressed” boundaries or overlapped spheres were to be avoided as unclean.

  • Water: To be clean, aquatic animals must have scales and fins (Lev. 11:10; Deut. 14:10); so eels or shellfish, which don’t fit this category, are unclean and thus prohibited.
  • Land: Clean animals are four-footed ones that hop, walk, or jump. A clear indication of a land animal’s operating according to its sphere is that it both (1) has split hoofs and (2) is a cud-chewer. These two features make obvious that an animal belongs to the land sphere (e.g., sheep and goat). Camels, hares, coneys (which chew the cud but don’t have divided hoofs), and pigs (which have divided hoofs but don’t chew the cud) are borderline cases; so they’re excluded as appropriate land animals to eat.
  • Air: Birds have two wings for flying. Birds like pelicans and gulls inhabit both water and sky, which makes them unclean. Insects that fly but have many legs are unclean; they operate in two spheres—land and air. However, insects with four feet—two of which are jointed for hopping on the ground—are considered clean (Deut. 11:21-23). These insects—the locust, katydid, cricket, and grasshopper—are like birds of the air, which hop on the ground with two legs. Therefore they’re clean.

Unclean animals symbolized what Israel was to avoid—mixing in with the unclean beliefs and practices of the surrounding nations. Israel was to be like the clean animals—distinct, in their own category, and not having mixed features. After all, the Israelites were God’s set-apart people who were to reject the religion and practices of surrounding nations.[5]

But wasn’t everything that God created “very good” (Gen. 1:31)? If so, doesn’t this mean that no animal is inherently unclean or inferior? Yes, Jesus affirms this in Mark 7:19 (all foods are clean), and it is implied in Acts 10:10-16 (Peter’s vision). However, as the people of God, the Israelites were reminded that holiness requires persons to conform to their class as God’s set-apart people. So what the Israelites did in their everyday lives—even down to their eating habits—was to signal that they were God’s chosen people who were to live lives distinct from the surrounding nations. Every meal was to remind them of their redemption. Their diet, which was limited to certain meats, imitated the action of God, who limited himself to Israel from among the nations, choosing them as the means of blessing the world.[6]

So no religious overlap, blurring distinctions, or compromise could exist between Israel and its neighbors. Israel was called to integrity and purity of life, to avoid what would restrict or inhibit drawing near to God. Holiness involved conformity to God’s order of things. Just as clean animals belonged to their distinct sphere without compromise, so God’s holy people were to belong to their distinct sphere; they weren’t to mix their religion with surrounding pagan nations or intermarry with those who rejected the God of Israel (cf. Ezra 9:1-4; Neh. 13:23-30). Holiness wasn’t merely a matter of eating and drinking but a life devoted to God in every area. The New Testament says the same thing: while all foods are ultimately clean (Mark 7:19), our eating and drinking matter to God, who is Lord of all (1 Cor. 10:31). Yet food matters shouldn’t disrupt the church’s joy and peace in the Spirit (Rom. 14:17).

Angle 2: The Fall, Death, and Abnormality

Not only do swarming and slithering creatures cut across the three spheres of classification and are thus unclean, but swarming and slithering animals in any sphere (eels, snakes, flying insects) were reminiscent of the fall in Genesis 3 and of the cursed slithering serpent. We can look at clean and unclean foods from another angle—that of curse and death. This connection with the fall is reinforced by the repetition of God’s command in Genesis 2-3, “you may eat” (Genesis 2:16; 3:2) or “you shall not eat” (Genesis 2:17; 3:1, 3), in Leviticus 11 (Lev 11:2, 3, 9, 11, 21, 22).

Furthermore, the kinds of animals that were permitted and forbidden in the Israelites’ diet were linked to the kind of people God wanted them to be. They weren’t to be predators in their human relationships. Just as discharged blood and semen symbolized death and therefore uncleanness, so did predatory animals: “do not eat the meat of an animal torn by wild beasts” (Exod. 22:31 NIV).

A further aspect to cleanness and uncleanness seems to be an animal’s appearance. An animal with either an odd-looking or abnormal appearance/ feature or one that is weak and defenseless falls into the unclean category as well.

While specific kinds of food, clothing, planting, and sexual relations in their respective spheres serve as a picture of Israel’s set-apartness from the nations, the distinction between clean and unclean animals in particular symbolizes how the Israelites were to act in relationship to their neighbors as well as to God.[7] In the language of Leviticus, animals symbolize what God required from his people. For example, note the parallels between the kinds of animals offered in sacrifices in Leviticus 1, 3, and 23 (“without blemish,” which resulted in a “pleasing aroma to the Lord”) and the priest who is to be “without defect/ blemish” (see Lev. 21:18-23). The parallel language between the unblemished priest and the unblemished sacrificial animal is striking (note the italicized words, emphasis mine):

Unblemished Priest (Lev. 21:18-20, 23)

Unblemished Animal (Lev. 22:18-22, 24)

For no one [of Aaron’s priestly line] who has a defect shall approach: a blind man, or a lame man, or he who has a disfigured face, or any deformed limb, or a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or one who has a defect in his eye or eczema or scabs or crushed testicles. . . . He shall not go in to the veil or come near the altar because he has a defect, so that he will not

[When anyone] presents his offering . . . it must be a male without defect. . . . Whatever has a defect, you shall not offer. . . . It must be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no defect in it. Those that are blind or fractured or maimed or having a running sore or eczema or scabs, you shall not offer to the Lord. . . . Also anything with its testicles bruised or crushed or torn or cut, you shall not offer to the Lord, or sacrifice in your land. profane My sanctuaries. For I am the Lord who sanctifies them.

Getting more specific, Mary Douglas shows the connection between the kinds of animals that are permitted/forbidden to be eaten and the kind of people God wants Israel to be in its relationships.[8] The theme of (un)cleanness in Leviticus and Deuteronomy symbolizes creation’s orderliness with everything in its own sphere. (So unclean animals represent a lack of wholeness or integrity in not belonging to their own sphere.)[9] Yet something more is going on: animals that are unclean appear to be either (1) predatory animals or (2) vulnerable animals (defective in appearance or characteristics). This has a parallel to human relationships.

In regard to the predatory aspect, animals of the air (owls, gulls, hawks, and carrion-eaters such as vultures) are forbidden in Israel’s diet because they themselves have consumed blood; they’re predatory. Remember the prohibition against eating blood in Genesis 9:4, suggesting respect for life, which is in the blood: “the life of all flesh is its blood” (Lev. 17:14).

As for land animals, quadruped plant-eaters-rather than carnivores-may be eaten (once their blood has been drained). The fact that they (1) chew the cud and (2) have split hoofs (whether domestic or wild) are clear indications that they never eat blood and thus are not predatory (Lev. 11:3). The borderline cases—the pig, the camel, the hare, and the coney-are forbidden because they fit one but not both criteria. So land animals that are predators must be avoided because of their contact with blood. In a symbolic way, they “break the law.”[10]

Some scholars point out another symbolic feature. Besides unclean animals that represent predation, there are others that represent victims of predation. For instance, prohibited aquatic animals (without scales and fins) symbolically lack something they “need”; this is a picture of vulnerability. The distinction between clean and unclean animals also serves as a picture of justice and injustice in personal relationships. Let me quote Douglas at length:

The forbidden animal species exemplify the predators, on the one hand, that is those who eat blood, and on the other, the sufferers from injustice. Consider the list, especially the swarming insects, the chameleon with its lumpy face, the high humped tortoise and beetle, and the ants labouring under their huge loads. Think of the blindness of worms and bats, the vulnerability of fish without scales. Think of their human parallels, the labourers, the beggars, the orphans, and the defenceless widows. Not themselves but the behavior that reduces them to this state is an abomination. No wonder the Lord made the crawling things and found them good (Gen. 1:31). It is not in the grand style of Leviticus to take time off from cosmic themes to teach that these pathetic creatures are to be shunned because their bodies are disgusting, vile, bad, any more than it is consistent with its theme of justice to teach that the poor are to be shunned. Shunning is not the issue. Predation is wrong, eating is a form of predation, and the poor are not to be a prey.[11]

What’s most clear in all of this is that holiness and predatory behavior don’t mix. Holiness represents respect for human life, and the eating of blood (symbolizing violent death) represents predatory activity. Clean animals don’t represent virtues in their own bodies, just as unclean animals’ bodies don’t represent vices. They just follow the “rule” of avoiding blood.[12] If scholars who claim that certain unclean animals symbolize vulnerability and defenselessness are correct, then this representation of the oppressed—the alien, the widow, the orphan (Deut. 14:29; 16:11; cf. Isa. 1:17)—would serve as a reminder that they ought to be respected.

Israel’s entire way of life—down to the very food they ate (or didn’t eat)—mattered to God. Their diet served as a reminder of the holy and the unholy: Israelites were to avoid the unholy activity of preying upon the vulnerable in society.

Dishonorable Discharges

Why do many Levitical laws emphasize semen and blood? Leviticus 15 speaks of the emission of semen or the discharging of menstrual blood, both of which lead to impurity and the need for washing/purification. The reason? The life-death symbolism behind cleanness-uncleanness informs us that these discharges represented what was “outside” the wholeness of the human body, just as unclean foods entering the body would symbolically pollute or defile.

Vaginal blood and semen are powerful symbols of life, but their loss symbolizes death. To lose one of these life fluids represented moving in the direction of death.[13] Some scholars suggest that Exodus 23:19 prohibited cooking a kid goat in its mother’s milk because this was a Canaanite fertility ritual. Others suggest that this is a case of clashing symbols. That is, life (mother’s milk) and death (cooking a baby goat) collide in this scenario. Another such clash is found in Leviticus 22:28: “Do not slaughter a cow or a sheep and its young on the same day” (NIV). Likewise, life and death are symbolically at odds when semen or menstrual blood is lost from the body. This admixture of life and death represents a loss of wholeness.[14]

The symbolism doesn’t stop here. Israel was surrounded by nations that had fertility cults. To have sex with a prostitute in a temple meant spiritually connecting with a particular deity.[15] By contrast, Leviticus 15 presents something of an “emission control system”! The message to Israel was that sex has its proper place. God isn’t prudish about sex. God is the author of mutually satisfying sex between husband and wife (Gen. 2:24; Prov. 5:15-19; Song of Songs). Yet, in contrast to her neighbors, Israel needed to take seriously restraint and discipline in sexual activity. Although sex brought temporary impurity, Israel was reminded that it was prohibited in the sanctuary as part of a religious ritual—unlike the sexual rituals in Canaanite religion. Again, sex within monogamous marriage is good, but adultery shouldn’t be glorified by putting a religious label on it. To differentiate Israel from her neighbors, God provided certain “barriers” to keep sex in its proper place rather than degrading it—no matter how pious Israel’s neighbor’s made adultery appear.[16]

In contrast to the surrounding nations, wives in Israel weren’t possessions to be used for sexual pleasure. Men had certain restrictions regarding when they could have sex with their wives, which was to help give women a greater measure of independence. As Richard Hess points out, such protective laws have no parallels in the ancient Near East.*


Richard S. Hess, “Leviticus,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 713. Hess points out that in Israel, women married reasonably young, had many pregnancies, and didn’t live as long as in modern societies; so they wouldn’t have been unclean so frequently.

The Holiness Gap: Purity Laws and the Need for Grace

Being God’s chosen nation was a privilege. However, a heavy burden came with it. As the peasant Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof tells God, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” Now rewind to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Many of the earliest Christians (who were Jewish) thought that one must become a good Jew in order to become a good Christian. Yes, Jesus was sufficient for salvation—sort of. But more was needed, some argued—namely, Jewishness! Peter replied to this claim: “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10).

Serious-minded Old Testament Jews were regularly reminded of the gap between God and themselves. To approach God was no light thing, and throughout an Israelite’s daily life were many reminders of defilement, impurity, and barriers in worshiping God. Attentive Israelites routinely experienced a “holiness gap” that existed between them and God.[17] Being placed in such a position could prompt an Israelite to seek God’s grace and purification on his behalf.[18]

Animal sacrifices were a small picture of this. The worshipers/priests would place their hands on the animal. This act symbolized that an animal was being put to death in the place of humans (Lev. 4:15; 8:14, 18, 22). Sacrifice served as a reminder of human sin and unholiness and the great need for outside assistance—that is, divine grace.

Richard Hess offers an illuminating perspective on sacrificial laws and the sequence of sacrifices in Leviticus. First is the purification (from sin) offering, then the burnt offering (indicating total dedication to God), and then the fellowship (or ordination) offering (chaps. 8-9, 16). This helps us better understand the nature of Christian discipleship in the New Testament epistles: first comes confession of sin, then dedication to God, and then fellowship with God. Though Christ fulfills these sacrifices (as Hebrews makes clear), they illustrate nicely what is involved in Christian discipleship.[19]

Galatians 3:24-25 mentions the law as a tutor to lead us to Christ. In other words, the law pointed forward toward the ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s sacrifices, priesthood, and holy days. And as we’ve seen, such things pointed backward to Abraham, who turns out to be a picture of the need for grace apart from law keeping. Genesis 15:6 affirms that Abraham trusted God and was counted righteous by God because of his faith. Notice: this happened even before he was circumcised and before the Mosaic law was given. Living by faith, even without the law, enabled one to keep the heart of it (cf. Gen. 26:5).[20] The law-with all its purity requirements and sacrifices-actually revealed human inadequacy and thus the need for humans to look beyond their own resources to God’s gracious assistance.

However one navigates through some of these Old Testament purity laws, the undergirding rationale behind these laws is Israel’s call to live holy lives in everything. That’s why the theme of holiness is explicitly mentioned in all the passages in which the prohibited food lists are given (Exod. 22:30-31; Lev. 11:44-45; 20:25-26; Deut. 14:4-21).

Upon reflection, the New Atheists’ caricatures of the Mosaic law shouldn’t be taken so seriously. We need patience to understand what’s going on with the Old Testament’s levitical laws, and we shouldn’t see the law as the ideal standard for all humanity. However, we’ll continue to see how it shows a greater moral sensitivity and a marked improvement over other ancient Near Eastern law codes.

Further Reading

Douglas, Mary. “The Forbidden Animals in Leviticus.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 59 (1993): 3-23.

Hartley, John L. Leviticus. Word Biblical Commentary 4. Dallas: Word, 1992.

Hess, Richard S. “Leviticus.” In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 1, edited by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

Kiuchi, Nobuyoshi. Leviticus. Apollos Old Testament Commentary 3. Nottingham, UK: Apollos; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007.

Wenham, Gordon J. Leviticus. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

-. “The Theology of Unclean Food.” Evangelical Quarterly 53 (1981): 6-15.

Questions & Notes

  1. Why is hygiene an insufficient context to account for Israel’s kosher laws?

  2. Gordon J. Wenham, Leviticus, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 167-68.

  3. Why is false Canaanite religion an insufficient context to account for Israel’s kosher laws?

  4. Ibid., 167; J. G. McConville, Deuteronomy, Apollos Old Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 249; and Gordon J. Wenham, “The Theology of Unclean Food,” Evangelical Quarterly 53 (1981): 7.

  5. Mary Douglas, “The Forbidden Animals in Leviticus,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 59 (1993): 3-23; and Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

  6. Wenham, “Theology of Unclean Food,” 11; Wenham, Leviticus, 170.

  7. What is meant by the “angles” of creation as well as fall, death, and abnormality? In what ways do these help us better understand Israel’s food laws?

  8. Douglas, “Forbidden Animals in Leviticus,” 3-23. I follow Douglas in the following paragraphs. Notice the very structure of Leviticus, which serves as a reminder for the themes she discusses (11).

  9. What is the connection between the unblemished priest and the unblemished animal (from Lev. 21 and 22)? How does this comparison give insight into God’s own expectations for his people Israel?

  10. Wenham, Leviticus, 174-75.

  11. Douglas, “Forbidden Animals in Leviticus,” 22.

  12. Ibid., 23.

  13. Timothy A. Lenchak, “Clean and Unclean,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 263.

  14. Ephraim Radner, Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 151.

  15. Why do various bodily discharges create conditions of uncleanness? Does this at all reflect Israel’s symbolic separation from Canaanite religion? In what way(s)?

  16. John L. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary 4 (Dallas: Word, 1992), 213-15.

  17. Thanks to John Hare for his paper “Animal Sacrifices” (September 2009), in which he uses this term.

  18. What is meant by the holiness gap?

  19. Hess, “Leviticus,” 573, 658.

  20. John H. Sailhamer, Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 33-79.

Click on the "Is God a Moral Monster" tag below to see all the posts in this series. To go to the start of this series click here.

One thought on “12: The Bible’s Ubiquitous Weirdness Pt 3”

  1. This lesson made me wonder if Nimrod preyed upon others.
    Gen 10:9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.”

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