Studies in Leviticus: You Are What You Eat (Leviticus 11)

LeviticusModern American culture has its own food laws these days. We’ve created a new code for what determines ethical eating. The Israelite dietary laws, however, were quite different. They were not only divinely initiated and instituted, but they communicated significant things about the people’s relationship to God. The food laws of Leviticus 11 are intended to emphasize the sanctification of all of life to the Lord.

Leviticus 11 starts a new section in the book, Laws of Purification. Chapter 10:10-11 had instructed the priests that part of their duty was distinguishing between the clean and unclean, the holy and unholy, and teach the people of Israel the difference. Chapters 11-15, then, guide them in how to do precisely this. The placement of this section in the book as a whole is framed by two key narratives. These verses unpack what is meant by “unclean” in the previous narrative (chapter 10) as it relates to the role of the priests, but it also helps to anticipate the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, which makes payment for uncleanness. 11-15, then, serves a vital role in the developing theology of Leviticus.

Chapter 11 in particular focuses on Dietary Laws. It’s not easy to discern the rationale behind the food restrictions in this chapter. Why are some animals deemed clean and others unclean? Why are some detestable? What marks the difference? Scholars have debated the answers to these questions for centuries, and still there is no scholarly agreement. Four different theories have been proposed and it might be worth a moment to consider them.

The first theory posits that distinctions are completely arbitrary, known only to God. It can certainly seem that way as you read through the text and are forced to wrestle with why the bull and goat are clean but the pig and camel are not. It’s hard to understand why a fish without fins and scales is unclean. The categorization doesn’t seem to have any logic to it. This is a possible conclusion. It may be that God did not give the Israelites enough information in order to test their obedience. But, I am inclined to agree with Gordon Wenham, that this may be a possible conclusion but “it is basically a negative approach and should be adopted only as a last resort” (The Book of Leviticus, 166).

The second theory roots the categories in cultic expressions. That is to say the animals are divided up depending upon which ones were used in pagan rituals. So, the Canaanites used pigs in their rituals. And since the purpose of the dietary laws is to make the Israelites a distinct and holy people (11:44-45), then they should not do anything that made them like the other nations. This view has had some popularity but it fails to take into consideration that Israel’s sacrifices often looked a lot like those of their neighbors. Other ancient cultures sacrificed bulls, but Israel is not forbidden from doing this. It seems, then, insufficient for an explanation.

The more popular modern theory has been that of hygiene. God restricted specific animals from Israel’s diet in order to keep them from contamination. This hardly seems to satisfy the distinction, however. For many of the so-called clean animals have hygienic issues related to them. More significantly is the fact that in the NT Jesus declares all foods clean, which hardly makes sense if the basis of the distinction was purely health.

The final view seems to make the most sense. It suggests that the distinctions carry a symbolic weight to them. Mary Douglas has done some of the best investigation into this theory. As she looks at the whole law and at the distinctions emphasized throughout the whole book of Leviticus she sees a parallel between the animals and the Israelites (see Purity and Danger). In Leviticus cleanness and holiness are often related to wholeness. Wenham explains the relationship to the animal world:

The animal world is divided into three spheres: those that fly in the air, those that walk on the land, and those that swim in the seas (cf. Gen. 1:20-30). Each sphere has a particular mode of motion associated with it. Birds have two wings with which to fly, and two feet for walking; fish have fins and scales with which to swim; land animals have hoofs to run with. The clean animals are those that conform to these standard pure types. Those creatures without fins and scales are unclean…Insects which fly but which have many legs are unclean, whereas locusts which have wings and only two hopping legs are clean…Animals with an indeterminate form of motion, i.e. which “swarm,” are unclean. (169)

This helps to then explain the divisions and distinctions of the clean and unclean animals. It also serves to be a reminder to the Israelites themselves. “Man must conform to the norms of moral and physical perfection, and animals must conform to the standards of the animal group to which they belong” (Wenham, 170).

There is also, we see, a threefold division of certain animals. Some are unclean, some are clean and may be eaten, some are clean and may be sacrificed and eaten. Some scholars see here a parallel to man. The unclean are those outside the camp. The clean is the general populace, and the priests are those who may make sacrifices on behalf of the people. So, Wenham concludes:

The tripartite division of both the animal world and the human realm is no coincidence, as is demonstrated by the various laws in the Pentateuch, which apply similar principles to man and beast. (170)

The idea is that even their diet would point them toward their responsibility of a comprehensive holiness in life.

For Israel’s corporate life the big idea points to issues of sanctification. Because the Holy God had redeemed Israel they were to reflect His holiness even in their eating and handling of food. Verses 44-47 make clear the point of the passage: Israel is to reflect the holiness of their God. The point of the distinctions is to give Israel a practical outworking of their own distinction among the nations. They were to be a different people, a set apart people. This distinction was to be evidenced in their daily living, in the choices they made. Allen Ross helpfully states:

The food laws were intended to distinguish clean from unclean, to identify what could and could not be eaten. And the entire code was designed to distinguish the people of God from the world by having them live according to his nature revealed in creation. They were supposed to be holy, because the Lord is holy (19:2; 20:7, 26). They had to act like God, to be healthy, pure, clean, and whole; and their diet reflected this distinction for the order of God. The laws, then, were reminders of God’s grace to them and of their duty to live for God in this world. (Holiness to the Lord, 261)

Thought the passage emphasizes food, the point is a distinct type of daily living that modeled God’s holiness to the world.

The application to believers is going to be somewhat unique. Obviously the food laws no longer apply to Christians under the New Covenant. Under this Covenant God has declared all things “clean” (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:11-16). We may eat whatever we choose. The point of this part of the law was to distinguish the Jew from the Gentile, but Jesus Christ has torn down that wall of separation (Eph. 2:14). Though the particular regulations of the law are not still binding, we recognize the spirit of the law remains intact for believers. As Ross states it: the people of God are required to imitate God’s holiness in every aspect of their lives (263).

We know this from Paul’s own words regarding the believer’s relation to both eating and drinking, and indeed everything. The apostle writes:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)

Sanctification has a broad reach in the life of the follower of Jesus. Every area of life is surrendered to God and to His will, and everything we do is an opportunity to point others to Christ. It is all an opportunity to glorify the Lord who has saved us. “Holiness, then, becomes the basic priority in all aspects of living, even in matters of eating and drinking” (Ross, 264). While the details have changed, the spirit of Leviticus 11 has much to say to believers today.

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