Leviticus 11 – Clean and Unclean Animals
A. Laws regarding eating animals of land, sea, and air.
1. (1-8) Land-living mammals that can be eaten and not eaten.
Now the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘These are the animals which you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth: Among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud—that you may eat. Nevertheless these you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves: the camel, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; the rock hyrax, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; the hare, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; and the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch. They are unclean to you.
a. Now the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron: This begins a section over the next five chapters dealing with matters of ceremonial impurity and separation from impurity. God spoke this to Moses and Aaron because they involved both the government (Moses) and the priesthood (Aaron).
i. After 10 chapters of laws dealing with priests and sacrifices, “Here we come to the laws which touch the ordinary and everyday life of the people…. [God] is interested in every detail of their lives. He issues His commands as to what they may eat, and what they may not eat.” (Morgan)
b. These are the animals which you may eat: The laws God gave to Israel dealt with many aspects of life, and here begins a section with the laws about what animals they may eat and what they were not permitted to eat. God gave these laws to the children of Israel, not to humanity in general.
i. Even in the days of Noah there was a distinction between clean and unclean animals (Genesis 7:2 and 8:20), but this may have only been for the purpose of sacrifice. Still, there was an early basis for these laws that God gave to the children of Israel.
ii. The reasons for the dietary laws are not clearly presented, and many have suggested the reasons. The suggested reasons fall into several categories: “symbolic, ethical, aesthetic, hygienic, morphological, and theological criteria” (Rooker). From all these, the purpose of these dietary laws can be summarized in three points.
iii. The dietary laws gave the Israelites an opportunity to demonstrate obedience to God. Overall, God’s intent was to make Israel a holy nation, separate from the other nations – obedient to God, not only to their bellies. Just as the first law God gave to humanity had to do with what could and could not be eaten, so these laws were given to Israel as a test of their obedience and separation to God.
iv. The dietary laws separated the Israelites from their Gentile, pagan neighbors. This limited the true fellowship and connection an obedient Israelite could have with the surrounding peoples who did not worship or obey Yahweh. As well, some of these animals declared unclean for eating were animals that were idolized in pagan religions.
v. The dietary laws helped to protect the health of the Jewish people. Many diseases and problems were prevented by obedience to these dietary laws.
vi. This understanding is attacked based on the thinking that if this was the case, then it makes no sense for God to allow the eating of these animals under the New Covenant. However, it is reasonable to think that in the more than 1,500 years from the time of the giving of the Law of Moses to the first-century church, there was a better understanding of what made some meat dangerous and other meat safe.
vii. It is also reasonable to think that by protecting the health of the Jewish nation through dietary laws God ensured the continuation and prosperity of His covenant people.
c. Among all the animals that are on the earth: The dietary laws began with the animals most commonly eaten, mammals that are land based. For these animals, the rule was simple: among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud; that you may eat. If an animal had a divided hoof(not a single hoof as a horse has) and chewed its cud, it could be eaten (that you may eat).
d. These you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves: Here, many animals are mentioned that fit one requirement (chew the cud) or the other (cloven hooves), but not both.
i. For example, the camel, the rock hyrax, and the hare all chew the cud, but do not have divided hooves – instead, they have paws – they are considered unclean and are not to be eaten.
e. And the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you: Additionally, the swine has a divided hoof, but it does not chew the cud – so it is considered non-kosher.
i. “The Hebrew term used here refers to the wild pig…. This animal is singled out perhaps because swine were considered especially offensive and to be avoided at all cost.” (Peter-Contesse)
ii. “It is now known that the pig is the intermediate host for several parasitic organisms, some of which can result in tapeworm infestation. One of these worms, the Taenia solium, grows to about 2.5 m in length, and is found in poorly cooked pork.” (Harrison)
f. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch: If an animal was considered unclean, it could not be used for food. Yet additionally, one could not touch an unclean animal, whether living or dead.
2. (9-12) Water creatures that can and cannot be eaten.
‘These you may eat of all that are in the water: whatever in the water has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers—that you may eat. But all in the seas or in the rivers that do not have fins and scales, all that move in the water or any living thing which is in the water, they are an abomination to you. They shall be an abomination to you; you shall not eat their flesh, but you shall regard their carcasses as an abomination. Whatever in the water does not have fins or scales—that shall be an abomination to you.
a. These you may eat of all that are in the water: The rule again was simple: Any water creature having both fins and scales was kosher and could be eaten.
i. “There is evidence that fish without scales were also avoided by the Romans and Egyptians. These types of fish may have been regarded as scavengers, since they roamed the bottom of the sea. They were also the carriers of numerous parasites.” (Rooker)
b. Whatever in the water has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers; that you may eat: On this principle, most fishes were considered clean – except a fish like the catfish, which has no scales. Shellfish would be unclean, because clams, crabs, oysters, and lobster all do not have fins and scales. Under these dietary laws given to Israel, these were to be regarded as an abomination and could not be eaten.
3. (13-19) Birds and other flying things that can and cannot be eaten.
‘And these you shall regard as an abomination among the birds; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the buzzard, the kite, and the falcon after its kind; every raven after its kind, the ostrich, the short-eared owl, the sea gull, and the hawk after its kind; the little owl, the fisher owl, and the screech owl; the white owl, the jackdaw, and the carrion vulture; the stork, the heron after its kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.
a. These you shall regard as an abomination among the birds: There was no rule given to determine if a bird was clean or unclean. Instead, specific birds (twenty in all) are mentioned as being unclean and therefore forbidden for eating.
b. The eagle, the vulture, the buzzard: The common thread through most of these birds is that they are either predators or scavengers. These birds were considered unclean.
i. “Many scholars maintain that it was the preying upon other animals with the real possibility that these animals would drink the blood of their victims that rendered them unclean.” (Rooker)
4. (20-23) Insects that can and cannot be eaten.
‘All flying insects that creep on all fours shall be an abomination to you. Yet these you may eat of every flying insect that creeps on all fours: those which have jointed legs above their feet with which to leap on the earth. These you may eat: the locust after its kind, the destroying locust after its kind, the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind. But all other flying insects which have four feet shall be an abomination to you.
a. All flying insects that creep on all fours shall be an abomination to you: Among insects, any creeping insect was considered unclean (such as ants or grubs). Yet if there were a flying insect with legs jointed above their feet, these could be eaten. Good examples of clean insects include the locust, the cricket, and the grasshopper.
i. “The locust was eaten, not only in those ancient times, in the time of John Baptist, Matt. 3:4, but also in the present day. Dr. Shaw ate of them in Barbary ‘fried and salted,’ and tells us that ‘they tasted very like crayfish.’” (Clarke)
b. That creeps on all fours: Some people think this means Moses was uninformed and did not understand that most insects have six legs. The phrase used for creeps on all fours doesn’t necessarily mean that.
i. “This phrase can hardly describe insects as having four legs, since the Insectae as a class normally have six legs. The reference is evidently to their movements, which resemble the creeping or running of the four-footed animal.” (Harrison)
ii. “The expression was probably used in a nonliteral sense, meaning ‘to crawl,’ and was used of any flying creature with more than two legs.” (Peter-Contesse)
B. More on clean and unclean animals.
1. (24-28) Disposal of the carcasses of unclean animals.
‘By these you shall become unclean; whoever touches the carcass of any of them shall be unclean until evening; whoever carries part of the carcass of any of them shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening: The carcass of any animal which divides the foot, but is not cloven-hoofed or does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. Everyone who touches it shall be unclean. And whatever goes on its paws, among all kinds of animals that go on all fours, those are unclean to you. Whoever touches any such carcass shall be unclean until evening. Whoever carries any such carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. It is unclean to you.
a. Whoever touches the carcass of any of them shall be unclean until evening: Unclean animals, when dead, couldn’t just be left in the community to rot; they had to be disposed of. But the people who disposed of the unclean animals had to deal with their uncleanness by washing and a brief (until evening) quarantine.
i. This meant that if a dead rat was found in an Israelite village, it would be carefully and promptly disposed of, and the one disposing of it would wash afterward. This practice would help prevent disease in a significant way. When the bubonic plague – the Black Death – killed one-quarter of Europe’s population in the 1300s, many Jewish communities were largely spared because they followed these hygienic regulations. Sadly, because these Jewish communities were often spared the high death count from the plague, they were many times accused and punished for having caused the plague. These were sad chapters in the history of Christianity.
b. Whoever carries any such carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening: This shows that ceremonial uncleanness was not the same as being in a state of sin. No sacrifice was required to remedy the condition of ceremonial uncleanness. It was a state of ceremonial impurity that needed to be addressed.
2. (29-30) More unclean animals: Reptiles and other creeping things.
“These also shall be unclean to you among the creeping things that creep on the earth: the mole, the mouse, and the large lizard after its kind; the gecko, the monitor lizard, the sand reptile, the sand lizard, and the chameleon.
a. The mole, the mouse: This brief grouping of animals that are creeping things that creep on the earth includes mammals such as the mole and the mouse. These are also excluded based on the requirements of verses 1-8 but are repeated here for clarity.
b. The large lizard after its kind; the gecko: In addition, these reptiles (also creeping things that creep on the earth) could not be eaten.
3. (31-38) The transmission of uncleanness from unclean animals.
These are unclean to you among all that creep. Whoever touches them when they are dead shall be unclean until evening. Anything on which any of them falls, when they are dead shall be unclean, whether it is any item of wood or clothing or skin or sack, whatever item it is, in which any work is done, it must be put in water. And it shall be unclean until evening; then it shall be clean. Any earthen vessel into which any of them falls you shall break; and whatever is in it shall be unclean: in such a vessel, any edible food upon which water falls becomes unclean, and any drink that may be drunk from it becomes unclean. And everything on which a part of any such carcass falls shall be unclean; whether it is an oven or cooking stove, it shall be broken down; for they are unclean, and shall be unclean to you. Nevertheless a spring or a cistern, in which there is plenty of water, shall be clean, but whatever touches any such carcass becomes unclean. And if a part of any such carcass falls on any planting seed which is to be sown, it remains clean. But if water is put on the seed, and if a part of any such carcass falls on it, it becomes unclean to you.
a. Whoever touches them when they are dead shall be unclean until evening: From a hygienic standpoint, these laws were very important. They required, for example, that if a rodent crawled inside a bowl, the bowl had to be broken. Therefore, any disease the rodent carried (such as bubonic plague) could not be passed on to the one who would use the bowl.
b. It must be put in water: Some things (an item of wood or clothing or skin or sack) could be cleansed by washing in water. A clay vessel had to be destroyed (you shall break). Contaminated food or drink had to be thrown out. Cooking tools were unclean if contaminated with dead, unclean animals.
i. These laws gave the Israelite household a reason to prevent pests and creeping things from coming into a house. No one wanted to destroy many earthen vessels and cooking tools or throw out a lot of food.
c. Everything on which a part of any such carcass falls shall be unclean: Therefore, these laws also promoted a general state of cleanliness inside the Israelite home. This certainly helped the health and the welfare of the family.
4. (39-40) Carcasses of clean animals.
‘And if any animal which you may eat dies, he who touches its carcass shall be unclean until evening. He who eats of its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. He also who carries its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening.
a. If any animal which you may eat dies: Seemingly, these laws apply to the natural death of clean animals, not to their butchering for food or death for sacrifice.
b. Shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening: Those handling such carcasses were ceremonially unclean and needed to be cleansed by washing and a brief quarantine.
5. (41-43) Creeping animals considered unclean.
‘And every creeping thing that creeps on the earth shall be an abomination. It shall not be eaten. Whatever crawls on its belly, whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet among all creeping things that creep on the earth—these you shall not eat, for they are an abomination. You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps; nor shall you make yourselves unclean with them, lest you be defiled by them.
a. Every creeping thing that creeps on the earth shall be an abomination: Many of these animals were considered in verses 29-30. For clarity and emphasis, they are repeated.
b. You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing: It was considered highly sinful and even idolatrous to eat these forbidden creeping things. In the Old Testament, the idea of an abomination is often linked to idolatry.
6. (44-47) The purpose of God’s dietary laws.
For I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy. Neither shall you defile yourselves with any creeping thing that creeps on the earth. For I am the LORD who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. “This is the law of the animals and the birds and every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps on the earth, to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten.’”
a. For I am the LORD your God: God claims the right to speak to every area of our life, including what we eat. He had the right to tell Israel what to eat and what not to eat.
b. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves: One great purpose of the dietary laws of Israel was to consecrate them – to sanctify or set them apart – from the Gentile nations. It made fellowship with those who did not serve God far more difficult.
i. We see this consecrating effect in Daniel 1, where Daniel and his friends refused to eat the non-kosher food at the king of Babylon’s table. God blessed them for being set apart for His righteousness.
c. Neither shall you defile yourselves: Not only did unclean animals defile the children of Israel spiritually, but there was also a hygienic defilement, and Israel was spared many diseases and plagues because of their kosher diet.
i. Among the animals, most considered unclean fell into one of three categories: Predators (unclean because they ate both the flesh and the blood of animals), scavengers (unclean because they were carriers of disease, and they regularly contacted dead bodies), or potentially poisonous or dangerous foods such as shellfish and the like. Eliminating these from the diet of ancient Israel promoted good health among them.
ii. “In general it can be said that the laws protected Israel from bad diet, dangerous vermin, and communicable diseases.” (Harris)
d. For I am the LORD who brings you up out of Egypt: God had a claim to the obedience of the people of Israel because He was their redeemer. He freed them from 400 years of Egyptian slavery. Israel was also obligated to God because He was their creator, but He was also their redeemer.
i. Some Christians believe we are under obligation to observe these dietary laws of clean and unclean animals today. This is not true. First, these laws were specifically given to the children of Israel (verse 2). Second, this issue was settled once and for all at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. There, it was determined that obedience to the laws of Moses was not required of the followers of Jesus. So, as Paul wrote in Colossians 2:16: So let no one judge you in food or in drink.
ii. Paul also explained that for Christians, there is danger in legalistically declaring some foods forbidden for others: Now the Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrine of demons…commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1, 3-5)
iii. Some people live under bondage when it comes to food; they are addicted to eating certain foods that aren’t helpful for them. The principle of 1 Corinthians 6:12 teaches us that it is wise to eat what is helpful to us, and we should not be under the power of what we eat: All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Certainly, many would benefit from the attitude of self-denial and bodily discipline Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
iv. Yet, apart from these considerations, Christians are free to eat or not eat whatever they please – and no one should think themselves more right with God because they eat or don’t eat certain things. As Romans 14:14 says: I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
v. “If today we are not to be governed by the actual rules of this Hebrew law, the principle involved in it finds expression in the words of Paul: ‘Whatever therefore you eat, or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31).” (Morgan)