What’s the Deal with the OT Laws on Clean and Unclean Food?

Preaching through Romans, I have encountered the issue of clean and unclean foods (chapters 14-15). Apparently this was a major issue and a big point of contention between the Gentile and Jewish believers in the early church.

It had to be.

Imagine something as simple as a men’s breakfast on a Saturday morning. Not only was it on the Jewish Sabbath… a big hurdle for any Jew to overcome. But it also had bacon and eggs on the menu. How could any Jew eat pig’s flesh? He had grown up his whole life eating only kosher food. It was not only part of his religious training but also an identifying mark of being a Jew. During the Maccabean period, when the Greeks tried to erase Judaism, it was the Jews’ strict allegiance to the rite of circumcision and to their dietary laws that made them distinctive and identified them as “true Jews.”

So the move from avoiding unclean foods to being free to eat them had to be a major paradigm shift in any Jew’s mind. And some could never make that leap.

Which raises the question: Why did God establish clean and unclean foods in the first place? What was the point? And why did Jesus’ coming suddenly end all of these dietary distinctions?

The laws regarding clean and unclean food are found in two primary passages: Leviticus 11:1-47 and Deuteronomy 14:3-21.

Among the clean animals which a Jew could eat: animals which chew the cud and have cloven hooves; fish that have scales and fins; flying insects which have jointed legs to leap on the earth; and most birds except those specified on the unclean list.

Among the unclean animals: all those animals with paws or don’t chew the cud, including the camel, badger, rabbit, and pig; all those fish without fins or scales; all flying insects that creep on the ground; all animals which creep on the ground; and a list of birds including the eagle, vulture, buzzard, raven, and owl.

There have been several theories as to why God makes these distinctions.

  1. Hygiene. This theory believes that the Jewish diet is just plain healthier than any other diet. It is an attractive theory…and the kosher diet does have some health advantages…but it does not explain all the animals. Camel meat is considered quite low in fat and healthy and is enjoyed by many Arabs. Rabbit meat is also considered to have some nutritional benefits and my family enjoyed eating them growing up. Even pork can be considered a good meat if it is cut right and cooked thoroughly and who doesn’t love a good piece of crisp, lean bacon. Plus, if hygiene is the major issue, then it doesn’t explain why suddenly these meats are okay to eat in the New Testament. Does health no longer matter because Jesus died and rose again? Our bodies are now even more important since they are the temple of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Pagan Associations. Since the dietary laws were part of what made Israel distinct, the thought is that the unclean animals must have been associated with pagan worship. “Pig’s flesh” is associated with pagan worship in Isaiah 65:4 and camels, dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes, and rats were known as sacred animals in Egypt and other Canaanite nations. But the bull was also considered sacred and yet was on the “clean” list. Plus, this view doesn’t explain the long list of other animals which were unclean.
  3. Carnivores. When it comes to the list of unclean birds, it does seem like all of them are carnivorous birds with claws and beaks designed for eating flesh. Jewish tradition also affirms this. Animals with paws are also typically carnivorous. So there does seem to be some association with an animal being “unclean” because it eats blood or touches dead things which are “unclean” activities. But, again, that explanation doesn’t cover every animal since camels and rabbits are herbivores. Pigs eat anything, which could make them unclean, but so do goats and they are considered clean. Plus, this reason doesn’t fully explain why these animals are suddenly okay to eat after the institution of the new covenant.
  4. Symbolic. One of the more recent theories is that the “behavior and habits of the clean animals are living illustrations of how the righteous Israelite out to behave, while the unclean represent sinful men” (Wenham). In other words, the “clean” animals function in a way which matches the way they are supposed to behave within their original creation category. Animals are supposed to eat herbs and run on hooves. Fish are supposed to have fins and scales. Birds are not supposed to eat flesh. Reptiles are not supposed to squirm on the ground. It is a little bit of convoluted theory but it does seem to have some merit. If nothing else, it points to the fact that there is a symbolic meaning behind the clean and unclean animals that we shouldn’t miss.

Just as the OT world had a division between the priests, the Jewish nation, and the Gentile nations, even so the animal world was divided into sacrificial animals, clean animals, and unclean animals. Israel was to recognize that distinction in everything they did. They were to be a holy nation, set apart for God’s purposes, distinct from the pagan nations around them. Every time they sat down to eat, they were to be reminded of this fact.

You shall therefore distinguish between clean animals and unclean, between unclean birds and clean, and you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird, or by any kind of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And you shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine. (Leviticus 20:25-26)

Just as God chose Israel out of all the nations for His own purposes, so God also chose certain animals out of all the animal world for His purposes. The clean animal was the symbol of Israel. The sacrificial animal was the symbol of Israel’s coming Messiah.

When Israel’s Messiah came, everything changed.

All the law pointed to Christ.

And Christ fulfilled all of the law.

He was the perfect King. He was the final sacrifice. He was the display of the moral law in human form. He was the fulfillment of all the feasts. He was the Year of Jubilee. He was the Sabbath rest. And He was the One who made the unclean clean.

In the OT, if someone clean touched something unclean, then they would become unclean.

But, in Christ, this was reversed.

When Christ touched the unclean, He made them clean.

Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed. (Mark 1:40-42)

Christ broke down the barriers.

The sacrificial Lamb healed the division between the clean and the unclean.

The Messiah bridged the gap between God and humanity.

The Messiah abolished the barrier between Jew and Gentile.

Everything was changed…even down to the food laws.

What was once unclean has now become clean.

What was once untouchable has now become redeemable.

What was once held at a distance has now become near.

The messianic kingdom has invaded this present world.

Israel (the clean animal) gave birth to the Messiah (the sacrifical animal) to open the kingdom gates to the Gentiles (the unclean animal).

This was God’s plan all along.

This was the purpose of the cross.

This was the picture of the kingdom.

Where the Jew and the Gentile are united as one.

Where the child plays with the serpent.

Where the lion lays down with the lamb.

Where the Messiah makes all things new.

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