We started this series by saying that most who read Genesis and Exodus also skip Leviticus, but even those of us who dive into Leviticus, tend to move on quickly from chapter 11. We do that because it is all about food laws that never did apply to anyone other than the Jews and because in reality, even those no longer apply. They expired along with the old law on the day of Pentecost when the church began.
Today, if someone talks about a diet, it is usually for health reasons, weight loss or personal preference. A diet that won’t clog your arteries, one that supports local farmers and is affordable. Diets are no longer choices between things clean and unclean.
Let me suggest that we really ought to pay attention to this chapter in Leviticus, because there is more here than meets the eye. It is not really about about T-bone over pork-chops, but about living within the boundaries set by God.
There seems to have been an underlying motive for these laws, the effect of which carries forward to our day and which applies to our own spiritual situation. It appears that God wanted to raise a number of social barriers between his people and those of the surrounding nations. He wanted to create a social distance that would be hard to bridge, because social integration with the pagan world would bring his people into contact with pagan gods and many forms of immoral conduct.
Here is how that works. When you want to get up close and personal with someone, it is most naturally done by sharing a meal. Table fellowship is about more than just food. It is about close personal relationships and feelings of home, comfort and belonging. If you cannot eat or drink with certain groups in society, then it is much more difficult to develop close personal relationships. Furthermore, if the people around you abhor the food that you do eat – if they are offended by it, then there is a natural tendency to back off.
The dietary laws that God put in place were intended to preserve the uniqueness of Israel and to create barriers safeguarding the faith of his people. These created degrees of separation to keep Israel from being swallowed up by an unbelieving world
It is a principle that is carried over to New Testament. Christian fellowship is where we forge our closest relationships, and because there is danger in being unequally yoked with unbelievers, Christians are encouraged to marry, only in the Lord.
Food was perhaps only a secondary consideration then in Leviticus 11. Since it was often associated with pagan offerings, the food that Israel’ chose ran the risk of mixing social intercourse with religious practice. God wanted his people to remain separate from the world to preserve their faith and aid their obedience. When Daniel was taken into Babylonian captivity, he and the young men with him refused to eat the meat that was served. (Dan 1:3-20). They did not want to send a mixed message nor to violate their conscience. The last thing that they wanted was to offend God or make it seem that they honoured the gods of Babylon.
You will remember from the story of Joseph, that the Egyptians would not eat with Semitic people. This was why when Joseph first received his brothers, he seated them separately from himself (Gen 43:32). The Egyptians would never slaughter and eat cows because cows were sacred to some of their deities, but they would eat animals excluded by God’s diet for the Israelites.
In Leviticus chapter 10, we noted that many of God’s instructions were designed to teach Israel to make distinctions between things that were clean and unclean. Those categories extended to include food,, which would henceforth be considered either holy or unholy. Dietary laws not only allowed Israel to distinguishing between foods that were holy or unholy, but in so doing to choose obedience to God over disobedience. They kept God’s people from crossing over into a state of unholiness
Israel was to be – holy to the Lord – in the sense of separated from the world and set apart for the special purposes of God within history. They were the extended family of Abraham, and it was through his descendants that one day all of the world would be blessed. Salvation from sin would come through them which was shy mixing with the world in any way, was not an option.
Now Biblical scholars have suggested a number of ways of categorizing or understanding the classifications of animals – either on or off of Israel’s diet
The first classification is Hygienic. It may have been that many of these animals that were more prone to carry disease or contamination were the ones on the prohibited list. Yet – while this may be true of some of these animals, the scriptures do not identify this as a reason.
- Furthermore, some of the unclean animals are not prone to disease or contamination – while some of the ‘clean’ animals are.
- And if physical harm was the main reason for making the distinction, then why would all of these unclean animals later be declared clean – by the teachings of the N.T.? (As in God’s statement to Peter in the vision in Acts 10:15-16)
A second way to categorize these animals pertains to ‘Cultic’ practices.
- So for example, Isa 65:4 associates the eating of pork with graveyard rituals.
- Or the vision that Ezekiel had in 8:10 where he saw all manner of creeping things and detestable animals being offered in the temple.
But once again, while it was true that some of the unclean animals were offered by pagans in worship, the Canaanites also used the many of the same animals that the Israelites did for sacrificial purposes. Therefore this distinction is not absolute.
A third way of trying to understand these distinctions is simply to say that God put them in place – arbitrarily. Holiness depended upon obedience, whether or not the reasons for the distinctions made any other sense. Kind of like, God saying ‘do it because I said so’. The idea then is, that the will of God must be honoured even in matters as seemingly trivial dietary choices. God certainly has the right to declare something either clean or unclean, and in this way testing the obedience of his people.
Then there is the idea that these divisions of animals and foods are ‘Symbolic’. The ancient Letter of Aristeas suggested – that chewing the cud reminded the people of Israel that they ought to meditate on God’s word. Others put forward the suggestion that carnivorous animals and birds which fed on carrion – were dirty – associated with death and decay and therefore prohibited because they symbolized filth and iniquity.
Besides, God had forbidden Israel to eat blood – because it symbolized life. Therefore Israelites were not to eat the eaters of blood. Animals which did what humans were forbidden to do – who broke God’s rules for culture, were therefore unclean.
There is still another and more recent idea (by Mary Douglas) – about how to make sense of God’s dietary laws. This one goes back to the Biblical principle that everything created by God ought to correspond to it’s created order. Thus, holiness is that which preserves the order of creation put in place by God, and unholiness is that which mixes that order and blurs those distinctions, creating grey areas in between.
So for example, God created animals that walked on the land, flew in the sky and swam in the water. Each sphere had its own characteristic motion. Creatures who kept to their sphere and reflected the characteristics of the group – were clean. Those that crossed over – in some way, were unclean. Therefore, a fish that did not have fins or scales was unclean. It fell short of the characteristics common to most fish. Or in the case of leprosy, there was a growth – a plant invading human culture and thus rendering those who were infected, unclean.
Then finally, we might consider the approach that there is a combination of the symbolic with the preservation of the principles of the created order. (as Milgrom suggests). The idea is that this Leviticus 11 is all about teaching Israel a respect for life. It is respect for life that above all else moves Israel closer to the giver of life and thus the holiness of God.
Now in the world of sacrifice, all meat belongs to God. Israel was permitted to share this food – but only at God’s table. Milgrom points out that it was a serious thing to take a life or to even touch a carcass. By reducing the number of animals on the dietary list, God was teaching his people to revere life. The taking of life to provide food was the exception and not the rule, and even then, one was to follow the rule of creation – partaking only of those animals that most closely adhered to the distinctions and categories put in place by God.
At the end of the day, none of these explanations are completely satisfactory, yet this last one offers a more consistent and comprehensive way of understanding how God came to make that distinctions that he did. It fits the context of our chapter and the purposes that God had for giving these instructions.
So the categories of clean and unclean, holy and unholy – appear to call Israel back to the world in its pristine form – new and fresh from the hand of God. And as God had made everything good and right, perfectly suited for his purposes, he had also called Israel to carry out those purposes in a state of cleanness
Clean animals and clean food corresponded to God’s people Israel and clean sacrifices represented the priests as they served in the sanctuary. Unclean animals were associated with the pagan world. A world that had crossed over to live in sin. A world at war with the purposes of God and determined to live in a state of ignorance…about God. It was unclean in large part because it had broken away from God and rejected the holiness that only He can impart.
Now of course, these ‘physical’ standards had ‘spiritual’ counterparts. God had called his people to be holy – both in body and in soul. Physical cleanliness and moral purity – went hand in hand. The physical world of clean food and pure bodies was supposed to point Israel in the directions of moral holiness and separateness from the world. And perhaps because the unseen world of the inner person is not often at the front of our minds…God used physical objects – declared clean – by Him, to remind his people of that unseen reality and the need for inner purity
In this way, sanctification is one of the underlying theological ideas of this chapter. The details that are set out – pertain to ‘practical sanctification’, with this chapter…spelling out what sanctification involves as it pertains to diet.
Now the information about food – in Leviticus 11, is offered up peace-meal, and that makes it easy to get lost in the details and lose sight of the big picture.
The big picture is theological.
- The theological message of the chapter – is that God wants each of his people to live a life of complete holiness to Him
- This holiness has to do with both their bodies and souls
As it turns out, this involves living according to God’s order in creation.
- It is worth noting that many of these distinction remain today. They were affirmed by the son of God and later by the apostles.
So for example, when God created human beings, in his image, he created them both male and female. The man and the woman were joined in marriage, and this established God’s order for marriage from that time forward. They were to be fruitful, to multiply and to replenish the earth.
It is not hard to see why God has always condemned homosexual and lesbian relationships. They can never constitute marriage nor contribute to the continuity of the human race. in I Cor 11, Paul pointed out another – ‘order of creation’ principle. When God created people, He made the man first and then the woman. It turns out, that this sequence was intentional.
As Paul explains, Adam man became the head of Eve, because she was created out of a part of his body. For that reason, it is God’s will that in each marriage and in each family, the husband is to lead as the head of the family. This is the standard to which the N.T. calls us – and is in accordance with God’s created order.
Thus we read in I cor. 11:3
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
In Eph. 5:22-24, Paul says
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything
And then he explains this in I Tim 2:
But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
Each one of these teachings is connected with God’s order in creation, and while we are now sanctified in Christ, the doctrines and practices of the New Testament are rooted in purposes of God and in the pattern of established by Him…at creation
So, when God says…that this is my standard of holiness…we just need to pay attention. It is after all, God who has redeemed us…and made us into his people, and having done that, he has taken ownership of us. He has made us ‘holy’ so that He can live inside of us. God therefore reserves the right to demand that we imitate his holiness and obey each of his commands.
Now Leviticus 11:45 states that the God who brought Israel out of Egypt for the purpose of being their God…is furthermore – holy. Therefore, his people are to be ‘holy’ also, and if the reason why some food was clean and some was not – if that reason remains hidden – then so too do God’s reasons for choosing Israel in the first place.
Yet the fact remains that He did choose them. He chose them, redeemed them and sanctified them and they belonged to him and owed their allegiance to Him. The privileges conferred by the law also came with certain obligations under the law, and for Israel, those obligation included what they ate.
The kind of holiness that Israel enjoyed through union with God…was to be defined by the holiness of imitation, and of course there is more than just one aspect of God to imitate.
God expected his people to be honest and truthful…just like Him. They were to keep their promises and fulfill their vows. Every city was supposed to be safe from crime with a legal system – above reproach. The widow, orphan and alien came under special protection which was part of the holiness that God demanded. This holiness of imitation was also linked to the creative work of God. Since Israel’s God called the world into existence…Israel was to reflect his holiness by honouring the order imposed by God upon the world. Instead of seeing the world as a place of chaos and confusion, the world view of God’s people…reflected the mind and purposes of God.
God wants the same thing for us today. The modern and postmodern view is that the world is product of eternal matter – interacting without purpose and direction. We are, in the words of one person…”the product of a long series of singularly beneficial accidents”. If that is so…then there is no ultimate standard in such a world…no meaningful past – no purposeful present -and no hope for the future.
That was not the world that God actually created, nor was it the world that God wanted his people to have. The real world is filled with cohesion, regularity and predictability, nor does it exist for no purpose.
Our lives have meaning, and purpose and direction, all provided by the one who has finished his new creation in Jesus Christ and who calls us from the cares of this world to his eternal rest. May we heed that call and enjoy his blessings forever.