Why were some animals (foods) declared unclean in the old covenant? This is the question we will now explore. When God sanctifies something, he arbitrarily chooses it and sets it apart for his own special use. In many instances in scripture, being sanctified is the opposite of being unclean. The nation of Israel (which included believers and unbelievers) was sanctified and holy because God arbitrarily chose them for His special purposes, not because they were inherently righteous or better than any other nation (see Deut. 7:6-8; Deut. 9:3-6).
(This blog is an excerpt from my book "To Eat or Not to Eat? Examining Modern Nutrition Wisdom In The Light of Scripture." The book is available from the sermon audio bookstore.)
In a similar way, some foods were arbitrarily set apart by God for sacrifice and for consumption, and others were arbitrarily declared unclean. Clean foods were not declared to be clean because of any inherent virtue, and unclean foods were not declared unclean because of any inherent defect. The Israelites were not to eat the unclean foods or else they would become unclean themselves and unfit for the worship of God.
The purpose of the book of Leviticus is to teach the Israelites about the holiness of God and how He is to be worshipped, not to teach the Israelites about proper nutrition.This, however, raises a question. If an Israelite could become unclean by eating an unclean animal and thereby become unfit for worship, then how could Noah eat them and remain pure? I believe the reason is found in God’s unique calling upon Israel to be separate and distinct from the nations around them, a calling God did not give Noah.
The Israelite calling to be separate from other nations was instilled by many laws, including laws requiring them to observe a different diet. God called Israel to be a holy and separate nation. They were not to intermarry with the other nations, lest their hearts be drawn away to worship foreign gods (Deut. 7:3-6). They were not to imitate the idolatrous worship practices of the nations (Deut. 12:29-30). To reinforce this and to deeply instill into their minds the principle of separation, God gave the Israelites a number of commands that seem to make no sense when this purpose is not kept in mind. For instance, in Leviticus 19:19, God said, “You are to keep My statutes. You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.”
Though some have tried to find in this commandment God’s secret to successful farming and weaving, the context of the book of Leviticus is the proper worship of God. God wanted the Israelites to be holy, separate, distinct and pure in their love for Him and worship of Him. God despises the competition of idols and wanted the Israelites’ undivided attention. God gave the Israelites commandments to govern their daily life so that even in the routine experiences of life they would know that their loyalties and affections for God were not to be mixed with loyalties and affections to other gods. It is not surprising then that they were also required to be different in the foods they ate.
This is not mere speculation. It is the express teaching of Leviticus 20:22-26.
You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out. Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I will drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. Hence I have said to you, ‘You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine (italics mine).
From this passage, it is clear that God commanded Israel to abstain from animals that He had declared unclean as a way of separating them from the Gentiles, not as a way of managing their nutrition.
“Rise, Peter. Kill and eat.”
While the study of dietary regulations under previous covenant administrations is interesting, what concerns Christians most is God’s instructions to those living in the New Testament (covenant). If God has given instructions to us in the New Testament different from those He gave to believers in the Old Testament, then we would do well to abide by the rules of the covenant we are in, instead of a covenant we are not in. What we find when looking at the New Testament is that God has given instructions to believers different from those He gave to the Israelites under the Old Testament. There has been a covenantal change.
The first change in food laws is briefly mentioned in Mark 7:19 and expounded upon in Acts 10. In Mark 7:1-23, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their traditions that enabled them to transgress the commandments of God. The Pharisees had complained that Jesus' disciples did not ceremonially wash their hands before eating, which violated the tradition of the elders. Jesus sharply rebuked them for adhering to man-made traditions while ignoring God-given commandments. He then called the multitude to Him and told them that defilement didn't come from food and from things outside of them. Rather defilement came from their hearts.
The disciples later asked Jesus about this statement and He replied as follows, in Mark 7:18-19: “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated? (Thus He declared all foods clean.)”
Here Jesus is teaching that nothing that enters the man from outside and goes into his stomach can truly defile him. It simply goes into his stomach and then passes from there into the sewer. We will look more at this passage in chapter six. For now, let us note that this passage seems to directly contradict Leviticus 11, which teaches that contact with unclean animals would defile the Israelites. How do we reconcile these passages? How could Jesus say that nothing from the outside going into a man could defile him, while Leviticus 11 taught that contact with unclean animals would in fact defile?
The reason is that uncleanness is derived from disobedience which comes from the heart. This is consistent with Christ’s teaching that all defilement comes from within. In other words, Israelites in the old covenant were not defiled by touching a pig because pigs were inherently unclean and would contagiously spread their uncleanness to anyone who touched them. Rather, pigs were unclean because God declared them to be off limits. Disobedience to God is what made a person unclean. Since God said not to touch or eat pigs, an Israelite would become unclean by disobeying God’s command to not touch or eat pigs. Disobedience comes from a heart that does not want to submit to God’s rule. Defilement, Jesus says, comes from within, not from without.
What we find when we look further at the new covenant is that God has removed the unclean designation from all the animals that were declared to be unclean in the old covenant. In Acts 10, we read that Cornelius, a Gentile, had a vision in which an angel of God told him to send for Peter. He then sent some servants to go to Joppa and summon Peter to his house to speak with him. In the meantime, Peter had a vision of his own. The account, starting in verse 10, reads as follows:
But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat!’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.’ Again a voice came to him a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.—Acts 10:10-16
The creatures in Peter’s vision were unclean, but he was told to kill and eat them. Understandably, Peter objected. He had carefully followed the food regulations of the Old Testament and did not want to rebel against them. But Peter was told that God had cleansed what was once considered unclean, and so he should no longer consider them unclean. After Peter’s vision, Cornelius’ servants arrived. Before Peter went down to meet them, the Holy Spirit told him to go with the men without reservation. Why would Peter have reservations? Because Gentiles were considered unclean and Jews did not mingle with them. They certainly didn’t go into their houses and eat with them. But, Peter obeyed the Holy Spirit and went with the men.
When Peter met Cornelius, he said to him in verse 28, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (italics mine). Here is an extremely significant text. Here is the biblical explanation for why God had previously declared some animals to be unclean! It is because the unclean animals represented the unclean Gentiles. It had nothing to do with nutrition.
Peter understood from his vision that the unclean animals represented the unclean Gentiles in a symbolic way. That is why he said to Cornelius, “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.” Obviously, the Gentiles were declared clean simply by divine pronouncement, not by any physiological transformation. In the same way, food that was formerly unclean is now considered clean simply by divine declaration, not by any physiological or nutritional transformation.