Leviticus 9 then opens on the “eighth day” with these men coming forth with the tabernacle officially being opened for business. “Aaron and his sons” make the appropriate offerings for themselves. After which they offer the Burnt, Grain, Peace, and Sin Offerings on behalf of the people. With bated breathe Israel looked on as “the glory of the LORD appeared and fire came out consuming the offering.” In response “all the people shouted” and worshipped.
As all of this is happening chapter 10 opens with an immediate shift from this dramatic scene back onto the activities of the priests occurring inside of the tabernacle itself. We read, “Then Nadab and Abihu, the two oldest sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.”
On their first day on the job, in one sensational instance, 2/5ths of the entire Priesthood is incinerated as two of Aaron’s four sons are “devoured” by fire coming out from the Lord! Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Moses jumps into the fray, commands Aaron and his two remaining sons not to mourn in any way, instructing them to basically keep going on! His point was these men were the “anointed priests” and therefore had a job to finish.
Understandably, in the fog and confusion of everything that’s happened Aaron’s younger sons “Eleazar and Ithamar” mess up some of the protocols for the Sin Offering causing Moses to come unhinged. He issues a stern rebuke of them and in response the chapter closes with Aaron interceding by telling Moses he needed to back off — which he does.
As you’re reading through Leviticus the transition from these tense events into a series of dietary guidelines laid out in chapter 11 seems odd to say the least. What make this even stranger is that the narrative of chapter 10 is later picked up in Leviticus 16:1, “Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the LORD, and died; and the LORD said to Moses: ‘Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.”
Though we’ll address these instructions in more detail in the coming weeks, following the deaths of Nadab and Abihu God gives Aaron a specific set of detailed instructions for an incredible moment that will occur on what will become known as the Day of Atonement.
As we turn our focus onto these five chapters inserted into this larger narrative we must first consider why God would do this? In fact, the answer to this question will help us establish a context for our understanding of what God is actually seeking to accomplish.
If you look back to Leviticus 10:8-11 you will notice that in the midst of the chaos following the deaths of Nadab and Abihu the LORD comes to Aaron and says, “Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean, and that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by the hand of Moses.”
Aside from the fact God was prohibiting the priests from drinking while on duty, in these verses He’s also adding two new responsibilities to their job description. In addition to taking care of the business associated with the activities of the tabernacle, the priests were also commanded to “distinguish between holy and unholy — between unclean and clean” as well as to “teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD had spoke to them.”
With these two additional responsibilities in mind it makes total sense why God would now take a break from the action in order to articulate to the priests and by extension the people what was “holy and unholy, clean and unclean” concerning a wide array of topics.
In chapter 11 God will define what was and wasn’t permissible to eat. In chapter 12 God will establish a very specific way in which women were to be treated following childbirth. In Leviticus 13-14 God will lay out a detailed process whereby the priests were to diagnose leprosy, handle infectious skin diseases, as well as how to declare someone to be clean. Finally, in chapter 15 God will even get into the way bodily discharges were to be handled.
It goes without saying, but the very fact God interrupts this narrative to enumerate on these issues — coupled with the reality the subject matter will demand five chapters and 204 verses tells us what we’re about to examine is important and demands our attention.
Before we dive into the text I need to establish two big ideas that undergird these chapters and will aid our understanding of where all of these ideas ultimately land… First, there is an undeniable component to these mandates that were frankly revolutionary. Not only did God’s commands to Israel contrast the contemporary approach of that day in age, but they transcended man’s collective understanding of the physical world at that point in time.
Whether it was the practical benefits of not eating certain animals because they were more susceptible of fostering human illnesses — creating a radicle approach to childbirth designed to aid a woman in her postpartum recovery — addressing infectious diseases to mitigate their spread within a community — to the realization that bodily discharges presented serious health risks if not handled appropriately, all of these laws recorded in Leviticus 11-15 were not instituted to limit the enjoyment of life, but to protect life itself!
With this understanding in mind some have therefore argued Christians should still obey all of these commandments. My answer to this argument is “Yes and no!” There are absolutely certain concepts established in these chapters we would be wise to adhere too. That said… There are other prohibitions God institutes that are simply no longer applicable or relevant because our society is much different today than it was back then.
For example, the wisdom of quarantining an individual with an infectious disease in order to prohibit the spread of that disease in the community remains as applicable today as it did in the days of Moses. And yet, because we have developed disinfectants and powerful cleaning products, we no longer need to completely demolish the infected persons home as well.
Not eating rats and bats or the food and water sources they might have contaminated is as astute today as it was then. And yet, the controlled environment in which we raise pigs or the development of refrigeration eliminates the health risks of eating pork or enjoying lobster. As we work our way through the text I’ll take some time to make some of these distinctions.
Aside from the practical benefits of these mandates, it’s also important to keep in mind these five chapters still fall within the first half of Leviticus governing our relationship with God. As you transition from the first 10 chapters of Leviticus into this new section you can’t help but notice there is a shift away from the tabernacle and onto the daily life of the people. The idea is that our interactions with God were not limited to just this tent of meeting.
It’s interesting, but twice in Leviticus 11 we will read how God instructed the people to “be holy as I am holy” in direct relation to the food they eat! You see, while there was an tangible blessing behind all of these various instructions, the people’s obedience to these commands had a direct correlation to their relationship with the divine.
In Hebrew the word we find translated in Leviticus 10:10 as “distinguish” is bä·dal’. What’s so interesting about this word is that in the vast majority of instances we find it translated as either to divide or to separate. The idea was so essential to the creation narrative that five separate times the word is used! As just one example… In Genesis 1:4 we read, “And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided (bä·dal’) the light from the darkness.”
The reason this idea is significant is that sometimes when examining these chapters we fall into the trap of falsely equating something that is “unholy” or “unclean” as being inherently sinful. I think this is a mistake that ends up fostering a lot of unnecessary confusion.
Again, in Hebrew the words “clean and unclean” are simply descriptive terms designating something or someone as either being pure and permissible or impure and prohibited within a very specific context whereby God makes that important designation.
For example… The classification of animals as “clean or unclean” is presented within the context of God distinguishing the animals that were permissible to eat from those that were prohibited. God wasn’t defining of some animals as inherently good and others as bad.
In chapter 12 we’ll read how a woman was unclean for a period of time following the birth of a child. In making this distinction God was not declaring the woman to be sinful. Instead, He was making a designation that in her current condition she needed to be separated for a time and prohibited from certain activities. Unclean didn’t describe her moral standing.
Aside from the practical value of these distinctions protecting life, the intertwining of the people’s adherence to them with their holiness is fascinating. In Hebrew the word “holy” simply means to set something apart for a particular purpose. When God says, “I am holy” He’s saying He’s separate, distinct, and different from everything else — on purpose.
Don’t forget God is taking a group of former slaves and He’s creating them into a new people who would demonstrate to the world there was a better way to live. Because God wanted them to “be holy as He is holy” — separate from the world for the purpose of being His light unto the world — He now defines this new way to live by “distinguishing” what things were “clean” (pure and permissible) from things that were “unclean” (impure and prohibited).
In many ways God is articulating the following message to the Children of Israel, “Guys, in order for Me to create you into a people that is fundamentally different from the world, I want you to know it’s ok for you to do this, but not that. You can enjoy these things, but not those. I want you to handle this situation this way and not the way everyone else does.”
What’s interesting about God’s command for the Hebrew people to “be holy as I am holy” in the midst of directives “distinguishing” the “clean” from the “unclean” is that it tells us none of this was really about doing something in particular and more about the people being something distinct — separate from the world for the very reason God was separate!
Here’s a general truth so many people forget… You can’t do holiness! Holiness is something that naturally flows from that which is already holy. Think about it this way… The Hebrews identity as the people of God was not founded upon their obedience — instead their obedience manifested from their new identity. In fact, there identity had already been established way before any of these things had ever been articulated. And the Burnt Offering had been made with God accepting it on their behalf for atonement.
So what was God doing? I’m convinced (and again we’re looking at these things from the 10,000 foot perspective) in giving all of these specific and detailed mandates pertaining to their daily lives God was taking holiness out of the abstract. God wanted His people to live so differently from the world around them that they’d never forget they were different from the world around them! All of these laws were given not with the intention of bestowing an identity, but to always remind them what their identity already was!
The reason this larger view of what is known as the Holiness Code is so helpful is that you can see how the New Covenant doesn’t abandon the ideal. While the Christian is not required to obey any of these mandates, the concept of obedience to God and the distinction with the world that results — manifesting from my identity in Christ, remains the same. I am not holy because I choose to live a certain way. The way I live is holy because I am holy!
Leviticus 11:1-3, “Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron (it’s interesting Aaron is included), 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: (God is going to classify which animals were ok to eat and which weren’t — repeated in Deuteronomy 14.)
Among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud — that you may eat. (The two general criteria for animals ok to eat was that (1) they had to have a “cloven hoof” or a hoof split into two separate toes, and (2) the animal had to eat by “chewing the cud” or regurgitating his food. The animal was vegetarian and the way they consumed food insured their meat was well processed. Side note: There are a lot of reasons you might choose to a non-meat lifestyle, but you shouldn’t make it a moral one.)
Leviticus 11:4-8, “Nevertheless these you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves (these are the exceptions): the camel, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; the rock hyrax (also known as the coney), because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; the hare (rabbit), because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; and the swine (pig), 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.”
It’s worth noting the idea behind “clean and unclean” animals was not new. According to Genesis 7 the LORD used these same designations in his instructions to Noah. This has led many scholars to concluded the dietary guidelines already existed in Hebrew culture being passed down via oral traditions until they were finally codified here in Leviticus 11.
Leviticus 11:9-12, “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. (Anything in salt or fresh water possessing both “fins and scales” could be eaten.) 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. (Eight times in this chapter we’ll find this phrase “abomination to you.” The idea in the Hebrew is that eating this animal was detestable — it’s not good for 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.”
This list of animals God is prohibiting includes things like shrimp, lobsters, crabs, oysters, clams, crayfish, squid, els, sharks, whales, dolphins, as well as bottom feeders like catfish. Not only do these animals carry with them a higher risk of bacteria because of the way in which they eat, but they’re very difficult to preserve causing them to spoil quickly.
Leviticus 11:13-19, “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 (type of hawk), and the falcon after its kind (generally all birds of prey); every raven after its kind, the ostrich, the short-eared owl, the sea gull, and the hawk after its kind (hawk is a bad translation — this is likely an extinct bird); the little owl, the fisher owl, and the screech owl; the white owl (swan), the jackdaw (pelican), and the carrion vulture (type of eagle); the stork, the heron after its kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.” (“Clean birds” like doves, qual, and pigeons were permissible to eat.)
Leviticus 11:20-23, “All flying insects that creep on all fours shall be an abomination to you (don’t eat bugs). 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 (specifically the bald locust), 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.”
Beginning with verse 24 God adds some additional stipulations to these dietary guidelines… Leviticus 11:24-26, “By these you shall become unclean; whoever touches the carcass of any of them shall be unclean until evening (speaking of a dead animal); whoever carries part of the carcass of any of them shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening (the start of a new day in the Jewish mind was in the 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.”
Leviticus 11:27-28, “And whatever goes on its paws, among all kinds of animals that go on all fours, those are unclean to you. (Dogs, cats, bears, most carnivores.) 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.”
Leviticus 11:29-31, “These also shall be unclean to you among the creeping things that creep on the earth: the mole (weasel), the mouse, and the large lizard after its kind (tortoise); the gecko (ferret), the monitor lizard (chameleon), the sand reptile, the sand lizard (snail), and the chameleon (mole). These are unclean to you among all that creep. Whoever touches them when they are dead shall be unclean until evening.”
With verse 32 we’re given more stipulations aimed at prohibiting the spread of bacteria and disease… Leviticus 11:32-34, “Anything on which any of them (previous classification of “creeping things that creep”) 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.”
Leviticus 11:35-36, “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 (flowing water) or a cistern, in which there is plenty of water (enough water to dilute any of the dangerous bacteria), shall be clean, but whatever touches any such carcass becomes unclean.”
Leviticus 11:37-38, “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 (the germination process has begun), and if a part of any such carcass falls on it, it becomes unclean to you.”
Leviticus 11:39-40, “And if any animal which you may eat dies (example would be a lamb dying in the field), 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.”
Back to creeping things… Leviticus 11:41-43, “And every creeping thing that creeps on the earth shall be an abomination. It shall not be eaten. Whatever crawls on its belly (snakes), whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet among all creeping things that creep on the earth (centipedes) — 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, lest you be defiled by them.”
Summary of the chapter… Leviticus 11:44-47, “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.”
Let’s close with a few observations specific to these Dietary Guidelines… First, there is no question God cares about our physical health. As you dive into the details of this chapter it becomes evident all of these mandates manifested from a man-centered concern. As the Creator God is going on the record letting humanity know what was good and bad to eat.
Every single restriction, prohibition, and added stipulation about what could or couldn’t be eaten was designed to help man avoid consuming or coming into contact with something that posed a higher risk to his health. God wasn’t giving humanity a list of laws intending to lessen our enjoyment of life, but to fundamentally protect our ability to enjoy living.
Second, you’ll notice God ordered the animals into clear classifications allowing for the development of variations within each family to take place through adaptations.
Within the Creation Record provided in Genesis 1 the description of the animals is vague. On the 5th Day, “God said, ‘Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament.’ So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind.” Then on the 6th Day “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind’; and it was so.” Then He created man!
What makes Leviticus 11 so incredible is that it provides for us the first comprehensive listing in Scripture of the various subcategories of the animal kingdom. Not only are mammals divided into those with “cloven hoofs” who “chew the cud,” those who don’t, and ones with “paws,” but the diversity in fish, birds, insects, and “creeping things” is astounding.
Aside from this, it’s also worth noting that, like Genesis, we find the same phrase repeated again and again in relation to these animals… “Each according to its kind.” In Creation God designed animals to specifically develop variations through adaptations, but He limited this to their particular kind. There is no evidence of these adaptations developing new families.
Third, while man has been given dominion over all of creation — including the animal kingdom, it’s clear from this text that not all animals existed for human consumption. You can study this idea in more details on your own, but when you really begin to dig into which animals were prohibited you’ll find a deeper reason… Some of them were more vulnerable to predators and therefore had a greater risk for extinction. It’s worth noting the permissible animals man could raise and herd specifically to be a food source.
Beyond this, prohibiting carnivores as well as birds of prey was wise in that they both had an essential ecological role in controlling other more invasive species as well as eating animals that had died and in whose carcasses posed a health risk. As stewards over creation we should enjoy all animals without possessing the inclination to kill and eat everyone of them.
Before we wrap things up we do need to examine the broader idea presented here from a N.T. perspective. In Mark 7:18-20, Jesus said, “Whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods.” Then He added, “What comes out of a man, that defiles him.”
In the end the Jews had taken these ideas and twisted them from their original meaning. Paul would write to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 8:8), “Food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.”
In an remarkable scene that takes place in Acts 10 God scraps the entire guideline… “Peter became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him… In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.’ And a voice spoke to him again the second time, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’”
For the reasons we referenced earlier and in light of these passages and more it’s clear the Dietary Guidelines established in Leviticus 11 were no longer applicable within our New Covenant context. Sure, some of these specific prohibitions were timeless and there is no question the idea of keeping things sanitary when it comes to our food always relevant.
And yet, as with many of the other laws articulated in this book, what we find here presents for us a much larger spiritual principle that very much remains at play. In Leviticus 11 God is establishing a law that is always true… What is clean will always find itself defiled when it comes into contact with that which is unclean — and never the other way around!
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