Old Testament Law: The Unclean and Clean

Anthony Weber —  September 20, 2012 — 5 Comments

As noted in the previous post, Old Testament law is not meant to be read in a literary vacuum.  We need to consider context and purpose in order to understand what God was trying to accomplish in the world.  While this may not make Exodus and Leviticus leap off the page, this will hopefully allow us to more clearly see a God whose desire was for humanity to flourish.

In some ways, the flourishing brought about by the Law was a very practical one.  The dietary laws God gave Israel have proven to be remarkably good even by 21st century standards.  Laws for cleaning mold out of a house sound a lot like the processes we use today. Laws about quarantine were insightful from a medical perspective.  So in one sense, many of the laws were simply instructions on how to stay physically healthy. (Even the laws for more controversial issues like slavery and marriage point away from human subjugation and toward a society in which people are intended to flourish – but I will address that in the next post.)

I believe, however, that the fundamental purpose of the law was much greater. God intended for the Law to help the Israelites understand holiness in every aspect of life.  The  laws emphasize that  holiness is “separateness.” God is holy, and by extension His people are to be holy. They are “called out” or “called away” from things that could corrupt them.  The law was intended to create a wholeness within the community of Israel and a distinctiveness from the surrounding pagan cultures.

This idea of separateness goes back to Genesis One. Over and over, God separates and categorizes the natural world.  The creation account brims with the language of dividing, gathering, and classifying. This orderliness reflects a fundamental reality of creation: there is a nature to things such that they exist best inside of boundaries.  Without this understanding, there would be chaos. What’s good for humanity’s universe is apparently good for humanity, too. God seems determined that every time His people did anything, they would be reminded of order, wholeness, and completeness.

We see an example of this in the Old Testament dietary laws.The Law divides animals into four general spheres presented in Genesis 1 and elucidated further in Leviticus 11:

  • Land animals (4-footed;  they hop, walk, or jump; they have split hooves and chew the cud)
  • Water animals (they must have scales and fins).
  • Air animals (birds need two wings for flying; insects need four feet)
  • Creeping things (mentioned specifically in Leviticus)

Obviously, this is not a scientific distinction. Plenty of animals do not fit neatly into these categories (I’m talking to you, platypus). So what made an animal clean?  

There are a number of popular explanations. Basically,  a “clean” animal was neither “bottom feeder” nor predator, and had all the defining characteristics of its class and no characteristics of any other.  Though the book of Acts clearly teaches that the dietary distinctions were not permanent mandates, avoiding the bottom feeders of land and sea helped to keep the people healthy.  Avoiding the predators spared them of a common primitive belief that the animals you consumed in turn made you into their image. (Think of Paul’s admonition to the converts from the Corinthian temples in 1 Corinthians 8:8 – “Food does not bring us near to God”).

However, I don’t believe either of those reasons matter the most. God wanted a people who understood what it meant to be “holy” – separate, unmixed, and distinct, with the characteristics of no other. For that reason, He even wanted them to eat “holy” food.

‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy…I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:43-45)

“Defile” is a strong word (literally, not to pollute), and “consecrate” places quite a bit of weight on the shoulders of food.  A cursory glance makes God seem fixated on minutiae, but a deeper look shows a purposeful God who uses one of the most basic needs of humanity – food – to teach His people what it means to understand the nature and order of the world. This principle carried over into other areas of life:

  • Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:9-11 prohibit mixed breeding of cattle and crops, clothing with mixed fibers, and plowing with different kinds of animals yoked together.
  • Men and women were not to wear clothes of the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5).
  • There was no sexual activity allowed outside the boundary of marriage (Leviticus 18:6-23; Deuteronomy 21:10-21).
  • The people were to honor boundary markers (Deuteronomy 19:14)

There is a stability which comes from a careful defining of boundaries and purpose so that life can be lived in fullness and freedom. There is a nature to things that must be affirmed. Though it may seem ridiculously micromanaged to us, God was going to make sure that His people understood the necessity of distinctions and boundaries.  They could not sit down for a meal, get dressed, marry, or farm without being reminded that they too were made with a specific nature, for a specific purpose.

These trivial details were simply paving the way for a greater story. God’s laws reminded the Israelites of their call to holiness (separateness or distinctiveness) in the midst of the surrounding cultures.

“You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. But I said to you, ‘You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations. You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those that I have set apart as unclean for you.  You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”  (Leviticus 20:23-26 NIV).

In the same way that things could not be mixed, the worldviews and ideas of Israel were not be mixed with other nations. Once we get past the dietary and hygenic laws, there are many other laws meant to separate the culture of Yahweh from the culture of Baal, Dagon, or Ra.

  • Tattoos (Leviticus 19:28) had religious significance in the surrounding nations, as did a particular trimming of hair and beards (Leviticus 19:27).
  • New mothers had to stay away from the temple (Leviticus 12), a prohibition which probably intended to distance the Israelites from the rituals of fertility cults.
  • There was no cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk(Exodus 23:19), since the Canaanites practiced a fertility rite that required this very thing.
  • Some would argue that certain animals made the “unclean” list because of their importance in surrounding religions

Boundary markers were not just for fields.  They were for the ordinary moments of life – childbirth, cooking, eating, ornamental displays.  Every moment mattered.

However….what about the more controversial aspects of the Law? Even if the explanations I have given so far bring a context to these mundane laws, what do we do when the Law seems to perpetuate bad pagan practices (such as slavery, wife ownership, and harsh punishment) rather than separate the Israelites from them?  Owning slaves and eating shrimp are two very different things, are they not?

Yes, they are. Once again, context and purpose matter. Stay tuned….

Anthony Weber


Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (tcapologetics.org, empiresandmangers.blogspot.com), and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.