Holy Eating

I again had the privilege of standing in for Bob Pickering as a Sunday School teacher this week. My thanks to Bob for the opportunity; I had a very good time preparing and delivering these two lessons in Leviticus. The outline for this week’s lesson follows, and you can also download the audio recording here.

Leviticus 11: Clean and Unclean Animals


  • Last week, we saw how paying attention to the weird parts in the chapter could pay off, and it’s possible to find answers to the questions that we have. This week, there will be some questions that we don’t have answers to, but we hunger and thirst for righteousness, so we need to continue to pay attention to the details.
  • Last week, we saw how important it is for a priest to present the pictures and symbols that God gives him to present. This applies particularly to the sons of Aaron as the priests of Israel, but it applies at a lesser level to the entire nation as a whole, because Israel is a priestly nation, called to represent God to the Gentiles.

Observe the Chapter
Note the following details

  • Among ‘animals’, cloven hoof and cud-chewing are ‘clean;’ others are ‘unclean.’
  • In the water, fins and scales ‘you may eat’; others are ‘abomination.’
  • Of the birds, specified birds are ‘an abomination.’
  • Of the bugs, all those that fly/creep are an abomination; ‘yet you may eat those that creep but also hop’

Explanations that don’t work

  • Health – there may be health ramifications here, but (for example) carp is as much a scavenger as eagle or lobster.  Also, if it’s about health, why does God dislike later refuse to give the Gentile nations the same guidance?  Does God just dislike the Gentiles?
  • Something inherently disgusting about these particular animals — no. God will tell us in the NT that this can’t be (see Act 10-11), but also note that the eagle is an abomination and the lion is unclean, for example. Yet God uses the eagle favorably (Isa. 40:31, Ezek. 10:14), and Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev. 5:5)

So what is it?

  • As with the incense and other obligations of the preceding chapter, the issue is symbolic; the priestly nation is set apart to God and eats only the food that is set apart for it.
  • Note the parallels between the language of 10:3 and 11:44-45.  God takes this matter very seriously.
  • Note that ‘holy’ does not mean ‘morally righteous.’  It means ‘separate, set apart.’  (We equate holiness with moral righteousness because in order to be set apart to God’s service, a person must be morally righteous.  But there’s more to being set apart than just morality.)  Israel is set apart as a nation of priests to the world; part of her separateness has to do with the ritual pictures that she enacts for the world — including what she eats and doesn’t eat.

So what is it a symbol of? (Acts 10-11)
No formal explanation of the vision is given, but notice…

  • the vision’s effect on Peter — he goes
  • how Peter speaks with Cornelius (10:28-29) and how he begins his sermon (10:34)
  • how Peter recounts the vision in detail in his defense to his fellow Jews (11:4-10)
  • Note the effect of his defense on the brethren in Jerusalem (11:18)

Why did the vision have these effects?

  • Biblical symbolism draws a parallel between people and animals (the whole sacrificial system is based on this; it’s why a sheep can be killed to atone for the sins of a man)
  • The clean animals symbolize the clean nation, Israel
  • the unclean animals symbolize the unclean Gentile nations
  • When God tells Peter to eat unclean animals, and rebukes him for calling them unclean or common, God is abolishing the division between clean and unclean food, which also abolishes the division between Israel (which ate only clean food) and Gentiles (which ate unclean food).

How does the symbolism work?

That is, what is it about cloven hooves and chewing cud that makes an animal symbolize Israel, and what is it about a solid hoof (or no hoof), and not chewing the cud, that symbolizes the Gentile nations?  What is it about having fins and scales that symbolizes Israel, and what is it about lacking those things that symbolizes Gentile nations?  And so on.

Short answer is we don’t know.  If you want to read some ideas on this, James Jordan’s Through New Eyes has some provocative suggestions (see pp.101-102).  These are things that would be difficult to prove for certain, and we may never know.  Or God may grant us wisdom, so we can understand.

Hermenteutical: Attend to the details.  Understanding the weird things in the Bible requires wisdom from God, an dif He doesn’t give it, we won’t have it.  Sometimes He blesses us with an answer right away; other times He rewards diligent study; and of course there are some things we may never know.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”  We aren’t required to have all the answers right now, and it’s okay if we don’t.  We are required to study the Word diligently, and to trust God to reward our efforts with what we need to know right now.

Daily living: Israel was required to do certain things as a priestly nation in order to maintain her separateness and to show the world the picture God prescribed.  We are not Israel, and are not under the same requirements.  However, we are the Church, and as members of the Church we are priests also (Rev. 5:9-10).  We have our own requirements, and we must take ours as seriously as Israel was supposed to take hers.


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