Old Testament Laws: Dietary Laws and Uncleanness

In this study, we will examine what the Bible says about being “clean” and “unclean,” but we must explain that these terms are not talking about sanitation or the kind of dirt that can be washed away by soap and water. Rather, it was a matter of being religiously acceptable. Unclean people, for example, were not allowed to eat animals that had been sacrificed in the temple (Leviticus 7:19-21). High priests had to take special precautions to remain “clean” and able to perform their duties (Leviticus 21:10-12).

1. What was a common source of uncleanness? Leviticus 15:2-3, 16-24. Did the uncleanness spread to everything and everyone it touched? Leviticus 15:4-12.

2. How long were women considered unclean after giving birth? Leviticus 12:1-8. Did Jesus’ parents keep this law? Luke 2:22-24.

3. How long would a person be unclean after touching a corpse? Numbers 19:11-13. Was it permissible to be near a corpse but not touch it? Numbers 19:14-15. Could such an unclean person participate in the Passover? Numbers 9:6.

4. How was a person to be cleansed or become acceptable again? Numbers 19:12, 17-19. What was the penalty for failing to do this? Numbers 19:13, 20. How was the special water made? Numbers 19:2-9, 17-18. Did this sprinkling cleanse the people on the outside, or the inside? Hebrews 9:13.

5. Was Jesus careful to avoid ritual uncleanness? Matthew 8:2-3; 9:20; Luke 7:12-14. Did he encourage others to observe purification rules? Matthew 8:4. What did he say about the importance of uncleanness? Matthew 15:11. What did the religious leaders think of Jesus’ attitude? Matthew 15:12.

The Pharisees were very careful about maintaining religious purity, but Jesus did not seem particularly concerned about it. He felt free to touch people and things that were unclean. According to the rules of the old covenant, this would have made Jesus unclean, too. But instead of becoming contaminated by the uncleanness, Jesus cleansed the person of the problem.

Jesus did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). It was not a sin to touch a dead person or to have a discharge of bodily fluids. These rules of cleanness were for ritual purity, not moral guidance.

6. What rules did God give regarding clean and unclean animals? Leviticus 11:1-43; Deuteronomy 14:1-20. Why did God give the Israelites these rules? Leviticus 11:44-45; 20:24-25; Deuteronomy 14:2, 21.Did these laws apply to gentiles? Deuteronomy 14:21.

God is holy (which means separate), and he set his people apart from other nations. He told them to make a distinction between animals, and by this to be distinct from other nations. In this way, the nation of Israel symbolized holiness. Just as they were set apart from other nations, God was set apart from humanity. The Israelites’ holiness rules pictured God’s holiness.

Some people say that the rules were given for health reasons, but there is no biblical evidence for that, and scientific studies have not proven it. There is no evidence, for example, that beef is better for our health than camel meat, or that fish-eating ducks are better than fish-eating herons. The Old Testament does not tell us why it permits grasshoppers but not ants, or why it permits honey but not honeybees. The claim about health is not a biblical claim, and it cannot be taught as doctrine.

7. Was the distinction between clean and unclean animals known long before Abraham? Genesis 7:1-9. Was Noah allowed to eat clean animals, or was he permitted to eat any kind of animal? Genesis 9:2-4.

The concept of clean and unclean was a religious distinction, with no claims about health. God permitted people to eat animals that were not permissible for sacrifice. Noah was allowed to eat any kind of animal, any kind of bird and any kind of fish. This is the way Jews have traditionally understood this instruction to Noah.

Jewish rabbis said that gentiles were righteous if they observed laws that went back to their ancestor Noah — and avoiding unclean meat was not part of the requirements. The rabbis listed seven rules that go back to the time of Noah:

  • not to worship idols
  • not to blaspheme God’s name
  • to establish courts of justice
  • not to kill
  • not to commit adultery
  • not to steal
  • not to eat meat that had been cut from a living animal
    (Talmud, Sanhedrin 56; see the article “Laws, Noachian,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia or the Encyclopaedia Judaica).

The Talmud also mentions that the Israelite patriarchs were allowed to eat unclean meat (Hullin 7:6). These sections of the Talmud acknowledge that Genesis does not forbid the eating of unclean meat. The prohibition was one of the laws that were added 430 years after Abraham, as part of the law of Moses, given to Israelites only. Gentiles did not need to observe these restrictions unless they wanted to become proselytes and come under the covenant made at Sinai.

When the early church decided that gentiles did not need to become proselytes (Acts 15), this would have been one of the laws they understood to be part of “the law of Moses.” When Paul said that Jesus abolished the laws that separated Jews and gentiles (Ephesians 2:15), the distinction between clean and unclean meats would have been included.

Both Jews and gentiles knew that Jews kept dietary rules that gentiles did not; meats were one of the primary customs that separated them. Therefore, when the early church allowed people to live like gentiles (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 2:14), they were saying, in effect, that they could eat the foods that gentiles normally ate. The Levitical instructions about clean and unclean were rules for ritual and ceremony, not for defining sin and morality.

8. Did Paul consider certain types of food unclean? Romans 14:14, 20.

Paul’s letter to the Romans deals extensively with Jewish and gentile concerns. In chapter 16, he greets many people with Jewish names and many with gentile names. The Roman church was composed of both Jews and gentiles, and there seems to have been some tension between them, and Paul addressed this carefully.

In Romans 14, Paul addresses the matter of vegetarianism, but his comments go further than that. When he says “no food is unclean in itself” and “all food is clean,” the meaning is clear. Since the Roman church included both Jews and gentiles, questions would naturally arise as to whether it was necessary for Christians to keep the old covenant rules. Paul clearly answers that question, but he also urges people to be cautious about this sensitive matter. He did not require Jews to change their customs.

In review, we see that Noah was permitted to eat any kind of meat he wanted. Paul also permitted people to eat any kind of meat they wanted. The dietary restrictions in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 were (just like other rules about ritual cleanness) given just to ancient Israel as part of the old covenant. When the old covenant came to an end when Jesus was crucified, the authority for these rules expired. The new covenant does not tell us to look to the law of Moses for either clothing styles or dietary guidance. Instead, the new covenant clearly tells us that all foods may be considered clean.

Here are the other studies in this series:

Author: Michael Morrison


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