Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Mar 8 2019 - Leviticus 11:1-25 – Clean and unclean animals

Many who have read through the Old Testament starting at Genesis get as far as Leviticus and then give up. Leviticus is not an easy book to understand; it seems full of strange laws. There are laws about sacrifices, laws about cleanliness, laws about food and much more besides.

The name "Leviticus" is taken from the Levites, the tribe that had been entrusted with acting as priests to Israel. The book details their priestly duties and instructs them on how the Israelites are to live as a holy people, different from the nations around them, reflecting the holiness of God. We shall spend three days only in the book of Leviticus. Today we look at the food laws of Leviticus 11.

Why did God give the Israelites these strange laws about what they should and should not eat? Holiness means separating oneself from all that is unclean and displeasing to God and separating oneself in devotion to him and him alone. The Israelites were to live lives separated and distinctively different from those around them. The food laws were designed to reinforce this separation. These laws separated them from the others whose eating habits were quite different: it made it difficult to meet with people from the other nations to eat together; it kept them physically separate.

Moreover, the details of these food laws reinforced the message that holiness meant separation. The laws define types of animals which are pure: animals with a divided hoof that chew the cud; sea animals that have fins and scales… These are regarded as clean. But those that are a mixture of types of animal – those with cloven hoof which do not chew the cud; those which chew the cud but do not have cloven feet; sea creatures that do not have fins or scales… These are all counted as unclean. To mix up one thing with another is to be unclean; holiness means separation. These laws are similar to others in Leviticus that prohibited sowing a field with two types of seed or weaving a garment out of mixed types of thread. Holiness demands purity, separation.

Christians sometimes suggest the Old Testament food laws were about hygiene. But this ignores the reasons given for these laws in Leviticus 11. They form part of the holiness code of Leviticus which was designed to keep God's people separate from the nations round about.

With his coming, Jesus swept these regulations away. He said that it was not the food that entered someone's mouth that made them unclean but the words that came out of their mouth. These showed the condition of the heart. Mark adds that, "In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean." (Mark 7:19). The time is over for God's people to physically separate from those around them; In Christ God was calling people from every nation, class and background to come and be his holy people; a people holy from the inside out, separated to him in heart and mind rather than in diet.

This was a hard lesson for the first disciples to learn. It required Peter to be given a vision of a sheet full of all kinds of animals let down from heaven and to be commanded by God to "take and eat" before he would meet and eat with Gentiles. Jesus breaks down the barriers between peoples so that the good news of God's love may spread to all people on earth.

When we confine ourselves to our Christian ghettos we demonstrate that we have not learnt this lesson. We show that we are happier with the Old Testament notion of holiness as physical separation than the holiness exemplified by Jesus who was often found eating and drinking with those whom the Jewish leaders rejected. Consider what it means for you to live a life of contagious holiness in your society today.

Lord Jesus, make us more like you. May we be utterly and wholly devoted to you in heart, mind and spirit. But may we equally be found in the company of those who do not yet know of you that we might show and tell your love to those around us.

Peter Misselbrook