Book: What the Bible Teaches About "Clean" and "Unclean" Meats

When God established the ancient nation of Israel, His desire was that they be a holy people. Naturally, this status would require their avoidance of certain foods deemed “unclean.” But why? What does one’s diet have to do with being holy?

In the Old Testament, the word holy comes from a Hebrew root that means to be “set apart.” Being holy, then, means being dedicated or set apart by God for a special use. Indeed, Israel was to be different from the nations around them in numerous special ways. Ultimately, Israel was set apart as God’s premier nation, to serve as a “model” for all the world to follow. Shortly after their exodus from Egypt, God began to reveal His great purpose for the nation: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto Myself. Now therefore, if you will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:4-6). Later, in Deuteronomy, God says of Israel: “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a special people to Himself above all people that are upon the face of the earth” (Deut. 7:6).

The children of Israel were to obey and look to God alone; in turn, God would protect and prosper them in the sight of the nations. Ostensibly, in due time, the nations would be drawn to God’s “model nation”—seeking out their own relationship with the God of Israel. Notice how important it was that Israel set a right example before the nations. Moses wrote: “And you shall keep and do [all of the commandments and statutes of the Book of the Law], for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what nation is so great whose God is so near to them, as the LORD our God is, whenever we call upon Him? And what great nation has statutes and judgments that are so righteous as all this law which I set before you today?” (Deut. 4:6-8).

Unfortunately, Israel did not live up to their high calling, setting instead a dismal example before the nations. However, in the age to come, Israel will fully succeed in being God’s model nation (Zech. 8:23; Rom. 1:16).

It was God’s desire to set Israel apart through three means:

1) All Israelite males would take on the sign of the Abrahamic covenant (which formed the foundation of the Old Covenant)— circumcision (Gen. 17). No other peoples would, as a rule, practice this highly symbolic rite.

2) Israel would be set apart from the nations through the keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath, which served as an identifying sign between God and His chosen people (Ex. 16; 31). The biblical Passover and annual holy days also served to identify Israel as God’s nation (Lev. 23).

3) While other nations of the world ate whatever appealed to them, Israel would also be set apart through the avoidance of certain meats declared by God to be unclean. These unclean meats were simply never intended to be eaten—by anyone. God created some animal flesh to be consumed, while others were to be avoided due to their dangerous effects on human health. Various disease-causing aspects of eating unclean meats will be explored in a later chapter.

God also prohibited the consumption of the fat and blood of clean animals. Noah, for example, was commanded: “But you shall not eat of [clean] flesh with the life in it—which is its blood” (Gen. 9:4). Later, Moses gave this instruction from God: “It shall be a statute forever for your generations throughout all your dwellings that you eat neither fat nor blood” (Lev. 3:17). The concept that the blood of an animal contained its life was particularly important. “I will set My face against that soul who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people, for the life of the flesh is in the blood. And I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for yourselves; for it is the blood that makes an atonement for life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘No one among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that is staying among you eat blood.’ And any man of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that are living among you, who hunts game, beast or fowl that may be eaten, he shall even pour out its blood and cover it with dust; for it is the life of all flesh…” (Lev. 17:10-14). In New Testament times, the apostles made it clear that blood was not to be consumed (Acts 15:20, 29).

Obviously, God could have created every animal as clean, fit for human consumption. In His infinite wisdom, however, God chose to create numerous animals that are not fit for human consumption. Why? What is their purpose? One apparent reason is that many unclean animals—such as the vulture and the common catfish—serve as scavengers, cleaning up decaying, disease -causing debris.

But God also knew that He would eventually raise up Israel as His model nation—and set them apart from all the world. One of the key ways God would designate Israel as holy would be by their strict avoidance of unclean meats. Notice: “I am the LORD your God Who has separated you from the nations. And you shall [recognize the] difference between clean animals and unclean, and between unclean fowls and clean. And you shall not defile your souls by beast, or by fowl, or by any kind of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. And you shall be holy unto Me, for I, the LORD, am holy, and have separated you from the nations, so that you should be Mine” (Lev. 20:24-26). Likewise, Moses declared: “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a specially treasured people to Himself, above all the nations that are on the earth. You shall not eat any abominable thing” (Deut. 14:2-3).

Clean and Unclean Animals During Noah’s Time

We read in Genesis that Noah was to set aside both clean and unclean animals so that they might be preserved alive during the Great Flood. “You shall take with you every clean animal by sevens, the male and female. And take two of the animals that are not clean, the male and female. Also take of the fowls of the air by sevens, the male and the female, to keep their kind alive upon the face of all the earth” (Gen. 7:2-3). Notice here that Noah was required to collect seven pairs of the clean animals, but only one pair of the unclean. Assuming that one pair of the clean animals was, like the pair of unclean animals, to be used for the future procreation of the species, that still left six extra pairs of clean animals. Noah used some of the clean animals after the Flood as sacrifices to God. But is it not plausible that at least some of the extra clean animals were to be used as food for Noah and his family? At any rate, this much is clear: long before the Sinaitic covenant was ratified, the distinction between clean and unclean animals was well established. Indeed, the concept of clean and unclean meats predates the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament; thus, it is apparent that the prohibition against unclean meats was intended to ultimately apply to all of humanity.

After the Flood, Noah was instructed to sacrifice clean animals before God (Gen. 8:20), further reinforcing this distinction. (It should be noted that Abel, who in Genesis 4:4 offered sacrifices to God from his flock, understood what was acceptable as clean.) However, this ritual use of clean animals in no way implies that the issue of clean and unclean meats is merely ceremonial. Rather, the distinction between clean and unclean meats was used by God to further delineate the holy status of His people. Since God’s sacrificial system had profound spiritual implications, only the use of clean animals would be acceptable to God.

Since Noah “walked with God” (Gen. 6:9) and was considered “righteous” by God (Gen. 7:1), there is no question that he obeyed all of God’s revealed laws and precepts—which included instructions concerning clean and unclean meats, the Sabbath, etc. (God had revealed His way of life to the human family from the very beginning. However, with few exceptions humanity chose to disobey and rebel against God, resulting in the Noachian Flood—Genesis 6:5- 13.) After the Flood, as Noah and his family were preparing to resettle the earth, God instructed them: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you, even as the green herb I have given you all things” (Gen. 9:3). Was Noah and his family to suddenly begin eating animals that had been previously identified as unclean? To the contrary! God does not negate His own laws—He is not a sovereign “flip flopper.” This passage must be understood in the context of what we have already seen concerning Noah. What God meant was that “every moving thing that lives and that was created for human consumption shall be food for you.” Looking at the second half of the passage, we know God did not literally give every plant as food—such as poisonous mushrooms, etc. Clearly, Genesis 9:3 is based on previously revealed knowledge concerning what constituted safe and clean food—plant and animal.