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

Based on the principles of the book of Leviticus, God’s people are to “distinguish between the holy and unholy, and between the unclean and clean” (Lev. 10:10). Simply put, this means we are to differentiate between what is set apart and what is common, ordinary—not set apart—and between what has been revealed to be clean and unclean. Indeed, God explicitly declares, “I am the LORD your God, and you shall sanctify [set apart] yourselves, and you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44).

But aside from setting God’s people apart as holy, the biblical laws of clean and unclean meats are practical matters of health. The fact is, such laws and precepts have been given by God not in order to deny us of any pleasure, but out of loving concern for our wellbeing. Far from being some kind of mysterious ceremonial law, the regulations prohibiting unclean meats were given to protect the health of God’s people.

In Deuteronomy five, we read: “Oh, that there were such a heart in them [Israel] that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, so that it might be well with them and with their children forever!... You shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God has commanded you so that you may live and that it may be well with you, and you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess” (verses 29, 33; also verse 16).

The prophet Jeremiah summarizes the “Old Covenant” between God and Israel: “But this thing I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people; and walk in all the ways that I have commanded you [including the laws concerning the avoidance of unclean meats], so that it may be well with you’ ” (Jer. 7:23).

In the New Testament, Jesus taught that it is God’s desire for all to enjoy an abundant life (John 10:10). Reflecting this same attitude, John expressed his wish that all of God’s people would “prosper and be in health” (III John 2). The apostle Paul warned that a Christian’s physical body was a temple of God’s spirit—and, therefore, must be well cared for. “Don’t you understand that you are God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God is dwelling in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God shall destroy him because the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (I Cor. 3:17). There are many harmful practices that can defile our bodies. Eating unclean meats is one of them.

As His “set apart” nation, God only desired the very best for the children of Israel. Above all, He wanted them to enjoy good health and be free of disease, particularly the diseases common to the nations around them. In fact, in Exodus 15, God promised— based on their unwavering obedience—that he would “put none of these [common] diseases” on the Israelites.

“None of These Diseases”

Having spent hundreds of years as captives of the Egyptians, the children of Israel were familiar with certain diseases common to the land. As God revealed in His instructions to Moses, many of these diseases were completely avoidable through the practice of proper hygiene and sanitation (Deut. 23:12-13) and the practice of quarantining those who are ill (Num. 5:2-3). God also gave laws concerning the avoidance of unclean meats that, when followed, would help insure good heath (Lev. 11; Deut 14).

As the Israelites were making their way to Sinai, God had not yet clarified the distinction between clean and unclean animals. Yet He warned them: “If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD your God, and will do that which is right in His sight, and will give ear to His commandments, and keep all His laws”—which would include those concerning unclean foods—“I will put none of these diseases upon you, which I have brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD Who heals you” (Ex. 15:26). In Deuteronomy, God adds: “You shall be blessed above all people. There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock. And the LORD will take away from you all sickness and will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which you know, upon you. But He will lay them upon all who hate you” (Deut. 7:14-15). The phrase “which you know” indicates that the Israelites had first-hand experience in suffering from various diseases right along with the Egyptians.

It is important to note that God was not personally “putting diseases” on anyone. Rather, what is really being discussed in these passages is a matter of cause and effect. If the children of Israel would diligently follow God’s loving instructions concerning good health—which in no small part included the laws of clean and unclean meats—then the result would be freedom from certain diseases.

The fact is, the principles of good health revealed in the Bible are, as health laws, ahead of their time. Modern science has taught us that eating animal fat is especially harmful to the human cardiovascular system. Yet God warned the Israelites of this fact millennia ago: “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘You shall not eat any fat of ox, or of sheep, or of goat’ ” (Lev. 7:23). (Note that some passages of Scripture appear to describe fat as a thing to be desired; however, these passages are using “fat” in a figurative sense—such as the “fat of the land”—referring to the best and richest parts of the land. Often, an entirely different Hebrew word is used that does not literally mean fat, but rich or robust. In passages dealing with Israel’s sacrificial system, animal fat is always burned as God’s portion.)

Thousands of years before modern medicine discovered the need to quarantine infectious people when they are ill, God revealed this vital principle: “All the days in which the plague is in him he shall be defiled. He is unclean. He shall live alone [in isolation]. His dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:46). This particular case deals with leprosy, but would apply to any communicable illness. During the 13th and 14th centuries, leprosy in Europe was finally controlled by following this biblical principle. George Rosen writes: “Leadership [in the leprosy epidemic] was [finally] taken by the [Catholic] church, as the physicians had nothing to offer. The church took as its guiding principle the concept of contagion as embodied in the Old Testament…. This idea and its practical consequences are defined with great clarity in the book of Leviticus…. Once the condition of leprosy had been established, the patient was to be segregated and excluded from the community.”1 In time, this profound concept was “accepted” by the medical establishment, leading to the live-saving practice of quarantine.

Mankind has often suffered from devastating diseases—such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever—due to the lack of basic hygienic cleanliness. In many cultures it was the general practice to dump human excrement in open places where it would come into contact with drinking water. But thousands of years ago, God instructed His people on how to avoid diseases caused by such dangerous practices. “You shall also have a place outside the camp where you shall go forth. And you shall have a paddle on your weapon. And it shall be, when you sit down outside [to relieve yourself], you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover that which comes from you” (Deut. 23:12-13).

The theory of the spread of disease by infection would not develop for another 3500 years—but God was way ahead of science. Indeed, the Bible was written to reveal vital information that could not otherwise be easily known. Modern science has had to play “catch up” with God, learning important principles God gave freely to the children of Israel.

Certain diseases and conditions are known today to be caused by the consumption of what Scripture defines as unclean meats. Here again, God was well ahead of science. Man is simply unable to easily or reliably determine which animal flesh is safe for human consumption—and which is unsafe. Thus, in His loving concern and desire to protect us, God has revealed this vital knowledge in the Scriptures.

In his article “The Theology of Unclean Food,” Gordon Wenham writes that “unclean animals were recognized by the ancients as a danger to health,” a fact he asserts has been verified by “advances in medical knowledge.” Wenham adds, “Moses was hailed as anticipating the findings of modern science.”2 As we will see in the next chapter, modern medical science has indeed validated what God has revealed concerning clean and unclean meats.

Clean and Unclean Animal Flesh Defined

Once the children of Israel took possession of the Promised Land, God began codifying numerous laws and statutes through Moses. The laws concerning the eating of clean and unclean meats are found in Leviticus 11 (see Deuteronomy 14 for added details). “And the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying, “These are the animals which you shall eat among all the animals that are in the earth” ’ ” (Lev. 11:1-2). The remainder of the chapter deals with animals in four categories: land animals (mammals), fish and sea creatures, fowl, and that which “creeps” upon the earth (a category including insects, reptiles and rodents). Though many specific animals are mentioned, the chapter does not contain an exhaustive list of what is clean and unclean. See the “Clean Animals” listing at the end of this chapter.

Instead, God gives certain criteria designed to designate whether a particular animal is clean or not. For example, clean land animals must 1) have a cloven or split hoof, and 2) chew the cud (Lev. 11:3). Both are required. Animals that travel on paws (such as cats, dogs, etc.) are unclean (verse 27). A cow obviously has a cloven hoof and chews the cud. A pig, however, while it does have a split hoof, does not chew the cud—thus it is unclean (verse 7). Similarly, the unclean camel chews the cud, but does not have a divided hoof (verse 4). A rabbit is unclean because, while it does chew the cud, it does not have cloven hooves, but paws (verse 6). Horses neither chew the cud nor have split hooves, thus are unclean (amazingly, however, people actually eat horse meat!). Concerning these and other unclean land animals, God says: “You shall not eat of their flesh, and you shall not touch their dead body. They are unclean to you” (verse 8).

As the Creator of all life, God deliberately designed this specific criteria—the split hoof and the chewing of cud—so that we may easily distinguish between clean and unclean animals. Animals that split the hoof and chew the cud are “clean”—safe for food. Those that do not split the hoof and chew the cud are “unclean”— unsafe for food.

In a similar fashion, God defines clean fish (and aquatic food in general) as only those having both fins and scales (verses 9-10). This eliminates, for example, the highly-popular catfish, which has fins but no scales. Lobster, shellfish, crawfish, oysters, and other assorted crustaceans are all unclean, having neither fins nor scales. On the other hand, bass, perch, salmon, sardine, snapper and tuna are all examples of clean fish, having both fins and scales.

In the fowl category, Leviticus 11 gives a somewhat comprehensive listing of birds that are not to be eaten (verses 13- 19). The remaining category—that which “creeps” upon the earth— includes reptiles, rodents and almost all insects (all are unclean with the exception of locusts and locust-like insects, which may be eaten).

Moses concludes the chapter, quoting God: “For I am the LORD your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves [set yourselves apart from all the nations around you], and you shall be holy, for I am holy. Neither shall you defile yourselves [make yourself unclean] with any kind of creeping thing that creeps on the earth. For I am the LORD Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. This is the law [teaching or instruction concerning] the animals, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps on the earth, to make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the creature that may be eaten and the creature that may not be eaten” (verses 44-47).

Animals Designated in Scripture as Clean

Mammals that chew the cud and part the hoof:

  • Antelope
  • Bison (buffalo)
  • Caribou
  • Cattle (beef, veal)
  • Deer (venison)
  • Elk
  • Gazelle
  • Giraffe
  • Goat
  • Hart
  • Ibex
  • Moose
  • Ox
  • Reindeer
  • Sheep (lamb, mutton)

Fish with fins and scales:

  • Anchovy
  • Barracuda
  • Bass
  • Black pomfret (monchong)
  • Bluefish
  • Bluegill
  • Carp
  • Cod
  • Crappie
  • Drum
  • Flounder
  • Grouper
  • Grunt
  • Haddock
  • Hake
  • Halibut
  • Hardhead
  • Herring(alewife)
  • Kingfish
  • Mackerel (cobia)
  • Mahimahi (dorado) dolphinfish (not to be confused with the mammal dolphin)
  • Minnow
  • Mullet
  • Perch (bream)
  • Pike (pickerel, jack)
  • Pollack (pollock, Boston bluefish)
  • Rockfish
  • Salmon
  • Sardine (pilchard)
  • Shad
  • Silver hake (whiting)
  • Smelt (frost fish, ice fish)
  • Snapper (or ebu, jobfish, lehi, onaga, opakapaka, uku)
  • Sole
  • Steelhead
  • Sucker
  • Sunfish
  • Tarpon
  • Trout (weakfish)
  • Tuna (ahi, aku, albacore, bonito, tombo)
  • Turbot (except European turbot)
  • Whitefish

Birds with clean characteristics:

  • Chicken
  • Dove
  • Duck
  • Goose
  • Grouse
  • Guinea fowl
  • Partridge
  • Peafowl
  • Pheasant
  • Pigeon
  • Prairie chicken
  • Ptarmigan
  • Quail
  • Sagehen
  • Sparrow (and other songbirds)
  • Swan
  • Teal
  • Turkey

Clean Insects

  • Types of locusts that may include crickets and grasshoppers