LEVITICUS 11: ARE YOU HOLY ENOUGH?
In twenty-first century United States, few are tempted to eat a bald eagle or rock badger. We just don’t crave the flesh of an eagle like we do a turkey or a chicken, and we’d rather not spend the jail time for killing an endangered species. As crazy as this seems, perhaps some of these distinctions find their source in the next section of Leviticus.
One of the most common explanations for the dietary and hygiene laws in Leviticus, laid out in chapters 11-15, is that they promote good health. This, however, is not the reason given in Leviticus. Leviticus says the reason for these dietary and hygiene guidelines is because God is holy, and they are to follow these laws to be holy like God (Leviticus 11:44-45): “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.”
So the story is tied to the table in Israel. I am holy. You be holy. Eat sacred food fit for God’s table and thus humanity’s table, so you can be holy. Discern what is clean and unclean so you can walk with your God and be his holy people.
Jews have been, for the most part, content to call these laws “chukim” (shoe-keem), or mandatory laws, which must be followed regardless of the sense they make. But as the Jewish Book of Why? points out, the propensity to question remains. Why does God care what humans eat?
Seeking meaningful explanations, some Jewish and Christian scholars have come up with interesting possibilities to justify continuing “kosher” food practices. Maimonides concluded these were to “train us to master our appetites; to accustom us to restrain our desires; and to avoid considering the pleasure of eating and drinking as the goal of man’s existence.” (quoted in Jewish Book of Why?, 85)
Some Rabbis have believed that separatism is the key to Israel’s survival, that holiness means primarily being a people set apart. The logic works like this: an observant Jew may not even eat with a Gentile and remain clean, and if they cannot eat together, sons will not marry Canaanite daughters, and Israel will remain.
The larger context outside the world of Leviticus is that a strong cord relating to dividing clean and unclean runs through Scripture. For example, in Genesis, God divides night from day, heaven from earth. Clean and unclean animals were divided for Noah’s ark. Levites were ordained to maintain the separation between clean and unclean. Jesus’ parables hit the theme of dividing between clean and unclean in ways the Jews hadn’t considered before: wash the inside not just the outside of the cup. Cleanse your hearts not just your ritually washed hands.
The rationale for these laws must not necessarily be practical, though they may be. While recent evidence in science shows these ancients laws to be prescient way before their time, that’s not the point.
These things were part of the created order, part of the nature of Holy God empowering his people to walk with him and be his people. And he would be their God. They were to keep the unclean separated from the clean because God designated certain foods and animals and practices to be those of the Israelites, to set them apart for God.
Make the Connection Between Holiness and Life
In the next five chapters (11-15), Levites are called to a strong connection between holiness and life. In order to reflect God’s holiness and image, they are to maintain this balance and distinction between life and death, health and sickness, clean and unclean. Holiness and the space for God to be present were disrupted by the lack of distinction of these life issues. The Levites were to guard what was sacred so that God could be present with them. There is a strong relationship between the altar of the Lord and the table of man.
There was something about animals, such as cows, that chew the cud and had split hooves that made them more desirable to God and his people for food. If the animal chews the cud yet does not have split hooves, such as camels, that is not enough to make the cut for clean consumption. These instructions were given to Moses and Aaron and the Lord gives several examples, including the one most commonly known—the pig, that has a split hoof but does not chew the cud.
In the next section (11:9-12), sea life is divided between creatures with scales and fins and those without. Crustaceans, then, are to be avoided by Israel.
The section on flying creatures (11:13-23) sounds more like a list of endangered species. American Christians might avoid touching these, motivated by fear of arrest for breaking endangered species laws, more than dietary laws.
These are also not birds we are accustomed to eating, which may be handed down to us from generations of not eating these birds and increasing tradition of viewing them as wild and not domestic. There are no qualitative features of the birds to distinguish them, as with sea life and animals—so the list of birds to avoid may assume that other fowl, such as chickens, are acceptable. Though a few cultures in the world actually eat bats, these are on the list of detestable flying creatures, and most of us have no problem avoiding them.
Flying insects are stipulated by the number of legs—though many of us were taught in science class that an insect technically has six legs—and a few examples of edible four-legged creatures are grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, and locusts.
Dead unclean animals, carcasses, are to be avoided and the one who touches them is to be considered “tamei,” or unclean, until evening. Even clean animals that die are considered then unclean and one who touches the carcass is unclean till evening and must wash his clothes.
Further listed crawling animals, ones we certainly seem to detest by nature are rats and lizards (11:29-30; 41-43). Even an item of clothing may be considered unclean if a gecko crawls on it. It can be cleansed with water, and there’s a waiting period till evening. If a gecko or lizard falls into a clay pot, the pot was to be broken. Detestable to the Jews are any ground-bound animals, whether they walk on all fours or crawl on their bellies—perhaps a harkening back to the cursed serpent of Eden.
As final emphasis in the chapter, the overarching reason is given for not eating foods that are considered unclean by the Lord (11:44-45): “Make yourselves holy for I am holy. Don’t make yourselves ritually unclean by any creature that crawls on the ground. I am God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Be holy because I am holy.”
All explanations, other than this one, are speculative. The dietary laws are required because this is how God’s people remain ritually clean, holy as the Lord is holy. God’s classic declaration, “I am God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” seems to fit the context of dividing and separating and consecrating for himself a people. The Lord brought his people out and showed them how to worship him, how to remain holy and pleasing to him, how to stay out of harm’s way in places like Egypt. It doesn’t have to make sense when the Lord says to Israel, “I AM.” But the sense of the passage is clear and more justifiable than any other explanation: “Be holy because I am holy.”
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.