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Thursday, July 25th, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 11

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



This is the principal part of Leviticus, consisting of eleven sections presented in Leviticus 11-22. Most of these sub-sections consist of one chapter each. This first one outlines the regulations concerning uncleanness from:

(a) eating or touching unclean flesh of beasts;

(b) fish;

(c) birds;

(d) insects; and

(e) vermin.


Under the Mosaic covenant, there was an extensive list of creatures that could not be used for food, and these were not only honored and respected by the Jews, but even today there are millions of people in all nations who refuse to eat certain creatures. Furthermore, this proscription of certain creatures as unsuitable and forbidden food is far older than the Mosaic law. These strong rejections of certain meats are deeply rooted in the prehistoric instincts of the human race.

Against this background, the most significant thing about the whole mass of regulations laid down here is that Jesus Christ abolished it in its entirety, “making all meats clean” (Mark 7:19). An apostle elaborated this in saying that, “Every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified through the Word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). Another apostle saw the heavenly vision three times, a vision of:

“A great sheet let down by four corners upon the earth: wherein were all manner of beasts and creeping things and birds of the heaven. And there came a voice to him, saying, Rise, Peter, kill and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that was common and unclean. And a voice came unto him the second time, What God hath cleansed, Make not thou common. And this was done thrice: and straightway the vessel was received up into heaven (Acts 10:11-16).”

This N.T. light on the question resolves a number of questions. Such things as health and hygiene did not require these regulations in Leviticus, because, if the human race would have been more effectively blessed with health on account of these regulations, Christ would never have abolished them. Also, it is evident from Peter’s vision in Acts that the acceptance of Gentiles into the kingdom of God was definitely commanded by the abolition of the taboos against certain kinds of meat. Peter got the point at once, and accordingly consented to go and preach the gospel to Cornelius, whom he baptized. This definitely ties the whole “clean and unclean” meat question with God’s necessity, for a long period of time, to separate Jews from Gentiles. This undoubtedly means, therefore, that the thing which made one animal clean and another unclean to the Jews was the simple fact that God commanded one to be eaten and the other not to be eaten. Jamieson’s profound observation on this is correct:

“Undoubtedly the first and strongest reason for instituting a distinction among meats was to discourage the Israelites from spreading into other countries, and from general social contact with the world - to prevent them from acquiring familiarity with the inhabitants of the countries bordering on Canaan, so as to fall into their idolatries, or be contaminated with their vices; in short, to keep them a distinct and peculiar people, by raising a broad and impassable wall of opposite customs.”(F1)

This perception avoids altogether the task of trying to figure out why goat meat was clean and horse meat was unclean. “They believed things were unclean because the Lord had said they were. It’s as simple as that.”(F2)

Now, as regards the manner in which the people of all nations had viewed this question during the pre-Mosaic centuries, it was that very thing which made it possible and exceedingly appropriate for God so effectively to establish the prohibitions listed in these chapters. A basic human instinct is involved, a fact proved by the universal existence of the rejection of certain meats as food. Many civilized cities all over the world would close any restaurant that served dog meat or horse meat to its customers, and yet, scientifically, there is no reason whatever why either should not be eaten. In what, we may ask, are such deep-rooted human taboos founded? Note this has nothing to do with God’s reason for the imposition of restrictions listed in Leviticus, but is an exploration of the human condition that made it favorable for God to use this method for the separation of the Chosen People.

(1) The hygienic interpretation of these restrictions accepts the proposition that the forbidden creatures were carriers of disease, and for a number of them, this is surely true. Certain shellfish, for example can be, and often are, carriers of hepatitis. Oyster bars in Houston, Texas, within the last two or three years, have caused many cases of that disease by serving infected oysters. “Pork, improperly cooked, is widely recognized as a carrier of trichinosis. The rock badger and the hare are known carriers of tularemia.”(F3) Such facts indeed might have influenced the beginning of taboos against eating those creatures, but there are other forbidden animals that do not follow that pattern, for example, the horse, or the dog. Also, cattle which were designated clean, are carriers of the deadly anthrax, which is generally fatal to man. The governments of both Mexico and the U.S.A. are this very day conducting a joint-program aiming at the control of anthrax.

(2) Another guess as to the rationale of allowing some and rejecting other creatures as food supposes that the forbidden animals were sacred in certain pagan religions, and that, for this reason, they were denied to the Israelites. For example, it is known that our ancient Anglo-Saxon ancestors venerated the horse as sacred to the god Odin; “And it was therefore forbidden to them when they became Christians, to avoid any danger of compromise with the old ideas.”(F4) In a similar way, it may be supposed that the Hebrews came to regard certain animals as “unclean” because they were sacred to heathen deities. As Micklem pointed out, however, many of the animals sacred to Egyptian deities, notably the bull, were permitted in Hebrew sacrifices, and were listed among the “clean” creatures. Another example, pigeons, allowed in Hebrew sacrifices, “were sacred to Astarte.”(F5)

(3) Another supposition supposes that the “clean” creatures were symbolical of the way Israelites should have lived, and the “unclean” were symbolical of sinful and wicked men. This is whimsical and fanciful. For example, the ancients thought that “chewing the cud” reminded men to meditate on the law,(F6) and that the sheep was clean because it reminded the ancient Israelite that “the Lord was his shepherd!”(F7) The unclean pig, on the other hand, due to his dirty habits, symbolized filth and iniquity. Seiss carried out this idea of symbolism extensively, saying that, “The various unclean animals were just so many hieroglyphics, setting forth the uncleanness of man.”(F8) The owl, for example, an unclean bird, is a creature of the night, suggesting the “deeds of darkness” mentioned by Paul (Ephesians 5:12; 2 Thess. 5:4-5). The mole, another unclean creature, is in the underground! As noted above, these cannot provide any acceptable rationale for what God did, although, of course, such symbolism is interesting.

(4) The division between “the clean” and “the unclean” is purely arbitrary and capricious. Some of the ancient rabbis thought this.(F9) However, it is impossible to believe such a proposition. God surely had reasons, good and sufficient, for the distinctions made in these chapters. What appears to us as the reason, at least one of the most plausible reasons, is stated near the first of this chapter. It is also evident that all of the animals God designated as clean and fit for sacrifice and for food were indeed suitable, all of the clean creatures indicated still being used in every civilized country on earth as the common food of the people, and also considered the very best food available on earth. Not even the locust is an exception to this, because it is used extensively in some countries now. Also, there was possibly a special reason for allowing the locust as clean, because locusts frequently ate up all crops and every green thing, and people caught in such a situation had only one choice - eat the locusts or starve to death!

Thus, there appears to be the utmost concern and discrimination on the part of God in imposing the regulations here recorded.

These common views as to God’s reason for this legislation are included here, because they are always mentioned in the study of these rules.

Verses 1-8


“And Jehovah spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, These are the living things which ye may eat among all the beasts that are on the earth. Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is cloven-footed, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that may ye eat. Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or them that part the hoof: the camel, because he cheweth the cud but parteth not the hoof, he is unclean unto you. And the coney, because he cheweth the cud but parteth not the hoof, he is unclean unto you. And the hare, because she cheweth the cud but parteth not the hoof, she is unclean unto you. And the swine, because he parteth the hoof, and is cloven looted, but cheweth not the cud, he is unclean unto you. Of their flesh ye shall not eat, and their carcasses ye shall not touch; they are unclean unto you.”

We might paraphrase all that is said in this paragraph as follows: “God commanded Israel through Moses and Aaron to eat only those animals that were ruminants and had a cloven foot. To touch any dead carcass or any unclean animal dead or alive made one unclean.” This condenses sixteen lines to three and affords a good illustration of the Biblical style.

There is little here that needs explaining. There is some quibbling about whether a pig, for example, actually has a cloven hoof, but he certainly appears to have, and these instructions were not written for natural scientists, but for people generally, where appearances were the guiding criterion and not technical and scientific findings.

“Saying unto Moses and to Aaron” Since Aaron had now been invested with the office of the High Priest, God here addressed him and Moses jointly.

“The coney” Keil, following Luther, described this animal as the rabbit. “Naturalists tell us that the rabbit does not ruminate (or chew the cud), as they have not the four stomachs which ruminants have, but the rabbit’s jaws move constantly in a manner that looks like ruminating.”(F10) The language here is that of ordinary people, and not that of natural science. Jamieson was sure that “the coney” mentioned here was not the rabbit, but the hyrax, a small animal somewhat resembling the rabbit.(F11) Coleman declared it to be the rock badger.(F12) This illustrates the uncertainty regarding a great percentage of the creatures mentioned in these Levitical laws. Wenham tells us that, “One expert (F. S. Bodenheimer) in this field says that only 40 percent of the Hebrew terms can be identified with accuracy.”(F13) Instead of discussing all the options, we shall follow Wenham whose opinions are based upon the consensus of recent studies. The whole question is of minor interest to Christians.

Significantly, the entire feline family of animals were categorized as unclean.

Verses 9-12


“These may ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, that may ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of all the living creatures that are in the waters, they are an abomination unto you, and, they shall be an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses ye shall have in abomination. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that is an abomination unto you.”

Just as regulations in Leviticus 11:1-8 ruled out all cats and predatory animals, the instructions here ruled out all shellfish, crabs, oysters, eels, etc.

Verses 13-23


“And these ye shall have in abomination among the birds; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the gier-eagle, and the osprey, and the kite, and the falcon after its kind, every raven after its kind, and the ostrich, and the night-hawk, and the sea-mew, and the hawk after its kind, and the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl, and the horned owl, and the pelican, and the vulture, and the stork, the heron after its kind, and the hoopoe, and the bat. All winged creeping things that go upon all fours are an abomination unto you. Yet these may ye eat of all winged creeping things that go upon all fours, which have legs above their feet, wherewith to leap upon the earth; even these of them ye may eat: the locust after its kind, and the bald locust after its kind, and the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind. But all winged creeping things, which have four feet, are an abomination unto you.”

“The owl… ostrich… sea-mew” (Leviticus 11:16), according to Meyrick, are actually, “ostrich, owl, and gull.”(F14) “Horned owl” (Leviticus 11:18) is also rendered “swan.”(F15) However, Meyrick thought that the terms here including heron in Leviticus 11:19 should be “ibis and great plover.”(F16)

Of particular interest is the inclusion of a mammal (the bat) along with the birds. Our modern way of classifying this little creature is based upon the fact that the bat GIVES BIRTH to its young. The ancients did not classify creatures by this criterion, but included the bat with birds because of its being a FLYING creature, also one of the most efficient flyers known. If God, through Moses, had used language here, other than that which the ancients understood, all communication would have been lost. What kind of conceited arrogance is it that supposes that God should have used technical classifications which were NOT INVENTED by the human race until millenniums after the times of Moses, and then dares, on such ground, to fault the Divine instructions given here?

“All winged creeping things” (Leviticus 11:20). The insects generally are in view here. The expression “go upon all fours” is ambiguous (all insects have six legs). Cate stated that the expression “is a figure of speech portraying the fact that they walked with their body horizontal to the earth.”(F17) We agree with Cate that this passage forbids “all insects,” with the sole exception of the various kinds of locusts and grasshoppers. Here, we believe there is unmistakable evidence of a merciful discrimination upon the part of God. There can be little doubt that “all insects” would have been forbidden, except for the fact that during a locust plague, those voracious creatures destroyed everything edible on the face of the earth. The unfortunate populations who had the tragedy of passing through such a devastation had only one option - they could either eat the locusts, or die of starvation. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating locusts. John the Baptist ate them (although some think “carob beans” are meant there), and there are all kinds of examples of their being eaten today.

Included in the things here forbidden were many other kinds of bugs, and crawlers, that cannot be classified as insects. Such things as centipedes, lizards, and chameleons were also forbidden. These, and other creatures, were listed in the classification that we may call “vermin.”

Verses 24-28


“And by these ye shall become unclean: whosoever toucheth the carcass of them shall be unclean until the even; and whosoever beareth aught of the carcass of them shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even. Every beast which parteth the hoof, and is not cloven-footed, nor cheweth the cud, is unclean to you: every one that toucheth them shall be unclean. And whatsoever goeth upon its paws, among all beasts that go on all fours, they are unclean unto you: whoso toucheth their carcass shall be unclean until the even. And he that beareth the carcass of them shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: they are unclean unto you.”

Ceremonial uncleanness prohibited the unclean person from participating in any social event, or act of worship, but after washing his clothes and waiting until evening, the uncleanness was taken away. The specific exclusion of all such creatures as cats and dogs appears in the words, “whatsoever goeth upon its paws.” The rigidity of these prohibitions can only be imagined. Think of it being impossible even to touch such a creature as a little kitten!

Verses 29-38


“And these are they which are unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth: the weasel, and the mouse, and the great lizard after its kind, and the gecko, and the land-crocodile, and the lizard, and the sand-lizard, and the chameleon. These are they which are unclean to you among all that creep: whosoever doth touch them, when they are dead, shall be unclean until the even. And upon whatsoever any of them, when they are dead, doth fall, it shall be unclean; whether it be any vessel of wood, or raiment, or skin, or sack, whatsoever vessel it be, wherewith any work is done, it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the even; then shall it be clean. And every earthen vessel, whereinto any of them falleth, whatsoever is in it shall be unclean, and it ye shall break. All food therein which may be eaten, that on which water cometh, shall be unclean; and all drink that may be drunk in every such vessel shall be unclean. And every thing whereupon any part of their carcass falleth shall be unclean; whether oven, or range for pots, it shall be broken in pieces: they are unclean, and shall be unclean unto you. Nevertheless a fountain or a pit wherein is a gathering of water shall be clean: but that which toucheth their carcass shall be unclean. And if aught of their carcass fall upon any sowing seed which is to be sown, it is clean. But if water be put upon the seed, and aught of their carcass fall thereon, it is unclean unto you.”

Some of the creatures mentioned here are of very uncertain identification; however, the people to whom these instructions were given undoubtedly understood them perfectly.

“Gecko… land-crocodile… lizard… and sand-lizard” (Leviticus 11:30) are not surely identified; but they probably refer to “four kinds of lizard.”(F18)

“Range for pots” (Leviticus 11:35) is thought to indicate “Covered pots, or pots or kettles with lids to them.”(F19)

Verses 39-40


“And if any beast, of which ye may eat, die; he that toucheth the carcass thereof shall be unclean until the even. And he that eateth of the carcass of it shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: he also that beareth the carcass of it shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even.”

Verses 41-43


“And every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth is an abomination; it shall not be eaten. Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon all fours, or whatsoever hath many feet, even all creeping things that creep upon the earth, them ye shall not eat; for they are an abomination. Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth, neither shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, that ye should be defiled thereby.”

This is a special admonition on vermin, already covered generally in Leviticus 11:29-30. All snakes, worms, maggots, moles, rats, mice, caterpillars, centipedes, etc., are included here as unclean.

Of particular interest is Leviticus 11:42, where is found the clause, “Whatsoever goeth upon the belly.” The word “belly” here is the rendition of a four-letter Hebrew word [~gachown], the same containing the middle letter in the Hebrew Torah, the letter [~waw].(F20) This is the third letter in the word and is made much like the symbol for an eighth note rest in music. In Hebrew copies of the Torah, this letter is printed in much larger type than other letters. “It indicates the meticulous care the scribes gave to the text.”(F21)

Verses 44-47

“For I am Jehovah your God: sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that moveth upon the earth. For I am Jehovah that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. “This is the law of the beast, and of the bird, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth; to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten.”

We must continue to bear in mind that the distinctions referred to here were deeply ingrained in human tradition long before the Divine record here was given, and that God’s primary purpose of separating Israel from surrounding pagan nations was doubtless the principal reason for the imposition of these rules. Their effectiveness was total and complete. These dietary restrictions did absolutely separate Israel from every other nation on earth, and they continue to do so. Christ abolished them, because the purpose for which they were given ceased to exist. God “broke down the middle wall of partition” between Jews and Gentiles, and the continuation of the separation involved in the rules here given could not possibly be any longer pleasing to God. Why? Because God had caused all distinctions between Jew and Gentile to cease.

There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile (Romans 10:12).

And the Spirit commanded them to go with them (to the house of a Gentile), making no distinction (Acts 11:12).

In every nation, the one who reveres God and practices righteousness is acceptable to God (Acts 10:35).

“And God made no distinction between us (Jews) and them (Gentiles)” (Acts 15:9).

Yet it was the existence of these very dietary laws that proved an almost insurmountable barrier to the establishment of any real fellowship between Jews and Gentiles as the struggles over this question loomed large indeed in the early church. Galatians 2 and Acts 15 deal precisely with this problem. Let it be ever remembered that God not only removed distinctions between unclean and clean meats, but also the greater distinction between Jews and Gentiles which those dietary laws were designed to create and enforce.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Leviticus 11". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/leviticus-11.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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