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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Leviticus 11


C. Laws relating to ritual cleanliness chs. 11-15

A change of subject matter indicates another major division in Leviticus. We move now from narrative to more legislation. These five chapters pick up the idea introduced in Leviticus 10:10: ". . . make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean." This section of legislation culminates in chapter 16, the cleansing of the nation on the Day of Atonement. These chapters on purity help explain what uncleanness means and teach how the holiness of God requires cleansing and purification from the contaminations of this life.

"The Hebrew word tahor (traditionally, ’clean’) indicates ritual purity. Purity/’clean’ does not refer to hygiene but is contrasted with mixed or mongrel." [Note: Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, p. 467.]

"The regulations of the sacrifices and institution of the priesthood, by which Jehovah opened up to His people the way of access to His grace and the way to sanctification of life in fellowship with Him, were followed by instructions concerning the various things which hindered and disturbed this living fellowship with God the Holy One, as being manifestations and results of sin, and by certain rules for avoiding and removing these obstructions." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:357.]

The rationale behind the order of these various laws seems to be the length of time for uncleanness. Violation of dietary laws (ch. 11) resulted in uncleanness for hours, childbirth uncleanness (ch. 12) left the woman unclean for months, and skin and covering uncleanness (chs. 13-14) could mean uncleanness for years. Genital discharges (ch. 15) resulted in uncleanness for hours, weeks, or years. [Note: Hartley, p. 137.]

Verses 1-8

Note that God began positively. He told the Israelites what they could eat (Leviticus 11:2-3; cf. Genesis 1:29-30; Genesis 2:16-17). Then He gave them a list of unclean land animals (Leviticus 11:4-8).

Perhaps animals with cloven hoofs were unclean because they had only two digits instead of the basic five and were therefore thought of as abnormal. [Note: G. S. Cansdale, Animals of the Bible, p. 43.]

Apparently the technical definition of chewing the cud that we use today is not what the Hebrews understood by chewing the cud. Today we use this term to describe animals that do not initially chew their food thoroughly but swallow it and later regurgitate it and then chew it thoroughly. Some of the animals described in Leviticus as chewing the cud do not do that (e.g., camels [one-humped dromedaries], conies [rock hyraxes], and hares). However these animals do appear to chew their food thoroughly, so this may be what the Israelites thought of as chewing the cud.

Any dead animal was unclean, perhaps because death was not the normal condition of an animal.

"Sheep, goats, and oxen were the standard sacrificial animals of pastoralists. They have in common cloven hoofs and rumination. Interpreting this theologically one might say that as God had limited his ’diet’ to these animals, so must his people. It is man’s duty to imitate his creator (Leviticus 11:44-45). When the Israelite restricted his food to God’s chosen animals, he recalled that he owed all his spiritual privileges to divine election. As God had chosen certain animals for sacrifice, so he had chosen one nation ’out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth’ to be ’a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Deuteronomy 7:6; Exodus 19:6)." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., pp. 172-73.]

Verses 1-23

Distinctions between clean and unclean animals 11:1-23

We have here the same threefold division of animals that inhabit the land, sea, and air as the one that appears in the story of creation (Genesis 1:20-23).

"It has long been recognized . . . that the order of the purity laws in Leviticus 11 follows that of the creation of animal life in Genesis 1 (Rashi). Moreover, just as in Genesis 1 God distinguished ’good’ and ’evil’ in his new creation, so also in Leviticus 11 God distinguished the ’clean’ from the ’unclean.’ In addition, Leviticus 11-16 has numerous parallels to the pattern of Genesis 1-11." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 39.]

Rashi was a Jewish exegete who lived about A.D. 1040-1105.

Verses 1-47

1. Uncleanness due to contact with certain animals ch. 11

"This chapter contains a selected list of creatures that divides each type of creature into various classes of purity. According to the final verse in the chapter, the decisive question was whether a class of animals was unclean or clean. The goal of the distinctions was to determine whether an animal could be eaten. The notion of uncleanness and cleanness is specifically applied in this chapter to the question of holiness. Violating any of the regulations relating to clean and unclean animals rendered one unclean (i.e., profane or common, Leviticus 11:44-45), and thus unable to enter into community worship (Leviticus 12:4). The purpose of the chapter is to tie the concept of holiness to God’s own example of holiness (Leviticus 11:45)." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 332.]

Uncleanness was not all the same under the Old Covenant; there were degrees of uncleanness. The uncleanness that certain defiling things caused required simple purification, for example, washing and waiting a short time. The uncleanness that other defiling things caused required more involved rites.

The reason or reasons for the distinction between a clean and an unclean animal are still somewhat unclear. Even the identity of some of the animals is obscure. [Note: G. Bare, Plants and Animals of the Bible, p. iii.]

"Many attempts have been made by scholars and expositors over the centuries to interpret the catalogue of abominable creatures in the book of Leviticus, but with uncertain results." [Note: Harrison, p. 27.]

Many ancient nations and religions observed lists of clean and unclean foods. These lists differed from one another but undoubtedly had their origin in the clean unclean distinction that God specified at the Flood (cf. Genesis 7:2-3). The presence of this distinction in the ancient Near East points to a common recognition of the inadvisability of eating certain foods. This recognition shows that the Fall has affected the whole creation, not just humankind (Romans 8:19-22).

There have been at least six major different explanations for the rationale behind the clean and unclean distinctions in the Mosaic Law. [Note: See Wenham, The Book . . ., pp. 166-71; Kim-Kwong Chan, "You Shall Not Eat These Abominable Things: An Examination of Different Interpretations On Deuteronomy 14:3-20," East Asia Journal of Theology 3:1 (1985):88-106; Joe M. Sprinkle, "The Rationale of the Laws of Clean and Unclean in the Old Testament," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43:4 (December 2000):637-57; The New Bible Dictionary, "Clean and Unclean," by Charles L. Feinberg, pp. 238-41; Rooker, pp. 170-75.] Some of these views have very ancient pedigrees.

1. The distinction is arbitrary. God simply told the Israelites what to do to test their obedience (cf. Genesis 2:16-17). They had no idea what the reasons for these distinctions were. [Note: See Hertz, p. 93; Merrill, p. 58; and Rooker, pp. 173, 174.] The problem with this approach is that it is negative; it offers no explanation that human beings can understand. Nevertheless this explanation may be the best one. This is the explanation that most scholars who despair of understanding a single principle that explains all cases take.

2. The distinction is cultic. The reason the Israelites where to regard some animals as unclean was that the pagans used them in their worship and or associated them with their deities. Avoidance of these unclean animals then was a mark of the Israelites’ fidelity to the Mosaic Covenant. [Note: See Martin Noth, The Laws in the Pentateuch and Other Studies, pp. 56-59; Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, p. 157; and Ross, p. 255.] The problem with this view is that it explains very little of the evidence. The Israelites may have associated certain unclean animals with pagan cultic practices, but scholars have not been able to explain all the prohibitions on this basis alone.

3. The distinction is hygienic. Those who hold this view believe that the unclean animals were unfit to eat because they carried diseases or were unhealthful. [Note: See Samuel Kellogg, The Book of Leviticus.] This view has gained popularity in recent times as many readers have become increasingly concerned about health care and medical science. [Note: See Sim McMillan, None of These Diseases; and Jay D. Fawver and R. Larry Overstreet, "Moses and Preventive Medicine," Bibliotheca Sacra 147:587 (July-September 1990)270-85.] One advocate of this view expressed it as follows.

"In general it can be said that the laws protected Israel from bad diet, dangerous vermin, and communicable diseases. Only in very recent days have better laws of health been possible with the advance of medicine. These were rule-of-thumb laws that God gave in his wisdom to a people who could not know the reason for the provision." [Note: Harris, p. 569.]

There are good reasons, however, for believing that the Israelites did not view these provisions as hygienic. First, hygiene can explain only some of the distinctions. Second, there is no hint in the Old Testament that God regarded all the animals He proscribed as dangerous to health. Third, this view fails to explain why God did not forbid poisonous plants as well as dangerous animals. Fourth, if these animals were dangerous to eat, why did Jesus Christ pronounce them good later (Mark 7:19)?

4. The distinction is symbolical. This view sees the behavior and habits of the clean animals as illustrating how the Israelites were to behave. The unclean animals represented sinful people. [Note: See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger; Bonar, pp. 214-15; and Keil and Delitzsch, 2:372.] Some commentators have adopted this view but have applied the criterion subjectively, without careful regard to the text of the whole Mosaic Law. However when one views the data in the Mosaic Law comprehensively and seeks to understand the distinctions on that basis, this view seems to make sense.

5. The distinction is aesthetic, based on the animal’s appearance. [Note: Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 1:136.] This view seems entirely subjective.

6. The distinction is ethical. This view is similar to view 4 above. The animals chosen taught reverence for life. [Note: Jacob Milgrom, "The Biblical Diet Laws as an Ethical System," Interpretation 17 (1963):291] This view also seems highly subjective and impossible to prove. [Note: See David P. Wright, "Observations on the Ethical Foundations of the Biblical Dietary Laws: A Response to Jacob Milgrom," in Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives, p. 197.]

Probably a combination of these reasons is best, though the basic idea underlying holiness and cleanness seems to have been wholeness and normalcy. [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., pp. 18-25, 169; Rooker, p. 192; Ross, p. 253; and Longman and Dillard, p. 90.] God seems to have regarded imperfection or abnormality in the animal world as unclean.

"Holiness requires that individuals shall conform to the class to which they belong." [Note: Douglas, p. 53.]

This does not explain all the cases, however. For example, why did God declare sheep and goats clean but pigs and camels unclean? One explanation is that sheep and goats conform to the norms of behavior that are typical of pastoral animals (chewing their cud and or having cloven feet). Pigs and camels do not. [Note: Ibid., pp. 54-55.] One problem with this "normalcy" view is that it seems to run counter to the fact that God declared all animals, including pigs and camels, good after He created them (Genesis 1:25). [Note: Wolf, p. 177.]

"Further analysis demonstrates that each sphere of the animal realm is similarly structured. Water creatures divide into the clean and the unclean, but land and air creatures further subdivide into clean animals that may be eaten and clean animals that may be sacrificed as well as eaten. This threefold division of animals-unclean, clean, and sacrificial-parallels the divisions of mankind, the unclean, i.e., those excluded from the camp of Israel, the clean, i.e., the majority of ordinary Israelites, and those who offer sacrifice, i.e., the priests. This tripartite division of both the animal world and the human realm is no coincidence, as is demonstrated by various laws in the Pentateuch, which apply similar principles to man and beast (Genesis 1:29-30; Exodus 13:2; Exodus 13:13; Exodus 20:10; Exodus 21:28 ff; Exodus 22:28-29 [Eng. 29-30]; Leviticus 26:22). Once it is admitted that the animals symbolize the human world, the uncleanness of the birds of prey becomes intelligible: they are detestable because they eat carrion and flesh from which the blood has not been drained properly, acts that make men unclean (Leviticus 11:13-19; cf. Leviticus 11:40 and Leviticus 17:10 ff.)." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 170.]

As late as New Testament times the Jews appear to have regarded their food laws as symbolic of the division between themselves and Gentiles (Cf. Acts 10:14; Acts 10:28). The abolition of these laws under the New Covenant illustrates the fact that by His death Jesus Christ has broken down the wall of partition that separated Jews and Gentiles for so long (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Verses 9-12

Perhaps the Israelites could eat water creatures with fins and scales because these are the normal means of propulsion among fishes. As has already been observed (Leviticus 11:3), the means of locomotion and the mode of eating were the two types of tests used to distinguish between clean and unclean animals. Water creatures without fins and scales did not have the normal means of locomotion for their element.

Verses 13-19

Moses distinguished various kinds of birds in these verses. God prohibited 20 varieties. Again their feeding habits seem to be the key to their uncleanness. The unclean birds ate flesh with the blood in it, something that God also forbade among His people (ch. 17).

Verses 20-23

These verses deal with insects. Perhaps the fact that certain insects swarmed rather than flew in a more direct and "natural" way made them unclean. Locusts that hopped may have been clean since this is the normal form of locomotion for birds, which they resembled. The varieties of locusts that crawled were unclean, perhaps because that appeared to be abnormal movement for this insect. [Note: Douglas, p. 56.]

Verses 24-28

In this section Moses passed along more specific directions concerning defilement from carrion (animal carcasses). Walking on paws, which look like hands, appears unnatural (to some). This may be the reason land animals that move that way were unclean.

Verses 24-47

Pollution by animals and its treatment 11:24-47

The rest of this chapter addresses questions arising from human contact with unclean animals. Only dead animals polluted human beings (Leviticus 11:24; Leviticus 11:27; Leviticus 11:31; Leviticus 11:39). No living unclean animal did. Death is an abnormal condition for living beings, and it caused pollution.

Verses 29-38

These verses deal with swarming creatures and the pollution they create. Swarming may have been regarded as an unnatural, chaotic means of locomotion. The norm would have been orderly progress. Anything on which a swarming insect fell became polluted (unclean, Leviticus 11:32). Those objects that water would cleanse could be reused, but those that water would not cleanse could not. However if one of these creatures fell into a spring or cistern, an exception was made. Neither the container nor the water became impure, only the person who fished the dead animal out would be. God may have granted this exception since declaring water supplies and large containers unclean would have had drastic consequences in the arid regions where the Israelites lived. There was also apparently a distinction between seed for sowing and seed for eating (Leviticus 11:37-38).

Verses 39-47

God gave further directions about the polluting effect of even clean animals that died (Leviticus 11:39-40). In a concluding exhortation (Leviticus 11:41-45) He called on His people to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45; cf. Leviticus 19:2; Leviticus 20:7; Leviticus 20:26; 1 Peter 1:16). Our highest duty is to imitate our creator.

"The solemn statement ’I am the LORD’ occurs forty-six times throughout Leviticus [Leviticus 11:44-45, passim], identifying Israel’s God as the ever living, ever present One. Every aspect of daily life was affected by the reality of the presence of God." [Note: Schultz, pp. 30-31.]

A final summary states the purpose of these laws: to distinguish between the unclean and the clean (Leviticus 11:46-47).

"The NT teaches that the OT food laws are no longer binding on the Christian. These laws symbolized God’s choice of Israel. They served as constant reminders of God’s electing grace. As he had limited his choice among the nations to Israel, so they for their part had to restrict their diet to certain animals." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 183.]

"Those who have been redeemed by the holy, sovereign God must demonstrate his holiness in their everyday lifestyles (notably in eating)." [Note: Ross, p. 261.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 11". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.