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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible

Leviticus 11

Verses 1-47

Animals Permitted and Forbidden for Food

Leviticus 11:0

It appears from this chapter that laws were not bounded by local circumstances. In that one fact is a divine philosophy, and in that one fact there is a law which, if seized by us and applied to our daily life, will save us from infinite trouble. If the law had been bounded by local circumstances hardly one word of all this elaborate chapter could have been written. The animals that are permitted and that are forbidden had hardly any existence in the wilderness in which the immediate life of Israel was then being spent. The people might have said, Why permit us to eat animals which are not at hand? Why forbid us to eat food which is not within our reach? Why, in a great desert, lay down rules and regulations about the fish in the sea? Why not confine legislation to immediate environment? That is the rude questioning of human ignorance and impatience. Men of impatient temper will insist upon limiting everything by the exigency of the immediate moment. What wonder if such men have no heaven, no immortality, no future, no sky above their little earth? The philosophy is the same all through and through. Here is the solemn lesson that we are to provide for all life, for all the possibilities of life, for all the yet unknown contingencies of life, as far as they can be forecast and ruled by inspired prudence. Thus in Leviticus we are called to larger life. A very few rules would have done for the local wilderness; the simplicity of the occasion rendered intricate legislation perfectly needless made it, indeed, quite a burden of superfluity. But life is not all lived in one place; life is not bounded by one little day. It is not enough to look at the immediate point: we must endeavour to bring within our purview all possibilities and argue out the logic of our life upon broad bases, and be sometimes apparently losing our life that we may in the issue the more certainly gain it. Beware of all extemporised law! The very fact of its suddenness deprives it of its dignity. There is no need to make laws under panic Certain adaptations of law may have to be made suddenly; but the law itself the abiding and substantial quantity may be settled an eternity before any direct application becomes necessary. This is the meaning of predestination, foreknowledge, pre-arrangement. The Lamb was slain before Adam fell: sin was provided for before it was committed. The surprise was not in heaven: in heaven eternity rules in all its infinite serenity, its ineffable calm. The very hairs of our head are all numbered. We may easily be thrown into spasm and racked by keen surprise and troubled with many an unexpected tumult; but the Lord liveth in infinite peace; he knoweth the end from the beginning; in the wilderness he legislates for the city; in heaven he legislates for earth; it was in eternity that he settled the balances in which time's affairs were to be weighed and settled. Better take the long view; you will be saved from surprise and from the action which may be impaired or perverted by being called upon for instant and unprepared reply. So now in the little world of time men may settle their eternal affairs; even in this wilderness they can begin their heaven; close by the graveside they can sing hymns of immortality. There is no need for haste, or panic, or sore distress of soul, to those who have entered into the divine foresight such as is revealed in this chapter, and who from the beginning have, by the Divine Spirit, settled the issue of all life, and have anticipated and passed not only the bitterness of death, but the solemnity and sternness of judgment.

Suppose we deny the whole of the eleventh chapter of Leviticus, speaking of its pedantry, its frivolity, its unworthiness of a mind infinite and a sovereignty eternal, suppose we erase the whole chapter What then? Here, too, is a grand philosophy: deny the letter, yet there is the chapter as a spirit in the consciousness of every man. To destroy the merely literal chapter is nothing: we leave the fact behind. We do elect and we do reject. With what, then, do we quarrel? Simply with the paper and ink and shaped letter with the law as impressed upon the record by iron. The frivolity, then, is upon our part. If Leviticus were closed, we still turn away from some food with revulsion from some suggestions with positive disgust; or we yield to other appetences and preferences as if borne towards them by a divine and gentle pressure. Of what avail is it to differ with the letter to wonder whether the Eternal God would stoop to give directions about this animal and that animal in relation to human consumption when there is written upon the very surface of life the same law, and we ourselves every day obey an instinct which, indeed, we find it all but impossible to suppress? This reflection would be stripped of most of its value if it related only to the matter of human eating and drinking; but even this suggestion touches the whole circle of human thought and the practical expression of the human will. We deny the supernatural; yet we obey. We all really confess the supernatural: some in solemn testimony well-argued and expressed with great precision of language: others in surprise, in fear, in cowardice for which no preparation had been made, in times of conscience rising to assert itself and making "cowards of us all." It is possible to carry faith in the supernatural clear through the whole line of life; but who ever found it possible to have nothing supernatural through all the undulation and all the uncalculated variety of life? Who has not sometimes been suddenly blanched by what might have been a ghostly presence in the air? Who has not sometimes almost so faltered as to fall upon his knees in attitude of supplication? Who has carried reason, pure and simple, without horizon, without ghostliness, without fear, right through the whole quantity of life? I have never met that man. Though we quibble in argument about the supernatural, we obey; though we discuss in high controversy about faith, yet we live a faith-life, and cannot help it. The atheist walks by faith and not by sight. The very men who are quibbling about the place of faith in the development and education of the human race cease their quibbling that they may obey the necessities of the universe. We suggest objections to the doctrine of the innocent suffering for the guilty, and when we have closed our wordy fray we go out to do the very thing which we had just declared to be impossible: the debater illustrates the fallacy of his own argument. All through life the innocent are as a matter of fact suffering for the guilty: the son of man is dying for the sons of men. The principle of vicariousness rules the whole economy of human development and progress. Our denials, therefore, are always but in terms: in our own life we re-affirm the doctrine which in our intellectual vanity we had questioned. Thus is God Master: even thus do circumstances make men theologians and force them into truth which they could never accept in merely formal proposition. Hence the axiom for such it almost is, not only in its terseness but in its truthfulness that "some men are better than their creed." This is God's interpretation of our life. Were he to be judging by our words, he could convict us of solecism and contradiction amounting to falsehood, and of irony amounting to profanity; but he looks upon the heart, and about many a man he may be saying, in effect, "Poor soul! how he foams in argument, yet how noble he is in suffering! Poor half-wild creature! how he vexes himself by the misuse of terms, but how complete he is in patience! How he troubles himself about the philosophy of prayer not knowing that the very sigh he heaves after his vexation is itself a noble cry to the Unseen and Infinite." Thus many may come from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, and be made members of the kingdom of heaven who in mere words have been ranked among the opposition, the sceptical and those who have had no certitude of religious position and hope. Cheer your hearts, then, about your sons and your daughters! Lift up your heads, for you may not have lost from the Church so many as in your unworthy fear you had supposed. God is the Judge. Behind the denial in words he may find the confirmation in feeling and in action.

Judging by this schedule of regulations as to eating and not eating, it would appear that uses and values are not to be determined along one line only. Some things mentioned here are not to be eaten; yet they may be useful. The "not" is a very small limitation: it refers to one direction only. Some animals are to be eaten; yet they are not therefore to be despised. Who can foretell their destiny? eaten by the poet, they may become poetry; sanctified by the eater, they may be lifted into new significance. There is no one exclusive standard by which value is to be determined in these matters. This is a very wide law like the others. This mac is not a scholar; but he is a genius; he has no information, but he has inspiration. Do not misjudge him. The other man is not a genius, but he is a scholar; he is useful: he abounds in knowledge: he can correct a thousand mistakes: he can direct life upon an upward road. We must, therefore, such seems to be the spirit of the law not confine our judgment to one direction or to another, but remember that as we are many members yet one body, so we in our higher relations represent a great diversity, yet a most solid and gracious unity. Let us be careful about these matters. This is the infirmity of the critic: that he can see in one direction only. The glory of the judge is that he takes in the whole case, balancing, distributing, arranging, and estimating the entire situation, with the calmness of wisdom and with the penetration of an upright and unbiassed mind.

A very popular argument is upset by this chapter. There is an argument which runs in this fashion: Why should we not eat and drink these things, for they are all good creatures of God? The temptation of man is to find a "good creature of God" wherever he wants to find one. The doctor, yielding to human infirmity, permits, rather than sanctions or commands, certain little indulgences, and the receiver of the permission instantly turns the permission into a statute and commandment and seals it with the doctorial seal! We are easily led in the direction of our preferences. All the animals in this chapter were good creatures of God, in the sense of having been created by the Almighty. "And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray, and the vulture, and the kite after his kind; every raven after his kind; and the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind, and the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl, and the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle, and the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat." Who made these? God. Then are they not good creatures of God? Possibly so; but they are forbidden in that particular use. You do not depose the creature from any dignity to which it is entitled as a creation of God: you do but discern the right use and purpose of the creature in the intent of God. This argument must be applied by every man according to his own circumstances The argument of the chapter does not end in itself. What does end in itself? There are educational beginnings; there are points to start with. The argument is cumulative and becomes stronger and stronger as the instances are plied in illustration of its meaning. Is God so careful about the body and has he written no schedule of directions about the feeding of the mind? May the body not eat of this, but the soul eat of everything? Are there poisons which take away the life of the body, and no poisons that take away the life of the spirit, the mind, the soul? That is the chapter magnified by spirituality. This is an instance of how things may be made symbols of truth infinitely greater than themselves. It is impossible to believe that God, who takes care of the body, pays no attention to the soul. He who feeds the fowls of the air will feed his children is an argument we do well to reiterate, because we feel at once how true it is and gracious. Why not be consistent with our own reasoning? The very fact that God could take such pains in keeping us back from the use of such animals, begins the infinite argument that his anxiety is to save the soul from poison, corruption, death. "Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?" Let your soul delight itself in fatness; Wisdom hath prepared her feast: the viands are heaven-tasted and are all approved: sit down, eat and drink, yea, eat and drink abundantly; there is no poison in the bread, there is no death in the pot, and the banner over the feast is Love. May a man eat lies, may a man devour false teaching, and be none the worse for the meal which the soul has eaten ravenously? Has a man to be very critical and dainty about the food which his body consumes, and is he to sit down at every table spread for his intellectual satisfaction and to eat and drink whatever comes without exercising the spirit of criticism and discernment? It is an insult to reason to suggest a vanity so evident and so complete. You are particular about the cleanness of your body, and you are right; but being faithful to that daintiness you must go further and see that the soul is unspotted pure as heaven's purity. You are most careful not to eat and to drink what will injure and disturb and unsettle you, or subject you to momentary inconvenience: so far you are right; but being right there, do not play the fool in the heedless satisfaction of your mind or in the glutting of your soul beware what is offered for the spirit's consumption for the Lord has "no pleasure in the death of the wicked." Bread of Life, feed me! Lord, evermore give us this living bread. We would eat of thy flesh and drink of thy blood, and so escape the tyranny and the bitterness of death. We would accept the hospitality of Heaven. We bless thee that thou hast saved us by instinct and by law from eating and drinking that which would injure us: now, Lord, give us the intuition, the inspiration, which will enable us to see in a moment what is false, what is impure, what is unworthy of our soul's inner purpose, and having seen what is so unworthy, may we touch not, taste not, handle not, the unclean thing, but ever keep within our Father's house, where there is bread enough and to spare.


It is noteworthy that the practical effect of the rule laid down is to exclude all the carnivora among quadrupeds, and, so far as we can interpret the nomenclature, the raptores among birds. This suggests the question whether they were excluded as being not averse to human carcases, and in most Eastern countries acting as the servitors of the battlefield and the gibbet. Even swine have been known so to feed; and further, by their constant runcation among whatever lies on the ground, suggest impurity, even if they were not generally foul feeders. Amongst fish those which were allowed contain unquestionably the most wholesome varieties, save that they exclude the oyster. Probably, however, sea-fishing was little practised by the Israelites; and the Levitical rules must be understood as referring backwards to their experience of the produce of the Nile, and forwards to their enjoyment of the Jordan and its upper lakes. The exclusion of the camel and the hare from allowable meats is less easy to account for, save that the former never was in common use, and is generally spoken of in reference to the semi-barbarous desert tribes on the eastern or southern borderland, some of whom certainly had no insuperable repugnance to his flesh; although it is so impossible to substitute any other creature for the camel as "the ship of the desert," that to eat him, especially where so many other creatures give meat so much preferable, would be the worst economy possible in an Eastern commissariat that of destroying the best, or rather the only conveyance, in order to obtain the most indifferent food. The hare was long supposed, even by eminent naturalists, to ruminate, and certainly was eaten by the Egyptians.... As regards the animals allowed for food, comparing them with those forbidden, there can be no doubt on which side the balance of wholesomeness lies. Nor would any dietetic economist fail to pronounce in favour of the Levitical dietary code as a whole, as ensuring the maximum of public health and yet of national distinctness, procured, however, by a minimum of the inconvenience arising from restriction.

Smith's Dictionary of the Bible.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Leviticus 11". The People's Bible. 1885-95.