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Bible Commentaries

Seiss' Lectures on Leviticus and Revelation

Leviticus 11

Verses 1-47

Eleventh Lecture.
The Clean and Unclean

Leviticus 11:1-47

Moses a Naturalist—Design of these distinctions in Meats—A system of wholesome Dietetics—Separation from the rest of mankind—Training in the perception of moral distinctions—A picture of Sin.

This chapter brings us to the third grand division of this book. We have had the offerings and the priests—the remedy provided for sin. We are now to have an exhibition of sin itself. We have been shown the way of cure; the next step is to open to us the disease, that we may be impelled to apply the means of relief.

This is not the human method. Man would have considered the disease first. But God’s ways are not as our ways. To make known to man the dreadfulness of his spiritual condition, except in connection with a way of salvation already provided, would drive only to despair. God, therefore, constitutes the Physician, before giving a full view of the disorder for which he is needed. The feast is first made ready, and then measures are taken to move and bring in the guests. Christ went through all the great facts of his mediatorial work, before the Spirit was sent to convince of sin, righteousness and judgment. Nor is it possible for us to have a right understanding of sin, except in the light which beams forth from Calvary.

Great surprise and wonder have been expressed by some learned men, at the profound acquaintance with the animal kingdom exhibited in this chapter. Our greatest men of modern science have penetrated no deeper into natural history than the author of these laws. Leibnitz, and Buffon, and Cuvier, and Erxleben, and Humboldt, have been unable to make any material advances upon the classifications and distinctions, in the nature, habits, and qualities of animals, here given long before mere human science, in these departments, was born. And those may well wonder, who allow no higher wisdom in these laws than that of mere man. The fact is, that these Mosaic institutes all have upon them such distinct traces of the hand and mind of God, that it becomes the height of folly to refer them to the mere ingenuity of man. And I will here say, what I truly believe, that it requires vastly more credulity to be an infidel, or so-called free-thinker, than to be a devout Christian believer. I am perfectly satisfied, that people act more against the dictates of plain reason and common sense, in referring the profound science of the Pentateuch to the mere skill and attainments of Moses, than we do in tracing them to that Divine Wisdom which made the world, and fashioned the creatures who people it. It is no evidence of a great or investigating mind to discredit the witnesses which God has given of Himself. Admit that these regulations are divine in their source, and the wonder ceases—the miracle is explained; for he who created the beasts, birds, fishes, reptiles and insects which inhabit the earth, knew exactly how to classify them, and to prescribe concerning their nature Where, but from God, Moses got such wisdom, can never be explained.

This division of animated nature into clean and unclean, as all the rest of these Mosaic institutes, is, of course, to be taken typically. It had direct and natural reasons, but those were not the chief. Some of the forbidden creatures are really not unclean or unfit for food, but nearly as good as some which were permitted to be used. This is not generally true, or to any very great extent; but the simple fact that an animal is proscribed in these laws as unclean, does not necessarily imply that it is in its nature unfit to be eaten, or of a detestable character. All that God has made is good, and embodies divine wisdom and thought. The prohibition is ceremonial. It is an arrangement somewhat arbitrary, perhaps, meant to meet national and religious purposes. The leading intent is typical and moral. The grand aim is to imbue the mind with an idea of moral distinctions; whilst the interdiction is conformed as near as may be needful to the nature and habits of the creatures interdicted.

There is, then, a mingling in these laws of several aims or ideas, each of which deserves attention, and to an exhibition of which I propose to devote this discourse.

I. I find in this chapter a system of wholesome dietetics. All the animals here pronounced clean, are the most valuable, nutritious and wholesome of creatures for human food. It does not follow that none among those forbidden are good for food; but I wish to say, that it is certain, all the animals here called "clean" are the best. Science, and the common sense of mankind, have decided, that the grain-eating and ruminative animals, which divide the hoof and chew the cud, are altogether the most healthful and delightful for the table. The hog, which, under this enumeration, is only half clean, is not near so good an article for food, as the sheep, the cow, the deer, and animals of that class. All physicians tell us so, and facts and experience demonstrate their correctness. Swine’s flesh is specially unwholesome in warm climates, predisposing its consumers to all sorts of cutaneous, scorbutic, leprous diseases. I have no doubt that many maladies prevalent among us take their type, if not their origin, from a too free use of this sort of food. It is surprising, when we come to think of it, how the flesh or fat of the hog is mixed up with the great mass of the dishes that come upon our tables. It would, perhaps, be better for us, if it were not so. It is said of the Jews, who religiously abstain from swine’s flesh, that in time of epidemic plague or pestilence, they never suffer to the same extent with their swine-eating neighbors. I cannot vouch for the truth of the remark; but I find it announced with confidence. This is in the case of but one class of animals. An examination throughout will show, that the nutriment afforded by the flesh of animals interdicted in this old ceremonial law, is less in quantity, inferior in quality, and more favorable to the production of scrofulous and inflammatory complaints, than any included in the list of permitted meats. It was, therefore, a great mercy in God, in those days of inexperience and exposure, so to frame his legislation as to protect his people against the use of what would have been deleterious. This was not the great, but only an incidental, intention of the enactment; showing, however, in what minute details and collateral bearings the hand of God is concerned for the good of those who obey him. This law is no longer binding upon us, as a religious appointment, Christ has entirely superseded it in this respect. But it may still serve as a guide to our science, and is worthy of careful consideration in connection with dietetics and hygiene.

II. A second, and somewhat more direct aim of these arrangements, looked to the keeping of the Hebrews entirely distinct from all other people. They were to be the light and truth-bearing nation among the families of man. They were elected to perpetuate a knowledge of the true God; and, by their peculiar training, to prepare the way for Christ and Christianity. To fulfil this mission, they needed to be strongly fenced in, and barricaded against the subtle inroads of idolatry. And it was, in part, to effect this segregation of the Jewish people, that this system of religious dietetics was instituted. Nothing more effectual could be desired to keep one people distinct from another. It causes the difference between them to be ever present to the mind, touching, as it does, at so many points of social and every-day contact; and it is therefore far more powerful in its results, as a rule of distinction, than any difference in doctrine, worship or morals, which men could entertain. Kitto says, that when in Asia, he had almost daily occasion to be convinced of the incalculable efficacy of such distinctions in keeping men apart from strangers. A Mahomedan, for instance, might be kind, liberal, indulgent; but the recurrence of a meal, or any eating, threw him back upon his own distinctive practices and habits, reminding him that you were an unclean person, and that his own parity was endangered by contact with you. Your own perception of this feeling in him is not to you less painful and discouraging to intercourse, than its existence is to him who entertains it. It is a mutual repulsion continually operating; and its effect may be estimated from the fact, that no nation, in which a distinction of meats was rigidly enforced as a part of a religious system, has ever changed its religion. It was utterly impossible for the Jews to observe the inculcations of this chapter and be at all familiar in their association with surrounding nations. Animals of the ox kind were sacred to the Egyptians, and were never slaughtered for food; whilst they made free use of others here pronounced unclean. The Phœnicians or Canaanites ate swine’s flesh, and even dogs, as well as other animals which the Jews were forbidden to touch. The Arabs ate the camel as common food, the hare, the jerboa, all of which are specified or included in the Mosaic prohibitions. This chapter was therefore a wall of exclusion to the Jews, separating between them and all other people, which has withstood all the wastes and changes of more than three thousand years.

III. A still farther and more direct intent of these religious dietetics was, to train the understanding to the perception of moral distinctions—to engrave upon the mind an idea of holiness. Indeed, this was one of the leading objects of the entire ceremonial law. We are sometimes tempted to regard these ancient rites as puerile and foolish; but it is because we do not consider the relation they sustain to what we now think so much better and more rational. There are islands in the sea which would not exist, but for the coral reefs upon which they rest; and so there would be no Christianity without these ceremonial regulations, which, by small beginnings, laid in the human mind the foundations upon which all our Christian convictions have been wrought out. Geologists tell us, that the physical world is composed of various layers, one on the other, from a deep granite base up to the fertile mould which furnishes us food while we live, and graves when we are dead. It is much the same in the moral and religious world. It has been brought forth by degrees. As there have been many geologic eras, so there have been various religious dispensations, each one furnishing the basis for the next succeeding. Each of these successive dispensations furnished a distinct stratum upon which the following one was built. The last could not exist without the first. Each one is a part of the grand whole. And had it not been for these Jewish ceremonies, our moral and religious ideas would perhaps be worse and more confused than those of Turks or depraved Hindoos. The broad sunlight cannot be let in upon the tender eyes of infancy at once. It must at first be veiled and shaded until the powers of vision strengthen and develop. It must be let in by degrees, or the infant shall never be able to see at all. And so it has been in the history of God’s dealings with man as a race. It was only by the slow and regular, and progressive gradations of types, ordinances, and veiled prophecies, and outward miracles, that the world has come by that spiritual enlightenment and moral understanding which now distinguish the Christian nations.

Connecting this chapter with the laws concerning offerings and priests, we can easily see how the whole would operate in begetting and establishing the idea of purity and holiness. Dividing off all animated nature into clean and unclean, some would be regarded as better and purer than others. Of this pure kind only, could be taken for sacrifices. And even of the better kind, only the purest and most spotless individuals were to be selected. The sacrificial victim would hence appear very widely separated from the common herd of living creatures, and very clean and good. A thoroughly cleansed and consecrated officer was then to take it in charge, and wash both it and himself before it could come upon the altar. And when the presentation was to be made to the Lord in the most holy place, only the pure blood, in a golden and consecrated bowl, could be brought, and even that with great fear and trembling. Thus, from the clean beast, and the cleaner priest, and the still further cleansing of both, and the most holy place which could be approached only by so holy a personage with such sacred circumspection, the worshipper was taught the idea of holiness, the intense purity of his God, and the necessity of holiness in order to come into his favor. Each additional particular was so ordered as to reflect purity and sanctity on all the rest, converging ray upon ray to bring out in luminous prominence the great conception of Holiness. Apart from these ancient services, the world knows not what holiness is. Ask a man, who has even enjoyed the clear light of the Gospel, What is holiness? and it will be impossible for him to give any clear view of it without recurring, in some shape, to these ceremonial regulations, by which the idea itself was generated and formed. It is an abstract quality which has no place in the thoughts of man, except as derived from the outward separations, washings, and consecrations of this ritual. It is said, that "there is demonstrative evidence of the fact, that the idea of perfect moral purity, as connected with the idea of God, is now, and always has been, the same which was originated and conveyed to the minds of the Jews by the machinery of the Levitical dispensation." It is certain that the Hebrew word translated holy, was used to express the idea of sanctity as presented in the tabernacle service. It is a predicate of physical purity and cleanness. Hence it was used to signify separation, consecration, of higher qualities than the common multitude, the state of devotion to sacred purposes, and ultimately moral purity. The Greek word for holy, when received into the New Testament, took a meaning which was from the Hebrews, and not from the Greeks. Even our Saxon word holy, in Christian language, drops for the most part its old signification of entireness, and takes mainly the Jewish idea of cleanness and sanctity. Nor do I know of any word, in any language, ancient or modern, to convey the Scriptural conception of holiness, without first borrowing that meaning from the Jews and the old ceremonial system. The fact is, that the religious world has derived its idea of moral purity from the Mosaic rites. It was part of their great office to teach mankind moral distinctions, and to open the human understanding and conscience to the idea of sanctity.

IV. Connected with this, then, was the still further intent of these laws to give a picture of sin. We here have the finger of God, pointing out on the great map of living creation, the natural and material symbols of depravity. The various kinds of unclean animals are just so many living hieroglyphics, setting forth the uncleanness of man.

You have often heard persons, in common discourse, speaking of the beastliness of vice. It is an apt comparison; but it is exactly that which God himself has made in these laws. The combined characteristics of the creatures here declared unclean, furnish an exact exhibition of what sin is. They constitute a living mirror in which the sinner may look at himself.

In the first place he is unclean, filthy, disagreeable, noxious. There may be some good qualities, as there were in many of the unclean creatures; but, upon the whole, he is unclean. Impurity is upon him. He is unfit for holy association, or to come acceptably before God. As Eliphaz, the Temanite, once said, "abominable and filthy is man." "They are altogether become filthy," says the Psalmist. And whoever the sinner may be, he is in the eye of God, and the true people of God, an unclean person.

In the next place, he is brutish. His character is typified by the vile and noxious of living things. He was originally made but a little lower than the angels; but he sinned by listening to a brute reptile, and he has been changed into its likeness. What is a brute? A thing without reason or conscience, which lives by mere impulse, and follows no law but its own animal promptings. And what are the effects of sin upon him in whom it reigns? It dethrones intellect and makes it the slave of mere impulse, nullifies the deductions of wisdom, stifles and overrides the conscience, and makes the man the servant of lust, living only far selfish gratification, and following only the dictates of the baser nature. Sin prostitutes everything angelic in man. It enslaves his spirit to the flesh, subordinates his intellect to his desires, and binds down the whole moral constitution, like another Mazeppa, upon the wild horse of passion. Whatever the sinner has in him more than an unclean brute, is led captive by what he has in common with the brute; so that he may well say with Agur, the son of Jakeh, "I am brutish." With all that can be urged in his favor, he is "altogether brutish."

A brute is a thing bent downward. It goes upon its hands. Its face is towards the ground. It never travels erect. And what is a slave of sin, but one whose eyes have been diverted from heaven, and whose absorbing attention is directed to what is earthy? Sin brings man down from contemplating the lofty things of God and eternity. It sets his affections on things below, instead of things above. It takes from his face the angelic look of innocence, and makes him drop his eyes in betrayal of the vile feelings that play in his hidden heart.

A brute is a creature destined to perish. Its spirit goeth downward. Its end is extinction. How like the sinner in his guilt! What hope has he for another world? "The fool and the brutish person perish," says the Psalmist. Sin dooms to eternal death. It puts out eventually every light of the sinner’s being. It extinguishes all his proper life. It sinks him for ever. His end is symbolized by that of "the brute which perisheth."

But he is not only like what all brutes are in common, but also more or less like what the several kinds of unclean creatures are in particular. Sin is the ugliness and spitefulness of the camel; the burrowing, secretive, wily disposition of the coney, the rabbit, and the fox; the filthy sensuality of the hog; the stupid stubbornness of the ass; the voracious appetency of the dog, the wolf, the jackall, and hyena; the savage ferocity and blood thirstiness of the tiger, the panther, and the lion; the sluggish ness of the sloth; the prowling shyness and cruelty of the cat; and the base treachery and mischievousness of multitudes of unclean creatures that roam in darkness. Sin, enthroned in the soul, is the eagle clutching innocence in his talons, and tearing out its heart with his bloody beak. It is the vulture, with his base taste, seeking out what is abominable, and gormandizing upon foul putrescence. It is the owl taking advantage of darkness to surprise its prey, hooting about the abodes of quietness, and shrinking away to hide from approaching light. It is the slimy fish that creeps among the mud, the poisonous snake watching in the grass, and the legged and scaly thing whose numerous tribes crawl on all the land and in all the sea. It is the abominable thing which God hateth.

There are many who make light of sin, and often esteem it very sweet. Let such study God’s special symbols of it, and they will be led to view it in a different light. There is nothing in all the living world around us so loathsome, vile, hateful, dangerous, destructive, and abhorrent, but sin exceeds it. It is of all things the most hideous—an uncleanness which cannot be expressed—a filthiness so intense that God cannot look upon it with the least degree of allowance.

But it is just as abundant as it is hateful. The unclean creatures are as numerous and abounding as they are base. The air is full of them; the earth is alive with them; the ocean teems with innumerable kinds of them. They cover every mountain; they crowd every plain. The crevices of the rocks are filled with them; the deserts have them as numerous as sands. The trees of the forests are thick with them; every stream and fountain contains them. They move about every street; they play in every field. They are upon the most beautiful flowers, and crawl within the most guarded enclosures. They are in our houses; they come up upon our tables; they creep into our very beds. They are present in every climate. They may be seen at all seasons. They are as wide-spread as the surface of the world. They continue with all generations. And as these unclean things abound, so does sin abound; for they are God’s natural types of sin.

And looking at the appointments of this chapter as a mere remembrancer of sin, it seems to me very remarkable. How impressive the arrangement! All living nature, by a few simple words, at once transmuted into a thousand tongues to remind and warn of sin and uncleanness! The living monitor would meet the devout Jew at every point, and call to him in words of sacred admonition from every direction. Sitting down to table, a fly alighting upon the clean linen, would be a remembrancer that unholiness is at hand, ready to mingle with all his enjoyments. Opening his closet, the sight of a little mouse would be the sign to him that evil is likely to insinuate itself into the very devotions of secresy. Looking out at his window, the passing of a camel, or a dog, or a bird of prey, would be a memorial to him to make a covenant with his eyes, and to guard the approaches of uncleanness. Sitting down under his vine or fig-tree, or going forth to gather a few flowers, the little insects crawling on the leaves, would be monitors of the presence of evil. Walking out into the field, the snail in the path, the hare starting in the thicket, the snake gliding through the grass, the lizard darting down the side of a log, or the coney looking out from among the pile of rocks, either would serve to recall the fact that Jehovah’s eye is on him, and that he can have no fellowship with uncleanness. Approaching the silvery stream or the glassy lake, the frog leaping in from under his feet, the turtle jutting his foul head from the surface, the crooked eel making his way through the waters, and slimy things showing their presence in the marshes, each would have a voice, bidding him beware, and proclaiming uncleanness in all earth’s purity. Ascending the mountain cliffs, the croak of the raven there, the rattle of the serpent among the leaves, the eagle darting down savagely from the summit, the track of the wolf upon the sand, or the den of the fox beneath his feet, would be a memorial to him, that all the heights of earthly exaltation are full of savageness, poison, filthiness, and deceit. Looking down upon the open plain, the vultures there contending over their foul food, the fish-hawk on hovering wing watching to dart upon his prey in the waters beneath, and the hoopoe flitting hither and thither in search of worms and ugly insects, would be a remembrancer of the base appetites and dispositions which work in fallen man, and against which he should keep guard. Coming homeward in the evening, the heavy hoot of the owl greeting him from the hills, and the vile bat flapping her greasy wings about his face, and the toad hopping in his path at his feet, and a thousand noxious insects buzzing through the air as he breathes, each would be a picture and sermon to him as to how thoroughly and at all times he is beset and enveloped with vileness and sin, endangering his hopes and peace. And even to us at this remote age, the great lesson still comes flashing upon us vivid and strong from this self-same law, that at home or abroad, asleep or awake, on land and on sea, in the heights above and in the depths beneath, everywhere and in every condition upon this earth, sin encompasses us, and swarms around us, and cleaves to us, and works in us.

Some object to such an account of man’s moral condition. They would pronounce this picture quite too highly colored. But it is the picture which God himself gives in the hieroglyphics of his ancient ritual, and has announced in plain words in his Gospel. All these dark lines upon the living world of outward nature, have their counterpart in the moral world within. We may think it incredible that humanity should be so disordered and debased, or that uncleanness should so much abound; but that does not alter the facts. God knew what was in man, and what sort of creatures, and how many of them, he declared unclean. He knew exactly what sort of a picture all these living symbols put together would make. And with all, he solemnly said, Let it be so. "The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" Iniquity is a "mystery." It is more than we can understand. It is an ocean which we are not able to fathom—a darkness which no light of this world can thoroughly illume. Look over the histories of war, tyranny, persecution, and butcheries of men, as they have stained the annals of every age; and see whether there is aught in the bloody doings of birds or beasts of prey to exceed it. Examine the records of lewdness, intemperance, and gluttonous debauchery, and say wherein the accounts fall below what we see in the nature or habits of the vilest of brute creatures. Survey the profaneness, the grovelling passions, the fierce enmities, the malicious spites, the base deceits, the carnal pollutions, and the ten thousand forms of vice which breathe like a sirocco over every clime of the populated world, and point out, if you can, in all the rounds of brute passions, anything to equal what has been seen in man.

And yet, what we see, and hear, and read of, bad as it is, is not the whole depth of human uncleanness. Not a thousandth part of the evil that is in the world is ever manifest to the outward beholder. History is mostly made up of recitals of sin, and wrongs, and wars, and feuds, and rebellions, and gigantic crimes; but there is a world upon which historians have not yet looked—a world in which man appears exactly what he is—a world far wider and deeper than the world without—a world in which all history is enacted before it becomes history—I mean the hidden world of the heart. Oh, what animosities, and murders, and envies, and jealousies, and adulteries, and uncleannesses, and dark thoughts of blood and death, exist there without ever once being suspected by the outward observer! We are sickened at every day’s reports of open, uncontrolled, actual, villainy and crime. What, then, would this life look like, if we could just lift the cover, and see in addition all that is unseen and unheard! I have sometimes thought that when the day shall come for the all-knowing Lord to lay open every work with every secret thing, the histories of man would look Like annals of hell and biographies of devils!

I do not say that there is no good in the world. There are clean as well as unclean. There always have been good and piety in the earth, and some virtuous ones among the base. Jehovah, in all ages, has been gathering to himself a people for his name, who shall shine as stars for ever and ever. And this law served the Jew as a remembrance of goodness and holiness, as well as sin and uncleanness. Going forth to his flocks grazing in the quiet pastures, those gentle creatures would speak to his mind of the clean and holy ones whom the Lord keeps as "the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand." Beholding the wild goat amid solitary rocks, he would feel himself taught of hidden ones whom God keeps in the deep solitudes, and for whose safety he provides as for the wild goat on its precipices. The gazelle, amid the fragrant shrubs, walking at large amid earth’s richest scenery, would tell of the beauty of holiness, and of chosen ones who walk in grace amid the thick showered blessings of an approving God. But, with all, there were more vile than clean. With all the good that is in the world, there is an awful pravity upon man in general, and upon unchristian men in particular. What saith the Scripture? "Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways." (Romans 3:13-16.)

My brethren, we have not escaped this unclean ness which has gone out over all the earth. "If any man say that he hath no sin he deceiveth himself, and the truth is not in him." We are members of a fallen and corrupt race. All God’s dealings with us are such as to teach us that we are guilty in his sight But we are not left to despair. Along with the disclosure of our disease is the exhibition of an ample remedy. Sin abounds, but grace does much more abound. Our uncleanness is intense; but mercy holds out to us the means of complete and glorious deliverance. A fountain has been opened; and all we have to do is, to wash and be clean. The great God calls to us from the heavens, saying, "I am the Lord your God, ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy."

Nor can we be at a loss to ascertain what that sanctification or washing is. Ugly passions must be abjured as unclean. Swinish lusts must be crucified. Carnal loves of darkness and filth must be renounced. Those creeping and grovelling propensities which work so powerfully in fallen man, must be abandoned. That animal proneness must be laid aside for an uplifted look which fastens on the skies. That savage selfishness must be cast away as vile. That troop of unclean thoughts which infest the soul must be brushed out with abhorrence. The mere touch of what is defiling must be shrunk from with horror. And so must we compass the altar of Calvary, leaning on the head and trusting in the blood of the Lamb, until the Eternal king shall say, "It is enough; come up higher."

Sinner, wilt thou accept of these conditions, and fly to the refuge thus set before thee? Thy Savior once again knocks at the door of thy heart, saying, "Wilt thou not be made clean?" A blessed immortality hangs on the answer thou shalt give. "Wilt thou not be made clean?"

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Bibliographical Information
Seiss, Joseph A. "Commentary on Leviticus 11". Seiss' Lectures on Leviticus and Revelation. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/sei/leviticus-11.html.