Thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 11 (The Food Laws)

This is the first chapter that North doesn’t comment on within the relevant section. The other chapters being 12, 15 and 16.

An instrument of salvation

This may come as quite a shock to some people, but when my wife started thinking about God and whether He existed, Leviticus chapter 11 was the chapter that finally sealed it for her and prompted her to start praying - eventually concluding with her conversion to Christ.

Being an ornithologist, she’d spend entire days in search of rare and unusual birds - not just in the UK where she lived but further afield wherever she thought would be a good location. When she arrived at chapter 11 of Leviticus (and, believe me, I have no idea how she arrived at that chapter in particular - the Bible doesn’t really point your way to it, does it?) it suddenly hit her that, if the Bible was a mythical book, dreamt up by some writer to fabricate a religious belief, then the animals and birds mentioned would be purely fictitious.

Instead of talking about vultures and falcons, it would have made mention of fire-breathing dragons, unicorns and centaurs - as it was, the practicalities of the passage proved to her that this was a real book written for a real people to put over what was knowable in real time.

From that day onwards, she began praying to God and, eventually, through a series of totally unrelated coincidences (yeah, right) she came to give her life over to Christ.

Just to stimulate some congregations, I say ‘Did you know that my wife got saved through Leviticus chapter 11?’ which, although not the absolute truth, does get them thinking - besides, if God can use such an obscure passage of Scripture, how can we limit Him to have to speak only through the John 3:16s that we think are the only way of reaching the lost?!!

Having said that, Wenham notes (page 164) that

‘The meaning of many of the Hebrew terms for birds and reptiles is uncertain. One expert in this field suggested that only 40% of the Hebrew terms could be identified with accuracy’

This is partly due to the words not being everyday ones that are used not only elsewhere in the Bible but in ancient documents. In any far-off land that speaks the same English language, a label means virtually nothing unless some description is given so that the label can be pictured - unfortunately we don’t get that here. ‘Jay’, for instance, to an American may conjure up a different image than the real British bird. How much more will this happen when thousands of years have passed, the language has evolved and some of the animals have become extinct within the land that Israel occupied (though it needs to be remembered that this series of commands were given to the Israelites while they were journeying through the wilderness which contained quite a different variety of fauna and flora)?

A new hermeneutic

In my comments on North’s Introduction to part 2, I quoted his observation (page xxxviii) that

‘Some of the laws of Leviticus are still binding. Which ones? This is a difficult question to answer, but Christians need to find the correct answer. This, too, requires a hermeneutic: a consistent, coherent principle of biblical judicial interpretation that enables us to study other books of the Bible and their case laws. A serious Bible commentary on the Mosaic law should instruct the reader on how to do this work of interpretation. Very few commentaries on the Old Testament do this’

and pointed out that, up to the time of writing, this hadn’t been achieved. Ignoring this chapter within the division he made of the book of Leviticus certainly doesn’t help the reader in his attempt to come to terms with the relevancy of this passage to everyday christian living in the twenty-first century.

But his observation that a hermeneutic (a system of interpretation) is necessary for the Mosaic Law - one that’s consistent and straightforward to apply - is perceptive. Too often, our decision as to which laws are relevant for today and which ones are not is purely subjective, relying more upon what we ‘feel’ to be the case than the result of careful study and precise exposition that’s supported elsewhere in Scripture.

As North pointed out, the main Scripture that speaks out against abortion by implication (Ex 21:22-25 - it demonstrates the sanctity of life within the womb) and which is used by christian pro-life campaigners and demonstrators, contains within it the need for the execution of the party that carries out the abortion.

If we accept it as proclaiming the right to life of the foetus at whatever stage of its development, then how can we negate what the Scripture calls for as the punishment upon the person that terminates the life? Besides, in the Exodus passage, what transpires is caused by an accident - how could there be an escape from the death penalty for a deliberate act of the will that terminates a vulnerable human life? If an accident would call for death, murder must surely call for the same penalty to be executed both upon the doctor who carries out the procedure and the woman who permits it to take place - and what of the society in which these things happen? How much condemnation do they live under because they consent to the procedures that take place within their land?

So an accurate and systematic hermeneutic is desperately needed that can be applied to the Old Testament law so that what we see as being relevant to mankind today doesn’t become the product of purely subjective reasoning.

Having said that, I don’t believe that that hermeneutic is ever likely to be discovered! The Law seems too complex a subject to be able to itemise and interpret accurately as there’s a wide range of different types of legislation that needs categorising before the hermeneutic could be applied.

For instance, I see the ten commandments (Ex 20:3-17) as being ‘categorical law’ - that is, rules and regulations that apply to all societies and cultures no matter where they may find themselves on the earth. If that’s the case, why didn’t the early Church insist that the Gentiles observe them when they met in Jerusalem to discuss the problem of the Gentiles and the Jewish law (Acts 15), insisting only (Acts 15:29) that

‘ abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity...’?

- which covers just the one commandment directly. Are the Gentiles to steal? Can they kill? It seems to me (and here it becomes, again, purely subjective) that the ten commandments were already accepted as being obligatory upon the world and that what they were meeting to discuss were the more ‘ceremonial’ aspects of the law such as the clean and unclean foods as outlined in the chapter that we will (eventually) get round to thinking about.

If that’s the case, we can safely ignore all the law (as needing to be observed) except the ten commandments and the early Church’s decision. But I think this would be too dangerous a decision to make.

Or, perhaps, we could use Jesus’ declaration concerning the Law (Mtw 22:37-40 - my italics) that

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets’?

That is, if a command doesn’t touch either of these two definitions then it’s not binding upon New Testament believers - therefore the dietary laws are seen to be of no relevance. But what of the legislation regarding various forms of leprosy (Leviticus chapters 13-14)? Wouldn’t it be loving your neighbour to be quarantined and to prevent the spread of a disease that may be transmitted to him (the laws were primarily given to prevent uncleanness in the camp but, later on, I’ll comment that God may have had health considerations in mind even though the knowledge concerning bacteria was lacking in the society of the day)?

So what appears simple becomes problematical.

Another suggestion involves the use of the Hebrew word variously translated as ‘unclean’ and its forms and ‘defile’ and its forms (Strongs Hebrew numbers 2930/1/2). Apart from occurring in Gen 34:5,13,27, the words don’t appear in the Bible until Leviticus 5:2 where they seem to plainly imply that ceremonial uncleanness is being described rather than something that’s forbidden to all cultures and nations.

If it were possible to use the word’s occurrence in passages to denote those commands that were only binding upon Israel as part of the Old Covenant and not obligatory upon all mankind (it occurs 32 times in Leviticus chapter 11 alone), we would immediately have our problem solved but, although this word may help us see most of where the difference lies, the use of the word in Lev 18:24-27 and 19:31 don’t seem to necessitate the interpretation that we would like to give it (a cursory look over the occurrences of the word in Numbers and Deuteronomy, though, seems to confirm that the word is normally used of ceremonial defilement in connection with transgressions against cultic regulations rather than offences committed against categorical law).

Having said that, it should be noted that the word doesn’t occur within the ten commandments, neither within the judicial decisions of chapters 21-23 of Exodus but only after the Tabernacle has been set up. It therefore does appear to be a word that was used nearly always of a state of life that may not, in itself, be a sin in the same way as the transgressions of Ex 20:3-17 could be considered to be.

Unfortunately, the use of the word doesn’t occur in Leviticus chapters 23-26 (though, considering the subject matter, there may be good reason why it doesn’t). If, then, it’s possible to use this word advisedly (which means we immediately hop into the area of subjectivity) to define the relevancy of the legislation for today’s Church, it would still be necessary to take the expansion of the ten commandments in future legislation as being equally binding (for instance, the sex laws which are additional commands that relate to Ex 20:14).

Concluding, then, the word ‘uncleanness’ (and its various forms) seems to be used of ‘cultic transgressions’ and the legislation that concerns its impartation are largely irrelevant for today’s Church seeing as they have to do with the maintenance of the special covenant that God made with Israel. On the other hand, categorical law (for example, the ten commandments) and its expansion is equally binding upon all nations of the earth (I Tim 1:8-11).

But one further point needs to be made.

The New Testament believer doesn’t serve under a legalistic system – he’s not to be someone who observes an external written code that’s outside his own person. In the New Covenant, the law is written upon believers’ hearts (Jer 31:33) so that, from within, they should be obedient to the requirements of the categorical law.

Therefore, in a Scripture previously cited but not yet quoted (I Tim 1:8-9), Paul writes

‘Now we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient...’

Because a believer should be obedient from the heart to a manner of conduct that befits His people, the Law should tell them nothing, generally speaking, about how to live - it should, on the other hand, be a word of rebuke to the rebellious to show them the state of their lives before God and their need of cleansing.

New Testament References

A handful of New Testament Scriptures relate to the food laws, not making too much comment on the chapter even though a lot of commentators make quite a bit out of them.

1. The incident of the first Gentile convert sparked quite a bit of controversy amongst the Church (Acts 10:9-11:18) seeing as it was a widely held belief amongst the Jews that to eat in the presence of the Gentiles was to render oneself unclean (even to be found within their houses was considered a matter of ceremonial impurity - John 18:28).

Before Peter is asked by Cornelius’ (the Gentile) servants to accompany them to their master’s house, he sees a vision while he’s on the rooftop waiting for dinner to be prepared (10:10-16). A lot of commentators see this as a reference to the ceremonial food laws (which it is) but, in my opinion, go one step too far in trying to interpret the passage to say that God was instructing Peter to now disregard them.

The context is that the Gentiles were considered to be unclean by the Jews and, in imagery that Peter can understand (even though he didn’t immediately understand it at the time) He’s instructing him not to refuse the request that’s about to be made of him (10:22-23). Besides, the conclusion of the matter is not that the ceremonial food laws can now be disregarded but that God has now granted the Gentiles the right to enter eternal life (11:18).

Though Peter recoiled at the suggestion of eating with Gentiles (even more so when the ‘circumcision party’ were around trying to insist upon the Gentiles’ observance of the ceremonial law - Gal 2:11-13) which, in the culture of his day was tantamount to being rejected by God for being unclean (as it was the case for Christ when he ate with tax collectors, prostitutes and ‘sinners’), God put him in to the situation where he was a witness to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them in the same manner as he’d received it on the day of Pentecost (11:17).

In this way, God overcame the prejudice of the Jewish believers towards accepting the Gentiles as co-equal believers (Gal 3:28) - but the passage doesn’t teach us that the dietary laws were made obsolete under the New Covenant.

2. Mark 7:1-23 also relates us to the dietary laws and includes a word of interpretation by the author on one of Jesus’ words.

Having been reprimanded by the Pharisees for not first washing their hands before they ate to remove ceremonial uncleanness from them, which they believed would be imparted to the food and ingested - thus making them unclean and defiled before God - Jesus went on to point out that this wasn’t what defiled a man but that the cause of man’s defilement was what already lay within him.

When He was alone with the disciples, He had to repeat His teaching for, as often was the case, they’d failed to grasp what He’d been saying. He asked them (7:18-19)

‘...Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on? (Thus he declared all foods clean)’

Though the actual disagreement had been over the act of washing hands, Jesus expanded His teaching to include the dietary laws of Leviticus chapter 11. What He’s not saying, though, is that the ceremonial laws are obsolete - what He is saying is that the ‘uncleanness’ of which the legislation speaks has nothing to do with the state of a man’s heart before God - that is, the Gentile who may eat unclean foods is no worse a sinner than the Jew because ceremonial purity has nothing to do with the moral state of an individual before God.

By extension, we should see that most of the laws of cleanness and uncleanness have to do with the separation of the Jewish nation under the Old Covenant to be that special and distinct people that God required them to be - but their observance or rejection didn’t alter the moral state of the Israelite before God. That was determined by what was in the heart of the Israelite, not by the assimilation of food.

3. In a passage (Rom 14:14) that I’ve commented on under the ‘Additional articles’ section of Part 2, Paul writes that

‘I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean’

which is probably the clearest indication of the way that the early Church regarded ceremonial dietary law. The passage deals with many different issues but here the idea is that of stumbling a brother by what another brother eats - if they participate in a food that they consider to be unclean because they see another brother eat of it and, as a result, they feel tainted and stumble in their walk with God, then the cause of that stumbling is not the lack of faith of the weak brother but the strength of faith of the strong one. Therefore the latter is condemned by God, not the former.

But, says Paul, nothing is unclean in itself.

The indication here is that all believers may eat of anything if they truly believe that the food is acceptable to be eaten - but, if they have doubts, then they’ll condemn themselves by eating.

While it’s true that all foods are clean to eat in the sight of God, the dietary laws may be observed by some today but by others they’re treated as obsolete.

Neither way is wrong but both ways mustn’t stand in the way of the other believer.

The New Testament would therefore see Leviticus chapter 11 (and, by extension, all ceremonial/cultic law) as unbinding upon the believer and obsolete.

The Spiritual Principle of Leviticus chapter 11

As with most of the ceremonial law of Israel, if observed it would have set apart the nation from the other nations that were round about them. It seems certain that the differing religions of the ancient world had cultic regulations governing their behaviour but, with Israel, the divine origin of the rules (and often present day relevance of their instruction) set the laws apart.

In the legislation under consideration now, many commentators have observed that such bans upon certain meats would have helped the natural health of the nation (see Wenham pages 167-8) even though, at that time, the realisation of this wouldn’t necessarily have been known.

But, behind each of the regulations were principles which, when thought about, would have instructed the nation concerning the One who was to come and/or the necessity and way of moral living that was acceptable to God.

The assimilation of ceremonially clean food demonstrated the principle of needing to allow only spiritually clean foods to become a part of a believer’s life. Though the Jews believed that unclean food was able to morally defile a person, Jesus showed that it wasn’t possible for physical food to have a direct effect on the spiritual life (Mark 7:14-23) but that what came from within the heart was what defiled a man in God’s eyes.

Therefore, to assimilate false and misleading beliefs, to feed our inner nature with material that contradicts God’s categorical law, is to cause the heart to overflow into the world around us with spiritual uncleanness - that is, it’s contaminated by whatever is put into it.

If, for instance, we partake of idolatry, we become idolaters and, if we assimilate adulterous material, we become adulterers. The West is of the opinion than pornographic material is a necessary part of society and that it can be contained and controlled - but feed people’s lives with those sorts of products and the overflow of their heart will soon start to show the flavour of what has become part of their inner make up.

By allowing spiritual uncleanness to become part of our lives, we become spiritually unclean people.

Jesus, however, proclaimed Himself as the spiritually clean food that believers are exhorted to assimilate into their lives (John 6:48-58 - see also I Cor 10:1-4, Phil 4:8), to remain in purity and to grow in the ways and likeness of God. All potentially spiritual foods must be judged as to whether they are clean for us to be partakers of - though inventions or discoveries are inherently neutral, their use can be tinged with either clean or unclean spiritual food that can lead us in differing directions as we allow them to become a part of our lives.

Though Christ has cleansed all believers through His work on the cross, walking by the Spirit rather than the flesh (the old way of living) takes a lifetime of effort and learning as to which spiritual foods are to be accepted to help growth into maturity - and which are to be rejected.

Of course, Leviticus chapter 11 went beyond simply telling the Israelites not to eat the unclean animals, it instructed them to not even so much as touch their carcasses so that ceremonial uncleanness would not be imparted.

The thought here seems to be uncleanness by association. What is not in mind is the association that believers have with the outside world (as Jesus showed by eating and drinking with the people of Israelite society that were considered to be the dregs - tax collectors, prostitutes and ‘sinners’ - Mtw 9:10-11) - after all, we can’t all find paid employment within the Church!! - but the type of association that comes by being a part of something that’s set against God’s will.

Do we, for instance, hold shares in an immoral company? While not feeding our own spiritual life with unclean food, we are partakers of the immorality by association - in each and every situation that we find ourselves in, care must always be taken to ensure that by our involvement we’re not part of something that’s the source of so much immorality in the world.

Therefore Leviticus chapter 11 teaches the New Testament believer, firstly, that he must be careful what types of spiritual foods that he allows to be assimilated into his life and, secondly, be careful not to associate himself with situations that promote spiritual uncleanness even though he might choose not to assimilate that type of conduct into his own life.

For me, that’s meant making sure that I don’t buy certain branded products when I have a choice and of seeking companies who offer the service I already have when my existing company sets itself on a morally unclean course of action or, as can be the case, a morally distasteful advertising campaign.

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