To better comprehend God’s dietary laws, we need to learn the basic distinction between clean and unclean.
The Bible says that some animals are “clean” and some are “unclean.” That’s easy enough to understand. In Leviticus 11, these adjectives describe animals that have been designated by the Lord as either fit or unfit for human consumption. But what does it mean to designate something as “unclean”? What does it mean to say that it is “clean”? What happens if we become “unclean”?
Notions of “ritual purity” and “impurity” (“clean” and “unclean”) are some of the hardest of all biblical concepts to grasp. The ideas of c1eari and unclean seem weird and remote in our Western context. At first, the whole thing appears to have nothing to do with believers or with Jesus. This is indeed hard stuff. At the same time, if we are confused, annoyed or bored with it, the problem is likely on our end (in this case, with me trying to communicate it to you). God created this system and codified it in His Word, regardless of our thoughts and feelings about it.
One reason this stuff is so hard is that it all relates to God’s dwelling place on earth: the Tabernacle or Temple. That makes it difficult for us to understand, since there has not been such a place in almost 2,000 years.
Levitical impurity (or being “unclean”) is the biblical concept that a person or object can be in a state that—by the Bible’s law—prevents the person or object from interacting with the Tabernacle or Temple and its sacrifices.
The words “clean” and “unclean” are misleading, since they seem to imply something about general hygiene. This is not a sanitation issue. A ritually unclean animal is not dirtier than a clean animal, and you cannot make a ritually unclean animal clean by giving it a good, hot, soapy bath. It is equally wrong to suppose that “clean” and “unclean” refer to an animal’s moral state. If animals did have any moral sense, horses would certainly have a higher moral standard than goats; yet the Bible says that horses are considered unclean, while goats are considered clean. In the same regard, an unclean animal such as a camel is no more shameful or morally bankrupt than a clean animal like a giraffe. People who work closely with camels may disagree, but the point is clear. Ritual impurity is completely different from physical cleanness, and it has nothing to do with intrinsic goodness or badness.
Instead, clean and unclean must be understood as purely ritual states. They have real application only in regard to the Tabernacle/Temple, the priesthood and the sacrifices. Here is what they mean:
CLEAN: Something that is in a state of ritual cleanness is fit for entering the sacred precinct of the Tabernacle/Temple of God, for sacrifice on the altar, and/or for contacting the Tabernacle/Temple’s sacred elements.
UNCLEAN: Something that is unclean is in a state of ritual defilement. This renders it unfit for entering the sacred precinct of God’s Tabernacle/Temple, for sacrifice on the altar, and/or for contacting the Tabernacle/Temple’s sacred elements.
Therefore, clean animals are animals that are regarded as fit for sacrificing. Unclean animals are not regarded as fit for sacrificing. Since we believers do not have a real, physical Temple in which we worship today, and since there is no sacrificial system today, most of the Bible’s complex laws of clean and unclean have no real practical application in modern life. Levitical concerns about contracting ritual impurity through bodily discharges, dead rodents and lepers are not relevant without a Temple. Leviticus 11, however, does not directly address whether eating unclean animals will make you unclean or not. It simply forbids eating them.
Explaining the intricacies of the Tabernacle/Temple system, and the associated requirements for entering into God’s presence in His dwelling place on earth, is beyond the scope of this book. I am making some sweeping generalizations about that system and its God-given requirements that may lead to more questions than answers. In fact, many of these generalizations may contradict what most of us have learned over the years about clean and unclean and the role of the Temple/Tabernacle. That makes sense. In order to read the Bible without getting stuck, this extremely detailed topic has, over the years, been understandably oversimplified.
As we study what the Bible says about meat, however, let’s stick our toes into the deep ocean of meaning hidden beneath the surface of these concepts. Remember, if this topic confuses, annoys, repulses or bores us, the problem is with our lack of understanding—not with God’s holy and perfect Word. But take heart. While the laws of clean and unclean do contain deep and profound spiritual lessons about separating the Kingdom of Light from the Kingdom of Darkness, we need not worry about practicing the non- eating-related instructions unless a Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem and we plan to visit it.
Clean and Unclean: Not a Salvation Thing
As we begin to understand a tiny bit about clean and unclean, I hope two things are becoming clear.
First, becoming unclean is not the same thing as sin. A woman having her monthly period (Leviticus 15:25) and a woman who has just given birth (Leviticus 12:2) are both considered unclean by Levitical standards, but they obviously have not sinned. Think about it. If becoming unclean was truly a sin, Jesus would not have qualified as our perfect atoning sacrifice. Why? He deliberately touched dead people (Luke 7:14) and lepers (Matthew 8:3, Mark 1:41). According to the Torah, both of these actions would have rendered Jesus unclean and temporarily ineligible to participate in Temple worship activities. However, since the Living Word (Jesus) had perfect understanding of and unity with God’s Written Word (the Bible, that is, Torah), He knew that becoming unclean was not the same thing as sinning. He healed the leper and raised the dead with His touch, not in defiance of the Torah’s rules, but in conformity with them.
Second, the Bible’s designation of when someone was unclean had nothing to do with the person’s right-standing before God. It was simply part of God’s system for designating who was eligible to enter His physical dwelling place on earth (the Tabernacle/Temple). It had nothing to do with salvation, justification or righteousness before God. Remember that righteousness has always come by faith, before, during and since Tabernacle/Temple times. The New Testament reminds us that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4) Rather, the blood of the Temple/Tabernacle sacrificial system provided a covering for sin so that man could approach God in His earthly home.
Eternal right-standing before God has always come through faith. Sacrifices in the earthly Tabernacle/Temple both foreshadowed Messiah’s eternal sacrifice, and they provided a way for humans to interact with God on earth.
What does all of this have to do with eating? Nothing! That’s the point! We highlight the basics of the Temple/Tabernacle system to avoid the temptation of skimming Leviticus 11, seeing the words “clean” and “unclean,” and dismissing the whole chapter - including the food laws - as irrelevant.
The careful reader sees that Leviticus 11 addresses two different things. First, God shows how to avoid becoming unclean (by not touching certain carcasses). This enables a person to enter the Tabernacle/Temple and make sacrifices. Indeed, this is not applicable today, since there is no earthly Temple/Tabernacle. Second, He tells His people which animals are permissible to eat. This is unrelated to one’s ability to participate in the sacrificial system.
Just as He forbids us from offering unclean animals upon His altar, so too He forbids us from taking unclean animals into the Temple of our bodies. This is relevant for anyone looking to the Scriptures for food-choice guidance.
With this theory in mind, go back and reread Leviticus 11. Notice the different language used for food commands (“you may eat…”“you must not eat…”) and those related to the Temple/Tabernacle system (“whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening…”). Also notice that when a person becomes unclean by touching a dead rodent or some other nasty thing, it is only a temporary condition, usually lasting only until sunset. The Bible provides rituals, like immersion in water, so the unclean person may be declared clean again, enter God’s Temple, and participate in the worship. On the other hand, an unclean animal will always be unclean. There is no ritual that can ever make it clean. The Torah does not provide a remedy for a person who eats unclean animals, just as it does not provide a remedy for someone who gives false testimony or covets his neighbor’s wife. They are all actions that God simply forbids. Even though God forgives those who repent from lying or envying, it does not mean that we endorse those behaviors, does it?
These seemingly bizarre concepts may baffle us, but remember: they are part of God’s Word. God Himself created and designed the entire sacrificial system and its associated laws. And since Jesus Himself did not seem to have a problem with this system, we would do well to be cautious about dismissing it.
An excerpt from “HOLY COW!” by Hope Egan.