III. Laws of Purity (11:1–15:33)

In the previous section the Israelite priests were inaugurated to put the final component of the Israelite sacrificial system in place. At the end of the inauguration Aaron was commanded to lead the Israelites in distinguishing between the holy and profane and between the clean and the unclean (10:10). In Leviticus 11–15 the Lord instructs Moses and Aaron more specifically about what is considered to be clean and unclean.

The purity laws cannot be isolated from previous laws concerning instruction for bringing sacrifices (1:1–6:7), instruction for the priests in carrying out the sacrifices (6:8–9:24), and the inauguration of the priesthood (Lev 8–10). The ritual laws assume knowledge of the sacrificial system in that the sacrifices play a vital role in making a ritually unclean Israelite able to enter the camp and to have fellowship with other members of the covenant community.

The section begins with dietary laws (Lev 11) and then discusses childbirth (Lev 12), growths on skin and walls (Lev 13–14), and discharges from genitals (Lev 15). Hartley has noted that apparently the rationale behind the order of these issues is the length of time for uncleanness. Violation of dietary laws would render one unclean for hours, childbirth uncleanness leaves one unclean for months, defilements on skin and walls results in uncleanness up to years, while the last listed impurity, that of genital discharge, results in uncleanness for a variety of times including hours, a week, years. Being in a state of uncleanness was not necessarily due to sin, but it did prohibit an Israelite’s contact with the tabernacle (and later the temple) and the cultic (sacrificial) system. Sexual intercourse, childbirth, and burial could make a person unclean, but these activities were not demeaning. Rather, they rendered a person unclean to prevent anyone in this condition from approaching the sanctuary. One apparent reason for this prohibition was that in other pagan religions these very activities were associated with pagan fertility rites and worship of the dead. People in the ancient world, including the Israelites, would have associated these activities with participation in pagan ritual. Consequently, a person involved in these activities could not enter the sanctuary. Application of this law is illustrated later in Israel’s history when guards prevented the unclean from entering the temple precinct during the time of King Jehoiada (2 Chr 23:19).

The concern for cleanness for the Israelite was an essential part of his response to the holiness of God. Cleanness is thus related to holiness, but the two were not equivalent. “The clean is not necessarily holy, but the holy is always clean.” On a rare occasion the purity laws could be suspended where there was a demonstration of repentance and heartfelt zeal (2 Chr 30:13–22). In Old Testament passages uncleanness is associated with prostitution and idolatry (Gen 34; Lev 18:24–30; Deut 24:4; Josh 22:17; Ps 106:39; Jer 2:7, 23; 13:27; Ezek 22:4; 23:7, 13, 17; 24:13; 43:7; Hos 5:3; 6:10; Hag 2:13–14) as well as other sinful acts (Isa 6:5; 64:6; Ezek 36:17; Mic 2:10; Hag 2:13–14). This fact indicates that uncleanness was metaphorically used for sin in general, and as a result forgiveness of sin is described as cleansing (ṭhr) from guilt (Ps 51; Jer 13:27; 33:8; Mal 3:3). At the of the present age Israel will be redeemed and all uncleanness will be excluded (Isa 35:8; 52:1; Rev 21:27).

1. Clean and Unclean Animals (11:1–47)

Leviticus 11 divides into six sections, each introduced by the term “this” (zō‘t / zeh, 2:2, 9, 29, 46) or “these” (‘ēlleh, 2:13, 24). These six sections may be divided into two major categories, that of clean and unclean animals (11:1–23) and that of pollution by contamination (11:24–47). This section of Leviticus 11–15 returns to the legal genre of Leviticus 1–7 from the previous narrative context of Leviticus 8–10.

(1) Clean and Unclean Food (11:1–23)

1The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 2“Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: 3You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud.

4“ ‘There are some that only chew the cud or only have a split hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you. 5The coney, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is unclean for you. 6The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is unclean for you. 7And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. 8You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.

9“ ‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scales. 10But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to detest. 11And since you are to detest them, you must not eat their meat and you must detest their carcasses. 12Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you.

13“ ‘These are the birds you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, 14the red kite, any kind of black kite, 15any kind of raven, 16the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, 17the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, 19the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.

20“ ‘All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be detestable to you. 21There are, however, some winged creatures that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. 22Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. 23But all other winged creatures that have four legs you are to detest.

11:1–23 Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 contain most of the instruction that pertains to the Israelite dietary laws. Although most of the information from the biblical law comes from these two chapters, the concept of clean and unclean food was not new from the biblical perspective. As far back as the account of the flood story (Gen 7:2) there is a distinction made between the clean or unclean animals that were to go into the ark. Moreover, the fellowship offering was to be a clean animal, otherwise the worshiper would be rendered unclean once he ate the sacrifice. The same could be said about the animals sacrificed to God as part of the covenant ratification ceremony in Gen 15:9. Only clean animals could be offered in worship (see Gen 8:20). Furthermore, in many other Old Testament narratives and prophetic texts the understanding of these food laws is assumed (Judg 13:4, 7, 14; Isa 65:4; 66:17; Ezek 4:13, 14; 33:25; Hos 9:3, 4). While prohibitions against eating certain foods also existed in Egypt, Babylon, and Syria, in Israel they were of critical importance. As Houston states:

The dietary laws have taken a central place in the self-understanding of Judaism throughout its history. While Jews have expressed their faithfulness to their God by the observance of all the laws, it is these, along with those of circumcision and the Sabbath, that have most conspicuously enabled them to express their identity as Jews over against their neighbors, to resist assimilation, and thereby to be faithful to the God who has called them to be “his special possession among all the nations that are on the earth.”

Numerous proposals have been brought forth regarding the criteria for determining whether a particular animal was clean or unclean. The most commonly proposed reasons for making these categorical distinctions among the animals involve symbolic, ethical, aesthetic, hygienic, morphological, and theological criteria.

The symbolic view, that the animals represent something else of a more practical or spiritual nature, is based on an allegorical interpretation. Philo, the great allegorist, advocated such a view. For him, for example, chewing the cud indicated contemplation and reflection while parting the hoof referred to making distinctions. This interpretation was not made in the New Testament, but it is evident in the early church in the Letter of Barnabas and is echoed by other more recent interpreters. This view should be dismissed because there is nothing to indicate an allegorical or typological interpretation in the text or in the rest of Scripture.

The ethical explanation is based on the notion that the dietary laws would reduce the culinary possibilities for the Israelite and thereby reduce the number of times an animal would be slain. This restriction would consequently curb animal slaughter and thus teach the inviolability of all life. This view, which has been adopted by J. Milgrom, seems difficult to support from the textual data in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, where reverence for life does not in any way appear to be an issue in the contexts.

The aesthetic criterion for the dietary laws is based on the quality of an animal’s appearance. A clean animal would be one that is aesthetically pleasant, while an unclean animal’s appearance would so repulse anyone that it would could create disgust if found on an Israelite’s dinner plate. Eichrodt concedes that this may be the explanation about why some animals are considered to be unclean. This argument would also be difficult to explain from the context, so it seems entirely subjective.

The hygienic explanation is based on the view that the Israelite dietary laws are God’s way of protecting the Israelite from certain diseases. Foods that are harmful to personal health are unclean. This view is supported, it is argued, by God’s promise that “none of the diseases of Egypt” would be visited upon the Israelites (Exod 15:26). Although many evangelicals have suggested that this is the valid reason animals were considered to be unclean, it faces a major difficulty when we explore how the dietary laws are dealt with in the New Testament. In the New Testament the dietary laws are rendered ineffective (Mark 7; see also 1 Tim 4:4–5). Calvin explains:

Those who imagine that God here had regard to their health, as if discharging the office of an Physician, pervert by their vain speculation the whole force and utility of this law. I allow, indeed, that the meats which God permits to be eaten are wholesome, and best adapted for food; but, both from the preface,— in which God admonished them that holiness was to be cultivated by the people whom He had chosen,—as also from the (subsequent) abolition of this law, it is sufficiently plain that this distinction of meats was a part of that elementary instruction under which God kept His ancient people. “Let no man therefore judge you (says Paul) in meat or in drink, which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col. ii. 16, 17).

If the hygienic law is the proper explanation for rendering foods unclean, one would have to ask why God is no longer concerned with the believer’s health, for he has now determined that these unhealthy foods may be consumed if one desires. Moreover, the assumption that the clean foods are in fact more healthy than the unclean ones is not decisive scientifically. The hygienic argument thus does not bear up under scrutiny.

The morphological explanation is a fairly new proposal that many modern commentators have endorsed as the proper explanation for distinguishing between the clean and the unclean in Leviticus 11. M. Douglas, in her work Purity and Danger, is credited with popularizing this view. The morphological explanation focuses on the information in the biblical text regarding the locomotion and digestive procedures of certain animals and concludes that the unclean animal is one that would depart from the normal locomotive and digestive habits of ordinary animals and thus be anomalous. Since these animals exhibited characteristics different from the more customary habits established in creation, the Israelites were to avoid them and abstain from eating them. This view also does not bear up, especially when one considers the fact that the clean and unclean animals were created by God. Therefore it would be difficult to suggest that his perfect design was to create these beings with anomalies.

The theological explanation suggests that unclean animals were those that were known to have played a role in pagan religion. Rendering this type of an animal as unclean would be in effect a polemical statement against pagan beliefs. Moreover, observance of these laws of uncleanness would have a role to play in distinguishing the Israelite from the Gentiles. This argument appears to have merit, for the biblical writers often employ polemics in their writings that are sometimes concealed to modern readers. Further archaeological discoveries perhaps could support this view, but presently not enough is known to say confidently this explanation is the criteria for all the animals considered to be unclean. One difficulty that must be solved is the fact that some animals, such as the bull, were worshiped among Canaanite and Egyptian peoples and yet in the Bible were deemed clean animals for sacrifice and for food.

Part of the difficulty of determining the rationale behind the dietary laws is the fact that the reason they are given is not stated. Motivations are not provided, but the Israelite is to submit with obedience because these laws, like ethical laws, reflect the will of God for Israel and reflect God’s character. Thus the ultimate reason for these laws was simply that God commanded them. S. R. Hirsch captures the essence of these unique commands:

High above all human speculations stands the Torah, the law of Israel’s life, eternal and immutable like the laws by which the planets move in the sky and the grain of seed grows in the soil. It is the same God Who laid down the law which Nature follows of necessity Who pronounced the law which Israel is asked to follow of its own free will. And just as the laws of Nature are unchangeable—despite any opinion man may hold— so all speculations on the laws of the Torah can only be an enlightenment of our own minds, but never the cause of their validity; for the causa causarum of the laws of Nature as well as the laws of the Torah is—God.

With the present stage of our understanding the best explanation of the categorical distinction between clean and unclean is that these have been categories decreed by God to make Israel a holy nation. Not only would the observance of these laws demonstrate Israel’s distinctiveness from the other nations but it also would be an indication of their supreme commitment to their covenant with God. When a Jew obeyed these laws, it would not be possible for him to share some kinds of food with his pagan neighbor, so food functioned as a barrier to their association. As Milgrom concludes, “The separation of the animals into the pure and the impure is both a model and a lesson for Israel to separate itself from the nations.”

In this regard the eating laws would be similar to the first law given to Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of good and evil. There was nothing inherently evil about the tree, but it was off-limits simply because God had declared it to be so. The first law given by God was a dietary law. It should not be overlooked, however, that the foods considered clean were not only those appropriate for offering to God in sacrifice but were from among the domesticated, tame animals. And since the offerer would often partake of the food himself in the sacrificial meal, there should be no surprise that what was appropriate for God would be appropriate for the worshiper. In this sense when the Israelite ate his food, he would be imitating God. This fact alone explains the connection between eating of clean food and holiness.

The animals of Leviticus 11 are classified into four basic divisions: (1) land animals (11:1–8); (2) water animals (11:9–12); (3) flying animals (11:13–23); and (4) swarming animals (11:29–31). These are the same basic categories of animals in the creation account (Gen 1:20–25), although the order of Leviticus 11 does not follow the sequence in which these animals were created.

Permitted Land Animals (11:1–8). ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍‍11:1–8 In the first section of Leviticus 11 the land animals that could be consumed by the Israelites were limited to those that had a split hoof and chewed the cud (11:3). The animals possessing these qualities may further be described as tame (or domesticated) and herbivorous. The latter quality would keep the Israelite from having contact with blood even through an indirect manner. Leviticus 11:4a functions as a summary verse for the rest of this section, indicating that various animals that have only one of these features were still off-limits for the Israelite’s diet. Verses 5–7 then illustrate those animals that could have one of the qualifications but not the other. These include the camel, the coney, the rabbit, and the pig. Abhorrence for the pig is a common theme in biblical and postbiblical Jewish literature (Prov 11:22; Ber. 43b; Šabb. 129a; Soṭa 49b; Ta’an. 4:8; 68c; Qidd. 49b; Bek. 7:7). Leviticus 11:8 summarizes this section by stating that these animals which have only one of the features may not be eaten and adds the additional prescription that they are not even to be touched. The animals that do not meet these qualifications and thus may be eaten are given in Deut 14:4–5. It should not escape our notice that animals that could be eaten—such as bulls, sheep, and goats—were used as sacrifices to God. Thus the Israelites must be distinct from other nations even in their diets.

Permitted Water Creatures (11:9–12).‍‍‍‍11:9–12 The categories for creatures from the aquatic world that may be eaten are restricted to those animals that have both fins and scales (11:9). Israelites were to “detest” water creatures that have neither fins nor scales. There is evidence that fish without scales were also avoided by the Romans and Egyptians. These types of fish may have been regarded as scavengers, since they roamed the bottom of the sea. They were also the carriers of numerous parasites. This section closes like the previous section regarding the permitted land animals by stressing the fact that the unclean of this category, animals not having fins or scales, are off-limits to the Israelite (11:12).

Permitted Flying Creatures (11:13–23). ‍‍‍‍‍‍‍11:13–19 The link between this section and the previous one is the repeated occurrence of the term šeqeṣ, “detest” (11:13, 20, 22). Those birds that are to be detested are enumerated. There does not appear to be a physical trait that distinguishes the clean from the unclean, although it may be observed that the prohibited birds could be classified as birds of prey. Many scholars maintain that it was the preying upon other animals with the real possibility that these animals would drink the blood of their victims that rendered them unclean. They would thus be viewed as off-limits to the Israelite either because they had ingested blood or because they had become involved in a practice that could be viewed as a violation of the law.

‍‍‍‍11:20–23 Flying insects were also detestable and hence could not be a food source for the Israelite (11:20). Exceptions to the rule were insects that had jointed legs for hopping. These included the locust, katydid, cricket, and grasshopper (11:21–22). The reasons for this distinction are not clear, and it may be remembered that locusts were the diet of John the Baptist in the wilderness (Matt 3:4; Mark 1:6). This paragraph closes as the two previous paragraphs did, by repeating the fact that the unclean animals in each category are unclean or detestable (11:23 with 11:8, 12).

(2) Pollution by Contamination (11:24–40)

24“ ‘You will make yourselves unclean by these; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening. 25Whoever picks up one of their carcasses must wash his clothes, and he will be unclean till evening.

26“ ‘Every animal that has a split hoof not completely divided or that does not chew the cud is unclean for you; whoever touches [the carcass of] any of them will be unclean. 27Of all the animals that walk on all fours, those that walk on their paws are unclean for you; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening. 28Anyone who picks up their carcasses must wash his clothes, and he will be unclean till evening. They are unclean for you.

29“ ‘Of the animals that move about on the ground, these are unclean for you: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard, 30the gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon. 31Of all those that move along the ground, these are unclean for you. Whoever touches them when they are dead will be unclean till evening. 32When one of them dies and falls on something, that article, whatever its use, will be unclean, whether it is made of wood, cloth, hide or sackcloth. Put it in water; it will be unclean till evening, and then it will be clean. 33If one of them falls into a clay pot, everything in it will be unclean, and you must break the pot. 34Any food that could be eaten but has water on it from such a pot is unclean, and any liquid that could be drunk from it is unclean. 35Anything that one of their carcasses falls on becomes unclean; an oven or cooking pot must be broken up. They are unclean, and you are to regard them as unclean. 36A spring, however, or a cistern for collecting water remains clean, but anyone who touches one of these carcasses is unclean. 37If a carcass falls on any seeds that are to be planted, they remain clean. 38But if water has been put on the seed and a carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.

39“ ‘If an animal that you are allowed to eat dies, anyone who touches the carcass will be unclean till evening. 40Anyone who eats some of the carcass must wash his clothes, and he will be unclean till evening. Anyone who picks up the carcass must wash his clothes, and he will be unclean till evening.

Contact with Carcasses (11:24–28). 11:24–28 In Lev 11:24 a new section begins as the discussion moves from the issue of which foods are permissible or not permissible in the Israelite diet to the related issue of contact with the animal carcasses. This contact made an individual ceremonially unclean. The section is concerned with delineating which carcasses constituted a person as unclean as well as the remedy for purification. A further criterion that made an animal unclean was that of “walking on their paws” (11:27). Animals that would fit this category, such as a lion or a bear, were carnivorous and thus harmful to humans or possibly in competition with them for food. The purification for this contact involved the washing of clothes (11:25, 28). A similar process was followed when an individual had contact with a human corpse (Num 19:19, 21, 22).

Carcasses of Swarming Animals (11:29–38). 11:29–31 Another category of unclean animals was the group of animals that moved close to the ground (11:29–30). The person who touched their carcasses was unclean until the evening (11:31), as were those who touched the carcasses of other animals that were considered unclean (11:24, 27).

11:32–36 Contact with the carcasses of the animals that move about on the ground not only contaminated humans but also articles of wood, cloth, hide, or sackcloth that came into contact with their dead bodies. Water removed the uncleanness of the objects just as it did for the Israelite who had touched the carcass (11:32). There was to be a different remedy if the carcass came into contact with a vessel such as a clay pot, oven, or cooking pot. Not only were the contents of the vessel rendered unclean but the entire vessel had to be broken (11:33, 35). The reason this drastic measure had to be taken was because of the difficulty in removing all of the impurity from a vessel made with earthenware. On the other hand, a distinction was made with regard to a spring or a cistern that collected water (11:36). These vessels that contained a vast amount of water remained clean, possibly due to the devastating effect this would have on the people if this water source was placed off-limits given the fact that water was scarce. The fact that this exception was made in regard to Israel’s survival probably indicates once again that it is not something intrinsic to the nature of these animals that constitutes them as unclean, rather by following these laws Israel will be deemed to be distinct, that is holy, among the peoples of the earth.

11:37–38 Seeds that came into contact with a carcass remained clean unless they already had been watered, in which case they became unclean (11:38). The reason for this distinction is unclear. Wenham believes the distinction may lie in the fact that the wet grain was being prepared for cooking while the dry grain was not.

Carcasses of Clean Animals (11:39–40). 11:39–40 The rule regarding coming into contact with carcasses was not to be restricted to the unclean animals only. Anyone who touched the carcass of a clean animal, ate from the clean animal’s carcass, or picked up the clean animal’s carcass was unclean until the evening and had to wash his clothes.

(3) Conclusion of Clean and Unclean Animals (11:41–47)

41“ ‘Every creature that moves about on the ground is detestable; it is not to be eaten. 42You are not to eat any creature that moves about on the ground, whether it moves on its belly or walks on all fours or on many feet; it is detestable. 43Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. 44I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. 45I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.

46“ ‘These are the regulations concerning animals, birds, every living thing that moves in the water and every creature that moves about on the ground. 47You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.’ ”

11:41–47 Chapter 11 closes with a summary of the contents of the chapter as well as a final admonition to underscore the importance of distinguishing between the clean and the unclean. The reason the Israelites were to obey the dietary laws was that they were to be holy because they had been redeemed by God (11:45). This call to holiness is the climax of the chapter, for all the preceding contents of the chapter prepare for this final admonition. The concluding exhortation, which stresses Israel’s relationship to God and the need for Israel to be holy, emphasizes the fact that it is not primarily (if at all) the physical health of the nation that is the reason for these instructions but rather their spiritual sanctification.

(4) Conclusion

The laws regarding the clean and unclean animals and foods of Leviticus 11 no longer have a function in the life of the believer according to the New Testament (esp. Mark 7:14–23; Eph 2:11–21; Acts 10:9–16; 34–35). The reason these laws are no longer in effect is that their purpose, which was to render Israel distinct from the other nations of the world, is no longer applicable. This purpose ended with the coming of Christ. The function of the law as a boundary between Israel and the nations is erased. Since Gentiles have been incorporated into the people of God on equal footing with Jews, the dietary laws and the law of circumcision have lost their significance and are not mandated for the church. Wenham nicely summarizes these truths:

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. At every turn these laws reminded them of God’s grace toward Israel. In the new era when salvation was open to all men, and Israel was no longer the only object of divine grace, the laws lost their particular significance. The distinction between clean and unclean foods is as obsolete as the distinction between Jew and Gentile. By rules of avoidance, holiness was given a physical expression in every encounter with the animal kingdom and at every meal. In a real sense, then, Jesus was drawing out the meaning of the symbolism of the Levitical laws in insisting that it was what comes out of man that defiles him, ‘evil thoughts, murder, adultery, etc.’

The New Testament does employ the language of clean and unclean to refer to moral behavior; thus the principle of separation from what is unclean still stands. For example, immorality practiced by Gentiles is called uncleanness (Rom 6:19; 2 Cor 12:21; Eph 4:19; 5:3, 5; 1 Thess 4:7). This is particularly seen in 2 Cor 6:17, where Paul, alluding to Leviticus 11, reminds the readers not to touch unclean things in admonishing his readers to separate from sinfulness. This application is in harmony with the meaning and purpose of the dietary laws in Leviticus 11. Like Israel, the church must be holy, or distinct from the world. The church does the most for the world when the church is least like the world.

—New American Commentary