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THE LAWS OF CLEAN AND UNCLEAN

(Are Old Covenant Dietary Regulations still in force for Christians today?)    

          

       altSome within the Christian community teach that we should obey the dietary laws established under the Old Covenant.  Under that covenant, Israel was prohibited from eating the flesh of certain creatures including swine, rabbits and fish that did not have both fins and scales. These Old Covenant regulations are defined in Leviticus, chapter eleven and in Deuteronomy 14.  Are these dietary laws incumbent upon us today?  To properly address this issue, we need to begin by looking at the issue of clean and unclean as it pertains to Israel. Under the Old Covenant, to be clean or unclean was a huge issue.  There were many laws governing ones status of being clean versus being unclean. Ones standing before God was predicated on strict observance of these laws.  Let’s look at some examples.

       Menstruation caused uncleanness for seven days, and whoever touched the woman's bed was unclean until evening.  If a man slept with his wife during menstruation, he would also be unclean for seven days, and any bed he laid on would also be unclean (Leviticus 15).

       Normal sexual intercourse rendered both husband and wife unclean (Leviticus 15:18). Childbirth made women unclean. For a boy baby, the mother was unclean for a week, and cleansed or purified 33 days later. For a girl baby, the mother was unclean for two weeks, and purified 66 days later. In both cases, her purification ceremony involved a burnt offering and a sin offering (Leviticus 12:1-8).

      If a person touched a corpse, he would be unclean for seven days and be unable to participate in religious activities such as the Passover (Numbers 5 & 9). If a person died in a tent, all who were in the tent would be unclean for a week (Numbers 19:14).

       If an unclean man touched anyone or spit on anyone, that person would be unclean until evening (Leviticus 15:7-8). If the unclean man touched a pot, the pot had to be broken (Leviticus 15:12).  If a person touched an unclean bed, he would be unclean until evening (Leviticus 15:4-10). Even if a person accidentally touched something that was deemed to be unclean, he was considered guilty of being unclean.  He had to confess his sin and make a sin offering (Leviticus 5:3-6).

       Various skin diseases could cause a person to be considered unclean. If a sore was more than skin deep and the hair turned white, the person was unclean (Leviticus 13).  If the skin problem spread, the priest pronounced the person unclean. Such persons had to live outside the camp and warn people that they were unclean.

       When a person could be declared clean, the priest killed a bird, dipped another bird in the blood, sprinkled the person and released the live bird (Leviticus 14). The person then had to shave and wash twice before he was fully clean. Then he had to offer a guilt offering and a sin offering, and the priest was to anoint him on the right earlobe, the right thumb and the right big toe.

       People who were unclean because of a dead person could be cleansed by the water of cleansing, which was made with the ashes of a specially sacrificed red heifer.  Although the ashes could be used to purify people from sin, people who made the ashes were unclean, and those who touched the water were unclean until evening. Those who failed to be cleansed in this way were to be expelled (Numbers 19). The ashes had to be put in a clean place outside the camp.

       The laws of clean and unclean appear unusual, and the purification ceremonies even more unusual. Why would a red heifer be more effective than a black one?  Why dump sacrificial ashes in a clean place rather than an unclean one?

       Why was sexual intercourse defiling?  Why were sin offerings required for circumstances beyond a person's control? Why were pots broken rather than simply washed?  Why did the water of cleansing make some people clean and others unclean?  Why anoint the right big toe instead of the left little toe?

       The system of clean and unclean given to Israel was very complicated and difficult to sustain.  We have touched on just a few of the multiple dozens of such regulations under the Old Covenant.  As you read through the Pentateuch you will see one over riding refrain.  All these regulations were given to achieve separation from the rest of the human race and to keep the Israelites in constant need of doing physical things to maintain an awareness of their privileged status as God’s chosen people.  Included in these regulations was prohibition against eating certain kinds of organisms which were defined as unclean.

Clean and unclean meats - Ceremonial or Dietary?

       We see distinctions between clean and unclean organisms being made before the Mosaic covenant.  Noah was told to take more of the clean organisms than the non-clean organisms into the ark. After the flood, we are told in Genesis 8:20, “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds; he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” Then we find in Genesis 9:1-3:  

       Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

       For Noah, the distinction between clean and unclean creatures appears to relate to what is appropriate and not appropriate for offering sacrifices to God.  These distinctions between clean and unclean organisms appear to have nothing to do with what one could or could not eat.  Nothing is recorded as to God telling Noah that the animal distinctions He gave him had to do with diet.  The Jewish Encyclopedia, under the heading "Clean and Unclean Animals," volume 4, page 110, says the following: "It seems that in the mind of this writer (The writer of Genesis) the distinction between clean and unclean animals was intended for sacrifices only: for in the following chapter he makes God say: `Everything that moves shall be food for you.'”

       If the distinction between clean and unclean organisms was for sacrifices only after the flood and possibly before the flood as well, why does God now make clean versus unclean a matter of what the Israelites could eat or not eat.  Why did God make it a dietary consideration for Israel?

      Leviticus 20; 24-26: But I said to you, "You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey." I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations. "`You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground--those which I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.

       God set apart certain organisms as being unclean. In what respect were they unclean?  Were they not good for food and bad for ones health? Is that why they were unclean?  Where these dietary restrictions employed for health reasons? 

       It is instructive that that when you read about the various things that could make a person unclean, they are invariably tied to being ceremonially clean or unclean.  The laws of clean and unclean are seen as ceremonial.  Here are a few examples:

       Leviticus 12:2: "Say to the Israelites: `A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.

       Leviticus 12:6-7: When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood. "`These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl.

       Leviticus 17:15: Anyone, whether native-born or alien, who eats anything found dead or torn by wild animals must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be ceremonially unclean till evening; then he will be clean.

       What about the dietary regulations?  Were they for ceremonial reasons as well?  Let’s take a look.

       Leviticus 11:2-4: "Say to the Israelites: `Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud. "`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.

       Leviticus 5:2: If a person touches anything ceremonially unclean--whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the ground--even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty.   

      Deuteronomy 14:7: However, of those that chew the cud or that have a split hoof completely divided you may not eat the camel, the rabbit or the coney.  Although they chew the cud, they do not have a split hoof; they are ceremonially unclean for you. 

       Being ceremonially clean or unclean is seen as the overriding dynamic associated with the laws of clean and unclean, including the dietary laws.  As already discussed, these laws were designed to create and maintain separation between Israelites and non-Israelites

       Deuteronomy 14:21:  Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to an alien living in any of your towns, and he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. But you are a people holy to the LORD your God. 

       It is Scriptures such as these that make it evident that distinctions as to what could be and not be eaten was part of the comprehensive system of ceremonial regulations that were designed to show separation of Israel from the rest of mankind and facilitate holiness before God.  These were not health laws as some contend.  If they were health laws, then God was protecting Israel from problems related to diet while virtually saying to non-Israelites, “I don’t care about your diet or if you get sick from what you eat.” 

       The very fact that non-Israelites were given the green light to eat animals that had died of themselves shows these food laws were not to protect health, did not have universal application and applied only to Israel.  It was a sin for an Israelite to eat a dead animal.  It apparently was not a sin for a non-Israelite to do so.  If it was, God was sanctioning Gentile sin.    

       It is quite apparent that the dietary regulations of the Old Covenant were part of the greater body of law having to do with being ceremonially clean before God. These were "holiness laws." Under the Old Covenant, holiness was attained by strict adherence to the regulations seen in the Law of Moses. These laws of clean and unclean were established to facilitate a holy relationship between God and Israel. The dietary regulations of the Old Covenant system were part of these holiness regulations.  Under the New Covenant, holiness before God is not attained through the ceremonial regulations of the Old Covenant but through the sacrifice of Christ. We appear holy before God because of what Christ accomplished on the cross and not because we avoid eating a ham sandwich.  Paul makes this plain in what he wrote to the Colossian Church.

       Colossians 1:21-22: Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation--     

       Some teach that because distinctions between clean and unclean organisms preceded establishment of the Old Covenant, these distinctions are still binding upon Christians today. It is argued that because they predated establishment of the Old Covenant, they would not have been abrogated by transition to the New Covenant. They remain as stand alone regulations.

       Those who teach this also point out that in the New Testament narrative we see evidence for the first century Jewish Christians observing the foods laws.  In the vision given to Peter of the clean and unclean meats, as recorded in Acts 10, we find Peter recoiling at the very though of eating unclean animals.  This vision occurred some ten years after the ascension of Christ. 

       Is it valid to conclude that because distinctions between clean and unclean organisms preceded establishment of the Old Covenant, regulations pertaining to such distinctions are still in force for us today?  Is it valid to conclude that because first century Jewish Christians were adhering to these regulations they must be still valid for us today? Let's answer the last question first.  

       A careful reading of the New Testament narrative shows the entire Jewish Christian community continued to keep the Mosaic regulations in full or in part after the Christ event.  This included the dietary laws.  They had kept these regulations all their lives and even though they had come to recognize and accept Jesus as the promised Messiah, they continued to observe the Mosaic regulations. It wasn't a matter of them only keeping the dietary regulations but keeping the Mosaic regulations in general.  Being weaned from obeying these regulations was a slow and arduous learning process that took many years to accomplish.

       Claiming we must keep the Old Covenant dietary regulations because they preceded establishment of the Old Covenant is a bogus argument.  As already discussed, pre Old Covenant distinctions between clean and unclean animals appear to have been for sacrificial purposes only and not dietary purposes. These were not dietary regulations but sacrificial regulations prior to establishment of the Old Covenant. Remember what God told Noah after the flood. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

       If indeed designations of clean and unclean meats prior to the time of Israel only pertained to what organisms were acceptable and not acceptable for sacrificing, why did God now make this a dietary issue for Israel?  We have already seen how the dietary regulations had to do with Israel being holy before God and being set apart from all other nations. However, there may be more to it.  It is instructive that the various animals and birds approved for dietary consumption are the same animals and birds that were approved for sacrifices. Only animals and birds identified as clean were approved for sacrifices and only animals and birds identified as clean were approved for dietary consumption. These clean creatures were considered holy in the sight of God.  

       Because Israel is seen as a holy nation before God, they were restricted to using only those creatures God identified as holy, both for sacrifices and for diet.  In order to maintain holiness before God, both their sacrifices to God and their diet had to correspond to what God had determined to be acceptable. Sacrifices and diet were virtually tied together. By being restricted to eating only clean animals and birds that were also used for sacrifice, Israel was kept in constant awareness of their special relationship with God. Even their meals would remind them of this special relationship. 

       If it is indeed the case that the dietary regulations were tied to the sacrificial system and Israel was only able to eat meats that could also be used for sacrifices, it should be evident that with the termination of the sacrificial system so also were the dietary regulations terminated.  Since there is no Scriptural evidence that dietary regulations were for health reasons, there is no reason to believe such regulations continued after termination of the sacrificial system and the Old Covenant in general. 

       In Part Two we will examine how dietary issues are addressed in the New Testament.

PART TWO