What does the Bible have to say about the Dietary Law concerning Unclean Animals vs. Clean Animals?
Leviticus 11 gives specific instructions from YHWH “concerning animals, birds, every living thing that moves in the water and every creature that moves about the ground.” He gave them to Moses and Aaron so that they might tell the Israelites what they may or may not eat.
Deuteronomy 14:3-21 provides a listing again of what the children of YHWH are permitted to eat and what they are told not to eat.
In both of these accounts they are reminded that they are a people holy to YHWH their God.
What the Bible doesn’t have to say about it…
The following passages are often used to say that Jesus declared unclean animals clean for consumption, however when we look at the context of the passages, we see he is not talking about the Law of God but rather a tradition of man.
Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23 both speak of a time when some Pharisees and teachers of the law approached Jesus asking, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat?”
Jesus responds by saying, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” He goes on to speak about two commands given in the Law of Moses and how these religious leaders teach against them. He says, “You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!”
He proceeds to quote Isaiah, claiming the prophecy was speaking of them. Then he called the crowd around him and said, “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean’, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean’.”
Evidently the teaching of these religious leaders indicated that if they don’t wash their hands (or cups/dishes) before eating, then they will be “defiled” or made “unclean”. Jesus set the record straight. It’s not what goes in the mouth, but what comes out of the mouth, which comes from the heart, that makes a man “unclean”.
Another thing — why would Jesus chew out the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law for nullifying the word of God for the sake of their tradition and then turn around and nullify the word of God with his own teaching? He wouldn’t.
The Bottom Line: Jesus kept the dietary law and never declared unclean animals as outlined in Leviticus 11 & Deuteronomy 14 clean for consumption.
The following passage is often used to say that Peter’s vision from God declared unclean animals clean for consumption, however when we look at the context of the passage, we see the Law of God was being used to catch Peter’s attention in order to point out a fallacy in a tradition of man.
Acts 10:9-29a, 34-35 speak of a vision that Peter had. He saw a sheet being lowered down from heaven with unclean animals on it and a voice told him to “Kill and eat”…this happened three times. Peter was perplexed because he never ate an unclean animal…he knew the will of the Father…it is expressly stated in the Law of Moses. He told the Lord this after hearing the command to kill and eat. The voice replied, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
After a little bit some men came looking for Peter and the Spirit of God told him to go with the men. By the time he went with the men, he had figured out the interpretation of the vision. Verses 27-28 say,
“Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him…”
When Peter said, “it is against our law” he was talking about “Jewish law” not the Law of God. He said it was against the law “for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him“. This is not found anywhere in the Law of God, but rather it was a tradition of man.
Then Peter gives the interpretation of the vision saying, “…But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” He said “man” not “meat”. God used His own law about unclean animals to grab Peter’s attention to teach him not to follow a tradition of man. The tradition taught that the Gentiles were “unclean” or impure, but God did not want Peter to call the Gentiles unclean.
The Bottom Line: Peter kept the dietary law and while unclean animals was the subject of this vision, the lesson drawn from Peter’s vision had nothing to do with the dietary law of God.
Council at Jerusalem
The following passage is often used to say that the Apostles decided that the dietary law concerning unclean/clean animals does not apply to the Gentiles, however when we look at the context of the passage, we see that the apostles recognized that the Gentiles would eventually learn about all of the Law of God when they attended synagogue on the weekly Sabbath.
In Acts 15:19-21, we see there was a concern for the Gentiles feeling overwhelmed as they turned to God, so the Apostles decided to write a letter stating four particular items they needed to stay away from.
Many believe that the Gentile-turned believers are being instructed to only obey these four things:
- abstain from food polluted by idols,
- abstain from sexual immorality,
- abstain from the meat of strangled animals and
- abstain from blood.
However, the very next verse, verse 21 says,
“For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
I believe in saying this verse there was an expectation that the Gentiles would learn more about the Law of Moses as they attended synagogue each week on the Sabbath. They would not only learn more about the items they were specifically writing to them about, but also about the rest of the Law of God.
The Bottom Line: Just because “unclean animals” was not listed in the four things to abstain from in the Apostles’ letter, it doesn’t mean Gentile-turned believers are exempt from staying away from the unclean animals as well. There were a whole lot of other things that were not mentioned in those four things (ie having other gods before YHWH, bowing down to sacred cows [so to speak], taking the name of YHWH in vain, etc.). Are we to believe those are all acceptable to the God-fearing Greek? I don’t think so.
Romans 14 is one of the most often used passages written by Paul that seems to be giving permission to eat unclean animals, however again, when we look at the context, we see that Paul is not talking about this dietary law at all.
The very first verse tells us,
“Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters.”
The issue at hand pertains to passing judgment on “disputable matters”. Is eating pork or ham disputable according to God’s Law? I think it’s pretty clear those meats come from a pig, and God forbids his children to eat pigs. It’s clearly stated in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, is it not?
The next verse says,
“One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.”
The controversy is between meat-and-vegetable-eating folks and vegetable-only-eating folks. It is not between clean and unclean animals.
These verses lay the foundation for the context of this whole passage (as it pertains to food). People were being judged over disputable matters: eating or not eating meat, and I believe the reference is to food sacrificed to idols. 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 seems to give us more insight into this matter.
1 Corinthians 8:4 says,
“So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.”
Verse 7-8 continues,
“But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.”
I encourage you to re-read Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 together and see what you think. Either way, God’s dietary law as it pertains to eating unclean animals identified as “detestable” by God is not a “disputable matter“.
The Bottom Line: Paul kept the dietary law and while he was accused several times of teaching against Moses, they were clearly false accusations (if we are to believe the author of Acts). Paul in fact encouraged the keeping of God’s law in earlier passages in Romans; not for justification (salvation) purposes [as those in the circumcision group would have you do], but rather for righteousness’ sake that leads to holiness. Paul teaches obedience to the law as a result of accepting God’s gift of righteousness through His son (by faith)…we die to our sinful nature and no longer disobey God’s Law, we come alive in the Spirit and start obeying God’s Law. (See what I wrote on Understanding Righteousness for a more detailed look at this.)
While I certainly agree there seems to be passages in the Bible that say one thing contradicting other passages that say something else and this causes a lot of confusion, especially when we enter the book part way through it. But I don’t believe God contradicts himself…it is our understanding of His Word that is flawed, not the Word of God itself.
Things make much more sense when we start from the beginning of the book and read it as one continuous story. Plus when we don’t understand something, we need to dig deeper into the Word asking God to teach us and stop turning so quickly to our Biblical commentaries.
Unfortunately, many in Christian circles (and even outside of them) have approached the New Testament from the vantage point that Jesus and/or the apostles somehow changed the Law of God, or at least changed it for some select group of people, but this denotes that God’s Word is changeable. Though this approach may help explain a lot of the seeming contradictions, it doesn’t explain all of them.
I believe if we approach the New Testament from the vantage point that the Law of God has not changed, and that Jesus did not put any of it away when he walked this earth, when he died on the cross, or when he ascended into heaven (like he said he didn’t come to do in Matthew 5:17), then all of the seeming contradictions go away.
If something doesn’t seem to fit, we need to ask God to help us understand. We need to heed the full counsel of God. Sometimes that means letting go of something we once thought was true. One thing we don’t do: we don’t alter the Word of God to fit into the doctrines of men.
NOTE: Please understand this post describes my understanding of the Scripture at the time of this writing. If you see there is something I am missing in my understanding, please feel free to share it with me in love. I will be glad to hear other perspectives as I seek to remain teachable.