Dietary Law: Unclean vs Clean Animals

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…

Jesus

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”.

The Law of God that speaks against eating unclean animals, in no way teaches that if you eat the unclean animals, you are made unclean. Does it? Go back and read Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.

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.

Peter

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:

  1. abstain from food polluted by idols,
  2. abstain from sexual immorality,
  3. abstain from the meat of strangled animals and
  4. 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.

This is consistent with the fact that if we keep reading in Acts, we find both Jews and God-fearing Greeks attending synagogue together. (Acts 17:17 and 18:4)

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.

Paul

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.)

IN CONCLUSION

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.

9 thoughts on “Dietary Law: Unclean vs Clean Animals

  1. Doug Johnson

    I bring you a little insight on just what the New Testament includes.

    “But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised:” [Galatians 2:3]

    This verse unlocks the book of Titus. It shows how the entire book was written by a non-Jew, a Greek. He was not a Jewish Christian. As a Greek, he was not “compelled to be circumcised”.

    Furthermore, Paul admonishes him to establish elders in every community. This is significant because he is NOT a Jew.

    I suggest that you read the book of Galatians and stop and consider Galatians 2:3.

    Reply
  2. Carrie Wigal Post author

    Thanks for your comment, Dad. I’ve been thinking about the whole “circumcision” thing for a while now. You brought up something that I believe is significant in the circumcision discussion. The idea of becoming circumcised (in the context of Paul’s writings) is more about becoming a Jew than it is about obeying the Law of God.

    Those in the “circumcision group” were promoting Judaism, not just obedience to the law of God. Because when we read Romans, clearly Paul promotes obedience to the law of God in response to God’s gift of righteousness.

    Titus was not a Jewish believer, but Timothy was. Yet, Paul gave the same set of instructions concerning establishing leaders in the assembly. Hmm…I’m going to have to study those letters more. I’ll probably start another post on circumcision, so we can discuss that there, and leave this post open to discuss the dietary law.

    Thanks again, Dad for your comment.

    And yes, Amber, I agree…when we look at the passages regarding food in it’s proper context, it sheds a different light than what we’ve heard. Certainly worth thinking about, I believe.

    Reply
  3. Doug Johnson

    I further suggest that anyone wishing to comment should do so in the public arena rather than privately.

    This means you need to post your comments online or forever “hold your peace”, ie, you lose your opportunity to complain.

    Reply
  4. Michael Didier

    This is a well written article Carrie!

    So many folks say that they believe that YHVH (the LORD) does not change and that his word endures forever; but they do not live it. Yeshua (Jesus), Paul, Peter, James, Titus, John and Jude all taught Moses and the Prophets. Anyone who teaches contrary to them will be found to be a liar.

    Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, Lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar. (Pro 30:5-6)

    To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isa 8:20)

    Keep teaching the truth – it only, will remain forever. Nothing that we think the New Testament is saying can trump Moses and the Prophets; if we think it does, we are not very good Bereans.

    Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (Act 17:10-11)

    As to your discussion above concerning circumcision we all have many false images in our minds that need to be toppled. The Jews believed that a new convert must be circumcised at conversion; but YHVH has no such requirement. You are absolutely correct Carrie, Acts 15 was setting the minimum requirements for a new convert. Because breaking YHVH’s ways concerning any of those four things, including the keeping of the weekly Sabbath (which was not an issue) got the new convert kicked out of Israel just as he was joining Himself to them.

    I spend much time teach this issue and much more in my video called “Baptism – A New Beginning” which can be found here. http://weareisrael.wordpress.com/born-again-series/part-4-baptism-a-new-beginning/

    Keep up the good work sis! Those family members are tough and don’t like us to deviate from what we have always believed. But Jeremiah, concern these last days says, “O LORD, my strength and my fortress, My refuge in the day of affliction, The Gentiles shall come to You from the ends of the earth and say, “Surely our fathers have inherited lies, worthlessness and unprofitable things.” (Jer 16:19)

    Keep pressing for the truth, for it only endures forever.

    The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever. (Psa 119:160)

    Reply
  5. Faith Stuart

    “Keep up the good work sis! Those family members are tough and don’t like us to deviate from what we have always believed. But Jeremiah, concern these last days says, “O LORD, my strength and my fortress, My refuge in the day of affliction, The Gentiles shall come to You from the ends of the earth and say, “Surely our fathers have inherited lies, worthlessness and unprofitable things.” (Jer 16:19)”

    Who is Michael Didier?

    Reply
  6. Jeff

    “But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised:” [Galatians 2:3]

    Compelled is a BIG word here. He was not forced to be circumcised. This may be reading into it, but does this say he wasn’t circumcised? No, it says he wasn’t compelled….perhaps he did so willingly. It seems Paul is addressing a familiar lie, that in order to receive salvation one needs to be circumcised.
    Look at Abraham. He went more than twenty years walking with God before he was told to do so. The circumcision of the flesh is second to the circumcision of the heart, always has been. It is an outward sign of the inward condition, such is all obedience.

    Peace,

    Jeff

    Reply
  7. Carrie Wigal Post author

    Hey Jeff, glad you stopped by. I was just thinking about all of the circumcision references in Paul’s letters earlier today. I can’t help but think most of them refer to becoming a prosthelyte…actually converting to Judaism.

    From what I can tell, circumcision of the flesh in the OT is commanded of all native-born descendants of Abraham…but then as far as the law given to Moses, I can only find the commandment to do so was for baby boys 8 days old and it was a requirement for partaking in the Passover meal.

    It seems to me the NT references to circumcision in most cases have to do with it being a rite of passage into Judaism. I believe Paul wasn’t encouraging gentiles to not be simply circumcised, but rather to not convert to Judaism. Being a Jew is not a requirement for salvation and redemption. However, being circumcised of the flesh is required to partake of the Passover Lamb. Circumcision is a sign of covenant. Everyone who entered the promised land had to be circumcised before they could partake of the Passover. I imagine that was a mixed multitude…just as it was a mixed multitude that was led out of Egypt. I agree, Jeff…it is an outward sign of the inward condition. I’m still open to hearing other thoughts about it, though. I’m not totally firm in my understanding of the reasons for physical circumcision and who it applies to.

    Reply

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