1 And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. 3 Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. 4 Nevertheless, among those that chew the cud or part the hoof, you shall not eat these: The camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. 5 And the rock badger, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. 6 And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. 7 And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. 8 You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.
9 “These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. 10 But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. 11 You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses. 12 Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you.
13 “And these you shall detest among the birds; they shall not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, 14 the kite, the falcon of any kind, 15 every raven of any kind, 16 the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind, 17 the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, 18 the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture, 19 the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.
20 “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you. 21 Yet among the winged insects that go on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs above their feet, with which to hop on the ground. 22 Of them you may eat: the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind. 23 But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you. – Leviticus 11:1-23 ESV
To make sense of this lengthy and somewhat confusing chapter full of dietary laws and odd food prohibitions, you have to begin at the end. In the closing verses, Moses records God’s explanation for these strange-sounding rules surrounding food consumption.
“I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy…For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:44, 45 ESV
This lengthy list of food restrictions and dietary guidelines was intended to help the Israelites maintain their relationship with God. As His chosen people, they were expected to live according to a different set of standards that would help differentiate them from all the other nations.
“We will discover that the food laws achieved two purposes for Israel. First, the dietary laws were tied to creation, indicating that the taking of created life was the Creator’s province and prerogative. Second, the food laws distinguished Israel from the neighboring nations and made Israel uniquely the Lord’s possession. By resisting the foods of the nations, the Israelites had a built-in safeguard against assimilation and taking up the religious life of pagan cultures.” – Kenneth A. Matthews, Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People
God had given Aaron and his two sons strict orders to preserve the moral well-being of the people of Israel by helping them learn the difference between those things God considered to be holy or sacred and everything else.
“You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.” – Leviticus 10:10-11 ESV
The Israelites had been set apart by God and deemed His treasured possession. As such, they were intended to live distinctively different lives from all the nations around them. And this distinctiveness was to cover every area of their lives, including the food they ate. The Israelites were not free to live according to their own set of standards, eating whatever they wanted, associating with whomever they chose, or adopting the customs of their pagan neighbors. The world was not their playground; instead, it was a classroom in which they were to learn to distinguish between the holy and the common.
For the Israelites, there was to be no sacred/secular split in their own lives. Everything about their lives was to be holy – at all times. Their set-apart status was not reserved for the Sabbath alone but was to be a permanent and pervasive part of their entire lives. God expected holiness 24-7 and 365 days a year. There was no holiday from holiness. At no point were the people of God to let down their guard or take a break from living as His chosen people.
Since the consumption of food is a vital part of human existence, God provided His laws concerning what the Israelites could and couldn’t eat. These non-negotiable dietary rules and restrictions would become increasingly more important the closer the Israelites got to the land of Canaan. In the wilderness of Sinai, the menu options were somewhat limited, but the closer they got to civilization, the opportunities to expand their choice of cuisine would expand greatly. That’s why God laid down the law before they left Sinai.
What is fascinating to consider is that God was moving His focus from His house, the Tabernacle, to the homes of the people of Israel. He had communicated His laws concerning the consumption of sacred meals within the tent of meeting. But now, he was letting the Israelites know that His concern for holy living extended well beyond the walls of the sacred compound. Even in their homes, they were to practice a practical form of holiness that included the very foods they ate.
God began His message on a positive note, outlining His list of animals that were on His pre-approved menu.
“Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth.” – Leviticus 11:2 ESV
But rather than providing a detailed accounting of all sanctioned animals, God disclosed a simple litmus test for determining which creatures were free to eat.
“Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat.” – Leviticus 11:3 ESV
Then He followed this information with a few exceptions that might have left the Israelites confused and open to violating His command. Certain creatures that met the criteria were still off-limits for other reasons, and God made sure His people knew the difference. God specifically mentions such creatures as the camel, the rock badger, the hare, and the pig. These animals were to be considered “unclean” and completely off-limits to the Israelites.
“You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.” – Leviticus 11:8 ESV
Throughout this chapter, God deals with three specific lists of creatures: Those that live on the land, those that inhabit the sky, and those that crawl on the ground. Each is covered by a separate set of laws and standards. The details concerning each reveal the seriousness of God’s call to holiness. He left nothing to the imagination. Whether a creature walked, crawled, or flew in the sky, it was covered by God’s dietary laws. And each of these creatures fell into one of three categories: Clean, unclean, and detestable. And their placement in those categories was the purview of God, not man. The Israelites were not free to create their own menu of culinary delights.
It’s interesting to note that when God placed the first man in the Garden of Eden, He instituted certain dietary restrictions.
“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” – Genesis 9:3-4 ESV
Then after the flood, God provided Noah and his family with a new set of regulations concerning food.
“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man.” – Genesis 9:3-5 ESV
Centuries later, God alters the playbook again, providing His chosen people with a distinctively different set of laws designed to regulate their consumption of food. No longer would “every living thing” be available for them to eat. The descendants of Noah and his sons grew up consuming just about anything they could get their hands on, including the blood of animals they slaughtered. For their pagan descendants, their menu includes everything from animals, birds, insects, fish, and reptiles. There were no limitations. But for God’s chosen people, the options were drastically narrowed down so that their lives might reflect their unique relationship with the God of all creation.
There were certain sea creatures and birds that were off-limits to God’s people. Just because God created it didn’t mean that God sanctioned it for consumption.
“You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses.” – Leviticus 11:11 ESV
God provides no explanation or rationale for His restrictions. He simply deems these creatures as detestable, a Hebrew word (šeqeṣ) that conveyed a sense of repulsiveness and inappropriateness. God wanted His people to view these things as abominable and unclean. The very thought of consuming them should be revolting.
When it came to insects, which most modern Westerners find repulsive, God allowed the eating of certain species, such as “the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind” (Leviticus 11:22 ESV). According to the gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist subsisted on a diet of “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4 ESV). This prophet of God adhered to God’s law, living in the Judean wilderness by consuming only those insects that were considered to be clean and acceptable.
While much has been written about the health benefits of this restrictive diet plan implemented by God, that does not seem to be its primary purpose. God’s decrees are never arbitrary or haphazard. There is always a method to His seeming madness. While there were probably secondary benefits that came from adhering to God’s divine diet plan, the real point was to help the Israelites understand the difference between the holy and the common, the clean and unclean. And this differentiation was not left up to mankind. By setting aside the descendants of Abraham as His treasured possession, God was establishing them as the model for godly living. Their lives were to be regulated by His laws and not their own. Everything about their daily existence was to reflect their one-of-kind relationship with Him – from how they worshiped and where they lived to what they ate and how they related to the world around them.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.