Meditations in the Law : No.34 : A Question of Cleanliness
Lev 11:1,2, 44-47 The 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:….. I 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.’
I am sure that sometimes when we look at various of these laws that God gave to Moses, we look at them and wonder whatever relevance they have and fail to put them in the context of the day in which they were given. One thing I have seen over the years is that God’s revelation of Himself to His people has been gradual and therefore what He says in the Law is strictly limited to what they could cope with in that day. There are no great explanations (which would have gone over their heads), just simple instructions. Sometimes those instructions find explanation later in the Bible; sometimes they don’t. The ones we are going to briefly look at now don’t and so we will be left, in a measure, to speculate on a number of issues.
We have in the previous meditation briefly considered the question of clean and unclean foods. (We only did a brief introduction to the Offerings.) Because the whole of chapter 11 of Leviticus is given over to this subject, we need to note it in outline at least for it was a very real and significant part of the Law. In fact it was clearly still being observed in Jesus’ day and Peter, even though being just a common fisherman in background, was very much aware of it: “He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:11-15) In a very dramatic way the Lord was telling Peter that it was all right to cross boundaries into the Gentile world, but up until then, these laws of cleanliness were clearly being observed.
Now perhaps to start to understand this more clearly we need to go back to the beginning of the Sinai experience: “And the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” (Ex 19:10,11). In modern society today, those who might be invited to meet either the President of the United States in the White House, or perhaps the Queen at Buckingham Palace, are given strict rules of protocol, as to how they should dress and how they should act. These rules essentially say, respect this very senior person you are going to meet; recognise and honour the status of the role that is theirs. But the other side of that, is that you have just become a special person, one of the few granted an audience.
Now there is an element of this when Israel come to meet God. The instructions they receive tell them something of God and something about who they are becoming. He is the Holy One, the Lord of all things, and they are about to become His special people. Perhaps it is to help them constantly remember this that they are given various laws that separate them out from the rest of the world. That may be the first reason that they are given these rules about what food they may eat and what they may not eat. There will be constant reminders as to who they are – a people called by God into relationship with Him to be a light to the rest of the world. This covers animals on the land (11:1-8) sea creatures (11:9-12), birds of the air (11:13-19), insects (11:20-23), dead creatures (11:24-28) etc.
Now some commentators suggest that another reason for these distinctions is that some of these forbidden creatures were those used by pagan nations for worship, but that is not very clear. Perhaps the strongest reason, and a number have written on this, is to do with hygiene, as we noted in the previous meditation, that the forbidden creatures were the most likely to carry infection and this was one way that the Lord was protecting His people. I suspect that there is likely to be a combination of these reasons, but for the moment the Lord has not made it clear. We’ll have to wait until we get to heaven to find the answers.
Today our distinction, if we are Christians, lies mainly in the fact that we are now Spirit-indwelt and He is the One who now makes us distinct by His presence within us. No longer are these food-hygiene laws applicable for today we live in a very hygiene conscious age and anyone who has been on a hygiene course knows the rules and knows why the rules exist, which modern laws apply to protect us. We may not understand the detail when it comes to the laws in this chapter and so it is one of those parts of Scripture where we have to trust that the Lord knows better than we do.
In all the laws that we considered in Exodus, there were very clear, common sense reasons for every law. When we moved into the ceremonial, sacrificial laws of Leviticus, we moved into a completely new area of understanding about the sinfulness of mankind, and about the Lord’s understanding of us, and His provision for the people to be brought back into relationship with Him after a failure. Now in this area of the Law we must trust that, again, there are good reasons for each rule and they are designed to protect and bless God’s people. Let’s maintain a teachable spirit.