The Dietary Law


Leviticus 11


When you step forward to buy groceries for someone, you should know what they like.  If you are buying groceries for a collaborative of people and you do not know who will wind up with what, you should get only safe foods – foods nearly universally enjoyed.  Snails and ostrich meat should be avoided.  I suppose there are exceptions:  such as a pot luck where there is expected to be an abundance of food that cannot possibly be eaten.  But we have advanced as a culture to the point where a peanut-based recipe requires a warning, lactose intolerance means that milk must be screened, sugar content, hidden spices, cholesterol, the list goes on.  Were the circumstance of life such that there was just enough to feed everyone, we might be forced to regulate what should be brought to avoid a situation where the last person served would be left with food he couldn’t eat.


There are as many opinions about the purpose of the Leviticus 11’s teaching of clean food and unclean food as there are people who have formed an opinion.  Much of the opinions can be eliminated quickly.  The context is holiness – the status of being set apart, different, or special. 


Israel had to observe two dimensions of holiness.  First, they were required to keep the Priests separated from the affairs of the world.  The common need for food required that the Priests either 1) Work a day job and be a part-time Priest, 2) Grow and raise his own food, which again would demand attention, or 3) Command that the tribes supply the Priests with food.  For that reason the sacrifices served double duty.  They supplied purification from sin as they were offered, and groceries for the Priests.  As it is God’s habit to supply the exact amount needed, God assured the Priests that the last one in line would not have to choose between skunk and sea gull.  There would be something good remaining for even the last Priest in line.


Bulls, goats, rams, turtledoves and pigeons were listed, probably as examples.  The complete list of possible animals for sacrifice was longer.  For animals not listed, God provided two criteria: “Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat (Leviticus 11:3).”


Most of the forbidden (unclean) animals were wild.  Nobody owned a parliament of owls, or a clan of badgers.  If anyone brought a badger as a sacrifice, he most likely trapped that badger the night before the offering.  He was not willing to sacrifice from his own possessions.


Leviticus is a unified document with a single-topic flow.  Each subtopic leads into the next.  Leviticus 1-7 sheds light on Leviticus 11.  The Hebrew dietary law was a means to set apart the Priests for use by God, without having to supply for themselves the basic necessities of life.    The five categories of sacrifice in Leviticus 1-5 provided a balanced eating regimen that shielded the Priests from having to do profane work for their food.  It becomes obvious that if worshippers were permitted to bring in sickly or possibly rabid animals for sacrifice that this would not serve any value to the Priestly dinners.


We cannot be positive that we can know why the dietary law applied to all Hebrews.  I can only pass along my favorite reasoning.  Just as God wanted the Priests to be set apart from the work force, He likewise wanted the nation of Israel to be set apart from other cultures of the world.  Even in our own culture, the easiest way to keep two families from getting cozy with each other is to arrange that they cannot share a common meal.  By imposing the Priestly diet on all of Israel, it became difficult for a Hebrew family to intermingle with the nations.


Almost all of the animals cited as unclean do not appear on dinner tables today either.  We don’t eat skunk meat – not by biblical command, for God released us from the dietary law in Acts 10:15, “What God has blessed, do not call profane.”  We don’t eat skunk meat today because nobody has any appetite for it.  If anyone defies common sensibilities and wishes to indulge, it will not be the Church that will stop him.  The reason why we have no dietary restrictions from God today is because we no longer have consecrated Levitical priests who depend on us for groceries.  Jesus is our Priest forever (Psalm 110:4).       


There are two foods that Leviticus 11 cites as profane that are widely eaten in modern-day Christian communities: Pork and shell fish.  We should not question why these foods are permitted today.  If we question, the question should focus on why God forbade them to Israel.  Personally, I like a bacon cheeseburger now and then.  Yet God deprived the Old Testament nation of Israel the pleasure I receive from it.


I really don’t know why.  There is an excess of guesswork, but none of them sound right so far.  Perhaps the Israelites of the day knew why, but perhaps they didn’t.  When you purchase someone else’s groceries, it is wise to purchase only universally enjoyed food items.  Snails is not universally enjoyed, and neither are oysters.  But even in the unlikely event that this has something to do with why snails and oysters make unacceptable sacrifice, this doesn’t explain why a person in Israel couldn’t eat them in private.


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