Clean/Unclean Restrictions

Picture of ceremonially clean foods prepared for a Jewish meal

Today’s Bible reading deals with clean/unclean restrictions God places on His people. God gives His people a wide range of food and behavior choices, but some animals and situations are considered “unclean”.

Some of the reasons for the restrictions are to protect people’s health, and others are not. For example, some of the animals listed are unclean based on their life patterns (eg, birds of prey are unclean because they eat other animals). Some sea creatures are “bottom feeders”. Mildew makes a house unclean and unsafe to live in.

With questionable hygienic conditions at the time, most of the clean/unclean restrictions make a lot of sense to us now with our knowledge of modern science. Last year, I preached a sermon based on today’s readings about the Covid-19 Pandemic and how the Bible addressed the issue of protecting people through a quarantine process before modern science.

But not all of the clean/unclean restrictions are based on hygiene. So why would God declare some animals clean and others clean? The ESV Study Bible may help us here.

“While the rationale of the classifications is still debated, the purpose of these laws is clear. In brief, they were to help Israel—as the Lord’s holy people—to make distinctions between ritual cleanness and ritual uncleanness (vv. 46–47). Significantly, making these distinctions in the ritual realm would no doubt serve as a constant reminder to the people of their need for making the parallel distinctions in the moral realm as well. Further, adherence to these food laws expresses Israel’s devotion to the Lord: just as he separated the Israelites from the other nations, so they must separate clean from unclean foods (20:24–26).”[1]

In other words, in addition to the issues of hygiene, God intends to use the clean/unclean ritual system to remind His people that they are to be different from the other nations. Related to Wednesday’s reading, God’s people are to be separate, because God is separate (the meaning of “holy”)

[1] Crossway Bibles. The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008. Print.


As I typed this during the 2021 “snowmageddon”, large portions (hundreds of thousands) of our city were under a Boil Notice. Our water treatment plant lost electric power during and our water tower drained empty. It took a while for the power to be restored and then for the treatment plant’s equipment to be thawed enough to move water through the large pipes and into thousands of homes.

Add to that, we had several water main breaks in the area that created other issues. All of this means that we had serious bacterial contaminants in the otherwise sterile water system. At home, we had to be careful with our dishwashing and handwashing. Thanks to the Pandemic in 2020, we had plenty of hand sanitizer available! And we re-washed dishes after the Boil Notice was lifted… just to be sure.

Under the New Covenant, God’s people are not restricted on foods. Peter had a vision in Acts 10 where God revealed to him that he was not restricted to the Jewish dietary laws. His preaching to Cornelius and his family, and their conversion leads to a serious question on how the Jewish Law relates to Gentile Believers. Acts 15 records a meeting of church leaders which concluded with a definitive statement that someone doesn’t have to be a good Jew to be a good Christian.

* Chapters covered in today’s reading:
– Leviticus 11
– Leviticus 12
– Leviticus 13
– Leviticus 14

This devotional was originally published on February 19, 2021.

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