This chapter gives rules about the animals that are clean and unclean and therefore may be used as food or are prohibited to be used as food. Israel was God’s chosen people. They were not like the rest of the world and God wanted them to stand out. Part of their distinction was in the food they ate or more properly in the food they didn’t eat.
Land animals that couldn’t be used as food were those with cloven hooves or those who chew cud. If an animal had both these characteristics it was considered clean. So, for example cattle which has both the cloven hoof and chews cud could be food, but the camel which doesn’t have a cloven hoof but does chew cud was not clean.
Of water animals the rule was simple only fishes with scales and fins could be eaten. The Lord gave a list of birds to be considered unclean rather than characteristics. Verses 13-19 list them.
“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.”
When it comes to insects, all except those with jointed legs above their feet such as locust and grasshoppers were prohibited. Also forbidden were a list of swarming animals such as rats and mice and lizards and geckos.
God told Aaron and Moses that the animals that were considered unclean should be deemed detestable. Israel should detest or loathe the idea of becoming unclean, like the rest of the world instead of remaining pure like the Lord. Even touching the carcass of an unclean animal or touching an object that had touched such a carcass was unclean. These rules were strict and whoever became unclean would remain so until the day ended at evening. They had to wash the objects or clothing that had become unclean.
God distinguished the clean animals from the unclean. When we look at the list of banned animals we can see many of them live off the dead, many eat carrion or otherwise carry disease with them. But God doesn’t give a reason for their unclean status. He only gave a reason why His children should remain pure. God distinguishes His people from the world as well. Verses 44-45 read,
“For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground.45 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.”
The Law was what separated Israel from the gentiles. Under the New Covenant we are given freedom from the Law and we are set apart because God has made us holy. We are characterized and recognized by our love and pursuit of godliness rather than by our endeavor to keep the law. Jesus had broken the entire law down to two commandments. He told us if we kept those we would keep the heart of the law. Matthew 22:37-40 says,
“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
This was not new. God wanted His children to be set apart from the world. But He never wanted rituals. He wanted a relationship. He wanted to His children to truly be His children and Himself to be their God. Hosea 6:6 says,
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Jesus quoted that scripture to the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7. Israel had become obsessed with the Law instead of the God who gave them the Law. They had left Him out of their religion.
We are supposed to stand out from the world. We are holy! We are royal. We are a peculiar people. In John chapter 13 Jesus gave a new commandment. He says our difference should be obvious. John 13:34-35 reads,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Believer, is it clear that you are not like the world? You have the holy name of Christ and His nature. Are you peculiar? Does the world look at you and think you’re odd for the love you demonstrate? Is your love of God so apparent that you are weird?
We are no longer bound by the law to be holy. We are bound by love, by blood, and by grace to our Father, our Redeemer, and our Comforter. We are clean where we once were unclean. Nothing can make us unclean again. Nothing.