Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 18:15-20; Acts 27:27-44; Psalm 49; Leviticus 10-11
Leviticus 11 gives us the first extensive description of cleanness and uncleanness. The idea is mentioned briefly in Genesis 7 and a few earlier verses in Leviticus, but the next few chapters give much more detail. In Leviticus 10:10, the Lord declares that the Israelites must distinguish between the clean and the unclean. Leviticus 11 gives several ways by which this can be done. Biblical commentators have exerted much effort to understand the reasoning behind these distinctions. Christians have wondered whether these guidelines have any relevance for them, especially since Jesus declared that all foods were clean (Mark 7:1-23; Acts 10:9-16). However, some of the unclean declarations made in the following chapters are troublesome, leading some to reject Leviticus as promoting ancient, unethical prejudices. Understanding cleanness helps us resolve these difficult passages.
Many proposals have been made to explain why some creatures are regarded as clean and others as unclean. Maybe the unclean animals were unsafe to eat, so the prohibition protected people’s health. Some of the unclean animals were part of pagan rituals, so the prohibitions prevented the Israelites from drifting into other religions. The unclean creatures sometimes represented unwanted character traits, such as pigs being viewed as lazy and gluttonous. Some unclean species violated ideal norms, such as sea creatures without fins or scales being abnormal. Many other schemes have been proposed, including one that the clean foods made up God’s own diet in heaven. All of the proposals fit some of the examples, but none explains them all and some are clearly far-fetched and without support.
The problem with all these proposals lies with their overall approach. Searching for a general principle that explains the distinction is a rational, logical approach to the text. But Leviticus was not written to explain why the instructions were given. Rather, it explains things by showing how they fit with similar patterns in other areas of life. We may search for causes and historical origins, but Leviticus gives patterns and analogies. The former approach seeks lines of causal connections, but the latter looks for concentric circles of analogies. Either approach is valid in the right context, but when one is applied in the wrong place, miscommunication occurs.
Leviticus simply proclaims that certain animals, birds, fish and insects are clean and others are unclean. Why the hoof’s shape, chewing the cud, fins, scales or jointed legs make any difference, we are not told. That’s just the way it is. Maybe it was so obvious to the original audience that it did not need to be stated. Regardless, rather than using arguments to challenge and persuade, Leviticus presents a way of life. By doing what was prescribed, meaning was conveyed without words. The daily avoidance of the unclean reminded people of analogous issues in the spiritual realm. It was another way of conveying a comprehensive view of truth, but one that can be difficult for us to grasp clearly.
The author of Leviticus does help us see the bigger pattern. The chapter ends with a reminder that people should keep themselves clean because the Lord is holy. Things are clean or unclean, and also things are holy or unholy. The people were to be holy because God is holy; by analogy, they should be clean because this is what God wants. Living according to his cleanliness instructions reinforced the importance of living holy according to his ways. The Israelites may or may not have understood why the creatures were unclean, but when they avoided something unclean they were reminded of God’s involvement with their lives. They trusted in his provision for them, just as he took care of them when coming out of Egypt.
We are not called on to avoid unclean food, but we are to be holy because God is holy. We are to walk worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1) and not to live as others do in the futility of their thinking (Ephesians 4:17). Our lives should reveal patterns that show we trust God. This may be in refusing to conform to the world’s pattern of living, or in living out godly commitments. Part of this involves following clear biblical guidance where it is given, even if we don’t understand exactly why it is this way. In other areas, it involves developing the maturity and faith to be able to discern what is good and right (Hebrews 5:14). As we live a life committed to such patterns, we will come to understand them better, to love the ways of the Lord, and to walk more closely with Him.