Why Was Israel to Eat and Touch Only Clean Animals?


Leviticus 11 gives a detailed list of animals that are clean and unclean. There are three components to creation – the earth, the sea, and the sky. The chapter details the animals in each part of creation that are clean and unclean. The clean animals can be eaten and touched, but the unclean animals are not to be eaten and not to be touched.

The whole chapter is summarized in the last two verses. Leviticus 11:46-47 says, “This is the law about beast and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms on the ground, to make distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten.”


Romans 15:4 says, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

So, everything written in Leviticus is for our instruction. Through endurance and the encouragement of what is written in Leviticus 11 we are to get hope.

How do the laws regarding what animals are okay to eat (the clean animals) and what are animals are not okay to eat (the unclean animals) give me hope? I’m supposed to draw endurance and encouragement through these seemingly arbitrary laws?

Paul says they were written for our learning. What am I supposed to learn?

Am I supposed to learn that God gave Israel these commands so that they would be healthier than the nations around them? Even though they did not have the science to understand these things, God supernaturally gave them these laws so they would be without disease? Is that what I am supposed to learn? Because I have actually heard that preached as the point of Leviticus 11. How does that give me hope today?

Am I supposed to learn to follow a very strict diet? Certain foods are okay for me and others are not? Many religions to still practice exactly these kinds of diets. How does that help me endure and encourage me?


In John 5, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath and even called God his own Father, making himself equal with God. For this reason the Jews wanted to kill him. So, Jesus goes on a long teaching about his authority and the witnesses to who he is.

In John 5:39-40, Jesus says, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

The Jews searched the scriptures. They poured through Leviticus 11. They fastidiously held to the laws about which animals were clean and which were unclean, what was okay to eat and what was not okay to eat. By searching the scriptures and obeying the commands of which animals they could eat and touch and which animals they could not eat and touch, the Jews thought they would have eternal life.

Jesus said no to that way of thinking and reading the scripture.

Let me repeat that.

Jesus said no to that way of thinking and reading the scripture.

However, Jesus did say that the scriptures, what was written, Leviticus 11, bear witness to him. Leviticus 11 teaches us about Jesus. But, only if what we read causes us to go to Jesus. Jesus says come to me for eternal life. Leviticus 11 is to point us to Jesus so that we go to him and receive eternal life. If we refuse to let the scriptures, Leviticus 11, point us to Jesus and we refuse to go to him, then we will not have eternal life. We will be stuck in dead letters written in stone that have the ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3).


Leviticus 11 was written so that we would learn to set our minds on Jesus.

How so?

Leviticus 11 talks about foods that make us clean and unclean. There are foods that defile and foods that do not defile us.

Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 15:10-11, 16-20.

“And he called the people to him and said to them, ‘Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.’…And he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

Jesus says what you eat and what you touch doesn’t make you clean or unclean. The Jews and the disciples did not understand this because they knew Leviticus 11 and the rules for what foods were clean and unclean and they thought following those rules would give them eternal life. They were trying to get life from dead letters.

Jesus says it is not the external that defiles you but the internal. “For what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts.”

This is precisely Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. You have heard it said do not murder. But, Jesus says do not hate. You have heard it said do not commit adultery. But, Jesus says do not lust.

How do these evil thoughts get into our hearts and minds?

Through our eyes and ears. The eyes and ears are the gateway to our hearts and minds. The eyes and ears take in thoughts and ideas. But, unlike food, which enters the stomach and passes through the body, thoughts and ideas enter our hearts and minds and get stuck there. As unclean thoughts and ideas build up in our minds they come out of our mouth and defile us, make us unclean. The buildup of these unclean thoughts produce murder, theft, adultery, sexual immorality, covetousness, etc.

This is exactly what Jesus says in Matthew 6:22-23. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

The eye is the gateway to our mind. Jesus says we want our eye to be healthy so that our body will be full of light. The Greek word for healthy actually means single. Jesus is saying if our eye has a single focus then our whole body will be full of light. But, our eye can also be bad. In context, we understand this to mean that our eye can wander or roam. It’s possible for our way not to have a single focus but take in all sorts of things. If our eye is bad, then our whole body will be full of darkness. And how great is that darkness!

Jesus goes on to tell us not to worry about food and clothing – the things of this world. We are not to be anxious about them. We are not to think about food and clothing – the things of this world. We are to trust that God will provide us what we need.

However, in Matthew 6:33, Jesus says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” The Greek word first doesn’t mean do this first and this second and this third. The Greek word first here means make seeking the kingdom the principle thing you do. It should be what your life is about. In other words, your eye should have a single focus of seeking the kingdom of God. Then your whole body will be full of light.

Therefore our whole focus should be on Jesus. He is clean. Everything else is unclean. Jesus is righteous. No one else, not one, is righteous.


Because it is what comes out of our hearts that makes us unclean, scripture tells us to guard our hearts. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” We have to be vigilant in guarding our hearts. We can’t be haphazard in this. We must be focused intently on guarding our hearts.

How do we do this?

By guarding our eyes and ears.

Psalm 119:37 says, “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.” Look at clean things not unclean things.

Proverbs 4:25 says, “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.” There’s that single focus of the eye again.

Job 31:1 says, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” Be strict with yourself in what you are allowed to look at.

Proverbs 2:1-2 says, “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding.”

Proverbs 4:20 says, “My son, be attentive to my words, and incline your ear to my sayings.”

Proverbs 5:1 says, “My son, be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding.”

Proverbs 22:17 says, “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge.”

Proverbs 23:12 says, “Apply your heart to instruction and you ear to words of knowledge.”

God says, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” Jesus says that his sheep know his voice. Sheep only respond to the voice of their shepherd.

What we look at and what we listen to is very, very important. This cannot be stressed enough. What we look at and listen to gets stored in our hearts and minds. What we look at and what we listen to will either make us clean or unclean, pure or defiled, holy or unholy.


Leviticus 11:41-45 says, “Every swarming thing that swarms on the ground is detestable; it shall not be eaten. Whatever goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet, any swarming things that swarm on the ground, you shall not eat, for they are detestable. You shall not make yourselves detestable with any swarming thing that swarms, and you shall not defile yourselves with them, and become unclean through them. 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. 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.”

Notice what is not to be eaten, what makes you unclean. Anything that moves on the ground. Eating earthly things will make you unclean. Eating earthly things will make you detestable. Eating earthly things will defile you. If we let into our eyes and ears earthly thoughts and ideas, then we will become unclean, full of darkness, detestable, unholy.

Instead of thinking on earthly things we are to think about the things above.

Colossians 3:1-2 says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Eat things that are above, things that are clean. Don’t eat things that move on the ground, things that are unclean and detestable.

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” There is only one thing, rather one person, that fits the description Paul gives – Jesus Christ! We are to think about at all times. We are to meditate on him day and night. We are to feed on him. Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Jesus is the true bread from heaven.

The clean and unclean things are not foods, animals, or people. When read scripture through the lens of Jesus, we understand that the clean and unclean things of Leviticus 11 are thoughts, ideas, arguments, opinions. Therefore, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10:3-6, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when you obedience is complete.” The war is internal not external. The war is against ideas and thoughts and strongholds in the mind, not flesh and blood.

So, what do we learn from Leviticus 11?

Eat what is clean. Eat Jesus. Set your mind on him and him alone.

Then your whole body will be full of light.

Then you will be holy as God is holy.

Now we see the hope that Leviticus 11 gives – Jesus Christ.

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.” – 1 Timothy 1:1


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