Leviticus 11:1-25. MasterChef

Food is not only for sustaining life. In Melbourne we know it marks culture, style, class and our health habits. Just think of how many words we have for coffee in our city! Food is a major preoccuption for us and a key preoccuption of the Bible – and we get that. Leviticus 11 takes us to the themes of food, culture, health and faith that have been a feature of humanity from our origins until today. [Audio | Notes]

Michael Flynn


Leviticus 11:1-25

For further thought

Q: Make a list of the different ways food is used to display a culture or a race, celebrate milestones, offer friendship or compassion.

 Q: In what ways is food an intellectual, spiritual and emotional experience?

There are clues in Leviticus 11 as to why certain foods are considered clean and others unclean yet those clues require us to set the food laws in the wider context of what God had already said about food ealier in the Bible.

Violence and imitation

Clue 1: Leviticus 11 describes animals using phrases drawn from Genesis 1 where God declares all he has made to be good. What we also note in Genesis 1 is that God made humans as vegetarians, not as omnivores (Genesis 1.29). As the tragic story of Genesis unfolds and violence begins to mar human relations (Genesis 4) our relationship with the animal world is likewise affected (See hints at: Genesis 1.2; 4.4, 8, 14, 15, 20, 22, 23, 24, 6.5-7, 11-13). After the flood God makes a promise to humanity and to the animal world (Genesis 8.21-22) to preserve life – this is not because humanity changed in the face of God’s judgement but is due to God’s grace despite the reality that humanity is corrupt and corrupting. This covenant with all human beings and all animals includes the acknowledgement by God that all living creatures are now given into human hands as food. ‘The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth …’ (Genesis 9.1-3). In other words violence, at least towards animals, is now a settled part of human existence. The creation we were to superintend and care for now fears us (Genesis 1.28).

Q: How do the food and sacrificial laws in Leviticus 11 restrict violence against the animal kingdom

Q: What effect, if any, would this have on the way humans treat each other? 

Q: Do cultures that mistreat animals also tend to mistreat human beings? 

Q: If the unclean animals in Leviticus 11, which are largely drawn from the wild, are now protected species, where are the clean animals largely drawn from? 

Q: What effect would this have on the natural environment around Israel?

Clue 2: Another clue as to why some animals are considered clean and others unclean is found in the references to animal life habits and movements (e.g. birds that eat carrion or creatures that crawl on their bellies) in Leviticus 11. Classical culture observed and imitated animals for various purposes – for remedies and meditation (e.g. Yoga positions), martial arts (e.g. Karate stances), storytelling in dance (e.g. the swan in classical ballet or the snake in an Aboriginal dance). We still use phrases like:

‘She is as graceful as a swan … as stealthy as a jungle cat … as sly as a fox … as quiet as a mouse … as stubborn as a mule … pigheaded … proud as a peacock or lion’ etc.

Leviticus 11, in ruling certain creatures unclean, is limiting human contact with animals which for humans to imitate would be inhumane or unholy. This is the poetry of eating. Taking in the meat of another life is to associate ourselves with the behaviour of that life and in many ancient cultures, the spirit of that life. This is more obvious especially in rural communities that must live with, grow, catch and prepare their own food.

Q: What are examples of animal behaviour sometimes used in contemporary discussions to challenge our behaviour, morality or beliefs?

Health & hygiene

Violence and imitation would not be the first thought you had as to why Leviticus 11 declares some animals clean and others unclean. Your first thought was likely that these restrictions were for health, hygiene and public safety. There is reason to think that is also part of why God gave His people these commands (eg. Deuteronomy 28.58-62) and that they understood this (see for example: Daniel 1). Certainly the nations around ancient Israel suffered with violent cultures and poor health as a result of their idolatries playing out into their public and private lives. Certainly we know the life habits, cross species communicable diseases and toxicity levels of the meat of prohibited animals in Leviticus 11 would make eating them a health risk, especially in a world without refrigeration or antibiotics. However, to see in the food laws only a technique for good health that could potentially be separated from a relationship with God, as we are prone to do, is a mistake. In the Bible, the Giver and His gifts always belong together.

Q: We often find God’s word has several purposes for us at once; even purposes we cannot yet identify. How do we encourage ourselves to trust that obeying God’s word is right even if we don’t understand all its benefits at the time?

Q: Has our modern culture separated the Giver from His gifts in other areas of our lives? What are the consequences?

Food and church

Leviticus 11 (with Deuteronomy 14) was a major issue for the early church. The people of God were no longer one nation but scattered amongst the nations and coming to faith from very diverse cultural and therefore dietary backgrounds. Requiring new Christians from various cultures, to keep the Hebrew food laws would place great burdens upon them. Imagine today telling a Hindu convert to Christianity that they should now eat cow or a Muslim convert that the ham on a pizza was now permitted or required! Life in their homes and cities would quickly become intolerable for them as they would be seen to reject the culture they were raised in by changing their diets.

Q: Read Mark 7.14-19; Acts 10.9-16; 15.7-20; 1 Corinthians 10.14-33; Galatians 2.11-16 – what were the major issues concerning food for the New Testament church?

In Romans 14 Paul describes a gentle wisdom to be used regarding food laws, culture and spirituality. Under the New Covenant all people can be joined to God by entrusting their lives to Jesus Christ alone. This is not new, we have returned to the situation in Genesis 1 & 9 (see Romans 14.14) where all meats, and therefore all cultures, can be acceptable before God. The day of the specific laws of Leviticus 11 has passed with the passing of the Old Covenant as has the central place of the nation of ancient Israel in God’s plans for humanity. However, in Romans 14 (verses 5-9), the theme of living every part of life before God, including the food we eat, remains.

Q: We may think wine is an important part of formal meals. Would we serve it at a dinner party when we knew a new believer who was escaping from alcoholism was attending?

Q: What foods should we be serving after church services if we are to welcome the different cultures who live in our area? 

Q: Why is food both a missional and pastoral concern?

Q: How can we be gentle with other believers on ‘disputable matters’? (Romans 14.1)

Q: Is there wisdom in the food laws of Leviticus 11 that we could still use today even though they now cannot be taught as a response to or, worse, a condition of belonging to the people of God?

Talk outline

Food is not only for sustaining life but for enriching it

The backstory to Leviticus 11

Genesis 1 to 9

Two clues

Two consequences

Leviticus 11 & the New Testament

Mark 7.19 // Matthew 15.10-20 Acts 10.9-16 & 15.7-20

Food is a disputable matter

Romans 14.1-23

Our mission, our pastoral care