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The Clean and the Unclean

Leviticus 11:45-47 - "For I am the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; thus you shall be holy for I am holy. 46This is the law regarding the animal, and the bird, and every living thing that moves in the waters, and everything that swarms on the earth, 47to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which is not to be eaten.

Many growing Christians modify their good intentions to read straight through the Bible when they come to the Book of Leviticus. Before getting bogged down and discouraged with all the Levitical laws contained in this Book, they either scan or skim over these details to get at "more meaningful" passages of Scripture. After all, reading all this ancient legal minutia concerning "Levites and priests, offerings and feasts" hardly seems worthwhile for the Christian life today. And it certainly isn't as exciting as reading the dramatic stories of Genesis and Exodus. Why not skip Leviticus and get to the interesting events in the Book of Numbers?

God did not include the details of Leviticus in the Bible as "filler" or as a challenge to see if we would persevere in our Bible reading programs! All the details of Leviticus are important and, as part of the Holy Scriptures, they have something to say to us today. (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17.) We must admit that reading Leviticus can be tedious.

A helpful concept for understanding Leviticus is, "Go for the big picture." Think of the details as the tiny marks of an etching. When you focus on each mark by itself, it is often difficult to see any "meaning" to it. However, when you see the overall design it is much easier to see how each little imprint fits into, and adds to, the "big picture."

The big picture (or overall design) of Leviticus could be entitled: "God's Holy Character and Call." Each detail of the book in some way enhances that overall subject. All the various sacrifices, for example, emphasize over and over again that God is infinitely holy and that something must be done about sin. Although God is gracious and forgiving, sin cannot be swept under the rug by a Holy God. Furthermore, the details of the sacrifices prophetically point up the many aspects of the perfect sacrifice of Christ. Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God has provided a way for sinful man to respond to God's call to holiness. Seeing the details of Leviticus from the perspective of the overall theme gives us a greater appreciation of the holiness of God.

But what about the details of the eleventh chapter of Leviticus? What possible benefit or blessing can we receive by studying the Levitical dietary laws and the distinction between clean and unclean creatures? How can this Scripture be meaningful to us today? We'll have to wait until we're in heaven to know all the reasons and meaning behind the details found in this chapter. However, it doesn't take an exhaustive study of Leviticus 11 to begin to see how details concerning the clean and the unclean add considerably to the overall theme of God's holy character and His call to holiness.

First of all, let's imagine ourselves as the Children of Israel listening to Moses and Aaron as they gave these laws. We would know, of course, that these laws were not made up by our leaders but have come straight from the mouth of the Lord (vs1-2). The fact that God Himself repeatedly used the terms "clean and unclean" (36 times in this chapter and about 200 times in Leviticus) would certainly underline the fact of His holiness to us. We might not understand why certain animals, birds, fish, and even insects were declared clean or unclean, but we would know that in some way the detailed distinctions symbolically portrayed God's holiness and purity. We would also recognize that our God did not leave questions of what was acceptable or unacceptable up to our own imagination, intuition or human expediency. Our God was concerned with our purity even to the point of what we touched!

We would further realize that practicing these clean/unclean laws, along with all the other laws of Leviticus that governed our lifestyle, would definitely reflect God's holy character to the surrounding nations. In fact, we would come to understand that this was one very good reason for the distinction between clean and unclean creatures (see 20:24-26), and why certain other practices were unacceptable to our God. We would know that in many cases it was not a matter of intrinsic evil involved in the custom, but rather a matter of drawing a definite distinction between our lifestyle and heathen practices--most of which were associated in some way with the pagan religions. (See, for example, laws concerning unacceptable clothes in 19:19 and unacceptable beards in 19:27.)

In any case, the pagans with all their various immoral and amoral practices would be forced to admit that our God was uniquely different from their gods. With His great emphasis on clean and unclean creatures and practices, our God was emphasizing His supremacy and holiness over all of life­­including the creatures which pervaded the religious art and practice of all the heathen nations around us. Obeying these laws, which were coming to us directly from God through our leader Moses, meant we were responding to God's call to mirror His holiness in our lives.

As we read these laws of the clean and the unclean today, God's demand for holiness in the details of our lives should be indelibly stamped on our minds and hearts. While the actual practice of these ceremonial laws has ceased with the coming of Christ (see Romans 10:4 and Colossians 2:16-17), the spiritual truth of all the Levitical laws remains. Let's take one practical application. Our responsibility as God's people today is still to reproduce His holiness in our actions and attitudes. Consider the area of sex, for example. Not only our practice but also our talk and our thoughts in this area should show the stamp of God's standards of holiness. As Israel did not always completely understand why certain things were clean or unclean, so we may not fully understand why God has imposed certain limits for us as to what is "clean and unclean" sex. According to holy Scripture, only sex between husband and wife is "clean." Homosexual practice and sex outside marriage is "unclean"--regardless of our understanding or feeling or opinion. Are you reflecting God's holiness in every area of your sex life?

Another reason for the clean and unclean laws was physical hygiene and sanitation. Without refrigeration and the knowledge of disease which we have today, the ancient Hebrew people would have needed many of these dietary laws just to stay healthy. In the hot climate of that part of the world, meat would decay rapidly. This fact is quickly appreciated even today when visiting a meat market in the Middle East! Without strict controls, disease and outbreaks of plague would have been common throughout Israel. Our present knowledge of "germs" is data the Israelites did not have. What is automatic to us, like washing ourselves and our clothes if we handle a dead animal (vs24-25), would not be so automatic if we didn't know about unseen bacteria! Today if a dead mouse were found in our china closet or food supplies (vs32-34) we would raise no questions about thorough washing or throwing away the contaminated items. But can you imagine how nit­picking some of these laws would seem to us if we were ignorant of harmful microorganisms? Certainly we have a lesson here in what it means to trust and obey. God graciously incorporated sanitation measures into the Levitical laws and expected His people to obey, without giving them a lot of explanation. Future medical research may throw even more light on the reasons for God's clean and unclean regulations.

The hygienic aspect of these Levitical laws should impress upon us the truth that God cares for His people. God did not dictate these laws to Israel to hassle them or frustrate them. He gave them to His people for their own good. In the same way, following God's standards of holiness is good for us today. God is not out to hassle His children. As our heavenly Father, He loves us and wants the best for us. We may not have full insight into all the details of God's code of holiness for the individual believer or for the Church, but we can be sure it is for our good in some way.

The details of the distinct roles of men and women in the family and in the Church, for example, were not given to stifle women and "chauvinize" men, but for the best functioning of the home and Church. It is true that in many cases the biblically defined roles of men and women have been wrongly taken to incredible extremes by misinterpretation and mis-application. However, that does not take away from the fact that the proper biblical functioning of the male/female roles in the family and Church will work out for our own best interests in the long run, since it is God who has prescribed them.

Spiritualized applications are a further way in which we can appreciate the clean and unclean labels of Leviticus 11. Why did God sovereignly choose to distinguish the clean animals from the unclean by their eating habits and by their feet (v 3)? Is there not a spiritual lesson here as to the critical importance of our "inward digestion" and our "outward walk"? As the cow chews the cud, so we must continuously digest the Word of God. We are what we eat! If our diet consists of paperback trash, for example, we will be "unclean." The condition of our spiritual feet is also important. We must be "clean" in our Christian walk. Notice in vs 4-7 that an animal had to chew the cud and have cloven feet to be considered clean. Is this not also spiritually significant? A thorough internal knowledge of the Word of God without outward obedience to the will of God is unholy. Knowledgeable Bible students who continually lose their tempers around home are spiritually "unclean," according to God's standards. And an outward, apparently holy lifestyle without inward motivation from the Word of God is likewise "unclean." A "clean living" facade may hide an unspiritual or even corrupt mind, devoid of the necessary implanted Word of God.

Not only were unclean creatures not to be eaten, they were not to be touched either. Those who touched the unclean became unclean, and specific steps had to be taken for a person to become ceremonially clean again. In the same way, as God's people we need to be extremely careful of what we "touch." 2 Corinthians 6:17 commands us not to "touch the unclean." The principle of separation is vital to a holy life. In fact, the word "holy" means "separated for God's use." This does not mean we are all to become monks or hermits and avoid contact with the non­Christian world. It does mean that we must be extremely careful not to be contaminated by the evil that surrounds us on every hand. Don't go to places where you will be pressured to conform to the "unclean." Don't put yourself in "unclean" situations which are filled with temptation. Don't become close friends with people who are "unclean" in their "diet" and "walk."

What were the Israelites to do if they were made ceremonially unclean by contact with unclean things? We see throughout this chapter and the rest of Leviticus that washing was very much a part of the cleansing ritual. Surely this is a spiritual picture of the continual spiritual cleansing that God can effect in our lives through the use of His Word. Ephesians 5:26 indicates that we are continuously sanctified (made holy) and cleansed "by the washing of water with the word." We need to come to the cleansing water of the Word of God frequently in this unholy world, because it is easy to be defiled by our contact with what is "unclean."

Many other spiritualized applications may be brought out from the details of Leviticus 11. We must be careful, however, when we draw more than well­supported spiritual principles out of the Biblical passage. We must avoid becoming too fanciful and far­fetched in our spiritualization of the text and thus read into Scripture spiritual lessons that are not there. On the other hand, we do not want to miss the "hidden nuggets" that are there. Every growing Christian has to decide how far to press the details of Leviticus in spiritualized applications. These lessons, if not forced, can give us more appreciation of the details of Leviticus and motivate us to more holy and mature Christian living.
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