Old Testament

The Levitical Diet: What is the meaning for Christians today?

One of the challenges for Christians today in reading the Hebrew Bible is to discern what is applicable to us, and what is not. Indeed, when I posted the question of the meaning of chapter Leviticus 11 on social media, (the chapter which details the clean and unclean animals) I received a variety of responses. These ranged from “We need to observe these distinctions and not eat what God says not to eat.” Others suggested there is a basis in biology for the guidance. Bats, for example, are known to be rather unhealthy to humans. A further suggestion was that this sets the stage for what happens in Acts 10, when Peter has a vision, and after three times, finally sees that it’s not about food – but about people, about Gentiles, whom Peter should not regard as unclean. What, then, can we say? I offer a few suggestions.

The direct application does not remain

This is another way of saying that keeping these food laws is not something Christians are called to do. In Mark 7, Jesus explains that defilement actually is a heart matter, not an issue of what we touch or eat. Mark adds a parenthetical “Thus he declared all foods clean.” The implications of that brief aside is huge. This isn’t an eternal standard that followers of Jesus need to hold to. It belongs to two things that aren’t applicable to believers in Christ: These stipulations were given to Israel, the seed of Jacob, which the church is not. Secondly, they belong to the covenant entered into at Sinai, which Paul speaks about in 2 Corinthians 3 as no longer in force. Paul also talks about those “who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” 1Tim 4:3.

What Paul seems to be pointing to is a recognition of salvation history—similar to his observation in 2 Cor 3. In other words, given our knowledge of the truth that much of the Old Testament contained types and shadows, now that the substance has arrived, it informs our understanding of the shadow. Briefly stated, we are not required to hold to what characterized the old covenant.

The types and shadows are not without spiritual significance

Even as we can say a direct application (eat this, don’t eat that) no longer prevails, we can still see the spiritual significance of what’s going on in Leviticus 11. The overarching principle here was set forth in Lev 10:10, when God said to Aaron and his sons, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.” Distinguishing between the clean and the unclean remains as a principle, repeated in the NT. Indeed, in Mark 7 Jesus does provide a reframing of this. “And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:20-23.

In other words, not foods, but attitudes, desires, selfishness render us unclean. As the food laws made a distinction between Israel and the surrounding nations, so believers should be distinct from the world around us in what we do, what we pursue, and how we treat others.

Throughout Leviticus 11 as instructions for various classes of animals are given (mammals, fish, insects) the chapter reaches a kind of crescendo. “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” 11:44. To be consecrated, set apart, and not defile themselves was what these instructions were all about. That principle remains, even as the emblems used to make the point in Israel are not binding on believers today.

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