Clean and Unclean


Read Leviticus 11: About Clean and Unclean animals and food.


Something is ďCleanĒ when it is free of undesired attributes, otherwise it is unclean. In the realm of physical things we frequently consider dirt to make something unclean but it could be nearly anything else depending on the item we are talking about. If we compare dirty diapers to dirty talk there is an obvious difference. One is physically dirty but the other is morally or spiritually dirty. This brings me to the essence of the subject I am talking about, what is clean and what is unclean? The Bible talks a great deal about physical cleanliness but more importantly it also talks about moral or spiritual cleanliness. For the purposes of this article I will be considering clean and unclean mostly from the moral or spiritual viewpoint. Furthermore, if God says not to do something but we do that thing anyway we have been immoral and not spiritual. We could be said to be unclean at that point. Another way of putting forth the idea would be to say that certain behavior is clean or unclean. Or we could also state it like this, certain actions or things are unclean if God makes a statement about them and we violate Godís declaration.

(Mark 7:20-23 NIV)He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' {21} For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, {22} greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. {23} All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.'"


The concept of clean and unclean is frequently used with the idea of determining what may be eaten. The argument is usual framed to be about clean and unclean foods. There is a fundamental flaw with the idea of clean and unclean foods. Simply put it is this: If something is unclean it is not food! So there is no such thing as unclean food. There may be food that has become unclean but as long as it remains unclean no reasonable person would consider it clean or fit to eat or Ö food. I am using a physical example here but it also applies to the moral and spiritual.


Letís go back in time. Letís go to the beginning of the concept of clean and unclean. We must go back to a time before Jesus was born, to a time before Moses, and even a time before Noah. We must go all the way back to the Garden of Eden. It is here where we find the first instance of God declaring something should not be eaten, the so-called forbidden fruit.

(Gen 2:16-17 NIV)And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; {17} but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."

Now apparently this tree bore fruit that tasted good and might be considered food except for one little thing. God said donít eat it!

(Gen 3:6 NIV)When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

I donít think I need to continue with this story. We all know this did not end well. And all because the man and the woman ate what God said they should not eat. It really didnít matter whether it tasted good or was quite healthy or was plentiful. The only thing that mattered was that God said donít eat it! And so the man and the woman sinned.


But you might complain that the fruit was not unclean because the Bible doesnít call it unclean. It really makes no difference because the principle is established. If God says donít do something then donít do it. If God says do not steal then donít steal. If God says do not murder then do not murder. If God says do not eat certain things then do not eat those things.


Now letís move forward in time. We will consider Noah. Here is a little bit you should know about Noah and the time in which he lived.

(Gen 6:6-9 NIV)The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. {7} So the LORD said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth--men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air--for I am grieved that I have made them." {8} But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. {9} This is the account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.

Only Noah and his wife and their three sons and their wives, of all the people on earth at that time, escaped the destruction of the flood. We know that Noah built an ark according to Godís specifications and brought onto that ark all kinds of animals as God directed.

(Gen 7:2-3 NIV)Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, {3} and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.

(Gen 7:5-9 NIV)And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him. {6} Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. {7} And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. {8} Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, {9} male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah.

So now we see God talking about clean and unclean animals for the first time. However, there is no clue as to how Noah knew what was clean and unclean. He just knew. It certainly had nothing to do with Moses, as Moses was not to arrive on the scene for several generations. Perhaps oral tradition is the best answer as to how Noah knew clean from unclean, but that is only a guess. Interestingly it seems that none of those animals, clean or unclean, were food before the flood. This apparently was true from the time of Adam to the time of Noah.

(Gen 1:29-30 NIV)Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. {30} And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground--everything that has the breath of life in it--I give every green plant for food." And it was so.

(Gen 9:1-3 NIV)Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. {2} The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. {3} Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

So from the very beginning of creation God was declaring certain things as food and certain things as not food. It should be mentioned here that the Bible is written for reasonable people with perhaps a bit of common sense. Although you might jump to the conclusion that anything you could put in you mouth is food you would be wrong. I know God said, ďI now give you everything.Ē But do you suppose that even poisonous plants should be considered food? There are also animals that are poisonous when eaten, are they food? Letís move forward again, to the time of Moses. But first, note one more thing about Noah that ties in with Moses.

(Gen 8:20 NIV)Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.


If there ever was a written code before Moses it was lost by the time Moses leads Israel out of captivity. Nevertheless, the knowledge of the past was not entirely forgotten as we can see from the books Moses wrote under inspiration. The clean and unclean were certainly not foreign nor were any of the Ten Commandments. Yet after over 400 years in Egypt few people were aware of the declarations of God and fewer still were knowledgeable of the details and very few indeed would have been observant. It is easy to see why God selected a man such as Moses to reintroduce Himself to Israel. The bottom line is thisÖ

(Num 23:19 NIV)God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?

Much of what Moses taught the people of Israel was not new although it may have been new to much of Israel at that time. Certainly Israel received some new things from Moses but when it came to the basics there was very little new. Many of the ordinances and sacrifices were temporary but the proclamations of God are forever.

(Psa 119:89-91 NIV)Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. {90} Your faithfulness continues through all generations; you established the earth, and it endures. {91} Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you.

So as we read the books Moses wrote, the Torah, we find a great deal of emphasis on clean and unclean. Much of it had to do with physical cleanliness and much of it had to do with moral or spiritual cleanliness. The concept was not new and it was most certainly not the Law of Moses. We have seen the concept goes all the way back to Adam. Moses was chosen by God and was ruling by authority of God. Much, but not all, that Moses was doing was a result of his interaction with God. The writings on clean and unclean were from God, not Moses. Thanks to Moses, by inspiration of God, for the first time we have a written and detailed record of exactly what is considered clean and unclean. The record includes things touched, things done, and things eaten. There is not much room for doubt that many of the restrictions concerning clean and unclean pertained to hygiene. This concept of hygiene was itself foreign to most of the world at that time. By following the directions about clean and unclean Israel had an advantage over other nations. Nevertheless, the essential part had to do with obedience, God said do certain things and do not do certain other things. It really isnít important whether or not we understand why or whether or not we agree! Now letís move forward in time again, this time to the time of Jesus and His disciples.


Let me offer one verse that demonstrates that the apostles were observing the law of clean and unclean when it came to what they would and would not eat. I will discuss this verse again later, but for now I will let it stand on its own.

(Acts 10:14 NIV)"Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."

Note that this is now after the time of the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus. If the law pertaining to what was permissible to eat had been changed then Peter would certainly be aware of that fact. Instead we see just how important Peter considered the law of clean and unclean to be when it came to food because he repeatedly insists that he will not eat anything unclean. And as the vision ends we find that Peter never gives in even though the Lord is directing him to, ďKill and eat.Ē Peter was obeying God by refusing to kill and eat. If he had given in he would have been disobeying God. Remember as Peter did, ďGod is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.Ē


If Peter stood firm on the word of God by refusing to eat unclean animals why should we think it is OK for us to eat unclean animals? Let me answer my own question, it is not OK. Let me toss in one more verse that shows that the concept of clean and unclean carries on from Genesis to Revelation.

(Rev 18:2 NIV)With a mighty voice he shouted: "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird.


So we see that the concept of clean and unclean is a concept instituted by God. Adam, Noah, Moses, and Peter as well as many others understood and obeyed it. It applies to moral, spiritual and physical matters equally. The heart of the matter is simply this, do what God says to do and donít do what God say not to do.


That is pretty much the end of the matter. But, I know there are a few verses that people offer to dispute the conclusion I have reached. I will briefly address some of the most common objections now.


First is the vision of Peter that we read about earlier. It is important to know the context and to let the Bible interpret the incident for us.The description of the vision is found in Acts 10:9-20. As you read these verses notice that Peter never gives in and eats the unclean animals even though the Lord asked him to. There is also no reprimand or punishment for refusing to carry out the request of the Lord. The purpose of the vision is unclear to Peter at this time as we see in verse 17, (Acts 10:17 NIV)ďWhile Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon's house was and stopped at the gate.Ē


So what was the meaning of the vision? Was it about food and what was fit to eat? Was God changing the rules about clean and unclean things? The answer is an emphatic no! Peter eventual comes to understand the vision and the meaning has been recorded for us in, (Acts 10:28-29 NIV)He said to them: "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. {29} So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?"


Remember, in the vision, the Lord said the same thing Peter is saying now, (Acts 10:15 NIV)The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." So the vision was not about food but about men and obeying God. In other words God was telling Peter, if you believe me when I tell you certain things are unclean and should not be eaten then also believe me when I tell you no man should be called impure or unclean.


I will consider one more instance that some believe proves God has changed His mind about clean and unclean things. The key verse is, (Mark 7:19 NIV)For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.")


Well this sure seems to be a clincher doesnít it. But letís look closer. The entire subject in context begins in Mark 7:1 and continues through Mark 7:23. If you will read all the pertinent scriptures, you will see the subject is not food but eating with hands that have not been ceremonially washed. (Mark 7:5 NIV)So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"


At this point Jesus explains in no uncertain terms that they are missing the point. They are focused on the physical and their traditions rather than the moral and spiritual matters that are more important. But eventually we get to the, ďProblemĒ verse where it seems Jesus is doing away with all we have learned to this point. But there is a problem with the problem verse, it is in parentheses and is an addition not in the original manuscripts. Translators sometimes will add parentheses to add material when they think it will help clarify the passage. In this case it would have been better to leave the scripture alone. Compare the same verse to King James for example. Or better yet read Matthew 15:1-20, which is the same story but told by Matthew instead of Mark. You will note that there is no mention of Jesus declaring all foods clean. It would be strange indeed if a major event like God changing His mind about the law of clean and unclean was mentioned only in passing. But that is what some people would have us believe.


When the Bible seems to say contradictory things it is up to us to resolve the apparent conflict. When all of the verses we have studied here are taken together it is clear to me that no conflict exists. Shouldnít we take the vast preponderance of scriptures that are very clear about this subject and make the questionable scriptures fit them? But many people prefer to take a questionable scripture and do away with the clear unquestionable scriptures. That just doesnít make sense.


This is an awful paraphrase of Joshua 24:15 but I will offer it anyway. Choose today whether you will serve your belly or your God.



Clean and Unclean Notes


1.      Sin is often inconspicuous. It lurks in places we do not expect it to be. It sneaks up on us. Everything seems to be going well when all of a sudden, BAM, we find ourselves in sin!

2.      The days of unleavened bread contained exactly that message. We try very hard to get all of the leavening out of our houses but almost always we find we have missed some. Or we go somewhere to eat and we discover leavening in foods we didnít think were a problem. For example, croutons in our salad or baking soda in our crackers.

3.      We donít always want to get rid of the sin. We may find it enjoyable. How bad can that be?

4.      People watch us and look to see if we practice what we preach. If we donít then we are hypocrites. Forget trying to bring those people to Jesus, nobody listens to hypocrites.

5.      We donít want to cause others to stumble. Itís also true we donít want others to cause us to stumble. That brings me to a practical application of clean and unclean foods. We have a fellowship meal each Sabbath. Most of us are aware that the food brought should be considered clean in the sense of todayís message. But not everyone is aware of our belief about food. That is why we donít encourage people to bring food that are new and not familiar with the law of clean and unclean foods. It could be a stumbling block to the one that brought the unclean food and perhaps a stumbling block to the one who knows but doesnít want to offend the new person!

6.      How should this situation be handled? I suppose we need to let the new people know about the subject at the first opportune time in a friendly but firm way. Perhaps whoever eats with that person could mention in passing that all the food is clean and explain briefly what that means.