The Unclean and the Clean (Leviticus 11-16)
At the heart of it, Leviticus 11:45 explains the thematic logic of this entire section. “I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45). God calls Israel to mirror his holiness in every aspect of life. Leviticus 11-16 deals with the classification of “clean” and “unclean” food (chapter 11) and rites of cleansing (chapters 12-15). It closes with the procedure for celebrating the Day of Atonement to cleanse the people and God’s sanctuary (chapter 16).
Christians also recognize that every aspect of our lives is meant to be a response to God's holy presence among us. But the subjects and scope of the laws in Leviticus tend to baffle us today. Are there enduring ethical principles to be found in these particular regulations? For example, it’s hard to understand the rationale for why God permitted Israel to eat some animals and not others. Why is there such concern for particular skin diseases (which we cannot even identify today with certainty) and not other, more serious diseases? Of all the ills facing society, is the issue of mold really all that important? Narrowing our focus to matters of work, should we expect these texts to tell us anything we can apply to the food industry, medicine, or environmental contamination of homes and workspaces? As noted before, we will find answers not by asking whether to obey regulations made for a different situation, but by looking for how the passages guide us to serve the welfare of the community.
There are several plausible theories about the rules governing animals for human consumption in Leviticus 11. Each cites supporting evidence, yet none enjoys a general consensus. Sorting them out is beyond our scope here, but Jacob Milgrom offers a perspective directly related to the workplace. He notes three dominant elements: God severely limited Israel’s choice of animal food, gave them specific rules for slaughter, and prohibited them from eating blood that represents life and therefore belongs to God alone. In light of these, Milgrom concludes that Israel’s dietary system was a method of controlling the human instinct to kill. In short, “Though they may satisfy their appetite for food, they must curb their hunger for power. Because life is inviolable it may not be tampered with indiscriminately.” If God chooses to get involved in the details of which animals may be killed and how it is to be done, how could we miss the point that the killing of humans is even more restricted and subject to God’s scrutiny? This view suggests more applicability to the present day. For example, if every agricultural, animal, and food service facility practiced daily accountability to God for the treatment and condition of its animals, wouldn’t it be all the more attentive to the safety and working conditions of its people?
In spite of the extensive details in Leviticus that initiate the ongoing discussion of food in the Bible, it would be inappropriate for any Christian to try to dictate what all believers must do and avoid doing regarding the provision, preparation, and consumption of food. Nonetheless, whatever we eat or don’t eat, Derek Tidball rightly reminds Christians of the centrality of holiness. Whatever one’s stance on these complex issues, it cannot be divorced from the Christian’s commitment to holiness. Holiness calls upon us even to eat and drink “for the glory of God.” The same applies to the work of producing, preparing, and consuming food and drink.
Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 704-42.
Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 105.
Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 15.
In contrast to the dietary laws, the laws about diseases and environmental contamination do seem to be primarily concerned with health. Health is a critical issue today as well, and even if the book of Leviticus were not in the Bible, it would still be a noble and godly concern. But it would be unwise to assume that Leviticus provides instructions for coping with contagious diseases and environmental contamination that we can directly apply today. At our distance of thousands of years from that time period, it is difficult even to be certain exactly what diseases the passages refer to. The enduring message of Leviticus is that the Lord is the God of life and that he guides, honors, and ennobles all those who bring healing to people and the environment. If the particular rules of Leviticus do not dictate the way we perform the work of healing and environmental protection, then certainly this greater point does.