You Shall Not Eat: An Examination Of The Biblical Food Laws

Some of the least often understood and obeyed laws of the Bible relate to the Bible’s requirements on food. Not only does the Bible limit what kind of meats one can eat, but also other circumstances including how the food must be slaughtered and prepared. Therefore, since these laws are important but also often difficult to understand, let us examine them today, so that we may better understand God’s requirements in His law concerning dietary restrictions.

Deuteronomy 14:3-21: A Short Primer On Clean And Unclean Meats

There are two chapters in the Bible that deal at length with what foods are clean and unclean. Let us, to save a little time, examine the shorter one. Leviticus 11 is the longer chapter, if you wish to read it for yourself on your own time. Today, however, we will look at Deuteronomy 14:3-21, which gives us some useful ways on how to distinguish clean and unclean foods, along with a couple of other useful rules about food. Deuteronomy 14:3-21 reads as follows: “You shall not eat any detestable thing. These are the animals which you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roe dear, the wild goat, the mountain goat, the antelope, and the mountain sheep. And you may eat every animal with cloven hooves, having the hoof split into two parts, and that chews the cud, among the animals. Nevertheless, of those that chew the cud or have cloven hooves, you shall not eat, such as these: the camel, the hare, and the rock hyrax; for they chew the cud but do not have cloven hooves; they are unclean for you. Also the swine is unclean for you because it has cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud; you shall not eat their flesh or touch their carcasses. These you may eat of all that are in the waters: you may eat all that have fins and scales. And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you. All clean birds you may eat. But these you shall not eat: the eagle, the vulture, the buzzard, the red kite, the falcon, and the kite after their kinds; every raven after its kind; the ostrich, the short-eared owl, the seagull, and the hawk after their kinds; the little owl, the screech owl, the white owl, the jackdaw, the carrion vulture, the fisher owl, the stork, the heron after its kind, and the hoopoe and the bat. Also every creeping thing that flies is unclean for you; they shall not be eaten. You may eat all clean birds. You shall not eat anything that dies of itself; you may give it to the alien who is within your gates, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner; for you are a holy people to the Lord your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

Let us examine what are the reasons why some animals are clean and others are not. First, let us examine the land animals. Those land animals that have cloven hooves and chew the cud are considered clean—and all clean animals are herbivores (that is, they eat only plants). This is important, and we will shortly discuss this key fact in more detail. Also, clean land animals have an easily recognized cloven hoof design. Let us note that for fish, only those fish that have fins and scales are acceptable. Fisherman do not need to investigate more than the outside of a fish to know if it is clean according to God’s standard, as the eating behavior and cleanliness of fish and sea animals is more difficult for mankind to discover than it is for birds or land animals whose actions can be seen easily by men. Let us also note that for birds, the unclean birds listed are either birds of prey that eat fish or other birds or land animals, or they are scavenger birds like vultures that eat carcasses. No predatory land or air animals are clean by God’s law, nor omnivores like pigs. God gives us either behavioral or visual cues on those animals he has made fit for food. Other animals, like clams and oysters, or vultures, clean up nature by filtering toxins or eating dead bodies, but they are not fit for us to eat.

Why is it that God forbids us to eat omnivores (that is, those creatures that eat both meat and plants) or carnivores (those creature that eat mostly or only meat)? A very sensible answer to this question involves the nature of toxins. It takes ten pounds of plants to make one pound of protein for a creature that only eats vegetables. So, if there are any toxins or poisons in nature, it will have ten times the concentration in the body of a herbivore, like a sheep or cow, as it does in the plant or in the soil. For an omnivore, like a human being, or a pig, or a bear, or my favorite animal—the skunk—the mixture of eating plants and meat means that in our bodies the concentration of toxins is likely to be between ten and a hundred times what it is in the soil, as toxins and poisons tend to concentrate. However, for a carnivore, that concentration of toxins is likely to be a hundred times greater, or nearly so. To eat omnivores or carnivores means that the concentration of toxins in ourselves is likely to be between a hundred and a thousand times greater than in the soil and in plants, and between ten and a hundred times greater than the concentration from eating herbivores like water buffalo. In addition, those animals whose eating habits are to clean toxins from the water, like oysters and clams and sea cucumbers, and those animals that feed on the dead to help them decompose, like vultures, are unclean, because their eating habits are, to say the least, rather unsanitary. After all, who wants to eat a toilet bowl cleaner?

Let us briefly note the two laws at the end of this lengthy commandment about animals. We are not to eat those animals that die on their own, in part because that means they probably died of old age or disease (which makes eating their meat more risky) or because it means that the meat has already started to rot (which makes it less sanitary). Let us remember that a major aspect of God’s food laws is in helping to keep us as safe as possible and to avoid diseases. When we fail to obey God’s food laws and eat food in an unsanitary manner or meat that was not designed by God for food, we put ourselves at much greater risk for health problems. The second law condemns cooking a baby in its mother’s milk. It is cruel, even a bit cannibalistic, for a mother’s milk to cook its dead offspring. God is concerned about families—even the families of animals who are clean for food—and so we are not to act in any way that mocks or insults this family bond between a parent and a child, even in animals. God’s concern and care goes far beyond human beings, and that is something we ought to remember.

Leviticus 17:10-14: The Life Of The Flesh Is In The Blood

Let us also remember that God’s laws for food not only tell us what animals we can and cannot eat, but also tell us what parts of an animal are clean. Leviticus 17:10-14 tells us that we are not to eat the blood, which means that meat must be bled properly in order to be clean to eat. Leviticus 17:10-14 reads as follows: “And whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for our souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.’ Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who dwells among you eat blood.’ Whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the stranger who dwell among you, who hunts and catches any animal or bird that may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with dust; for it is the life of all flesh. Its blood sustains its life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.’ “

Let us understand briefly what this means. God condemns the eating of blood. Whether this blood is in meat that is slaughtered improperly, or in something like blood sausage, or in roadkill that has not been bled properly, it is unclean, no matter what animal it comes from. To eat blood is to mock the fact that it is by blood, specifically the blood of Jesus Christ, by which our sins are forgiven. It is a heathen custom in many areas of the world to drink blood or eat certain body parts (like the brain) in order to seize the life or power of the dead, and such actions are abhorrent and abominable to God.

Let us not think that God’s hatred of this sort of activity is merely an Old Testament matter that was changed at the coming of Christ. Quite the contrary. Let us go to Acts 15:28-29 to find out how this law remains in effect for Christians. Acts 15:28-29 reads as follows: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from thing offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” What does this mean? We have just read the law about abstaining from blood in Leviticus 17. In Leviticus 18 there are laws about sexual morality, forbidding incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. These laws remain in effect for Christians as well. In Leviticus 19 we have various laws that condemn idolatry. What the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Act 15 did was not do away with God’s laws, or make only a few laws valid for Christians, but rather to remind those Gentile Christians that they could find out their moral obligations to God, obligations we still have as believers, by practicing the laws to be found even in obscure corners of Leviticus.

But not all believers pay attention to these laws, even among those who claim to obey God’s laws about clean and unclean meats [1]. Let me tell you all a story. In the year 2004, I went to the Feast of Tabernacles in France. During one of the trips that year, the brethren went to the city of Montreux, Switzerland, by bus. For our lunch, the “cook” at the hotel gave us steak that was uncooked and bleeding into the rice, and I was nauseous, about to throw up, just looking at it. It was obviously not clean according to the biblical law of Leviticus 17, and yet some people who thought themselves to be obedient to the law were content to eat the disgusting and bloody meat, not knowing or caring that it was contrary to God’s law to do so. Other brethren have made recipes for roadkill, not aware of the continuing biblical prohibition on eating meats of any kind that have not been bled properly. We ought to be more aware of all of God’s restrictions, lest we find ourselves to be no more obedient to God’s laws of clean and unclean meats than the heathen who eat snakes or water bugs or lizards or ants or other detestable and abominable things.

Numbers 11:31-34: Graves Of Craving

Nor do these two laws exhaust the requirements of God for meat to be clean. Let us turn, for our last passage, to Numbers 11:31-34, which gives the consequence of eating meat that has not been properly cooked. Numbers 11:31-34 reads as follows: “Now a wind went out from the Lord, and it brought quail from the sea and left them fluttering near the camp, about a days’ journey on this side and about a day’s journey on the other side, all around the camp, and about two cubits above the surface of the ground. And the people stayed up all that day, all night, and all the next day, and gathered the quail (he who gathered least gathered ten homers); and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was aroused against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague. So he called the name of that place Kibroth Hattaavah [which means “graves of craving” in Hebrew] because there they buried the people who had yielded to craving.”

Now, why was God upset? He had sent them the quail in the first place—a bird that is clean to eat, and is tasty and small that I have eaten before. There were two problems with the behavior of the Israelites. For one, they were gluttonous—they all caught far too much quail to eat. But the bigger problem was that they yielded to craving—they ate too much quail too soon, without cooking it. What is the problem with that? Many diseases come from eating meat, even clean meat, like poultry, that is undercooked, or raw. Therefore God’s law, as we read in Numbers, also forbids us from eating meat that is not cooked properly. God will not kill us as he killed the Israelites, but eating raw or undercooked meat will increase our risk of diseases, just as eating food improperly bled or the wrong meats will do. Eating meat “cooked” the wrong way makes it “unclean” and unfit to eat.

Conclusion

So, let us review what we have talked about today. For one, we have seen how God’s law separates out clean meats from unclean meats. God allows us to recognize from sight what land animals can be eaten based on the diet and cloven hooves a land animal has. God allows us to recognize fish that are fit to eat based on fins and scales. God also allows us to recognize what birds are fit to eat by their diets—so that we avoid eating birds of prey or scavengers. God’s law also tells us that meat must be bled properly and cooked properly for us to eat. God’s laws concerning foods are about far more than just clean and unclean meats, and those laws remain applicable to Christians today. Let us therefore seek to remember these things in the future when we examine and choose what foods to eat ourselves at the market or in restaurants, so that we can honor God in the ways in which we eat.

[1] Coincidentally, without me realizing it until after I had written this message to give to the brethren at Legacy Institute, a friend of mine who is similarly interested in the contemporary application and interpretation of the Torah sent me a Bible study of hers that extensively covered these laws concerning “traif” or “common” meats. The study mirrored nicely with my own, which pleased me.

About nathanalbright

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25 Responses to You Shall Not Eat: An Examination Of The Biblical Food Laws

  1. Cathy Martin says:

    It would be interesting to see how these rules would apply to Western dietary habits with regard to fast foods, processed meals, additives, chemical and hormonal enhancements, and artifical ingredients. It’s almost impossible to eat natural foods without breaking the budget.

    • It would be interesting to see that enforced, though I have long suspected that the answer is–if you can’t buy them, make them yourself, or form cooperatives with other people who are able and willing to do so. This is one of those areas where congregations need to act better as communities, to use the “bulk” principle to lower the costs of obedience to God’s law. After all, God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and therefore it is our responsibility to change in response to an understanding of God’s expectations for us.

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  7. DENNIS KEVIN says:

    can someone eat something that is already dead

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  15. Suzan says:

    Thank you! I heard all meat was clean, and all laws and 10 commandments were wiped away

  16. krishi says:

    Nice article. Thanks for sharing..

  17. Tracy says:

    I agree too many people do not know or follow the dietary law…. however the meat is drained of blood and the red liquid is a protein called
    myoglobin. It is a protein that keeps the meat oxygenated. It is a protein found in muscle tissue and does noy contain blood. So the people eating the steak were really not consuming blood. I always thought it was blood as well until i learned about this

    • Thanks for sharing that. I have seen meat that was not properly bled, but yes, you are right that most of the time one sees a bit of red while cutting into a steak it is not blood that is coming out.

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