Reading recently from Deuteronomy 14 about the unclean animals, I remembered a few things about them. I recalled that a distinction between clean and unclean animals had been made since the the time of the fall. For on the ark there were both clean and unclean animals. Also, from Peter's vision in Acts 10, I know that the church is not obligated to observe the laws of unclean animals. Yet the question remains. What are we to gain from reflecting on this list of animals?
I was reminded of an important lesson in interpreting the Bible from my Old Testament professor in seminary. The lesson is:
Genesis 1-3 is the context for every passage of Scripture.
This was the repeated teaching of Dr. Clark Copeland in my Biblical Interpretation class in seminary. Everything in the Bible must be understood in the themes and the symbols of those themes that are first introduced there. For the great subjects of the Bible are there: the creation of the heaven and earth; the perfection and glory of God; the formation of man and woman; commands regarding marriage, children, worship, and work; the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the temptation by Satan in the form of the serpent; the fall of man into sin and the curse God pronounces; and the message of grace found in Genesis 3:15, as God pronounces the seed of the woman shall triumph over the seed of Satan.
We must not forget these main threads of redemptive history when we come to difficult passages of Scripture. Like trying to read a book without the introduction, without understanding these first three chapters, the rest of the Bible will not make sense, or will be wrongly interpreted.
Let me give an example of how the last theme I mentioned above helps us to understand the rest of Scripture. In Matthew 3, John the Baptist is proclaiming that the Messiah will come. Flocks of people are journeying out into the wilderness to hear John and be baptized by him in order to prepare them for the coming Christ. Among them are Pharisees and Sadducees, and when John the Baptist sees them he first says to them in Matthew 3:7, “You brood of vipers!” He then accuses them of trusting in their religious duty for salvation rather than true repentance. If we read John the Baptist’s statement out of the context of the Bible, then calling these people vipers amounts to name-calling. But if we remember that Genesis 3:15 calls those who are under the darkness of Satan sons or seeds of the serpent, then we grasp the covenantal force behind John’s words. “You devils! You slithering, deceiving people! Who warned you of the wrath to come?”
As we come to the list of clean and unclean animals found in Deuteronomy 14:3-20, if we do not remember the context of Genesis 1-3 we will read this and be confused. We will toss this out as some meaningless ceremonial law, or be more concerned about our diet than the true message of the passage. For the message of the unclean animals is actually closely related with the example above from John the Baptist I just gave. You are to be holy in Christ, and not arrogant in a false self-righteousness.
For right before the list of unclean animals is given, in Deuteronomy 14:2 an explanation is offered for avoiding them.
For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.
Following the list, Deuteronomy 14:21 concludes with a similar reminder: “You are to be a holy people to the LORD your God.” In Leviticus 11, where a similar list is given, the same emphasis on holiness is made.
For I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy. Neither shall you defile yourselves with any creeping thing that creeps on the earth. For I am the LORD who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45).
The reason for this commandment was not ultimately dietary concerns, but for Israel to be holy. Avoiding these unclean animals was a method to teach Israel that they had been adopted as the unique children of God.
So how did avoiding certain animals do that? Just as a sluggard might go to an ant to learn the virtue of hard work, Israel was to be reminded of important truth by the nature and characteristics of these creatures
In verses 3-8, Moses speaks of the large land animals that are unclean. Most of these listed here are familiar to us, but perhaps not the “shaphan” in verse 7 (NASB). It was also called a "rock badger" (ESV). The shaphan is an animal about the size of a rabbit which lives in little caves and clefts. It is brownish gray or dull yellow in color with a white belly. They are cute, playful little critters who sit up with others in troops to watch for predators, similar to a prairie dog. The commentators Keil and Delitzsch say this about them: “The Arabs eat them, but they do not place them before their guests.” The distinguishing mark about all of these animals is they cannot chew the cud or have a split hoof. If they do, they are unclean. We also see pigs are not kosher. Note that these animals are dirty creatures. They live in the dust and/or get their food from the dust.
Verses 9-10 talk about the sea animals. If the fish has fins or scales, it was permissible to consume. Since many fish were clean, that is why you would find many Jewish fishermen, like the disciples, but certainly not many Jewish pig farmers. What kind of water animals were unclean? Eels, jellyfish, and sharks are good examples. These are fish that slither, devour, or poison.
Verses 11-18 speak of the birds or the winged creatures. Note the ones that are listed as unclean. Eagles, vultures, falcons, owls, gulls, storks and herons are all found on this list, and they have something in common. In one form or another, they are predators. Another bird we find here is the hoopoe, or lapwing, found in Syria, Arabia and Egypt. We learn that it has a disagreeable smell, which some attribute to going to marshy districts looking for insects and worms. However, the common belief among natives is that it builds its nests out of human dung!
Verse 19 speaks of the teeming or swarming things. These would be smaller animals such as mice, lizards, moles, and carnivorous, slimy insects.
In summary then, as Keil & Delitzsch point out, Israel could not eat animals that were:
1) Carnivorous or preying upon the dead;
2) Living in the dirt or underground, or "eating dust" as it slithers along;
3) Slimy or snakelike.
So as we now try to understand it, remember Dr. Copeland's advice. The context is Genesis 1-3. We know from there that a snake came into the garden, whispering poisonous lies, preying upon man and woman, and leading them to death and destruction. This serpent was cursed to crawl on its belly and eat the dust of the earth. These laws, then, regarding clean and unclean animals, were to institute a practice done in ancient Israel that are an object lesson to us. They teach us to avoid Satan and his activities. Like a roaring lion, a slithering serpent, he is seeking someone to devour. God wants you to avoid the uncleanness and death he brings.
Because Satan brings his lies through people, the seed of the serpent, the Lord warns you to guard yourself against those trying to mislead you. Here is an example as Peter warns the church at Rome.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Romans 16:17-20)
One final thought. Clearly the list of unclean animals was misunderstood and misapplied. Israel had come to believe that any non-Jewish person was unclean. But the vision of Peter, when he sees the picnic blanket of unclean animals lowered from heaven three times being declared clean, and then is called to preach the gospel to the Gentile-filled house of Cornelius, shows the falseness of that reading. What makes someone unclean is not their ethnic identity, but their spiritual identity. The dogs and lions and serpents the Bible warns about are not races of people, but the wickedness of those who spurn Christ.