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Clean and Unclean

Humans, and all other living creatures, began as vegetarians: "And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so." (Genesis 1:29-30 RSV) (see The Seven Days Of Creation and The Creation Of Adam And Eve)

Later however, after The Flood (see also How Big Was Noah's Ark?), God expanded the permitted diet of humans to include animals: "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image." (Genesis 9:3-6 RSV)

Bread and Fish God's Instructions For A Healthy Diet

Although the dietary laws that God specified to the Hebrew people can be found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, they actually existed long before that time. When Noah was preparing the ark, God instructed him regarding clean and unclean creatures:

"Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive upon the face of all the earth." (Genesis 7:2-3 RSV)

"Clean" birds, animals and insects were generally those that were plant-eaters, while those "unclean" were meat or carrion eaters e.g. chickens, cattle and grasshoppers were clean, while vultures, weasels and flies were unclean. There were some exceptions that may have been due to their being common carriers of deadly bacterial, viral or parasitical infections e.g. rats (bubonic plague), bats (rabies), and pigs (trichinosis).

Clean sea creatures were apparently those that were found in fresh-flowing water (e.g. bass, trout), while those unclean tended to be bottom-dwellers (e.g shellfish, catfish) where natural contaminants collected - a factor even more relevant in our modern world where vast quantities of chemical wastes accumulate in the mud of rivers, lakes and oceans.

A full explanation and examples listing of clean and unclean creatures can be found in Leviticus chapter 11 and Deuteronomy 14:1-21. A summary:

Clean For Food: Unclean For Food:
  • cattle
  • sheep
  • goats
  • chickens
  • elk
  • deer, antelope
  • water creatures that have fins and scales
  • snakes, lizards
  • camels, horses
  • weasels, rabbits
  • pigs
  • vultures, ravens, crows, owls
  • bats, rats, flies
  • water creatures that do not have fins and scales

While there is yet controversy as to whether the Levitical dietary laws apply to Christians today (a subject for another Bible Study which deals with the principle that all of God's laws apply to all humans), for most of us it really isn't a problem - snakes, vultures, rats and the other items on the "unclean menu" don't seem all that appealing anyway.

Fact Finder: Where the Israelites also forbidden from consuming the fat or blood of any creature, clean or unclean?
Leviticus 7:22-27

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